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Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side

Read by: Simon Vance

Da Capo | 424 pages | $26.99

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

ed danders

In December 1966, Elizabeth Hardwick of the New York Review of Books attended a concert given by The Fugs, a “satiric proto-folk-rock group” founded by Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, and was riveted not by their music, but by the counterculture scene of the Lower East Side.

“The Fugs,” she wrote “are neither art nor theater, but noise…and Free Speech.”

Now, fifty-five years later, Hardwick’s words resonate once again in reading Sanders’ memoir of the Sixties, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side. With the maddening enthusiasm that we have come to expect of children of the 1960s, Sanders has eschewed literary restraint and cheerfully included everything from the era that he can remember in his story.

His introduction sets the tone of the book well, opening the floodgates to “folk rock, Pop Art, Summer of Love, communes, the Revolution, sex forever, riots in Newark, the Tet Offensive, revolutions in theater and dance, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Chicago, Woodstock, Nixon, Chappaquiddick, the Moon Walk, the Moratoriums, Altamont, cults that kill, oh Lord, like Poe’s ‘Soriac River that restlessly rolls.’” (The last slightly misquoted, but it’s the spirit that counts, right?) The result of this exercise in cataloguing is more often noise than art.

Sanders himself is the original hybrid career man, the sixties’ version of today’s actor-slash-musician-slash-DJ-slash-activist. After leaving Missouri at age seventeen, enraptured by Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the freedom promised by New York City, Sanders involved himself in every conceivable area of the Lower East Side counterculture.

Alternately donning the hats of writer, editor, publisher, musician, producer, protestor, bookstore-owner, and activist, Sanders embarked on such ventures as Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts, the Peace Eye Bookstore, The Fugs, underground filmmaking, and crusades against the war in Vietnam and on behalf of marijuana legalization.

Fug You reflects this disjointed atmosphere a little too well. Divided into brief anecdotal sections that jump from subjects such as “Demonstrations Against Federal Narcotics Agents” to “Neal Cassidy at Peace Eye” to “The Thought of Going to California” (all this within two pages!), Sanders’ book runs out of fuel fast. Because no ongoing narratives, broad ideas, or unifying themes push the story forward, Fug You quickly becomes tedious, easy to put down on a nightstand and forget.

This tedium can be attributed to two major problems. The first is the story’s lack of depth, a problem of which the author seems aware of, but dismisses. Again, his introduction is revealing: “I chose to pass over some things in silence,” he writes, “not to be so judgmental, to let certain matters sleep.…I have chosen to accentuate the energy, the wild fun, the joyful creativity, and the schemes of Better World derring-do and to consign as much bitterness and bad memories as possible to the halls of darkness.”

This is all very well, but it virtually guarantees a shallow retelling of events that have been told more fully and with far more nuance elsewhere. At its best, Fug You evokes the wide-eyed spirit of adolescence, with its delusions of purity and heartbreaking enthusiasm and dynamism. At its worst, the book is overwhelmingly hypocritical, turning its judgmental searchlight on the world beyond the Lower East Side while keeping its own scars and blemishes hidden beneath a welter of love beads and rock-and-roll boots.

The second problem concerns the strange absence of Sanders’ own personal journey. Although he gamely lists the names of the people he knew, recounts the events in which he took part, and describes the geography of the Lower East Side in unquestionably loving detail, he preserves a careful distance from the story, as if Ed Sanders were nothing more than a paper doll of the counterculture, and not a man with a private life, loves, and worries.

The careful reader can discern some interesting missing information by examining the photos and scanned documents interspersed within the text. A University of Buffalo article discusses a heavy poetry reading of “Cemetery Hill” that Sanders delivered, for instance, identifying the source of the work as “a vision he had of his mother’s death when he was 17 and upon a later revisit to her grave in an effort to recapture the vision.”

None of these events are recounted in Fug You’s narrative. Nor is much mentioned about Sanders’ marriage with his wife Miriam, who remains on the fringes of the story and primarily emerges to talk Sanders down from bad drug trips. Another odd fragment, a Department of Justice memo from June 1966, lists Sanders as “vocalist” of The Fugs and immediately follows this description with the cryptic line: “True name is Edward James.”

Knowing the paranoia that haunted the halls of government in those days, the information might be wrong, but Sanders’ silence is unsatisfying.

It’s hard to pinpoint the source of this curious detachment. It might be attributable to Sanders’ own conception of art, which seems more tied up with political ideology than any desire to dig into the human experience. It might be a deliberate effort to disengage himself from a turbulent period. It might be a real facet of Sanders’ own character. (In 1966, a Village Voice reporter witnessed this emotional distance after the police raid of the Peace Eye Bookstore, noting that even amidst the shambles of his business, “the most hostile thing Sanders said in [the] interview was that he hates Plato.”)

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame that Sanders stayed so much on the surface in writing Fug You. Let us hope that other authors concerned with this distinctive and confusing era can draw on the mine of information that his book provides and craft works of greater depth.

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