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IN THE REBEL CAFE: Interviews with Ed Sanders – Review

Interviews with Ed Sanders
edited by Jennie Skerl
Clemson University Press

Jennie Skerl has put together a magnificent intro/crash course to Ed Sanders, “second generation” Beat. Sanders, to many of us, needs no introduction, but he is not the household name that many of the “first generation” are.

Further complexity involving appreciation of Sanders is how many angles one can know him from. Many are more aware of his band The Fugs. Perhaps one read The Family in one of its revisions, Sanders’ journalistic exploration of Charles Manson, (and among the absolute best of the true crime genre). Finally, one may know him poetically, and in particular, through his “investigative poetics” – journalistic, historical, data-collecting poetics, a refinement and extension of the political “list” poetry of Allen Ginsberg such as “CIA Dope Calypso,” which arguably has its own musical influence from The Fugs, whom Allen recorded with.

Ed Sanders Rebel Jennie Skerl Cafe

Sanders was also involved in and around the events around the 1969 trial of the Chicago 7 (yes, same as that disappointing Netflix film). His politics: “Yippie,” in line with Youth International Party friends Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman.

Frankly, I confess I was not even aware of Sanders’ novels Shards of God or Fame & Love in New York until I read this book.

Finally, to understand Sanders is to explore the work of poet Charles Olson, and by extension, Ezra Pound, both dense subjects to be sure.

Skerl lays all of this out in an excellent introduction, followed by a Chronology and Bibliography of his work before we get to the interviews themselves, an extremely clever arrangement that allows us to know our subject at the beginning, not the end. Also in her introduction, Skerl calls particular attention to what I also consider his crown jewel thus far, America: A History in Verse, currently covering 1900-1970, with a related volume, 1968 in superfocus.

The interviews themselves are pithy and chronological, from 1968 to 2018.

William F. Buckley’s Firing Line with Jack Kerouac and Ed Sanders (among others), a TV broadcast transcribed by Jennie Skerl, is quite a document. Skerl in her intro calls Kerouac “belligerent.” It describes only one facet of Kerouac’s chaotic nova brilliance – constricted by alcoholism and almost certain clinical depression – yet, alternately dada-esque (probably in an alcoholic black-out) and then suddenly penetrating. He would be dead in less than a year. This transcript is more complete than the actual broadcast, but at the same time, there really is no way to get Kerouac’s mad performance without seeing it. Sanders is respectful and coherent, and it is a good indication, especially with the additional material, of his Yippie politics, which is essentially post-psychedelic democratic socialism with a dash of playful anarchism. But no one can match Kerouac’s self-immolating genius.

Sookie Stambler’s interview was conducted after Sanders initially wrapped up The Family. Here Sanders indirectly reveals his own worldview most specifically, and how it departs from mentor Allen Ginsberg’s. Sanders is a rationalist, and admits to not believing in magic, the supernatural, or spirits. Ginsberg really didn’t either, but he believed in the mind’s essential “luminosity” and the shamanic transmission of it from guru to student. This is particularly interesting in light of Sanders’ involvement in various prank spell/exorcisms, such as levitating the Pentagon performing an exorcism at Joe McCarthy’s grave, or recording Ginsberg singing Hare Krishna. In particular, his preoccupation with Manson’s programming schtick shows Sanders’ “no gods, no masters” anarcho-syndicalist lean, a major departure from Ginsberg’s involvement with someone like Chogyam Trungpa, and one that would directly lead into Sanders’ investigative poetic student project at Naropa University (then Institute), The Party, which chronicles a maelstrom of a ski lodge Halloween party with Trungpa and advanced students while in retreat. It also reveals that he, like Paul Krassner (who coined “Yippie” and founded the magazine The Realist), would not regard his own acid-trip revelations beyond their empirical feelings of merging and ecstasy. While both Sanders and Krassner might update Marxist materialism by seeing existence as “energy in motion,” subscribing to “occult sciences” are another matter entirely. This at times does influence Sanders’ journalistic neutrality from being purely agnostic, as in examining Aleister Crowley and his O.T.O. (the magickal lodge to which Sanders’ friend Harry Smith belonged) or Tibetan atrocities at the hands of the Red Chinese (Sanders later couldn’t hide his preset Maoist preference). Such a stance leads to confusion that the Solar Lodge mentioned in the first printing of The Family is by no means a legitimate heir of Crowley (and dangerous enough to be cut from all further editions, as was the Process Church.) Likewise, in America: A History in Verse, Sanders professes disbelief that the Red Chinese went as far in Tibet as is generally reported. This all comes full circle when Tom Clark’s rip-off of The Party, The Great Naropa Poetry Wars, is published with a blurb of outrage from Kenneth Rexroth, “One Aleister Crowley was enough for the Twentieth Century.” (Speak for yourself, Kenny).

Alas, The Party shows up in this book only in bibliography, though it is among my favorites of Sanders, even if a directed collective effort. In itself, The Party is astoundingly even-handed, given Sanders’ general cult suspicions. One is allowed to evaluate all the opinions (Trungpa from drunken Zen master to Col. Kurtz) and decide for oneself. To Naropa’s (and Trungpa’s credit), I first read it in their own library.

Skerl herself also reminds us in her interview that Sanders had a whole film oeuvre that was confiscated by NYC police and never returned, as well as personal art work exploring Egyptian hieroglyphics, the closest he gets to his own mysticism.

Which brings us to the Fugs, who have been called “proto-punk” (Sanders is the first to apply the label “punk” to rock music – his own). Fugs scholar (& bassist for the punk band The Invertebrates) Tom Wheeler uses the term “folk-garage,” which is more accurate. “Garage” can be regarded as the punk element, but it should be remembered that the initial punk explosion very strongly rejected the hippie aesthetic that the Fugs (and Sanders) embodied, however intelligently. The Fugs were often mentioned in the same context as Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, but that was really in relation to Zappa’s satirical element, rather than his total deconstructions of pop music itself – which would later preoccupy punk but with generally nowhere near the musical training of Zappa, steeped in Varese and Stockhausen. Alan Bisbort correctly compares The Fugs to Country Joe and The Fish, and Sanders agrees. Country Joe’s anti-Vietnam “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag” is the most obvious example.

In the Rebel Cafe is published by a British university press, which makes it prohibitively expensive to the broke and arty, such as myself. You’ll have to get your college or public library to order it. Or write a review like this.

A must for anyone with interest in Ed Sanders.

–reviewed by Marc Olmsted


1 thought on “IN THE REBEL CAFE: Interviews with Ed Sanders – Review

  1. Just ordered America: a history in verse. Been wanting to read it ever since you recommended it years ago…thanks for reminder!

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