Ed Sanders of The Fugs finally organizes his archives, and shares some '60s New York gems with the world
About 10 years ago, Ed Sanders decided it was time to take stock.
The poet, editor, publisher, journalist, and musician (of the seminal psych-folk band The Fugs) was in his early 60s (he’s 72 now) and had accumulated a lot of material over the years.
“I have a large archive that's 500 banker's boxes,” said Sanders over the phone from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. “It's pretty well organized, although it's been a long, over 10-year activity to get it organized. It's a really complex process because I've been involved in so many different scenes. The Fugs, my bookstore, my writing, my poetry, my researches into the Manson family, my environmental activities here in Woodstock, and my fiction, Tales of Beatnik Glory—all that kind of stuff mounts up. And to organize it and get it all on as a computer list now—it’s about 180 pages, single-spaced.”
Tonight, some of the fruits of that list-making and those cleaned-up files will go on display at the Canal Street exhibition space Boo-Hooray, which will have on view original copies of Sanders’ legendary 1960s poetry zine Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts—as well as related items from the Fuck You Press, a k a Sanders’ hand-cranked mimeograph machine—through March 6.
“I had no idea at the time that I would really keep anything,” said Sanders. “When I began my magazine in early ’62, my pad consisted of a couch I found on the street, a little crate I used as a table, a sleeping bag and some famous milk crate beatnik bookcases. [I] had my mimeograph machine on top of my porcelainized tub cover on the tub in the kitchen and maybe one or two boxes of stuff—you know, letters. I had no idea I would grow that pad into … an overburgeoning set of boxes that fill up two baby barns, a two-car garage, and much of my house.”
The Boo-Hooray show is a fitting tribute given the space (just at the edge of Chinatown), which is run by longtime New York City fixture Johan Kugelberg and specializes in pop-leaning counterculture and book arts: Recent shows have been dedicated to rare Ed Wood paperbacks and the fanzines collected by the British anarchist punks Crass.
“I love his Fuck You Press publications,” Kugelberg wrote in an email to Capital. “I think they are truly important and need to be seen. The mimeo revolution of the sixties also has important stuff to teach teens and twentysomethings today about do-it-yourself/self-starter culture.”
Self-starting has never been a problem for Sanders. Moving to Manhattan from Kansas City in 1958, he operated a bookstore, worked the 5 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift at a cigar store on 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, raised a family, and worked on his degree in Greek and Latin at New York University—all while becoming one of the city’s most active and visible literary figures.
Between 1962 and 1965, he edited, pressed, and gave away some 500 copies of Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts’ 13 issues (which featured contributions by pop art godfather Andy Warhol, beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, New York School poets Frank O’Hara and Leroi Jones, and many other key figures of the era) before he began concentrating his primary creative energy on The Fugs, the folk-rock band Sanders founded with New York poet Tuli Kupferberg. The Fugs’ output is small but well loved, popular among dirty-minded bohemians who don’t mind their music loose. They were, per Robert Christgau, “the Lower East Side’s first true underground band,” the second being the Velvet Underground. The Fugs wound down at the end of the ’60s, but were resurrected in the mid-’80s, and released a new album two years ago, almost certainly their swan song. (Kupferberg died in the summer of 2010 at the age of 86.) You never know, though.
Having put the voluminous record of his past in order, Sanders decided to try to put it on the page as well. The resulting book, Fug You, was published in December. Covering the '60s through Sanders’ lens, It’s as much scrapbook as memoir: “I went through a long design process because I have over 200 images in the book, so they have to be carefully coordinated,” Sanders said. The result is bitty and can feel more like a timeline than a story, but it’s also likeable, readable, and has the advantage of being an inside look at a period that isn’t likely to become less storied anytime soon.
At the beginning of Fug You, Sanders mentions that he chose "to consign as much bitterness and bad memories as possible to the hall of darkness" in the book.
“I decided not to settle any scores,” is how Sanders put it to me. “If there is any criticism, it's been the way of my own activities now and then. No one is perfect, but I had a very complicated and stormy life through the '60s and ran into a lot of people, a couple of which were not that productive or pleasant. But why tell?”
Sanders finished with Fuck You around the time The Fugs began to take off. Did being in a band just pay better than running a magazine?
“Well, [I was] a poet back in the early, in the middle '60s, playing coffeehouses where they, at the most, passed the hat or gave you a free cup of coffee. And I gave away my magazine. I worked; I always had jobs. I used my excess money to pay for my magazine. But it was brought about by rent control. The pads that now go for $5,000 or $6,000 a month were, back then, $50-$60 a month, thanks to World War II rent control.
“As for running a band, I had graduated from N.Y.U. in the spring of ’64. I needed some way to make a living. Tuli Kupferberg and I founded this satiric group of poets. The Fugs started playing in storefronts at first, and then people's galleries, then worked up our act on Broadway. We played in a bunch of theaters. And from ’65 onwards we played in various little theaters in the East and West Village and honed our act. Slowly it came to the point where we could earn our living through our art. But if you don't teach or if you aren't in an academic job or have some employment as a stockbroker or something, you'll have difficulty earning a living as a poet. I know very few that actually earn their living strictly from poetry. I don't think anybody does. Not even Homer.”
Asked about the cigar-store where he once worked, Sanders had a flood of memories.
“It's been long gone—a big Optimo cigar store,” he said. “It sold candy to people who were going to the movies. It sold, as long as it could, Cuban cigars and H. Whitman cigars and sunglasses and foreign cigarettes to visiting tourists. They could charge a dollar and a half for a pack of Russian cigarettes or Chinese cigarettes or Hungarian cigarettes. [An American pack was] 26 cents; a box of Parliaments was about 30 or 31 cents. They sold a lot of cigarette papers for pot smokers. You know, 42nd Street was different in those eras. It was a place of picking up, male strolling and cruising. And there were the great cafeterias that the Beats went to, like Eddie’s, down the street on 46th—a lot of cafeterias that writers would hang out at. So it was an interesting part of town.”
As with many artists, Sanders got some creative work done on the sly while logging hours at his day-job.
“I wrote on the back of cigarette boxes,” he said. “They had long flat [cases]—you ripped open a ten-package cigarette-box cardboard and wrote quite a bit there. It was an entertaining gig I had there. [I wrote] a bunch of poems from my first book, Peace Eye, [which] came out in '65, and also I wrote a humorous sequence called 'The Toe Queen Poems,' about a guy that worked in the hamburger stand next to the cigar store."
All of those early works by Sanders are long out of print, but luckily he seems to have kept mementoes of nearly every aspect of his vibrant, incredibly productive youth, and kept a good memory of the time in his head.
Near the end of Fug You, recounting his role in the Chicago 7 trial in 1970, in the wake of the riots two years earlier at the Democratic Convention, he slips in a boast: Sanders, apparently, was the only Beat who could yodel, and in this, he had the rest of them all beat.
“Kerouac: no. Corso: no. Burroughs—definitely no. Ginsberg could probably do a kind of Persian wobble, but that doesn't qualify as Midwestern alpine crag-to-crag yodeling. Apparently, this is the one activity in which I starred in the beatnik mix.” He laughed. “Well, I had to be first in something.”
“Ed Sanders—Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts” opens tonight at Boo-Hooray and is on view through March 8.