Jessa Piaia

[excerpted from SQUAWK Magazine, Issue #55]


"At last Ed Sanders has unearthed his legendary Tales of Beatnik Glory, a monument of historical archaeology...Sanders mixes exquisite Lower East Side funk with sly observations of dated human Attitude, authentic classical scholarship with psychedelic hyperbole, presenting a daisy chain of Sixties archetype persons and events which includes autobiography, interspecies of love, Performance Poetry ("Perf Po"), Mississippi Freedom Summers and Tompkins Park, prophetic glimpses of a lost era. Sanders' Tales of Beatnik Glory is a satiric paean to visionary radical politics as seen from 21st century with ancient Egyptian point of view."

--Allen Ginsberg


Jessa: I'm talking with Ed Sanders, poet, musician, songwriter, and author for over three decades. We're here at the Beat Conference, called "The Beat Generation: Legacy and Celebration," hosted by the New York University's School of Education in May 1994. We're sitting in the Loeb Student Center, across from Washington Square Park, on a sunny spring afternoon.

So Ed, it was great to see you and Anne Waldman last night, both emceeing the Gala Poetry Reading and Performance at Town Hall, where all the living Beats, from David Amram, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg read their early-to-latest work. It was truly a historic gathering of kindred spirits, to celebrate the anniversary of when Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Huncke met in the Village 50 years ago.

Ed: Yes, I agree. It was wonderful to see everyone come together--quite a good flow of talent. I liked seeing Andrei [Voznesensky] and Allen [Ginsberg] share some time on stage. Everybody was on target. The love was there. That was my job--to keep the love flowing. I thought Anne and I did a pretty good job.

Jessa: So tell us, Ed, what've you been up to lately?

Ed: Well, in March, I finished a book on Anton Chekhov, called Chekhov: The Biography and Verse. I'll be published by Black Sparrow Press in early '95. In 200 pages, it tells the story of the man and his milieu in Russia, from 1860 until his death in 1904.

After finishing the Chekhov book, and getting the contract for it, I've begun Tales of Beatnik Glory, Volume 3. Set in the Hippie era, it defines that delicate time when reporters no longer called us 'Beatnik,' but started to call us 'Hippie.'

Jessa: That transitional period.

Ed: Yes, I figured out exactly when that happened. It happened between February and March of 1967. It was like a miracle to wake up one day, and no longer be called a 'Beatnik,' but all of a sudden, to be referred to as a 'Hippie.'

Jessa: What brought this about?

Ed: What happened was that, in January '67, there was the "Be-In" in Golden Gate Park and the Gathering of the Tribes with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, and all kinds of people. Right after that amazing event on the West Coast, Ramparts, the radical, underground magazine, ran a big article about "the birth of the hippies," or "the time of the hippies. Most importantly, it coined the word, "Hippie." So in just one week's time, it seemed, everybody took off their beret, and put on a tie-dyed turban. All of a sudden, people started saying, "Far fucking out, man," instead of "Like man, that's groovy."

Jessa: It was an over-night transformation, and you've been able to chronicle it.

Ed: Yes, I've done a lot of research on that. It's what I'm writing about in Tales of Beatnik Glory, Volume 3, tracing the same characters from the first two volumes, and moving them into 1966-'69. I hope to get the book done this year.

Jessa: So this Volume 3 will include the turbulence of 1968?

Ed: Yes, '68, a bummer year. The Tet Offensive in February. Johnson abdicated on April Fool's Eve. Martin Luther King was murdered about one week later--it's probably connected, who knows? Bobby Kennedy was killed in June; the Chicago riots broke out at the Democratic National Convention in August; and Nixon was re-elected in November. Quite a bummer, as they used to say!

Jessa: What about Peace Eye, the bookstore that stirred a scene in the Village? I'm aware that you were the founder, but tell us more about it.

Ed: The Peace Eye was on the Lower East Side, located in an old kosher meat market. I'd left the word "Strictly Kosher" in Hebrew on the front window, and inserted "Peace Eye," and painted the rest psychedelic. The Bookstore became very

well known, very famous for its time. People would come there as a place to hang out, when they visited New York. Among other things, we had the first underground comic art show, and there were book parties and regular parties. But we didn't have readings there because the place was a little too small for that. I also operated a print center for the community there, with the only electronic stencil-making machine in the Lower East Side. I used a good Goestetner Mimeograph -- that was the only way you could print then. There were no thermofaxes; no photocopy equipment; no cassette tape recorders, to speak of. They only had big Wollensack recorders, with aluminum casings, reel-to-reel. The small cassette tape recorders didn't come around until about '67 or so.

After starting The Peace Eye in '65, I ran it for four years. Then in early '70, I gave away the books, and went to California, to write about the Manson family. I should have gotten a partner, and still kept it going. But I had a very primitive sense of business then, and just gave away about 10,000 books and magazines–and sold the building.

Jessa: During the time of the bookstore, you were 'fugging' in a band. Tell us about The FUGS.

Ed: Well, The FUGS were a trio of poet-musicians, which included Tuli Kupferberg. We saw it as a way to have fun. I wanted to party and be like Bacchus: have a good time and work for the Revolution. We were revolutionaries, of a sort.

We wanted a different world, a different economy. We wanted more of a share in the economy. We thought there would at least be a social democracy, like in Sweden or Norway, or something like that. But it didn't turn out that way.

So that's how The FUGS got started. We played at the Peace Eye. We had our roots in the Dadaists and in the Cabaret Voltaire. We had our roots in the Happenings at Judson Church with Allan Capral. We had our roots in Jazz Poetry, with Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen playing together. We had our roots in the whole modern drama. We were influenced by Brecht's Living Theater, by Lennie Bruce, and by Beatnik Poetry.

BUT mostly, we were influenced by the Dadaists–and the civil rights movement. We played in churches surrounded by the Klan, where they were threatening to kill us. This civil rights thing really made us into tough and ready-to-face-danger musicians. I wouldn't write some of the same songs today that I wrote then, but we were just wild, testosterone-maddened young men having fun.

Jessa: You also published an Art Magazine?

Ed: It was called Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts! I published 13 issues from 1962 through 1965, which preceded the Peace Eye Bookstore era. In '62, it was an imperfect publication, but everybody wanted to be published then. I published Allen Ginsberg, Diane Wycoski, Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Gary Snyder. I also published Ed Dorn, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, George Eklund, Rochelle Owens, D.A. Levy. Lots of people--men and women. Some of the best poems were by women in the Fuck You Magazine.

Our position for the magazine was non-violent, direct action, pacifism, and liberation -- personal freedom at a time when the Vietnam War was happening overseas and the civil rights movement was happening at home.

Jessa: What about the book that you wrote on the Manson family?

Ed: When The FUGS broke apart in the summer of '69, I was looking for something to do. This cult murder occurred, and I took a look at it. I didn't know anyone involved, and it seemed like they might be being framed. I got a book contract in the fall of '69, gave away all the books at Peace Eye, and went to California.

My wife and daughter accompanied me to the West Coast, and we lived there for a few months while I wrote the book. In the process of writing it, I realized that they were very, very, very, very, very guilty. And I decided that they did things that I didn't approve of at all. I was repulsed, especially when they were coming on as Hippies.

I was so revolted by what they did, that I decided to tell it like it really was, because there was support for them in the so-called 'counter-culture' at the time. I wanted to write the real horror of what these creeps did, so that this affection for them in the counter-culture wouldn't abide. Yet, I just saw a Charlie Manson tee-shirt in the filling station in Woodstock, New York. So I guess this guy is the devil-worshipper's darling, still!

Jessa: What about your performance schedule?

Ed: I've been barding around, traveling all over, like an American bard -- traveling throughout the country and in Europe.

Jessa: What do you see for the scene evolving into the 21st century?

Ed: Like the Captain in Star Trek says, "We don't know now, but maybe we'll find it out in the past."