Beaten from the start, Yiddish-speaking socialist, Yippie yodeling, would-be White House exorcists never give up even when the big crowds are long gone.
When comedian talk show hosts and SNL skits focus intense energy of the college-educated liberal demographic against a demagogic doofus is not a bad time to critique the preeminent relevant experience of the Vietnam era. We can learn a lot from the successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, of the Fugs and what could be somewhat accurately characterized as their more well-known political auxiliary, the Yippies.
While much can be accomplished through using satire to sing truth to power, motivate youth, and crudely rip, the vulgar approach has its limitations. It can turn off as well as turn on, leading us into reciprocal spirals of name calling. It is no substitute for fully inclusive mass democratic action.
Laughing at Trump can easily slip into, or be perceived as, laughing at his supporters, many of whom are already happy to sling epithets in defense of God and country, as anyone who has spent five minutes spying on a right-wing website can attest. Two can play at troglodyte calling, and some of us are partial to our own cave-dwelling ancestors from lean times of the last century.
More importantly, fixation on Trump’s buffoonery and the counter-buffoonery it spontaneously generates may cause us to underestimate the need for a comprehensive political-economic program for all, including those who are generally politically apathetic. Trump will not be around forever, and, in any event, many are neither current Trump acolytes nor naturally enculcated with a full set of liberal predilections and values. Cultural entertainment weaponry may engender group cohesion among those who do not consider themselves to be the butt of the joke yet cause us to avoid deeper democratic conflicts and the corrollary need to speak the truth in love and not solely in ridicule.
To assess the boundaries of boneheaded advocacy bonanza, I bring you an honest critique of one of my all-time favorite bands, the Fugs. Before the future safe Weird Al got his first accordion lesson, they were giving dangerous mockery training to a generation and helping to change the world for the better.
It is impossible to establish socialism—or, to reference other related immediate challenges facing the Fugs in the mid-1960’s, to stop an unjust war, to support the civil rights and sexual revolutions, and to raise the consciousness of millions of young people—without conflict. As the Fugs would amply demonstrate, sometimes the more creative the conflict the better. Within a couple of years the Yippies would generally adopt their approach, and the Fugs would become Yippies themselves.
The seriousness with which the Fugs applied their silly ingenuity should not be underestimated, nor their cultural impact. They were not out to mock for laughs as such but to change the world, and to a significant, but to them and us inadequate, degree they succeeded. They played a major cultural role in stopping the war and empowering the quest for sexual authenticity.
While they were fearless oddball creative geniuses, that alone was not their secret. Revolutionary intent not only emanated their music but also to a large extent overcame their lack of instrumental and vocal talent. Even their least musically satisfying work made a desperate stab at justice.
We too, wherever we live, are vested with responsibility to do our best to work for justice, although local conditions may appropriately affect the songs we sing and whether we can sing at all. Being class conscious, and conscious of the class struggle, imbues us with the obligation to confront injustice. This is true from the Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side of the early 20th Century (movingly documented in the Fug Ed Sanders’ tribute immediately below) to the Spanish-speaking Latin America of the early 21st.
But love must be democratically part of the equation too. Gallows humor and jagged reparte are not the only medicine we need. We will not emerge from every conflict victorious or ever permanently emerge into a static socialist utopia.
As socialists, we place an emphasis on building a base of justice for all. We must deal honestly, patiently, and constructively with our own imperfect selves and with imperfect others near and far during the never-ending building process. We are faced with often overwhelming individual and collective challenges, defeats, failures, anger, and grief. Without much democratic compassion our best efforts in conflict may be ineffective or even counterproductive to building the just world society in which we believe.
But let us not be too hard on those who have done their best as species beings on the front lines. It is tough to fight multiple revolutions simultaneously. We may, like the Fugs so inelegantly sang, swim through rivers of shit and should be able to sing honestly about the nasty journey.
Yet some of our needed allies might prefer asterisks, older, arguably more “ennobling” songs, and Budweiser if not drug-free porch-swinging. Looking back, it is obvious that to build socialism we needed Grandma from the kitchen and Uncle Bo from the tractor or the picket line in the marches and sit-ins with us, even as we needed to wriggle our hips in ecstasy to the devil’s music and to tell Grandma and Uncle Bo that the lives of their grandchildren and children were being stolen by Johnson and Nixon.
To say the least Yoda, tough it would have been to balance all this. Easier it was and is to harmoniously point out Grandma and Uncle Bo’s hypocrisy and racism. While do that we must, we must not stop there.
These two dimensions of positive cultural change, conflict and love, necessarily can be puzzling and contradictory. We must be ever mindful of the need for both, and of the obligatory tension this creates for truly democratic movements, including all the people involved, not just creative leaders. Comradeship and solidarity cannot be isolated much less shrinking to be democratically effective.
Any possible transition to socialism would necessitate mass mobilization and the democratic legitimacy garnered by having demonstrated majority support. Only a strong majority movement that affected the consciousness of the army rank-and-file could forestall an armed coup by the right. Even when a repressive regime necessitates a minority road to revolution, democratic socialists stand with Rosa Luxemburg—revolutionary Marxist leader in Germany a century ago—in her advocacy of the restoration of civil rights and liberties once the authoritarian regime has been overthrown.”
The rest of this story idiosyncratically traces through the surviving founding Fug’s competing heritage of conflict and love—from the 1950’s through the 1960’s to the present. How we the people over generations sort through competing currents of conflict and love possibly has something to do with whether true democracy ultimately manifests—i.e, shallow democracy through capitalism or deep democracy through socialism.
1950’s—Ed’s Creative Roots
Ed came out of the tail end of the Beat Generation, so to speak, and with all his courage, heart, mind, and witty potty mouth intact. To come out of a generation generally means that one has remnants of both the positive and the negative aspects of that generation. Even though Ed was and is brilliant, we learned from the Beats …
Talent is no excuse. There is much not to like about many of the Beats, including misogyny (http://www.salon.com/2015/10/11/jack_kerouacs_unhealthy_infatuation_with_marilyn_monroe_partner/) and grotesque self-centeredness. More than a little of these tendencies seeped into “open-minded” 1960’s culture, to say the least. Some cultural insensitivity toward others, including even some oppressed groups, made it into a portion the Fugs’ work even as they consciously sought to contribute to the liberation of these groups.
But even as the Beats planted some bad seeds, some of them also planted very good seeds of conflict and love. The last words of a brilliant Beat I (unlike some, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2014/2/5/1275061/-William-Burroughs-was-a-Life-Long-Drug-Addict-Who-Killed-His-Wife) do not much like shows these good seeds bearing full fruit as the end drew near. Last words even of a sometime fiend, if not particularly those of a sometime fiend, can be illuminating.
“There is no final enough of wisdom, experience- any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, No Final Satori, no solution. Just conflict.
Only thing that can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats past and present.
Love? What is it?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
William S. Burroughs
Pushing the mass cultural conflict envelope much further in the decade following the decade of the Beats was bound to happen, but the Fugs made it happen in a more intellectually and socially conscious way than it otherwise would have, emanating not only from their Beat backgrounds but also from the twin sense of conflict and love in their music. The Fugs were the willfully deranged generous cousins of Baez and Dylan, a brilliant, primitive, proto punk 1960s folk rock band that grew out of the Beat movement and was close friends with Allen Ginsburg.
The Fugs, who took their name from the euphemism Norman Mailer invented for his novel ”The Naked and the Dead,” were formed in 1964 in New York by Mr. Sanders, a Midwesterner who had graduated from New York University with a degree in ancient Greek, and Tuli Kupferberg, the poet and cartoonist whom Mr. Ginsberg remembered in ”Howl” as the person who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. (Mr. Ginsberg said the other day that the incident actually took place on the Manhattan Bridge in 1945.) ‘Exorcisms’ at the Pentagon In 1966, the group began a series of Off Broadway engagements that included a long stay at the Players Theater, on Macdougal Street, where they gave more than 600 performances. Their later activities included satiric ”exorcisms” at the Pentagon in October 1967 and at the grave of former Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, in Appleton, Wis., the following year.
It is good that as Dylan largely eschewed the political winds he had magically helped to stir up the Fugs were there to pick up the slack and then some.
In 1964, after watching Robert Creeley and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) dancing to the jukebox at the Dom, Ed Sanders proclaimed to Tuli Kupferberg, “We’ll set poetry to music.” Tuli agreed and the two went on to form the Fugs.
Sanders explains: “We drew inspiration for the Fugs from a long and varied tradition going all the way back to the dances of Dionysus in the ancient Greek plays and the ‘Theory of the Spectacle’ in Aristotle’s Poetics and moving forward to the famous premiere performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1896, to the poèmes simultanés of the Dadaists in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, to the jazz-poetry of the Beats, to Charlie Parker’s seething sax, to the silence of John Cage, to the calm pushiness of the Happening movement, to the songs of the civil rights movement, and to our belief that there were oodles of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution that were not being used.”
They were consciously (though apparently sometimes semi-conscious) trying to be revolutionaries and in some ways succeeded.
“This is the era of the civil rights, sexual and consciousness expansion revolutions, and those are the banners under which The Fugs are going to present themselves to America.”
This was the opening declaration of the 1960s New York band The Fugs.
You may not have heard of them, but they were one of the most innovative bands of the late 1960s. They were musical rebels with a cause.
The revolutions they were and we are still part of will never be completed. We should learn from the errors to redeem as much of the irredeemable as we can. The Fugs to some extent, and much more so the broader Yippie movement, could have been more loving toward some of the squares.
The revolutionary ends do not always justify the cultural conflict means. But we should put most of the satirical “river of shit” idiocy into context.
Much creative vulgarity probably had to be written and crooned in the mid-1960’s on the way to stopping the war and sexual liberation. The competing phenomena of conflict and love were present in many of the sometimes sordid songs of the Fugs precisely because they were trying to be singing poet revolutionaries.
An active environmentalist, Mr. Sanders also thought of the slogan ”Think globally, act locally.” Politically, he characterizes himself as a Democratic Socialist.
”I have mixed feelings about the history of the Fugs,” he conceded. ”If I had it to do again, I would have used my education more and been more serious about the exploration of democracy. But in the 60’s, I was so horrified by what what was going on, I thought the only response was to be grotesque.”
Sometimes the results were clarifyingly existential, both as unsettling and sublime as human existence itself.
At Present—Ed’s Thinned Hair and Crowds
There is no glorious ending to this Beaten story, and that’s probably the way it should be.
Semi-fame mostly gone, Ed Sanders is still working for a better world.
He has found some bit of inspiration in online activism and the nurturing of semi-social or socialist ideas, but he acknowledges “it’s really a terrible situation.”
“I don’t have a lot of hope,” he says. “It’s like when they grow a sugar maple stand in New England. You plant the sugar maple tree not for your own children but your grandchildren. So the seeds of peace are like sugar maples. We’re planting them for long after we’re gone.”
As I watch Ed Sanders walk away, I stand here, almost gagging as the wind blows the porta john stench my way and I don’t even consider the possibility that the spell may have worked.
Democracy in crisis, it is tempting not to acknowledge the facts of the struggle over the porto john stench. The howl continues, but it too was long ago commodified and can be micromanaged in the palms of our hands. At the tail end of fruit fly generations, drones armed, vulgarity disarmed, reduced human beings valued mostly to consume wearing MAGA hats wander the capital to look at the White Dump, dumping rivers of asterisks out of dharma bums like the vendors desperate to sell talking ties who hold it in all day do when they get home.
P.S. I threw in the bit about talking ties as an excuse to include this video of middle-aged Ed Sanders doing his thing, but please don’t call it shtick. There is considerable thoughtfulness of and for humanity in the work. Love still readily emanates, and, rather than disappearing, conflict awaits opportune situations for resurfacing. Such is our obligation.