A Conversation with Edward Sanders By Barry Miles

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1999, Vol. 19.1

In 1965 I was managing Better Books, an avant-garde bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road, which stocked as many American small-press poetry magazines as I could get. We carried Lines, Mother, “C,” Birth, and so on. I contacted Ed Sanders through Allen Ginsberg, who gave me his address, and we soon became the only shop in Europe to carry Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts (edited and published by Sanders “from a secret location on the Lower East Side”). We sometimes sent Ed parcels of English books, such as George Andrews’s The Book of Grass, for his Peace Eye bookshop in exchange for the publications of the Fuck You Press.

Toward the end of 1965, a woman called Betsy Klein arrived in London, carrying credentials from Ed to say that she was cool, “Fill her lungs with dope,” and other attestations of her worthiness. Betsy was then living with Ken Weaver, the drummer with the Fugs, and when The Village Fugs was released on the Broadside label in January 1966, she put a copy in the mail to us.

By then, I had just opened a new bookshop called Indica Books on Mason’s Yard, off Duke Street Saint James’s, and was closely involved with the Beatles. Paul McCartney was in the shop helping to build shelves when the package arrived. Because we had no record player in the shop, Paul took the album and went next door to the Scotch Saint James’s, which was then the “in” club for rock ‘n’ roll musicians. After a lot of banging on the door, the manager was finally persuaded to let us in—he had little choice really, considering that the success or failure of this type of club depended upon attracting famous names, and his take always rose enormously if one of the Beatles was present. A cleaner was wiping down the tables, and lit by normal-strength bulbs instead of being in almost total darkness, the club looked pretty tacky. Next to the dance floor was an old carriage of the sort that once transported young blades around the city, in which the DJ equipment was housed. Paul placed the record on the deck and “Slum Goddess” filled the club, played at top volume. The manager, who had been expecting the latest groovy sounds from Stax, could not believe his ears. “Why do you want to listen to such filth?” he asked Paul. “The Fugs,” Paul told him knowingly, “are the next big thing!” For the next few months, whenever he was pestered for autographs by American tourists in nightclubs, he would always sign his name as Tuli Kupferberg, the percussionist with the Fugs, causing considerable consternation.

I always admired Ed Sanders because he was what we now recognize as a postmodernist figure. He bridged the gaps separating genres: he is a poet, novelist, editor, publisher, political activist, bookshop proprietor, songwriter, singer, and musician. He was the first to use rock ‘n’ roll as a vehicle to present texts by Swinburne, Blake, Burroughs, and Ginsberg; he wrote both poetry and song lyrics; he was an important publisher, breaking the dependence upon commercial houses by producing his own mimeographed editions from a clandestine press housed in a backyard building off Avenue A between 12th and 13th Streets in the Lower East Side. Because the press had no fixed address, Ed was able to print such things as the “Roosevelt Routine” chapter that City Lights Books cut from William Burroughs’s The Yage Letters as well as such material as Bugger: An Anthology. His revolution extended from the production and promotion of literature into politics—with LeMar (the Movement to Legalize Marijuana), Sexual Liberation, and the Yippie Party—to give him a career in the arts that, in its scope, parallels that of André Breton.

This interview was conducted with Ed Sanders at my house in Lord North Street, Westminster, London, in October 1968, when the Fugs were touring Europe1. It was originally taped for the International Times, Britain’s first underground paper, but for some reason was not used. This is its first publication.

ED SANDERS: I don’t want to talk about the Fugs—just about the future. Everything is organized for me, finally, at least for the next year or so. I’m weak on theory and philosophy. I’m a practical man.

BARRY MILES: Does it divide up at all into what you’re doing with the Peace Eye, what you’re doing with music, what you’re doing with politics?

ES: The Peace Eye’s reopened at the old EVO [East Village Other, New York’s first underground newspaper] offices, with a big stock and energetic management. It’s doing very well.

BM: Do you issue catalogs?

ES: We’ve issued a catalog, although it’s not a rare book catalog. It’s a magical poetry catalog that’s beamed essentially at the people who write letters to the Fugs. Kids at American high schools all over write to us, so I send them the catalog.

BM: It’s largely poetry and little magazines?

ES: Yeah, well, you know, magazines. “Due to the unsettling times,” there’s heavy interest in alchemy and magic, witchcraft and Satanism and Aleister Crowley and the related star data, crystal balls, astral projection, Scientology.

BM: Is that very big over there?

ES: Well, Scientologists are so pushy, it’s strictly an S&M scene in the United States anyway. So it either attracts stoned masochists or stoned sadists.

BM: Everyone I’ve come across who went into it has stopped creating or whatever they were doing: artists stop painting, poets stop writing. William Burroughs hasn’t written anything outside of Scientology since he’s been involved with them2.

ES: It was interesting to watch Burroughs at the Chicago convention. He had a tape recorder with this certain type of noise that he claimed would create confusion, and the first thing he did upon arriving at the Democratic Convention at the amphitheater—he was admitted because he was covering it—was to turn on the tape recorder: sprayed it out over the galleries. So he sort of assumes part of the responsibility for the inner chaos of the Democratic Convention. And then, of course, he was right out there on the street. He, Jean Genet, Terry Southern, Allen Ginsberg, and Dick Seaver of Grove Press were all sitting down on the sidewalk in front of the police, and he was out there on that night with the tear gas. So Scientology hasn’t thwarted his social sense anyway. I mean, a lot of us view Scientology as . . . anyone who believes that there’s a little two-inch being inside of your brain! I mean, you might as well go and read the Bible and run off to the Lutheran Bible school—it seems to make as much sense. See, its terminology is as simplistic as LSD terminology, which is essentially based on an airplane ride. Scientology seems to be based on typewriters: you know, being cleared and stops and engrams. Burroughs started to worry about his anal engrams: tricky anal problem, well, not a problem, but ain’t no poetry in it, see?

BM: I’m hoping he’ll come back soon3.

ES: He was certainly a joy to see in the streets of Chicago, also Genet, who just walked clear up in front of the police. I saw the police charge him from my hotel window. He was trying to get to his car, and they chased him down the street throwing tear gas. He ducked into an alley that had a door, and about fifteen minutes later I saw him emerge from the door, look in both directions, and scuttle down the street. This lady journalist ran up to Genet and hugged him, and Genet turned to Ginsberg and said, “Be sure to tell her I’m a homosexual.” That was really funny.

BM: How successful do you think the demonstrations were in Chicago?

ES: Well, see, it wasn’t really demonstrations. It was massing together and then trying to survive, en masse, for two or three hours without getting killed, given almost total violence. The only thing they didn’t do was kill people or really maim them. Given the type of violence—violence that just bruises and cuts you—it proved that people can exist in such a situation and engage in paramilitary guerrilla runs and dodges, that we were just as smart as they were. We were able to survive under those conditions, which opens up the whole prospect of demonstrations in the United States because it’s likely that they’ll keep the conditions of limited snuff, limited violence, and if we keep our street tactics similar to Chicago, then we can run naked and crazy all over the United States. And we’ll win or we’ll do whatever we want. The next big test, of course, is the inauguration in January.

BM: What’s going to happen then? Anything specific?

ES: Well, we’re going to apply for a permit in Washington to set up tents to show another lifestyle, festival-type thing. Our agents will be inside the inauguration, and there are so many of us that they can’t keep us out unless they just refuse to invite anybody that has any liberal tendencies. We’re going to get people inside the inauguration, some sort of theater, plays, theatrics. The Fugs sent a letter asking to play.

BM: Are you concerned at all by the reception the media gave you?

ES: No. The Ginsberg generation has taken over the media. The beatniks turned journalists. People who were in graduate school and college during the fifties and were affected so strongly by the Beat generation are now moving into sensitive areas in the media. For instance, one of the chief NBC producers at the convention—whenever one would meet him in the streets in his helmet, in the C crew—he could talk to you on your own level, you know, in terms of drugs, pot, sex, and literature. One night he had to run back to his hotel room because he had gone and brought his acid out with him, and he wanted to stash it in case the police beat him up. And this was a key person—let’s say—at the convention. So that’s typical of the type of fortyish, Ginsbergian journalist that’s around. They want to be of service and not just a lackey.

BM: It’s very strange to view America from here.

ES: Well, because it’s insane, see? It’s like if you have a psychotic aunt that you don’t want to put away. You have to figure out how to get along with her—and especially if she has a gun—you have to figure out how she won’t go nuts and shoot. The U.S. is a big problem, you know? All the religious maniacs in Europe went over there a hundred, two hundred years ago, all the soldiers of fortune and psychopaths and degenerates and all the freaks from Europe of that time went over there, and the combination of religious maniacs and killers—goons—just swept across the country like a bunch of army ants and killed everything they could find, killed the Indians’ buffalo—anything they could shoot, man—and they occupied the territory and set up a civilization of maniacs. And there we are. And four and five generations later, as a result of this incredible energy of our forefathers, we have a whole lot of energy and a whole lot of resources and money available to us. And power. Try to cut off the negative tentacles of American civilization, try to create something. Either cap it off so it doesn’t hurt anyone anymore, or direct its energy into ways that aren’t injurious to the world. It’s a terrible task. I mean we got four thousand miles of maniacs over there.

BM: Do you think it’s possible for opinion from foreign parts to have an influence?

ES: That just pisses Americans off. World opinion just makes them more uptight, makes them more crazy.

BM: How much connection is there between the underground and the big corporations in America? All the rock groups, for instance, are signed up to huge companies.

ES: Well, see, there’s a pancake problem in the underground in that most people are really surface people. They didn’t grow up in the underground and don’t know the origins of the underground, don’t know why there’s an underground. They decide to associate themselves with the underground, and then they just flip themselves over—it’s like a pancake, you understand—and then they’re underground. I mean they’re really there to make money. That’s the problem with most of the groups . . . it’s a cupidity problem. They’re really in it, quite frankly, for the money, which, if William Blake’s right, cuts away at their hearts like something savage, and that’s where most groups are at. And the way to make a lot of money is to sign with a big company. Of course, another problem is that the small record companies in America tend to be crooks.

BM: Have you found that the Fugs have managed to unite a lot of the old literary people?

ES: No. You see, the commercial literary set—Philip Roth, the N.Y. Review crowd, Elizabeth Hardwick, and the Robert Lowell people—dig us, but the other people who have higher musical standards . . . frankly, up to now we hadn’t got much sense of music. It’s just now, particularly in the It Crawled into My Hand, Honest album, that we were able to take control of what we’d really like to do musically. But I don’t know—our base is literary, most of our friends are literary, most devout Fug fans are in high schools in the Midwest. I know all the letters come from the Midwest, from kids mostly, young high-school kids.

BM: I suppose there’s nothing you can do about them—I mean in the Midwest.

ES: It’s nice land. If it were just populated by civilized people. America is an incredibly beautiful land. It’s incredibly diverse; any form of climate you like you can live in. You have your choice of everything. It’s just the people and the traditions. So I would encourage people to stay in their communities unless they really want to go to N.Y. to, say, study poetry. See, it’s a matter of education. Young people should pick the places they want to go to in order to learn things. Civilization means that all young freaks should not study guitar.

BM: What’s the relationship between the underground and the Black Power people, the Black Panthers, for instance?

ES: Well, see, one of the good things about Chicago was that when you ran in the streets, you were side by side with the black brothers. There were black people there. And people like Eldridge Cleaver are friends with Jerry Rubin, they’re friends with the hippies. There’s sympathy because there is this incredible phobia in the United States against heads. God, it’s just incredible, you know, and so the hippies are the Black Power people, so it’s like that.

BM: They are usually reported as two completely separate things.

ES: Not at all. Black Power is a denial of the middle-class liberal; it’s not a denial of the people who really want equality, who don’t want a slave system. See, black people understand the situation without even having to contemplate it because there are vibrations, you know? And I think that some of the Black Panthers are able to get along with Jerry Rubin because Rubin is honest. He really believes in what he says, whereas a liberal might not, he might be a hypocrite. So I think the lines are very open for communication. I mean between the Peace and Freedom Party, Black Panthers, S.D.S., Marlon Brando.

The United States is really almost an open society. That’s why I decided to do things like the Fugs and Peace Eye bookshop: to bring it out into the open, assuming that there is no real dualism in the message of the United States Constitution. You know you can create a format for presenting your views, so you have the strength in the electronic era by coming out into the open, no matter how freakish or revolutionary your views are. So being a pacifist, I realize that by not having anything to do with violence, I can’t be brought into any sedition scene or any treason scene. It would only be somewhere, perhaps, in the obscenity area or some vague political theatrical area, so the dangers aren’t great really. For instance, to me, a fine or those little jail terms don’t mean anything—so the risks are small for someone like me, but the risks for someone like Jerry Rubin are considerable, or for Abbie Hoffman, who they really want to get.

The crucial point is the war and the draft. That’s what so many people in my country don’t understand. The whole reason the country is in turmoil is because of the draft and because of the war. No other reason. The country is wealthy, productive, energetic; there’s no other malady but that.

BM: What was the original impetus behind the Fugs, I mean, why did all of you literary figures decide to go into music?

ES: I organized the group. I opened up the bookstore in December and at the same time I was writing songs for a possible band. In my college days I had written a bunch of tunes to Blake songs: “Ah, Sunflower,” “Oh Rose Thou Art Sick,” “Long John Brown,” “Little Mary Bell,” and several other Blake things, and I wanted to sing. I didn’t know how to sing. I had always read poetry in a kind of chanting, singsong way, keeping one note, almost, when reading. I was inspired by listening to Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Edward Dahlberg read in the fifties on McDougal Street, and I read Pound and things—it all made sense. Being the victim of the Peace Walk generation, even trying to board submarines and just being a radical, I found it all made sense. So we started getting together. Tuli wrote some songs, and I wrote some songs, and so there was Tuli and I. And Ken was in my bookstore all the time. He helped me put out Bugger, the mag, and some of the Fuck Yous, and then I learned that Ken played drums, had played in the El Campo High School marching band. And then I further learned that he had an old buffalo-hide drum, or something, and he got so he seemed natural to the routine. So there were Tuli and Ken and me. And then Steve Weber [guitar, vocals] and Peter Stampfel [fiddle, harmonica, vocals], who were in the Holy Modal Rounders. Peter and Steve started coming around to our sessions, and so it evolved, so we played around.

BM: Do you have very much connection with the pop business generally?

ES: Well, see, pop newspapers tend to ignore us, but we have a vast network of connections in the States now. I can’t stand the members of most groups, frankly, because they’re atrophied souls. I mean they’re so greedy that it defies description, or the content of their lives is so vapid and uninteresting to me, or they’re so untrained in all the fields they should be trained in, like literature and writing and conversation, that they’re just boring. Some of them are interesting. Joe McDonald is interesting and Janis Joplin. She’s nice, smart. Charles Olson fell in love with her.

BM: I’m glad he’s getting around again. It’s nice that people of that generation are getting involved with music.

ES: It’s not necessarily the age of the person, but it’s the dedication and the intelligence. It’s a great era to be alive.

BM: Do you still write poetry?

ES: Oh yes, I’m addicted to poetry. The problem is the way you think. I don’t like to think in the thirty-two-bar music style. I’m trapped at the moment by the nature of the current Fugs music, and it tends to injure my poetry. I have a strong classical background in Greek meter, which is incredibly varied, and I wrote all my early poems in Greek meter—”Poem from Jail,” for instance, is written entirely along the rigid lines of Greek meter—and so getting into rock music impaired my poetry a little bit. But I’m working on it. I just realized it happened a couple of months ago, and so I’ve been trying to rectify it.

BM: So what kind of changes do you expect in your new poetry?

ES: I’m going to write a whole book of Blakean things—in the sense of real designing, a package. I like a book as an object of art, and I am going to design all the plates and do colored paintings, drawings, hand lettering, all very intricate, complicated, interesting. But there’s got to be a way to make pop music more complicated, more surrealistic than it is. God!

BM: Well, your extensions seem to be in the theatrical area.

ES: Yeah, well, I’m getting into it. I’ve been studying all these books on orchestration and how to write music notes. I’ve studied all that shit for the last couple of years. I get this music graph paper and just write simply—you write out lines and it’s great, it’s really fun. It’s incredible, you have ten different layers of sound that can occur at the same time. You just figure out what goes through it. It’s really fine. It’s all learning just what an instrument can do and getting the right musical nomenclature, and then just writing what goes on in your brain on a piece of paper, which is great. Like I can listen to Beethoven in my brain and roughly write it like it is. It’s just like learning Greek or something. It’s like a language you’ve got to learn, a schoolboy thing. But once you do it, it’s like you get onto a whole planet: the music planet.

BM: How about the difference between live performance and recorded?

ES: Well, of course, you’re limited. It’s a Leonard Bernstein problem for a composer. You can spend all your time rehearsing, which is what a really top band does: they rehearse every day for four hours, even on the road, and they spend all their life, say, while they’re on the road, practicing, eating, and playing. And that’s a life form I don’t want to get involved with. I concentrate on composition and poetry and a complex personal life.

NOTES

1 The Fugs’ impact on London can be measured by their treatment in Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne, Groupie (1969; London: Omnibus, 1997), in which they play a prominent role.

2 Burroughs’s involvement came to an end when the Scientologists placed him in a “condition of treason” for running “squirrel techniques” on himself with an e-meter. Auditing sessions with an e-meter were supposed to be conducted by a Scientology auditor. Burroughs was always opposed to L. Ron Hubbard’s philosophy but was interested in his techniques for deprogramming the mind and identifying control systems.

3 Burroughs was visiting the States when this interview was conducted. His home was in London.

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