Author Interviews
4:37 am
Sat May 5, 2012

'Fug You': The Wild Life Of Ed Sanders

Originally published on Sun May 6, 2012 8:26 am

Ed Sanders likes to refer to himself as the only beatnik who can yodel. A countercultural icon, he co-founded the raunchy, avant-garde rock band The Fugs and was instrumental in the Youth International Party — commonly called the Yippies.

The 72-year-old is also a classical scholar who wrote a best-selling book about the Manson family. His latest book is a memoir, Fug You, about life on New York's Lower East Side in the 1960s — a slum, back when Sanders lived there.

"It didn't take much money to live," Claudia Dreifus recalls. "You could live poor, you could have a lot of fun. People didn't need a lot of stuff. And when rents were cheap, all kinds of creative forces ended up here."

Dreifus is now a science writer for The New York Times, but she cut her teeth at a counterculture newspaper called The East Village Other. She calls Sanders, who was a neighborhood fixture and fellow writer at The Other, a hero.

"That word is used loosely and stupidly these days," she says, "but he really was. He showed us how to be free ... by showing us there was a way to say what you wanted to say."

Sanders put out a literary journal with a pretty unprintable title. He hand-cranked it on a now archaic bit of technology called a mimeograph machine.

"I did everything myself," he says. "I drew all the stencils, I made ... what I called glyphs, which were based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and I carried on a big correspondence with writers to get manuscripts. And it just seemed like turning that handle was a kind of religious experience. I don't know, it seemed to work. I put out all these magazines that I gave away free."

He gave them to writers and artists, some of whom would soon gain fame in the underground comic book scene. And he opened the Peace Eye bookstore, near Tompkins Square Park, where he recalls The Fugs drawing crowds of thousands to free concerts.

"The bookstore became pretty famous. It was the stopping off point for all visiting librarians and professors because I had a lot of well-known writers hanging out there — William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg," Sanders says.

In his memoir, Sanders refers to the Lower East Side as a "little zone of revolution." He and several other founders of the Yippies lived there, and played key roles in the anti-war movement's "exorcism" of the Pentagon and the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Sanders says much of the political and cultural activity of the era was fomented on the Lower East Side. In addition to political activists, writers and artists, the neighborhood was full of musicians like Peter Stampfel, a member of both The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders.

"The main thing about the scene back then was that there was this amazing feeling that something wonderful and amazing was going to happen inevitably," Stampfel says.

But the '60s faded into the '70s, and Sanders disbanded The Fugs. He went on to write The Family, about the Manson family, and release a solo record. He also decided to leave the Lower East Side.

"We saw a couple of people murdered in the streets outside of our house," Sanders says. It was time to go.

Eventually Sanders landed in Woodstock, in upstate New York. His modest house is crammed with books, tapes and his wife Miriam's mineral collection. A two-car garage that once served as his writing studio is now packed floor to ceiling with banker's boxes full of files and photographs; Sanders jokes about appearing on a reality show about hoarders.

Among the collections is Sanders' archive devoted to The Fugs. He takes out a leaflet for one of the band's shows, advertising a 1965 extravaganza called "A Night of Napalm." Sanders describes it as "songs against the war, rock 'n roll bomb shrieks, heavy metal orgasms. Watch all The Fugs die in a napalm raid."

He's received offers for the archive from several major universities, but for the time being, he's going to hold on to what is clearly a valuable record of a pivotal chapter in American history. "It was just a very fervent, fermenting era," Sanders says. "The surge of creativity and movies and dance and theater and poetry and literature was too big to stop."

And Ed Sanders was right at the heart of it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ed Sanders likes to refer to himself as the only beatnik who can yodel. A countercultural icon, he co-founded the raunchy, avant-garde rock band The Fugs and was instrumental in the Yippies. He's also a classical scholar who also wrote a best-selling book about the Manson family. Ed Sanders is now 72 and he's just published a memoir about life on New York's Lower East Side during the 1960s. Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The Lower East Side was a slum back in the '60s when Claudia Dreifus lived there.

CLAUDIA DREIFUS: It didn't take much money to live. You could live poor, you could have a lot of fun. People didn't need a lot of stuff. And when rents were cheap, all kinds of creative forces ended up here.

KALISH: Today, she's a science writer for The New York Times but back then she cut her teeth at a counter-culture newspaper called the East Village Other. Ed Sanders also wrote for the paper and was one of the neighborhood's fixtures. Dreifus got to know him and she calls him a hero.

DREIFUS: That word is used loosely and stupidly these days but he really was. He showed us how to be free.

KALISH: By publishing what he published?

DREIFUS: Yeah. By showing us that there was a way to say what you wanted to say. Just do it.

KALISH: Sanders did it with a literary journal, whose title we can't say on the radio. He hand cranked it on a now archaic bit of technology called a mimeograph machine.

ED SANDERS: I did everything myself. I drew all the stencils, I made all the, what I called, glyphs, which were based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. And I carried on a big correspondence with writers to get manuscripts. And it just seemed like turning that handle was a kind of religious experience. I don't know, it seemed to work. I put out all these magazines that I gave away free.

KALISH: He gave them to writers and artists, some of whom would soon gain fame in the underground comic book scene. And he opened a bookstore.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN FALLING)

KALISH: On a rainy day, Sanders stands on Avenue A across the street from Tompkins Square Park, where The Fugs drew crowds, according to Sanders, of 10,000 fans for free concerts. He points to a Mexican restaurant that occupies the storefront where the Peace Eye Bookstore once stood.

SANDERS: The bookstore became pretty famous. It was the stopping-off point for all visiting librarians and professors because I had a lot of well-known writers would hang out there - William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg.

KALISH: In his new memoir, "Fug You," Sanders refers to the Lower East Side as a little zone of revolution. Sanders and several other founders of the Yippies lived there and played key roles in the anti-war movement's so-called exorcism of the Pentagon and protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Sanders says much of the political and cultural activity of the era was fomented on the Lower East Side. In addition to political activists, writers and artists, the neighborhood was full of musicians like Peter Stampfel, a member of both The Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders.

PETER STAMPFEL: The main thing about the scene back the was that there was this amazing feeling that something wonderful and amazing was going to happen -inevitably.

KALISH: But the '60s turned into the '70s, and Sanders disbanded the Fugs. He went on to write "The Family," his book about the Manson family and release a solo record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEER CANS ON THE MOON")

SANDERS: (Singing) Looking, looking, looking, looking, looking at the beer cans on the moon...

KALISH: Sanders also moved out of the Lower East Side.

SANDERS: We saw a couple of people murdered in the streets outside of our house.

KALISH: Eventually, he came here, to Woodstock in upstate New York. His modest house is crammed with books, tapes and his wife Miriam's mineral collection. He jokes about attracting the attention of the hoarders show. A two-car garage that once served as his writing studio is now packed floor to ceiling with banker's boxes full of files and photographs. So are a couple of small sheds he calls baby barns.

SANDERS: This is called the green baby barn and it's pretty packed too.

KALISH: Packed with his archive devoted to The Fugs. He takes out a leaflet for one of the band's shows.

SANDERS: August 7, 1965. The Fugs present A Night of Napalm - songs against the war, rock 'n' roll bomb shrieks, heavy metal orgasms, watch all the Fugs die in a napalm raid.

KALISH: Sanders has received offers for his archive from several major universities, but for the time being, he's going to hold on to what is clearly a valuable record of a time that Ed Sanders says was a pivotal chapter in American history.

SANDERS: It was just a very fervent, fermenting era. The surge of creativity and movies and dance and theater and poetry and literature was too big to stop.

KALISH: And Ed Sanders was right at the heart of it. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.