Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Inventing the 60s: an excerpt from "Fug You," Ed Sanders

Calling Ed Sanders a "lion in winter" these days (he's 73 now) would probably solicit more a laugh than a growl from the one-time publisher of a review called "Fuck You / a Magazine of the Arts." But then he liked to add a gleam of mischief to his creative mix of ideas even in the heady 1960s. 

Musician, writer, bookstore-owner, publisher -- and, occasionally, all at the same time -- Ed's still out swinging the hammer as the online publisher of The Woodstock Journal: "working for an organic food supply, safe air, nonpolluted water, a total end to poverty, national health care, personal freedom and fun." America needs his voice as much as ever (and maybe more: his recorded projects include Thirsting for Peace, 2005, and Poems for New Orleans, 2007). These days boutiques, high-rises, chain caffeine and furniture stores have replaced the storefront mimeograph-revolution barricades. Ed's 1991 self-produced "Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side" is a poetic retelling of an even older East Side history -- New York isn't what it used to be, either. 

His memoir Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, The Fugs, and the Counterculture in the Lower East Side (DaCapo Press) is a freewheeling history of a creative era that has pretty much disappeared into legend and myth. Here's an excerpt.

The Founding of My Magazine

I founded Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts in February 1962 after a bunch of us, mostly friends from the Catholic Worker, went to see Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees at the Charles Theater on Avenue B. I was there mainly because the ad for the film in the Village Voice stated that my hero Allen Ginsberg was in it. For years I had avidly read Jonas Mekas’s weekly Voice column, “Movie Journal,” which mainly focused on the struggles and delights of the world of underground films.

I sensed from reading Mekas’s weekly columns that he was a person of great generosity and communality of spirit. That is, it wasn’t all Me! Me! Me! as in so much of the avant-garde. I thought he had a genuine will to help other filmmakers thrive and survive. I later learned that Mekas had paid for the printing of Jack Smith’s filmFlaming Creatures.

Mekas had just founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and lived nearby on Twelfth Street, although I didn’t know that while I was watching Guns of the Trees. The Lower East Side in those years was a Do-It-Now zone, and you knew maybe only a snippet of someone’s history or scene, if anything at all. All I knew is that the first thing I read each week in the Voice was “Movie Journal.”

I was particularly fascinated by the appearance of Allen Ginsberg as a narrator in the film. I had not yet met Ginsberg, although I had memorized “Howl” when I was still in Missouri in 1957, and I had seen him at Beat/New York School readings, such as one in November 1959 where he read at the Living Theater with Frank O’Hara. Wow. As I sat fascinated in the Charles Theater that February night with my pals, I never could have dreamed that the author of “Howl” and “Kaddish” would become a close friend.

At one point in Guns of the Trees Ginsberg chanted one of his poems with the sentence “I dreamt that J. Edgar Hoover groped me in a silent hall of the Capitol.” It was a fragment that opened up such huge vistas of possibility in my mind! I transformed the fragment into the dedication for my soon-to-be-published magazine.

Jonas and Adolfas Mekas and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative

Just as Allen Ginsberg was born in New Jersey in 1926 (and not near the Dniester River in Russia) because the pogroms in the Russian Pale, first in the 1880s and later around the time of the Kishinev pogrom of 1904, drove his mother’s and father’s families to the American Dream, so, too, were Jonas Mekas and his brother, Adolfas, driven from Lithuania to the United States, this time in their case by the Nazis. In the early 1940s Jonas and Adolfas put out a mimeographed anti-Nazi newspaper, cutting stencils on a typewriter in a woodshed behind their house in Semeniskiai in Lithuania. Later they escaped from a German slave labor camp.

In 1949 they arrived in the United States, where both of them became filmmakers. In 1955 Jonas founded the magazine Film Culture. In the fall of 1958 he began his very influential weekly column, “Movie Journal,” in the Village Voice. In the summer of 1960 the Mekas brothers purchased some out-of-date film stock and began their feature-length film Guns of the Trees. Jonas wrote the script.

Mekas formed the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in early 1962 after another film distribution operation refused to screen a film by Stan Brakhage, Anticipation of the Night. The Film-Makers’ Cooperative practiced no censorship at all, and 75 percent of the rental fees for showing a film went directly to the filmmaker. And so in early 1962 the Charles Theater on Avenue B near Twelfth Street began showing underground films. Some of us from nearby streets eagerly attended.

Across the street was Stanley’s, a packed bar frequented by poets, civil rights activists, filmmakers, painters, and oodles of others from the nearby rent-controlled buildings. After Guns of the Trees my friends and I adjourned to Stanley’s for conversation and fun. Inspired by the film, I announced that evening that I was beginning a magazine and I solicited manuscripts. The name I tossed out among the revelers made them laugh. It had been in my mind a number of years.

Excerpted from "Chapter 1: The Glories of the Early ‘60s" in Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Sideby Ed Sanders. The book is published by DaCapo Press.

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