Excerpted from Chapter 1: The Glories of the Early ‘60s from Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side by Ed Sanders. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Glories of the Early ’60s
In the fall of 1963 Allen Ginsberg mailed me a poem called “The Change,” which he’d just created while riding on the Kyoto-Tokyo express train in Japan. On the train he had broken down and wept while writing that he was on a new path now, that he had returned to his body after the ecstatic years following the 1948 vision (alluded to in “Howl”) in which he had heard the ghostly voice of William Blake chanting the poems from The Songs of Experience beginning, “Oh Rose, Thou Art Sick” and “Ah, Sunflower, Weary of Time” in an apartment in Spanish Harlem. From 1948 through half of 1963 he had obeyed the implications of his Blake visions, searching for personal Illuminations and Ecstasy. But now, after a spiritual journey to India and Japan, he was determined to live in his own body, not seek Visions so much, and settle into a loving mammaldom with all other fellow suffering beings. I published “The Change” at once in Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts, an issue I printed just after the assassination of John Kennedy, a murder that was beginning to shriek in our minds and would keep shrieking for years to come.
Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side
(Da Capo; US: Dec 2011)
When Allen mailed me his visionary poem, I was in the midst of my final two semesters at New York University, studying Greek and Latin. In my spare time I studied Egyptian. On the benches of Washington Square Park, near the NYU main building, during the warm months I began to set two Blake poems, “The Sick Rose” and “Ah, Sun-Flower,” to melodies. I was inspired by Allen’s having heard Blake himself chanting those very poems in an apartment in Spanish Harlem, some fifteen years before. I also came up with a melody for “How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field,” one of Blake’s earliest works of genius, written as early as age eleven. These songs provided the kernel of identity for the founding, a year later, of The Fugs.
The year 1963 was an important one for me. City Lights published my Poem from Jail, written in 1961 after I had attempted to swim aboard a Polaris submarine during its commissioning in Groton, Connecticut, and conduct a peace vigil atop its missile hatches. I had a kind of rebel renown as the publisher of Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts, which I had begun in early ’62. In a “Secret Location in the Lower East Side,” I printed around five hundred copies of each issue on a mimeograph machine on colored paper and gave almost all of them away free.
The Mimeograph Revolution
There were other mimeograph presses around the country, and some were beginning to call it the Mimeograph Revolution. Out in Cleveland a young poet named d. a. levy began Renegade Press, utilizing a combination of mimeo and letterpress. By 1963 I believed in the spark, the iskra, that the revolutionaries of Russia early in the twentieth century talked about. I believed that the iskra could or would somehow burst out of a poetry café on Second Avenue or inspire a network of minds and sweep America to Great Change. Or even that a network of mimeographs steadily publishing, coast to coast, city to town to bookstore to rebel café, could help a nonviolent revolution to blossom forth in full bread and roses glory!!!
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 film Flaming 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.