March Madness 4: Fug You
We are blessed to have such a quality local bookstore as the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, which changed hands a couple of years ago and subsequently, under the re-invigorated ownership of Jacqueline Kellachen and her staff, has engaged in an ongoing series of readings, discussions, performances and launches that would put an urban Barnes & Noble to shame. On the music front alone, this year has seen excellent events for Will Hermes’ musical history Love Goes to Building On Fire (which covers the same territory as the last three-four chapters of my own All Hopped Up and Ready To Go, but understandably does so in considerably more detail); Suzzy Roche (of the sisterly group the Roches)’s debut novel Wayward Saints; and Gary Marcus’ study-as-memoir Guitar Zero (for which our resident family guitarist, Noel, found himself unexpectedly but happily sharing the stage at the Kleinert-James with some considerable professional talents), a book that I hope to review in an upcoming post.
We are also blessed to have so many quality writers, poets, authors, musicians and activists living in our area – including some, like Ed Sanders, who qualify as all the above and more. A brief synopsis of Sanders’ importance and influence can be ascertained from the title of his brand new memoir, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, although even that subtitle manages to leave out his additional credits as a founding member of the Campaign to Legalise Marijuana (LeMar) alongside Allen Ginsberg; his influential role in the birth of the Yippies along with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Jim Fouratt; and his infamous attempt to levitate the Pentagon during the March on Washington of 1967. Oh yes, there’s also his non-fiction book about Charles Manson’s brutal coda to the 1960s, The Family; his barely fictional but constantly hilarious Tales of Beatnik Glory; his book-length poems America: In Verse; and his life-long study of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which he has incorporated into much of his creative outpourings.
At the local launch for Fug You, published by Da Capo in hardback, written in (surprisingly?) short and snappy sections, and lavishly illustrated with souvenirs from Sanders’ considerable archives, the author honed in on just the one incident from this considerably crowded biography – that in which his own bookstore, Peace Eye on East 10th Street, was busted at the start of 1966. That Sanders was publishing something called Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, and renting a PO Box at Stuyvesant Station in that name, may have seemed like a pointed provocation to the guardians of morality, but as he is quick to point out in his book, “during the three year history of the magazine, no one at the Post Office objected… to this day my opinion of the United States Postal Service is shaped towards the good.” Recounting that the police confiscated all his home movies from Peace Eye, including that of his brother’s wedding, and that all they were ultimately able to prosecute him on was “a misdemeanor charge of possession of obscene literature with intent to sell,” Sanders told how he nonetheless decided to fight for his First Amendment rights and enlisted the help of the ACLU, who stayed by his side as the case dragged on for a year and a half of continued court appearances until the case was finally dismissed.
If that seems a relatively minor incident given what else was going on around him, Sanders told it in such a way as to personalize the characters and dramatize the court case. He did so in his trademark, deadpan style which only served to hilariously emphasize the preposterous nature of it all – not just that of the authorities who pursued him though much of the 1960s, but his own role in undermining the system. (“I make myself famous by singing smut,” he said on William Buckley’s TV show Firing Line in 1968, alongside Jack Kerouac.)
Like Pete Seeger, Sanders remains a pacifist and a patriot to the core. He disassociated himself from the Yippies when Hoffman and Jerry Rubin pursued more confrontational tactics, and always acknowledged that he was able to challenge American mores so actively through the 1960s (and beyond) precisely because the freedom to do so was ingrained in the nation’s constitution. Asked a question about this subject, he spoke warmly of the nation’s occasional steps forward, but lamented its frequent steps back, including the absence of Universal Health Care – and that of a President Robert Kennedy, who was evidently Sanders’ mainstream political hero at a time when they were few and far between. That does not prevent him, in the early pages of Fug You, ruminating on RFK’s involvement in Marilyn Monroe’s demise. It’s that kind of book, laden with political theories, cultural misdemeanors, musical adventures and walk-on appearances from the Who’s Who of the 1960s by someone who was not only was there, at the (he)art of it all, but who appears to remember it, too.