Ed Sanders of The Fugs bridges the gap between 3 very influential, uniquely American subcultures – Beats, hippies and punks
By Alan Bisbort
For the past four years, I have taught a course at the University of Connecticut-Waterbury called “Beatniks vs. Hippies? No Contest!” One of the pleasures of teaching it is finding new ways to examine these two uniquely American subcultures and to find the links between them. Because they do exist. The links, that is.
And, of course, some of those same links can keep right on going into the future, hooking up with the punks and then beyond, possibly even to those enigmatic hipsters currently running up the rents in Brooklyn.
And then there are the people who had their feet in several camps, people I call “floaters.” Allen Ginsberg was one of those. After the Beat Generation ran its course, he could be seen working with Bob Dylan. And, after that, he recorded with The Clash, among many other punk-era artists.
Ed Sanders is another one of these people. He was, in fact, partly the inspiration for my college course in the first place. For those who weren’t around when Maynard G. Krebs morphed into Wavy Gravy and then into Johnny Rotten, it’s nice to talk with someone who was. Ed Sanders was there.
A poet, journalist, musician, publisher and raconteur who bridged the Beats and the hippies (and the punks; his band, The Fugs, pointed the way to punk), still continues to create innovative and challenging work today. He has, in fact, written a great deal about the “hippies” (in The Family, his bestselling book about Charles Manson) and beats (in his poetry and memoirs like Tales of Beatnik Glory and the hugely entertaining Fug You). But he never could see that it mattered what you called people on the literary and artistic fringe in those days. He told me about a time when Allen Ginsberg came to his apartment in New York.
Here’s a partial exchange from our conversation:
AB: People tend to think the Beat generation sort of petered out and was replaced, or subsumed, by the hippie generation. Which really wasn’t true, especially in New York. It seemed all the same people walked forward into the hippie scene, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, etc. The Beat sensibility brought an active rather than passive sensibility, or infusion, to the hippies.
ES: They brought some good writing, too. Hippies could be pretty vaporous in their literature. You know, I figure it must have been around February 1967 that we began to see the changeover. Instead of someone sneering at you and calling you “a dirty Beatnik,” they were now calling you “a dirty hippie.” I remember when Allen Ginsberg came over to our house on Avenue A around this time and said, “Now I guess we’re going to have to be hippies.” Miriam wasn’t even sure what he was talking about. It was a mysterious switch over. It went from tire-soled sandals to Merlin curved-toe shoes and gowns, and men wearing necklaces, which was a big deal for a man. Suddenly you have to wear a necklace, toe ring or go barefoot in the street, and burn incense. It was pretty strange. But the Beats ultimately prevailed. There are still conferences on the Beat Generation where young people come dressed all in black.
One way to get a bead on Ed Sanders is to watch this legendary episode of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line on which a drunken Jack Kerouac, clearly headed to an early grave, admits the hippies were better than the Beats. Ed Sanders was invited on the show as the token “hippie,” though he cut his teeth as a Beat (see above). The entire episode of this show is grimly amusing, especially if you fast forward whenever the insufferable Buckley is speaking.
The rest of my Ed Sanders interview appeared, in part, in Ugly Things magazine and, in whole, at Literary Kicks, the website devoted to all things Beat and pacifist.