by Ed Sanders, Da Capo, 416 pp., 200 illustrations, $26
Ed Sanders has been a cultural force in America for the past half-century. Arguably best known for his satirical rock band the Fugs and his perennially wide-selling book, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders seems to have left no stone unturned. He was a bookseller, via his literary "scrounge lounge" Peace Eye Bookstore in the East Village; an editor of the seminal Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts; a publisher of works by Charles Olson and Ezra Pound; underground filmmaker (Amphetamine Head); memoirist (Tales of Beatnik Glory); a poet (America: A History in Verse); an antiwar and anti-nuclear activist; and he also seems to have known anyone and everyone affiliated with the so-called "underground" in America.
In his new book, Fug You (Da Capo), Sanders ties all of his earliest threads — up to 1970 — together in the most engagingly idiosyncratic memoir of the year. Helpfully subtitled "An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side," Fug You comes at you from all sides of this complex, rugged individual who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, emerging from splatters of Pollock-like paint as "a leader of the Other Culture."
Still placing his shoulder to the cultural wheel, Sanders, 72, continues to work on his multi-volume history of America in verse, occasionally tour with a latter-day version of the Fugs and carry the flame for the "Other." Indeed, now that his friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg is dead, Ed Sanders is the strongest living link between the Beat Generation, the hippies and all other underground currents that have trickled along the countercultural pipeline since then. Sadly, his partner in Fug crimes, the irreplaceable Tuli Kupferberg, died in 2010 after 86 years of stirring up trouble and mirth, in equal measure.
I spoke with Sanders by phone at his home in Woodstock, N.Y.
The events you describe in Fug You are so rich in detail that many of the chapters would be worthy of entire books. Did you just get up every morning and do all these things on instinct and now look back and can't believe what you experienced?
I was young and had a lot of energy, didn't need to sleep a lot. Plus, I really believed that I was helping to make fundamental changes in the ways the economy works, in spiritual and personal freedom. Even though there were all those deaths and assassinations, the countercultural activities fueled the idea that there was a lot of hope throughout these years up to 1970.
That's a good stopping point. It's at the end of the first phase of the Fugs, and just after the big moratoriums against the Vietnam war and Woodstock.
Was it partly driven, as you wrote it, by your archive at UConn's Dodd Center?
A chunk of my archive is in Storrs. But I also have a trove of material here on my property in Woodstock and various other archives where my stuff is stored, including SUNY Buffalo. I gave a poetry reading at UConn last fall and had a chance to visit and go through a great deal of my archive there. They do a good job. Everything is well protected. You can't just walk out of there with material. … But they're pretty open to any users. They say they have more and more scholars coming in to look at their underground press material. And of course they have the Charles Olson Archive. Olson was one of my heroes.
And let's not forget your friend Abbie Hoffman.
They have Abbie's stuff there, too.
One thing the book reminded me of was that your roots were firmly in Beat culture. In the book, you talk about coming to New York City partly, or primarily, because you had read the Beats in high school, in particular Ginsberg's "Howl." And you wanted to head east to see where they action was. You felt the clarion call.
In early 1958 I applied to UC Berkeley and NYU simultaneously, and NYU answered right away. I hitchhiked [from Missouri] to New York that summer. NYU had a good engineering department and I was going to study mathematics and was thinking of joining the Mercury space program. But I'd read "Howl" and was fascinated by the Beats and soon I began frequenting the Village bookstores and buying more and more Beat literature. Then in 1958 and 1959, I began going to Beat poetry readings. My future wife [Miriam] and I would roam lower New York City bohemia. And I got more and more attracted to poetry and the Beats. Meanwhile, I switched my major over to Greek and Latin.
You quickly entered the Beat inner circle.
Well, I wrote them all. When I started publishing my magazine [Fuck You], I sent copies to all the Beats. I also sent one to Nikita Khruschev, Castro, Picasso, Beckett and other writers. I began getting quality manuscripts from my heroes. I sent a copy to Ginsberg in India. I got his address from the owner of the Eighth Street Bookshop, who told me he was depressed. So I sent him a copy and an upbeat letter. He responded and later told me that my magazine helped pull him out of his depression. When he got back to New York in 1963, we became friends, then really good friends for many years up to his death…It was a very intense set of years. Of course, you get into your 70s and you realize that you don't have the energy to stay up three straight nights, party, publish, drink, smoke pot, forget about sleep…
You once tried to board a nuclear submarine up here in Connecticut, didn't you?
It was 1961 in Groton.
Did you dive into the Thames River and swim toward the damn thing?
Yes, I tried twice. Once in June and once in August. Both times it involved swimming in the Thames River outside the shipyard. I was a good swimmer then. But the frogman they sent after me was wearing flippers and caught me and I was hauled off onto a barge. I wasn't able to get on board the submarine. The workers were throwing bolts at us in the water. There were a few of us doing this. It was frightening. We were going to stand on top of the submarine tower in protest.
It didn't stop the nukes, but it did lead to your first book of poetry, Poem from Jail.
Yes. [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti published that book.
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