I had a terrific time reading about the amazing adventures of Ed Sanders in the Sixties. He and the recently deceased Tuli Kupferberg founded the avant-garde-grope-rock-peace-creep musical collective the Fugs, and if that was all he’d ever accomplished, we’d still owe him a great deal of praise today. But that’s not the half of it. Not the tenth of it.
Ed Sanders not only witnessed, but was also a vital part of, the beat era, the rock era, and the Yippie insurgency, whatever you care to call it. He is a classically-trained poet who never lost his adoration of the bards of verse, like most of the rest of us did after we burst the bounds of college. A New Yorker through and through, he retains a laudable Midwestern modesty from his youth: this memoir isn’t so much about him, it’s more about all the remarkable others whose paths he crossed, and he doesn’t hesitate to call a hero a hero. Through Ed’s eyes, we feel lucky to slog among New York artistes, lucky to find our virtual self at ground zero of a nascent counterculture, lucky just to be alive and sentient where and when.
Ed (normally I would call the author “Mr. Sanders,” but in this case I just can’t descend to New York Times editorial sniffery) confines himself here to “the Sixties” in “the Lower East Side,” giving just enough personal history to place the decade in context. I repeat: this isn’t about me, me, me, but rather, jeez, that was fuggin Gregory Corso! He bravely published (from a Secret Location) the mimeographed Fuck You: A Magazine Of The Arts, in defiance of all propriety; he founded and operated the Peace Eye Bookstore; he nurtured the dope-folk-grope-squawk scene and swirled the alley-borne dandruff of the Organization Man into a tepid porridge of disgust. Sorry, but that’s the zen zone you acquire when you read Ed Sanders, only he’s more lyrical and way funnier.
Many will come to this book because of the Fugs, the notorious group Ed co-founded and led all the way to a big contract on a big label. He admits, as any honest person would, that it was fun acting like a rock star for a tiny little while. But even with all their semi-notoriety (absent the frustrating machinations that prevented them from releasing an album in the magical year of 1967, the Fugs joined the Wild West of the music business at just the right time), this group hung on to its poetic roots: lyrics by Swinburne and Blake fluttered against ditties like “Dirty Old Man” and “Boobs A Lot.” If you’re a Fug fan, you’ll learn what it was like to be on the inside, and if this book did nothing else, it would still be worthy of publication for dutifully recording the Fugs recording sessions, the most important of which took place on the very piece of our planet which is now called Lincoln Center.
After the Fugs disbanded, Ed recorded two albums for Reprise, the first mostly sung in a faux-country twang that I never could tell was meant ironically or not. His Fugs and beat experiences would certainly say yes, but Ed’s Midwestern youth might have been reasserting itself in really pretty songs, performed deadpan, like “They’re Cutting My Coffin At The Sawmill.” This period’s magnificent satirical classic was a piece called “Iliad,” and at least for me, after that the redneck persona could be retired forever. Frankly, I’m sorry the sumbitch ever learned to yodel.
A telling aspect of this book is what’s not there. Evidently Ed is a gallant husband and father, but you only see a couple of photos of his beautiful wife, who has been with him all along, and just a few mentions of their daughter. During the 1968 Democratic convention (yep, the one with the cop boppers), a plainclothesman walks up to Ed (while he’s buying a football helmet for the coming conflagration) and says they’re about to change shifts; it’s clear he’s thinking about the ladies too. No matter where Ed travels around the world, his family remains at his side (sometimes literally), but we never learn diddly squat about them. Good call, sir. You may have built your career around privates, but some things deserve to remain private. I would love to read Miriam Sanders’s parallel book, but I’ll bet I never get the chance. She and Ed are still thriving, creating, living in Woodstock. This is not a life’s summation, just a peek into a brief electric moment through a window which time is struggling to close. But, as ever, one man resists.