My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the first pages of Fug You, Ed Sanders recalls the City Lights Books publication of his Poem from Jail, composed on toilet paper during his 1961 incarceration for attempting to swim aboard a nuclear submarine and “conduct a peace vigil atop its missile hatches.”
After this, we will follow him anywhere. (He was not rehabilitated.)
Sanders gamely squires us to the streets, parks, and stages where he and a host of captains courageous, including Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and Jean Genet, courted clampdown with provocative art and peaceful demonstrations against the Vietnam War. While Sanders claims not to have been “an integral part of anything” as much as “an experimental participant. . . daring to be part of the history of the era,” one comes away from Fug You with renewed faith in the efficacy of sheer ballsiness. Yes, their heroes were slain (Sanders argues persuasively against “lone nut” assassination theories), pot was not legalized, and the war dragged on, but through court cases, publicity coups, and inspirational boldness, Sanders and Co. made the world safer for artists and other mischief makers.
Sanders’s ticket from his native Kansas City to the Beatnik-breeding Lower East Side was NYU. While conducting “total assault on the culture,” holding down a couple of jobs, and starting a family, he graduated in 1964 with a BA in Greek. Remarkably, significant drug and alcohol use, plus erotomania, coincided with all of the above. But despite the cannabis-and-sex-scented chaos, Sanders documented and saved much (and stayed married to wife Miriam, going on 50 years). At 72, the longtime Woodstock resident is far from burned out; his brisk, economical reportage, free of “memoirist angst” and including many illustrations, conveys fathoms of swept-under-the-rug history (Lenny Bruce’s travails, the rise of the CIA/FBI), spiced with frequent bacchanalia.
Sanders’s hieroglyphic-festooned Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts looms large. This venture featured Sanders’s own rich text and erotic glyphs, plus works by Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, and dozens of others. Due to his penchant for what he readily calls smut, it also got him arrested for obscenity—his case was dismissed—and led to cops breaking into his apartment and stealing much of his property, including some amateur porn flicks (never recovered). Not long after FuckYou hit the streets, Sanders opened the Peace Eye Bookstore, later bugged by the FBI. (Sanders obtained his surveillance records through the Freedom of Information Act.)
Sanders cops to craving “the white stag of fame,” and with the formation of “satiric proto-folk-rock group” The Fugs, he got it. The band toured the world, sharing stages and smoke with Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, and the MC5, and getting in trouble for bawdy lyrics. This celebrity, combined with the escalation of war, the RFK assassination (the book is dedicated to “the presidency of RFK”), and the introduction of heroin into the counterculture, finally tuckered Sanders out, at least temporarily.
Throughout Fug You, Sanders maintains a refreshing conviction that evil exists. In the aftermath of the Manson murders, he stopped writing poetry and headed west to cover the shock and “come up close to (evil’s) clear and present manifestations,” asserting that the experience “helped me to grow up.” His resulting book, The Family, is widely regarded as the best account of the dark side of the hippie dream.
Yet Fug You pulses mostly with triumphant fun and hope, eliciting a sense of gratitude that Ed Sanders still walks among us, well versed in darkness, sustained by light, and still beckoning to The Future.
(this review originally appeared in Chronogram magazine)