You saw them everywhere—Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver—on the street, in the shops, in the park. This was definitely not your typical rock group; no one in it could be mistaken for, say, Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, and none of their songs resembled “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Surfin’ Safari.” Instead they played “Group Grope,” “Dirty Old Man,” “Kill for Peace” and “Slum Goddess.” It was fun, rough, streetwise stuff, the lyrics of which prevented it from being played on most radio stations. (I was once docked for a week from my radio show at a Midwestern college for having wandered off from the studio while one of their songs spun its raunchy way into the ear of the portly science professor in charge of the station—the only person listening at the time). There was nothing pretty about these guys: they looked like most of the people you’d see in the East Village that summer of 1969—a bit wasted and borderline demented.
How old were they? Hard to say, but when a girl I was seeing at the time informed me that she’d once been drummer Ken Weaver’s lover, I thought, whoa, she was seeing that bearded old man? But then again she had a thing for older guys.
Ed Sanders, who has lived in pastoral bliss in Woodstock for many years now, was the driving force not just behind the Fugs, but the famous Peace Eye Bookstore and his underground magazine, Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, publishing Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Gregory Corso, while also championing writers such as Charles Olson. Early in the Sixties, while studying Greek and Latin at NYU (and Egyptian on the side), he was a peace activist when people my age were getting just a little too big to be still ducking under our school desks waiting for the bomb to fall. Ed was fighting the good fight on our behalf. He wanted a peaceful world where conflicts were settled with anything but violence, which meant he was up against the Establishment in all its Dr. Strangelovian glory. Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side is his chronicle of those years, aided by a vast archive of what seems like anything he’d collected or found on Peace Eye’s floor. Or in his FBI file.
Sanders could be seen as having a foot in both the Beat camp and the Sixties—there’s a transcription in the book of a wild session on William F. Buckley’s TV show Firing Line (it can be seen in full here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaBnIzY3R00 ), featuring Sanders, sociologist Lewis Yablonsky and a very drunk—and borderline anti-Semitic—Jack Kerouac, whom Ed knew well. “When I’m fifty,” Sanders told the panel, “I plan to be an emotional paraplegic smoking peace-herbs.” As can be seen from the transcript, Kerouac, who toppled off the dais during the broadcast, handled himself a lot less well than Sanders, who knew how to sit down with the straight guy and be as articulate as possible without ever compromising his outrageousness. Edging into the mainstream, he even made the cover of what appeared to be a jizzed-up Life magazine, reproduced on the book jacket.
Yet behind the goofs was a seriousness of purpose: Sanders disdained censorship of any kind, believed the use and possession of marijuana should be legalized, and was always steadfast in his antiwar sentiments. He was in the front line of those who attempted to levitate the Pentagon, and though it didn’t work, it didn’t deter Ed from trying to lift the spirits of those weighed down with the deaths of innocents and the heavy hand of LBJ.
Most people know the West Village: Washington Square Arch, Eighth Street, the leafy streets branching off Fifth Avenue, the Village Voice newspaper.
But in the Sixties there was a whole other world east of Fifth Avenue, to which tourists rarely ventured. What they missed was the vibrant heart of New York’s counterculture, a mixture of bookshops (notably Sanders’s own landmark Peace Eye Bookstore), Tompkins Square Park, and of course the head shops, most notably the Psychedelicatessen.
There were free concerts at Tompkins Square Park: the Fugs, of course, performed there, as did, I recall, a California group called the White Light and even—am I imagining it?—the Doors. The Dead also played the park, back when Jerry Garcia was yet to grow his iconic beard:
The neighborhood even had its own newspaper: the East Village Other, commonly known as EVO.
Unlike the Establishment, which had its mainstream newspapers and TV and radio networks, the counterculture relied on word-of-mouth and an increasing number of underground newspapers that spoke to us as well as to each other. They were our portals, primarily into the antiwar movement, though they were also a way of getting to know new bands, new writers, new filmmakers.
The Fugs continued to record through the decade, moving on to bigger labels, with cover photos taken by Richard Avedon.
It’s difficult to classify Ed Sanders according to the nomenclature of the times. There were hippies, the gentle young folk who wove flowers into their hair and did ethereal dances in Central Park, and the freaks, who stomped the streets of the East Village and dropped mescaline and Owsley acid and puffed bad pot grown in Upstate New York. Ed belonged to neither camp, and yet articulated the zeitgeist of those times for us, as he does in a book fairly oozing nostalgia for anyone who spent any time in the East Village back then. I laughed aloud to come across those forgotten names—Galahad, who ran one of the most famous crash pads in the area, on East 11th Street, and to whom we at our shop a few blocks away often sent not the kids who’d taken the train down from Scarsdale or Greenwich looking for a bit of sparkle and joy, but those who’d come up from Alabama or east from Ohio, the ones who’d escaped with their lives and minds more or less intact from homes that had coldly rejected them. There was Groovy Hutchinson and Linda Fitzpatrick, murdered in their bed in a squalid West Village hotel. Names I used to hear all the time and that, thanks to Ed Sanders, I was able to retrieve, adding a few more pounds to my anchor in the past.
In a way, Sanders is a kind of unofficial historian of the Sixties. Because of his literary, political and music connections he can touch all points of the compass of those times. Beyond his work as a publisher, bookstore owner, and founding member of the Fugs, Sanders also wrote books, most notably Tales of Beatnik Glory and The Family, the latter widely considered to be the most insightful study of Charles Manson and his horrors. Because of his friendship with poet and EVO editor Allen Katzman, who’d spoken to Dennis Hopper immediately after the murders, Sanders discovered there was more to the story than was at first thought—or perhaps even thought today. Because Hopper was then living with Michelle Phillips, then with the Mamas and the Papas, he became drawn into the periphery of the story. “Late in 1969 I started clipping everything I could find on the Manson group and what the press called the Tate-LaBianca murders. You know how it is when you read the same clippings over and over—the questions start to pile up.” With roots in the music business as well as the counterculture—and the fact that there was absolutely nothing either Establishment or Cop about Ed—he was ideally positioned to research what exactly had happened that night in Los Angeles. What began as a book project turned out to be far more. “Writing a book on the Manson group helped me to grow up. Helped me to get to know, and even become friends with, police officers. Helped me to measure evil more acutely, to appreciate the sense of right and wrong given to me by my parents….”
It’s hard to say to whom this book is aimed. For those like me, who lived down there for a time in that amazing decade, this is a treasure trove of memories; for others, it’s a reminder that the Fugs were not just an ephemeral rock group but the very quintessence of the counterculture. They showed us how we could be outrageous, how to savor the streets, how to live as free as we possibly could without hurting ourselves or others. If the worst we can do is outrage someone—or hundreds of them—then no one bleeds.
In 1970, Sanders travelled to Chicago to testify at the trial of the Chicago 7, presided over by the notorious Judge Hoffman. Some of Ed’s testimony is a good way to end:
Mr. Weinglass: Mr. Sanders, could you indicate to the Court and to the jury what your present occupation is?
The Witness: I am a poet, songwriter, leader of a rock-and-roll band, publisher, editor, recording artist, peace-creep.
Mr. Weinglass: What was the last one, please?
The Court: Peace-creep?
The Witness: Yes, sir.
The Court: Will you please spell it for the reporter?
The Witness: P-E-A-C-E, hyphen, C-R-E-E-P.
The Court: Peace-creep, Mr. Schultz.
The Witness: And yodeler.