Ed Sanders, 72, is a storied icon of the 1960s counterculture, an author-poet-scholar-activist-musician-bookseller-underground publisher with feet in both the Beat and Hippie generations: he started a mimeographed avant-garde arts journal called Fuck You, where he published (among much, much more) the work of his good friend Allen Ginsberg; he founded pioneering folk-rock band The Fugs, before the term “folk-rock” even existed; he opened a “vegetarian literary zone” called Peace Eye Bookstore in the East Village; and helped found the Yippie anti-party, all while agitating (non-violently) for the end of the Vietnam War, the expansion of Civil Rights, and the social safety-net envisioned in Johnson’s Great Society. His latest, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side (Da Capo), is a memoir of the 60s that ties in all of Sanders’s favorite preoccupations. He spoke with Tip Sheet from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., about his book, the state of the nation, and his advice for today’s young and increasingly visible social activists.
How did this memoir come about?
Well, I began in 2009 in the summer and finished the first draft in 2010, turned in a final draft early this year. I’m a pack rat, I have an archive of 500 bankers’ boxes organized alphabetically and chronologically, so I’ve been going through a long and arduous process. I’m trained to write chronologies, I have a life-in-verse of Allen Ginsberg and Anton Chekhov, so I decided to turn my investigative skills on myself. I went through all my boxes, got help from libraries that keep my work, debriefed various friends. When I put it together and sequenced it, it turned out over 400 pages.
Do you know of any bookstores or publications carrying on the radical tradition of the Peace Eye Bookstore or Fuck You Press?
Well, rent for bookstores [today] is really skyrocketing. I had the advantage of very low rent, it was in a former kosher meat market, I left the words “Strictly Kosher” on the front and put up the Peace Eye sign next to it. Rent was $50 a month.
Fuck You was the equivalent of rebel publications on the internet—I’m not sure there are any mimeograph machines being built now. You can get some used ones but that technology is basically gone, though there are Kinkos and other offset publishing sources. People put their publications in my hand when they see me, and I get a lot of stuff in the mail. 8.5” x 11” publications are flooding the post office as we speak.
How would you compare the current moment of civil unrest to the 1960s?
There’s a lot more issues now than we felt in the 60s. Then, the Great Society had just begun, and we thought that the social safety net would grow and grow, and by the time we were old everything would be taken care of. Occupy [Wall Street] has so many fragmented issues to face. [In the 60s,] we just had war, and freedom of expression, and partying—a lot of partying. Now it’s a serious thing, kids with huge debt and unable to find jobs, more and more wars, drones. The kids in Occupy Wall Street have a noble mission to try to transform the economic injustice that’s going on but, boy, it’s going to be tough. Police come on the scene like Darth Vaders, coordinated nationally, raiding Occupy encampments all over the Western hemisphere. It’s a peculiar situation we face: the militarization of the police, the desperation of poor people, the decimation of pensions and savings. It’s gonna become like a Dickens novel, baby.
Do you think the pendulum of political America is currently making a significant swing back toward the left?
I’ve been around a long time, seen a couple pendulums swing back and forth, but I think maybe the pendulum is a broken metaphor now. It’s just a swing out to less and less, widening this abyss between people who can pay $300 for a shirt and those who get by with a $10 tee. I don’t know what’s going to happen: we could all wind up in the gutter, eating dog food quiche on an encampment under the freeway somewhere. There’s no safety net anymore except for people who have strong family ties and families that have money. Like in a Chekhov short story, where you have some out-of-work uncle living well in the manor house of a wealthy family member. I thought that when I was old that social democracy would have grown up in the United States, and my heart is broken that it hasn’t.
How does Fug You fit into the current political landscape?
Fug You is built on that vision, of America growing out of the Great Society—the good side of the Johnson administration—building on that, defeating the war party and the war interests, creating an equal society, a William Morris-like vision of a social paradise. But it didn’t happen. [Fug You] is a truthful story of a 10 year swatch of time, when I was a young semi-idealistic college grad trying to survive in the turbulent 60s. Now we have the turbulent teens, it’s sort of the same in a way: same turbulence confronting war and social inequality. We went down to the South to get black people the right to vote, now 25 states have passed laws making it harder for them to vote. It’s a little bit like déjà vu.
Do you think things are better or worse than they were in the 60s?
I think in some ways it’s better now, there’s more personal freedom. The producers of Gone With the Wind paid a fine when Clark Gable uttered the word “damn,” but thanks to the fight for personal freedom from my generation or the beat generation, you have HBO and the Sopranos and a richer [popular arts] landscape—the comedy channel can pretty well say whatever it wants. So there’s gluts of freedom, there’s just no social safety net. Paul Goodman said, “In America, you can say anything you want, as long as it doesn’t have any effect.” Bless his soul.
What advice do you have for today’s crop of young activists?
Become a scholar-activist. That is, study issues and create research and don’t hesitate to get out into the street and raise the banners of your concern. You’ve got to have one foot in activism and one foot in scholarship.