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Tales of Beatnik Glory
Thunder's Mouth Press ($21.95)
by Brenda Coultas
The Wild Women of East Tenth taught me a valuable lesson that carried me all the way through the rest of the decade. I tended to be morose and always worried about things. Events, projects and decisions swirled around me in terrible turbulence. Nobody had any time to sleep. Everybody had five careers. What I learned from them was the Dickens Principle--it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but it was our times, and we owned them with our youth, our energy, our good will, our edginess. So let's party.
It was his time, most certainly--Tales of Beatnik Glory proves it. As the owner of the Peace Eye bookstore, publisher of the legendary Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, and founding member of The Fugs, Ed Sanders was a central figure and originator on the beatnik-hippie scene. This new edition of his mammoth ode to the '60s, written over a 30-year span, contains two new volumes in addition to the earlier two volumes published in 1975 and 1990, and brings the "interlocking story-flow to the end of 1969."
It is both sweet, thrilling, and sad to be reading the completed work in my apartment in the East Village, Sanders's old stomping grounds, where four-room tenement apartments sell for $400,000 and up. Diners and cheap eats have been replaced with faux Belgium bars hawking steak frites that set you back 30 bucks-a month's rent in 1965. Idling bulldozers sit next to 19th-century buildings, waiting to bring down the old Bowery and replace it with glass-walled condos that start at three million. Who has replaced the artists, poets, and lower income residents of the East Village and Lower East Side? Who's times are these?
Tales of Beatnik Glory is a history lesson, activist primer, and an innovative hybrid of both prose and poetry and fiction and memoir. Set mostly in the Lower East Side of New York City, the stories are populated with real citizens (such as underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas, fellow Fug Tuli Kupferberg, and poet Allen Ginsberg) mingling with Sanders's composites of local characters. Part of the pleasure in reading the work is recognizing real places that still exist (like the Catholic Worker), and imagining ones which should have (like the Total Assault Cafe, the House of Nothingness Cafe, and the Luminous Animal Theater). In the beatnik universe and cosmos, everyone is a poet and artist, coffeehouses are packed, heaven is a used bookstore, and Auden a local hero. One character makes a living by displaying his unwashed "beat feet" for tourists in Washington Square Park. This is Goof City, a place that Sanders defines as "a city of freedom for all to relax, where poverty was banished and wealth truly shared."
Sander's epic belongs on bookshelves next to other classics of New York City life, such as Luc Sante's Low Life and Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, though it is a singular achievement and a necessary one--no one else has captured the optimism and the glory of the '60s on the page the way Sanders has. Full of hyphenated words and utopian ideas, the prose is a delight to read, as in the sentence, "But now, as he heard the Words of Life as performed by the anarcho-SkyArt dharma-commie jazz church of the New York Streets and pads, he felt the purest Hieratic Vastness, felt plugged into the Ladder. Greed ceased as a possibility, and the eyeball on the pyramid's apex, back of the dollar bill, rolled out of the park, through the Holland Tunnel, all the way to Minneapolis where it made a blind person see again." The constantly thrilling hyphenated beat lingo-e.g. "bazooka-spews of hostility," "lust-spackled muscle," "just-before-groinflash oblivion," "living stash-of-grass-gobble"--reflects a belief in the power of language to challenge the power structure and to change realities.
The tales are set up in chronological order, and each chapter is self contained. Sanders traces the evolution of his characters as they mature, and each volume takes on major events of the decade. The characters experiment with communal living, drugs, group gropes, and political action; on a personal level, each one deals with her/his own diminished ambitions and the end of the '60's dream. Threatening and underlying this utopia is the dark, paranoid heart of America featuring the FBI, an evil sheriff, and the Klan. These encounters force the hippies to confront social injustice and the war machine.
Sanders's autobiographical stand-in is Sam Thomas, who on the eve of the 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman is outraged into political engagement. Sam, later the publisher of Drugs, Social Change and Fucking, evolves into an accomplished filmmaker who refuses to recline into middle age and middle class comfort. When he could be basking in academic glory, he undertakes a ritual in honor of Samuel Beckett, an on-the-knees crawl up the coast of California. Later, he ends up evading fame in the homeless encampment at Tompkins Square Park during the early '90s, and even as he is arrested in a round up, he remains true to his values by documenting his own arrest, then making his only free phone call to FedEx for film pickup and shipment to his office.
Another pleasure are the female characters who fully enjoy sex and retain their own identities- feminists and artists like Claudia Pred, creator of the Luminous Animal Theater, who in her pursuit of perfection in avant-garde dance becomes obsessed with dancing on the moon; and Annie, who loves nothing more than to bring discipline to hippie men by teaching them to pitch in, peel vegetables, and make their beds. Later, she becomes a designer of swimsuits, a self-made woman. Representing the spirit of Emma Goldman is Rose Snyder, a.k.a. Farbrente Rose, a 70-year-old socialist and union activist who relates her involvement in the labor movement to the beatniks who now live in the apartment where she grew up.
There is sex o' plenty in these tales, of course, and it serves as a binder, creating cohesion among the group in this pre-AIDS time. At Hempune, a commune and freedom farm, the communards gather in the Kissing Tepee for a release: "There could be some measure of petting, but no actual intercourse, or, in general, exposure of genitals, although if you arrived nude, you could stay nude." To deal with the less unlightened souls that show up, they house them "in a refurbished pig barn out back which some dubbed the Mooch Hut. The idea was to keep them engulfed in one another so that they swirled in a ghastly interactive gnarl like mosquitoes above a cow pond."
In the final volume, as the '60s come to a close, the characters must say goodbye to each other and their dreams, and face "the victory of Grasping and Greed and War." Readers will close the book with some sadness at leaving behind the optimism and joy, the utopian possibilities of that decade. Tales of Beatnik Glory is a valuable record of an era when young people believed they could change the world and buy what they needed with their good looks. It was their time, and they made the best of it.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005