War on War
By the time The Fugs released their self-titled debut album in 1966, lead vocalist and lyricist Ed Sanders had already established Beatnik street cred as the heart and soul of the legendary NYC Peace Eye Bookstore in 1964, and two years earlier as the publisher of a prototypical Lower East Side 'zine called Fuck You: A Magazine of the ARTS. In the first issue of the hand-printed publication, Sanders described himself as a "pacifist dopethrill psychopath. Has the Ankh symbol tattooed on his penis." The front window of Peace Eye shop was decorated with a symbol of the Eye of Horus (the Egyptian sun god), complete with a personalized bio of the shop's owner: "Ed Sanders--book creep, grass cadet, fug poet, editor, squack slarfer, madman composer and poon scomp."
As far back as 1961, Sanders was participating in radical anti-nuclear proliferation street protests, many of which resulted in his arrest and solitary detention. While in custody, he wrote his infamous Poem From Jail, which was composed in his cell on toilet paper. Since then, his journalism has often appeared in The Village Voice and The New York Times, and to this day, he continues to publish his own weekly newspaper. In 1975 came the release of his highly acclaimed novel, Tales of Beatnik Glory, a collection of short vignettes that documented the Boho lifestyle of Greenwich Village during the formative stages of the '60s counterculture revolution, and Investigative Poetry, a virtual manifesto that encouraged younger poets to take their message directly to the uninitiated and uninformed.
Last weekend, as the group gathered near his home in Woodstock to put the finishing touches on The Fugs' Final CD, their first album in years, Sanders' lyrical inspiration once again comes from the current political specter. "It's obvious that the concept of voting and democracy has been under assault since, at least, the early '60s," he says. "One way or another, we had seen some variation of this type of thing before. Our local newspaper, The Woodstock Journal, was one of the first media publications to call the 2000 election what it really was, which was a stolen election."
WordSpace's Robert Trammell remembers when Sanders and his group first appeared on the scene in 1965. "The Fugs had no idea they would ever become anything permanent. It obviously wasn't prepackaged or calculated pop music. They were certainly one of the most literate groups at the time, clearly inspired by contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg, who like Ed and Tuli Kupferberg, were part of this 'rough' Jewish intellectual crowd of poets and writers from the Lower East Side." He recognizes that the group was way ahead of its time. "Their first two albums were strictly underground--they weren't at all afraid to push the material in an outrageous direction. They played at peace gatherings, coffeehouses, big concerts and huge protest rallies. As their career progressed, they became attractive to larger groups of people in the same way that Bob Dylan did at the time."
The Fugs' debut album was released on the legendary New York-based ESP Records label, where the group felt right at home with labelmates William S. Burroughs, jazz pioneers Pharoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman, as well as space-traveling pianist Sun Ra. Infamous music critic Lester Bangs was a huge fan of their early work, and in the December 1971 issue of Creem magazine wrote, "The first two Fugs albums are enshrined forever in the pantheon of heroic rock 'n' roll manias. The inspiration blazing behind songs like 'Swineburne Stomp,' 'Nothing' and 'Frenzy' will never again be equaled..." (In all fairness, Bangs long before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released, so he's off the hook for that one.)
The third Fugs album was a departure into corporate anarchy. After spending a few months demoing new material for a seemingly baffled Atlantic Records, the group then moved forward with a full-fledged record deal with Frank Sinatra's label at the time, Reprise. We won't speak about what happened during that time. Suffice to say that when major labels signed bands with specific political agendas, their promotional departments weren't always eager to get out and support their records. The new (and last, apparently) Fugs album will be released on Artemis Records.
Besides for The Fugs' Final CD, Sanders also anxiously awaits the upcoming re-release of his book The Family, the 1971 profile of the hygiene-challenged group of people who surrounded Charles Manson shortly before the murder of Sharon Tate. Sanders managed to infiltrate the group by posing as a self-described "satanic, guru-maniac and dope-trapped psychopath." He was originally attracted by what he called "a West Coast take on the whole concept of a roving hippie community that was, at first glance, similar to some of the things that Wavy Gravy or Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters were up to. "At the time, the two real hotspots of communal culture were New York City and Los Angeles," he explains, "and I wanted to get out of the city for a while and explore what was happening out West."
Soon it became apparent that Manson was just an illiterate parasite who wanted the people around him to wreak havoc on his behalf. "I look at that whole experience as a sort of 'flower of evil' that grew out of the anti-war movement," Sanders says. "It didn't take long, however, to see that he was up to no good. Even after his subsequent arrest and conviction we continued to correspond with one another for years, although his letters were crude and often quite difficult to comprehend. I mean, the guy could barely read or write, you know. After a few years he eventually cut me off, finally intimating that he could only really say what he wanted to say in a face-to-face discussion, that the written dialogue was too difficult for him to maintain." The new edition of Sanders' book includes 140 pages of additional text, and a number of the bizarre letters he received from Manson over the years, as well as a collection of recently discovered and previously unreleased photographs of the Family members.
Sanders may have been the lead singer of one of the first truly underground rock-and-roll bands in the world, but that path didn't lead to the same type of crash-and-burn coda of his contemporaries like Jim Morrison, Jack Kerouac or his close friend Janis Joplin. This is a man who has since won an American Book Award, an NEA grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and still gives regular lectures on Homer, Blake, investigative poetry and the work of his mentor, Charles Olson. Sanders is one of the few remaining writers who can offer firsthand perspective and speak with great clarity on the counterculture Beat movement, and his gentle demeanor and willingness to discuss politics make him one of the more approachable pop-culture figures of our time.
His upcoming Dallas performance will include excerpts of his brilliant ongoing work-in-progress, America: A History of Verse. Don't expect words of encouragement for the current administration's policies in Iraq. Afterward, he'll invite his audience to run naked through the moonlit streets of Highland Park, focusing on the front yard of the house where Dick Cheney once lived.
Anybody else up for a little intellectual civil disobedience? Let Ed show you how it's done.
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