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Ed Sanders

The Last Radical (part 1)

September 19, 2003  |  12:00am
Ed Sanders

“I used to get thrown off of campuses, now I get sponsored by student unions,” says a slightly bemused Ed Sanders to a near-capacity crowd of grinning students and graying hippies at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. “It shows that once you get a white moustache, and the more you look like Mark Twain…” he continues, the cadence of his speech drawling to a stop as if ready to pluck a sliver of divine truth from the heavens, “…the better the bed and breakfast.” Obviously, rural Pennsylvania is quite a distance, both literal and figurative, from most of the places Sanders has earned his reputation. He chased down his Beatnik heroes, schmoozed with Jimi and Janis, testified at the Chicago Seven trials, levitated the Pentagon, tackled taboos and kicked up an infamously radical racket as a founding member of The Fugs. But if anyone expects him to be a walking museum installment, a dust-covered artifact excavated from fields once populated by flower children, he seems uncompromisingly rooted in the concerns of the 21st century.

Tonight, though, it’s clear more than a few in attendance have come with the hopes of being regaled by tales snagged from the mythological hippie canon of rock ’n’ roll orgies, LSD opuses and political protests. But instead, he stands alone, peering professor-like through bifocals at a folder of poems. He has the same, slightly lop-sided, billowing clouds of hair that have clung to the sides and top of his head for as long as most can remember. Opening with a poem entitled “A Question of Self-Publishing,” he reads over its lines about William Blake and the romanticism of the do-it-yourself spirit as if discovering them for the first time—carefully, as if expecting the words to dart off the page. The crowd allows him this indulgence. After all, he's as renowned for his books of poetry and prose—his classic Tales of Beatnik Glory and his account of the Charles Manson murders in The Family among them—as he is for his status as one of the most eccentric members of the love generation. By the second poem, though, the kids start to grow restless, as if just realizing they had unknowingly attended a poetry reading when all they really wanted was to be sprinkled with a little of that notorious bohemian dirt.

For someone who’s a former symbol of the excess of an era (enough that he was featured on the cover of Life in 1967), Sanders hardly seems like a provocateur. In fact, his voice is rather monotone. Traces of his mid-western roots flavor his deliberate speaking patterns. Off in the shadows of the balcony, the crowd’s more juvenile constituents nudge each other and mimic the intonation of his speech as they attempt to finish the lines of his verse. “This is the first time in western civilization that an FBI surveillance memo has been set to music,” he says, eliciting a mélange of laughter and confusion as he fumbles with a handheld electronic contraption that will launch the canned music track for his performance of “Perp Walk,” a new composition that portrays philosophical heavyweights like John Lennon, Socrates and Tom Payne as visionaries who by the nature of their peculiar insight were targeted by those whose power was threatened by thier ideas. Despite its looped break-beat and synth arrangement, the song is steeped in the classic Fugs approach—a marriage of social commentary and the rock aesthetic. Sanders’ nasally whine and slightly irregular melodic sense has changed little from when the group wrote its first songs nearly 40 years ago.

Some kids slip out the side door. When the time arrives for him to read the FBI surveillance memo, he does so as if reciting a mass, tapering each sentence at its end so that the comparison can’t be missed, providing another reminder of The Fugs’ deftness in never allowing their social commentary to completely overwhelm their flair for the absurd. “Everyone, even a savior or hero, is a criminal to someone” goes the chorus of this particular song, and if anyone, Sanders should know.

To a certain extent, the 1960s never ended for Sanders. He still lives in Woodstock, New York. A self-described activist, he still fights for clean water, national health care, and any number of causes that capture his attention. And he’s still setting his criticism to music generally recognized as rock ’n’ roll. As might be expected of man who was once considered radical enough to have his phone tapped, he’s not exactly thrilled with the Bush Administration (note the particularly pointed criticism of Attorney General John Ashcroft in the droll “Government Surveillance Yodel”). Still, these kids, some of whose parents were not yet born when the Fugs released their first album, represent a decidedly different culture than the one Sanders characterized when he was their age. Just as the '60s were marked by the extremes of human expression, Sanders now finds himself in a political climate split once again by the horns of war and political strife. And just as before, he does little to hide the extent of his convictions.

“It’s very important to not let the right wing steal patriotism,” he says to a scattered round of applause that rings out as an unusual echo in conservative, rural Pennsylvania. “It’s easy to be a protestor and demonstrator at the age of 20, but when you move on and become what Timothy Leary called ‘biologically phased,’ and you have a mortgage, and a career, and ghastly faculty meetings, and manuscripts to finish, and children to raise…” He leaves the thought unfinished, but there is little doubt concerning the intent his words are loaded with.

More poems and songs follow—a performance of the straightforwardly idealistic “Anthem for the New America,” excerpts from the forthcoming The Blake Root (“an examination of the life and work and writing and artwork of William Blake” he says), and, in equal turns, tributes to his wife, French composer Erik Satie, and Allen Ginsberg.

“Without this guy, I’d be driving an Eskimo Pie truck in Kansas City,” his says of the latter, going on to recount the surprisingly commonplace story of how the famed Beatnik’s “Howl” set him on a road that led to the arts. “It changed my life,” he says to a crowd that seems to be straining to remember exactly who Allen Ginsberg was.

“I never thought as an 18-year-old young man with a clipboard full of poetry that I would ever become a good friend of Allen Ginsberg, but it came to pass,” he explains, as if repeating some long foretold prophecy. “And we had many capers…” he relates with a near-grin on his face, although he only discloses a brief, and decidedly tame, anecdote recalling the time he and Ginsberg high-stepped through teargas at the demonstrations outside Chicago’s infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention. More heartfelt than scandalous, he continues, “[Ginsberg] died in ’97, and it has been tough. They always say that you get closure,” he continues, apparently straining for the perfect way to describe his loss. “But I’ve decided that with someone who is really part of your life, there’s no such thing as closure.” Whatever the case, if Sanders can be accused of living in the shadows of greater men, he seems more than happy to relish his position by commemorating them in song and verse. More kids file out.

Another poem, another song, a few questions about radicalism from the crowd, and the night with Sanders is over. Nudging a stack of Woodstock Journals—a progressive newspaper he publishes in his hometown—to the edge of the stage for all who are interested, he offers a pleasant “thank you” and walks off into the wings. Perhaps it’s evidence of the change delivered by Sanders and his generation, but the whole night seems to fall a bit short of being classified as a “happening.” No buildings will be levitated tonight. No stories of partying with Jimi or Janis. No controversial social commentary in the guise of performance. Just art and discourse, offered in the most traditional way.

A reception is held in Sanders’ honor at a neighboring campus building. After a few fleeting moments of awkwardness (as those in attendance pick over finger food and try to work up the nerve to approach the man of the hour), Sanders is quickly surrounded.

“Didn’t I tell you that would be great!” a particularly eccentric-looking professor says to a circle of students he’d coerced into attending. Sanders is polite but surprisingly shy, placing himself on a hallway bench and blending into the scenery unobtrusively. Like a professor who’s stumbled upon the rare formula that makes students actually believe what he has to say is interesting, Sanders entertains questions and pleasantries with a tired smile, allowing students and aging hippies equal time.

Waiting until the crowd has entirely dispersed, I approach him and extend my hand, which he playfully bats with awkward but good-natured disinterest. His demeanor changes somewhat when I say I’ve arranged to do an interview with him during his stop, something he admits being aware of but seems less than enthused about. It seems that having his life’s path intertwine with someone so thoroughly un-Allen Ginsberg doesn’t rank high on his agenda. “I’m an early riser, so we’ll have to do it in the morning” he warns, as if by doing so he might scare me away from the idea. We iron out the details. “Call the bed and breakfast if you’re not going to come, OK?” he offers in parting, as if he has little faith I’ll show up. Of course, in a political climate where the more he talks, the more he might incriminate himself, it just might be wishful thinking.

I rise early and head to the bed and breakfast, taking extra care to stride up to the door at precisely the agreed upon time. Sanders is having breakfast with a few of the town’s locals, sitting at the head of a long dining room table while casually discussing the baleful condition of the county’s political climate. “Sit there,” he says, pointing to a chair at the table. For the next half hour, I’ll be nothing more than a fly on the wall.

“I’ll bet Clarion County goes 4-to-1 Republican, and how can that be?” asks one of those involved in the discussion.

“They’ve just been mislead and lied to,” offers another at the table.

Animation colors their expressions and frustration flushes their complexion, but Sanders seems almost serene. Conspiracy theories bounce around the room—about the war, the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, and the theft of the ’02 an ’00 elections—and those at the table look to Sanders, hoping he’ll validate their concerns or provide them with some sense of consolation. He doesn’t disappoint, allaying their fear with the admission that, even though things look bleak, he has faith the truth will prevail in the end. Sanders could easily site his personal experience as evidence, but he doesn’t. At the table, he’s just another concerned voter.

Eventually the party disperses, leaving Sanders and me to retreat to a quaint sitting room. He takes down both my name and that of the magazine, as if giving me one last chance to admit the interview is really a conspiracy. And, by virtue of his entirely unemotional countenance, he’s a bit intimidating. He may not exude much of the freewheeling aura of the proto-punk provocateur who broke new ground for expression and pushed the limits of obscenity in popular music, but his solemn calmness is somewhat unnerving. The truth is, I have every reason to be here. The Fugs are releasing a new album.

“It’s called The Fugs’ Final CD (Part 1),” he offers, as if he’s had to repeat this information a few too many times. “Eighteen totally new songs—it was recorded last year, in 2002. We were founded in 1964, so this is like 39 years later…” Coming from a generation that lived life so aggressively some of its brightest minds never survived, Sanders has a keen sense of just how strange a proposition it is for his band to continue into the Internet age.

“Every art project has an end, whether it’s the Futurists, the Dadaists, the Vorticists, the Abstract Expressionists, the Beatles, the Beach Boys—except maybe the Beach Boys will never end, and I see the Grateful Dead is going out on tour with Dylan this summer, so it’s hard to know when a band is done,” he says, measuring his words deliberately, as if the collision of ideas in his mind make it difficult to force words out in the right order. “They say if you can last five years, then it’s forever. So maybe The Fugs will record on the astral plane. It looks like it’s over, but you never know. So that’s why I put the words 'Part 1' on the CD, and it is 18 new tunes, and it’s recorded pretty well.” For those not familiar with The Fugs’ decidedly unrefined roots, to make a point of saying an album is recorded “pretty well” might seem odd, but few bands start off as loosely arranged as The Fugs.

To be sure, the band that recorded the amateurishly shambolic The Fugs First Album in 1964—with eyebrow-raising tracks like “Boobs a Lot” and “I Couldn’t Get High”—is gone. Then notable largely for their extreme lack of musical refinement (none of the members were proficient on an instrument) and borderline vulgarity, the band was smuggled onto the historic Folkways budget by the legendary Harry Smith under the guise of being an authentic jug band. “When we started out we basically wanted to party and have a good time. In other words, we thought we could help the revolution while partying a lot. I mean, we were a party band,” he says, his eyes glazing over as if momentarily rejoining one of those events. “I mean, oh man, we had many parties and good times, and smoked too much and drank too much, and never slept, and… But now it’s a little more modulated, as they say, and you can’t …” Again, he trails off before finishing his thought.

When I ask if he ever considered rock 'n' roll as a viable career choice, Sanders says “no” with a long, drawn-out shudder, his mouth forming a large “O” beneath his mustache. “I was in graduate school. I was supposed to be a professor. Then I needed to earn some money because my daughter was born, so I opened this bookstore. Peace Eye Bookstore on East 10th Street in New York City. And next door was this guy who was this very famous beatnik named Tuli Kupferberg, and I had met him, and it was right after the Beatles did 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' and Roy Orbison’s 'Oh Pretty Woman,' and the Shangri-Las’ 'The Leader of the Pack,' and (Wilson Pickett’s) 'Mustang Sally,' so there was some interesting music. Plus, all the Civil Rights tunes. And then there was this thing called 'the happening movement,' where you’d get an art gallery and you’d get all the people to take off their clothes, and you get balloons, and you paint people. You could get in the art game. So we said, ‘Why don’t we just form a band? We’ll have a good time. We’re poets; we’ll write some songs.’ And I knew there was this band called the Holy Modal Rounders, and I told them and they agreed to provide the music. Steve Weber was the guitar player, and Peter Stampfel was a really good fiddle player, and they agreed to back us. We had a world premier at my bookstore, and we started playing galleries and one thing led to another. It was just a game. I had no idea that it would take off and that there would be any interest in it whatsoever.” But from modest beginnings sprang an underground rock movement in an era when the subversiveness of punk rock and the establishment of an indie rock scene was still more than ten years away.

“We started playing theaters, and it became kind of popular,” he continues. “These limousines would pull up with Peter O’Toole, and Richard Burton, and Kim Novak, and Hollywood people, and people like James Michener. Philip Roth got his idea for Portnoy’s Complaint from coming to a Fugs show. I thought there wouldn’t be any interest at all in the long term, and now I have more CD’s out than when I was a kid. They’ve reissued all the stuff, and I think there’s a box set of Warner Brothers stuff. Again, we were not the Doors or the Rolling Stones. We sold records, but we were never huge. We were so controversial. They’d never rent Carnegie Hall to us. I had always wanted to play Carnegie Hall and they had one answer: no. (laughing). But, basically, I’m a writer. I write books—my book on the Manson family, I’ve written short stories, a lot of journalism. I’ve written for The New York Times and The Kansas City Star, and The Village Voice—a lot of different publications. So, I’m a writer… who also happens to write strange tunes for this strange band that has been together for 39 years called The Fugs, that was founded totally as a hallucination. Without any sense of longevity or anything, really. We had no idea that 40 years later I’d be sitting here with a tape recorder talking about it.”

The 2003 version of The Fugs not only finds itself in a musical and social climate where the band’s once outlandish stretching of artistic liberty is now commonplace, but where they have 40 years of musicianship under their belts. No doubt, The Fugs steadily grew into their band-hood over the years, to the point where, in the late '60s, they had evolved into a fairly standard psychedelic rock band, no longer dependent on their friends for the instrumentation on their albums. Now the inventor of a few instruments, Sanders can no longer claim to be the neophyte he was four decades ago. But does that necessarily mean the band sounds different?

“I don’t know,” Sanders frowns, as if insulted. “The musicianship is somewhat better. The singing definitely is better; we’ve got singers now where the harmonies are really good. When we started out in 1964, we didn’t even know that you were supposed to face the microphone, really. We did not go to the Julliard School so… we had a lot of enthusiasm. We still do. But the musicianship, the ability to write songs—we’ve been writing songs and recording for almost 40 years—so we’re slowly getting our act together, just in time to retire,” he finishes with his typically dry humor. “But the intention, musically, is basically the same: to bring the sense of good writing and poetry to the music and to make the words more important in the overall mix than other bands do. And we use an organ and pianos and stringed instruments, and we haven’t gotten into rap or hip-hop or the really avant-garde outer edge,” he continues, his mind leaping ahead of the words coming from his mouth. He has to go back and finish a sentence hastily before starting the next. “Although early in our career we did some quite avant-garde pieces, such as our extended work, 'Virgin Forest,' on our second record, which I know for a fact that the Beatles heard and that led, and not totally but in part, to them doing some of their longer pieces, such as on Sgt. Pepper’s 'Day in the Life' and stuff. The idea was that they were doing rock ’n’ roll suites. So… I don’t know, we’re still out there and our politics are way out there. On our new record—tunes like 'Go Down Congress' and some really hard-line political statements on the new CD. And we’re still for a more sharing world; I guess you call it center/left. We’re anarcho-syndicalist or anarcho-social democratic, which just means that we’re for a national health care system plus lots of freedom.” As always, a distinctly political outlook forms much of the album’s conceptual bent. For Sanders, being a link in the chain of American activism is a lofty ideal, but it’s not as if he didn’t have role models who showed him how to effectively spread his chosen discourse.

“Ginsberg had the line, ‘America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,’” he says, quoting the poet as if his words were Scripture. “And it’s true, that one poet helped liberate gay culture. It wasn’t just the Stonewall Riots that helped liberate the gays, it was guys like Alan Ginsberg who were willing to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m gay. But I’m also a poet and I’m also an American.’ In other words, if you have a controversial position, the idea is to have good will and explain it in a way that other people can understand, so Alan, in particular, was an inspiration in the sense that he never let himself be painted into a corner. It’s difficult to reach out to your opponents; I have that difficulty, to go to the people that really disagree with you or hate you. So I try to in my own little town, to say, ‘Look, we don’t agree on certain things, but there are things that we do agree on.’ And I try to get along. So, I did learn a lot from those predecessors.” In addition to Ginsberg, Sanders had another primer for his career in the arts. Though The Fugs’ music was far too irreverent to be categorized as anything resembling traditional folk, Pete Seeger was an “incredible inspiration” to Sanders.

“I met [Seeger] as a young man on a peace walk,” he says. “I didn’t even know who he was. I had no idea; I didn’t know anything about Pete Seeger. But I met him, with his banjo, singing all these great songs. And then I learned that he’d been blacklisted and that he’d been one of the nation’s biggest recording acts with the Weavers, who because of their politics were banned from the radio. They couldn’t rent Carnegie Hall. This is a group that sold out Carnegie Hall, and they couldn’t rent halls to play in. And yet he continued—he didn’t let that stop him. He kept going to peace walks as this tall guy playing great songs. 'I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More' and, oh man, he was an example of how to keep a smile and use art. And he wrote great songs. He looked at the Hudson River and decided he would help clean it up. And he was like this leftist guy that they had tried to send to prison during the McCarthy era, reaching out to opponents. He got the wealthy landowners along the Hudson, trade unions—a whole coalition of people whose interest it was to clean up the Hudson River.”

But in a political climate that seems to grow more antagonistic between competing factions by the day, Sanders fears artists may be risking more than the alienation of their fan-base if they choose to express their political beliefs.

“What I worry about is that people like that will be put in prison,” he explains. “The greatest danger is that people like Pete Seeger and Allen Ginsberg won’t be able to arise because they’ll be cut off. You can use the Internet now, but the minute they decide it’s a problem…they could take it away. There are ways to organize. I am worried about the government stifling speech. I see it happening now. In my little newspaper, The Woodstock Journal, people are afraid to put their names on letters that attack Bush. They say, ‘I’m afraid,’ and you give them a pseudonym. That people will be afraid to speak, that’s the biggest danger, to me. That people will think that the government is looking over their shoulder. And if people have jobs, they’ll be afraid to say anything for fear of losing their job. That’s the danger, a stifling climate of fear that forces people to not speak up about issues they feel strongly about.”

Read Part 2

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