By Wesley Joost
Ed Sanders: No, but we had trouble returning to venues. We had a free speech attorney on retainer. We had to pay him a monthly fee. When we played Santa Monica auditorium and other places we were picketed by right wingers. The Fugs were never arrested for obscenity however.
GM: Were the Fugs educators in a sense, as they were trying to teach uneducated hippies about classical poetry through Rock?
ES: We weren't specifically didactic. I always liked the section from Atlanta and Caledonia because the meter is interesting to me. That was one of the first songs we worked up. It wasn't really a song it was a chant and we didn't have to learn any chords. Tuli and I were poets to begin with, and brought it with us, to create folk/satire rock with sense of poetry. But we weren't trying to teach people anything.
GM: Was it a coincidence that the Fugs and Frank Zappa where the only ones using comedy in live shows?
ES: I met Frank at a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troop in '65, and then we stayed with Don Preston (from The Mothers) at his home in LA. Our theaters were right around the corner from each other so we saw each other quite a bit. Our humor was a little different, but I guess you could say we were the two groups involved in that level of satire. We played together a few times but not much. I knew Frank Zappa fairly well in the 60's I didn't have much to do with him after the FUGS broke up.
GM: Did the Fugs get together because you were starving poets who figured you could make a living doing Rock N' Roll?
ES: I had just graduated from College and I opened up a bookstore for something to do. Then it occurred to me to start a satire band because it was the age of Happenings and Civil Rights. The acoustic music movement was prevalent. But they would blend in one or two amplifiers so it was easy to mix acoustic with amplified music. We came out of the happening movement, out of Alan Capro, and the happenings of the Judge and Church, and various theaters in New York city.
We came out of the Civil Rights movement; that concept of singing in churches as the Klan marches up the street to get you. The concept of singing to danger. It was something I was very used to as a participant in the non-violent struggle. Tuli came out of Hasidic, and knew all the Hebrew melodies, He knew a lot of labor songs and those left-wing anarchist songs. I knew a different kind of song. So we weren't in it for making money but we quickly learned that it was possible to earn enough to get by. The impetus was to party and have fun. We came out of the dada-ist, the surrealists, and the concept of the beatnik spectacle.
GM: Who thought of the ancient Egyptian country and western themes like Ramses II? (Ramses the II is dead my love/ he's left from Memphis to heaven/ Ptah has taken him on his solar barge/ And walked him to Nut's celestial shores).
ES: I knew of Ramsey II because he was immortalized by Shelley in the poem Ozymandius. He was a very famous Egyptian king who lived a long time and built much. I thought I would write a country and western song about his procession down the Nile.
GM: What were the circumstances of the Fugs break-up?
ES: They say for a rock band if you can last five years then it's forever. It's not natural to have five testosterone crazed young men traveling around together in busses and airplanes. We were very controversial and were always getting into trouble. It was very difficult to keep it together. By the end of it we were on Reprise records and they treated us pretty well and we were playing bigger venues. I was working ten to fifteen hours a day just to make the nut. We had to make two of three thousand a week just to give people basic salaries. I decided I didn't want to be a beatnik business person so I broke it up in '69. I hadn't read in a few years, so I just sat around, read, rested, and had fun. Then I started writing my book on the Manson family. So I went from the FUGS to Charley.
GM: Why did you choose to write about Charles Manson?
ES: This case came along and seemed interesting and I was looking for something to do, so I contracted and assignment from Esquire magazine and decided to take a look at things to see what was going on. I thought originally that they might be innocent but I learned that they were very, very, guilty. There was sympathy for them in the underground at that time and I wanted to tell the story in a way that would lessen the sympathy. There was some danger. I haven't gotten any knock on wood threats in some time, but Manson still sends me hostile post cards. I think he's a fan of mine.
GM: Was there tension between straight and gays during the sexual revolution, like awkwardness during orgies?
ES: Sure, there were truck drivers whistling at long haired boys thinking they were girls. Things have improved, gays and lesbians are much more organized now. They have much more underground culture. There was more hesitance then. It was pre-Stonewall. Although the gay poets were much more overt, like Ginsberg. But then there wouldn't be any one like KD Lang. She would've been a little more hesitant to "come out."
GM: Was there any feminist backlash to songs like Boobs a lot? (If you like Boobs a lot tag along/ If you have a long flagon on ...)
ES: Not much. We never performed that one. The only reason it wound up on the record was that it came out of the one jam session that created the first album. We just worked it up on the spot. I could think of worse songs, and I don't think it injurious to women to celebrate their breasts. In ancient Greece they used to have a cup of gold molded on Helen of Troy's breast. There is a temple of Isis devoted almost entirely to her breasts. America was caught up in a breast worship when I grew up. I didn't write the tune, you'd have to talk to Steve Webber who's a folk star in the northwest. There was only a little backlash, and we were very sensitive to the freedom of everybody including women. We had a lot of women fans, my God, they were ripping off our clothes.
GM: How do you feel about the fall of Communism? And what do you think will happen to the old lefties who used to be thought of as the salt of the earth.
ES: If you mean by communism, totalitarian Socialism as it developed in Russia, it was doomed to failure because it did not have built within it the gradual withering away of the state that Marx predicted in the Communist Manifesto. But the spirit, and the desire to set up rules whereby working people are taken care of with medical care, pensions, and housing for their whole life. I always thought the basis of Communism was the state intervening in the economy on the behalf of regular working people. From that stance it has not fallen at all.
About old lefties, I guess they're out there singing the old lefty blues. The good leftists that believed in a world where working people are taken care of are busy in other things: getting funding from HUD for day care centers. There might be a literacy volunteer in a library teaching a poetry class or helping farm workers organize. Maybe helping writers organize in the internet era so they get a better deal. There are millions of people who want to help, and have extra time to share their good vibe. The concept of a more benign and peaceful life is in the minds of millions of lefties at the moment, and they're all singing the left wing blues right now. It's like a watermelon, man, pink on the inside, green on the outside.
GM: What is your new magazine going to be about?
ES: Basically it's a regional newspaper. The threat of damage from the right wing is so great, so one of the things we're going to do is confront all these right wingers that are rising up. We're going to use humor and ridicule and we'll do a lot of investigations. There is a lot of organized crime, illegal dumping and plenty of environmental issues. So we're going to take a stance to protect the earth, air, fire, and water. We're near the big city so land developers just love to come and carve up the hills. We'll work on establishing a non-polluting business environment so people's work don't kill them. And we'll print a lot of poetry. I have many friends, Gary Snyder sent me a poem and I'll get Allen Ginsberg. So I'll print humor, poetry, and a lot of investigative pieces. We'll also join various data bases. There's a lot of nice Alternet papers that we're joining so we'll be able to pull stories from around the country off Alternet.
I'm just going to cover my drainage base. I'm just a poet, I don't have any illusions about making an impact. But I've decided to go out in a blaze of leaflets. I'm an activist. I'm more active now than I ever was, I go to meetings constantly. But I have no illusions. I don't care about fame or any of that stuff. I'm a poet that has a mission. I put out my poems and books, I still write a lot of songs, and guys like you call me up who are a lot younger than I am. I'm honored you thought of calling me but I'm just a skin covered, desperate mammal living in the mountains here. I heat with wood, I make maple syrup, my wife has twenty pet deer . . .
GM: How much connection did you have with the Andy Warhol scene?
ES: He used to come to a considerable number of early Fugs concerts and hang out. We were making underground films at about the same time. I was always grateful for the silk-screen flower banners he made for the opening of the Peace Eye bookstore in February of 1965. I saw him quite often when the Fugs began but not much after the early 70's. We would go to his parties at the Factory sometimes. It always illicited a fascination from the monied classes as well as a fascination from the bohemian crowd.
GM: Were your parents bohemians? If not how did you come to your unfettered freedom?
ES: No they were not. My mother was creative but not a bohemian, she taught a Sunday School class. But in the context of where I was raised in the midwest my parents were liberal. I came to unfettered freedom through good luck, through "Dame Fortune." My parents instilled in me that I should be an independent thinker and learn for myself through direct experience. I decided to come to New York to become a little more, "unfettered," let's put it that way. I hitch-hiked out of the midwest to the East Coast and joined the Beat underground where there was a lot of personal freedom. I was thrilled by this change in my life, and I immediately plugged into the avante garde and was ready to go.
GM: What angles are you taking on Chekhov in your new book?
ES: It's 240 pages long, it traces his life from 1860 when he was born to 1904 when he died. It has a considerable amount of information on the cultural milieu in which he lived: the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the rise of conflict in Russia in the late Nineteenth century. It's in poetry form, and I had to be selective with what I put in, because with poetry you could write a book about Chekhov 10,000 pages long. So I narrowed the focus down to tracing his life in verse clusters. I don't take any tack other than to honestly trace his life, and give some flavor of the radical ferment of Russia at that time. I want to tell a good story understandably so people can pick up on what I'm saying. I wanted to make it easy to read.
Writing a biography in poetry form is something that's never been done. I think it will set up a new literary path. One of the tenets of my book "Investigative Poetry" was to urge poets to write about real things, and do biographies in verse. I've always encouraged it so I thought I should get on the ball and practice what I preach. I hope it starts a genre.
GM: Do you think much of the youth today, with their MTV 30 second attention span, could be reached by classical poetry and art?
ES: No. They're reached by a new virtual art, or gestalt art, art from the over all perception. I don't have a lot of faith in art reaching their minds and lives and making them better people. Art is a consolation for people who's heart has been broken by the world. I'll tell you why:
A: Art is a great way for getting through the hideousness of life.
B: If everyone was an artist there probably wouldn't be very much war. Art is a pacifying function, and if everyone was an artist the world would be less brutal.
C: As to whether Generation X, or Generation Y, can be transformed by art, that's a dicey question. I wouldn't count on art, or museums or performances to keep the Oklahoma bombings from occurring.
Literature will go on, however. All you need is one person at the end of the apocalypse with a piece of charcoal and a Bolder and you'll have literature. The human brain evolved to facilitate literature, so it's tied into the actual form of the brain. There will be writing always.
GM: What was in your FBI file?
ES: It was quite extensive. I didn't get all of it but I got enough of it to know that they exceeded their mandates. They kept calling the Fugs the Fags. It was an inside joke, there were probably a few guffaws over it. They justified it with a typo a newspaper made once. I was under surveillance and at certain points they must have tapped my phone because they certainly knew some intimate things. There must be a lot more to it, but I already have a couple hundred pages.
GM: What was the story behind you trying to perform an exorcism on the pentagon?
ES: It goes back to October 1, 1967. The concept was to exorcise the Pentagon and try to levitate it so we rented a flat bed truck and a sound system, and we chanted "demons out." It's on the Tenderness Junction album. The idea was for a formal exorcism that would exorcise the evil spirits from the Pentagon. It didn't work because the war went on for another seven years. We hoped it would work but we weren't prepared to crawl under if it levitated.
GM: What's Tuli Kupferberg doing these days?
ES: He just sent me a bunch of songs. We're considering doing another record. He's still turning out interesting tunes. I saw him a couple of days ago and he's doing all right. He has a lot of political cartoons, does art shows. The Fugs might do a final studio album. We recorded some tunes when we did this thing called The Real Woodstock festival last year. We went into the studio a couple of days later and recorded a couple of tunes. It'll be our final statement, we're calling it Final Anarcho Syndicalist Post-Futurity Social Democratic Folk Rock Civil Rights Salute.
The Fugs Official Website