I came to adulthood just after the 1960s, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and like many of my generation regret having just missed out on the 1960s. Though I was fined £1 in Glasgow for flyposting against the war, which still raged, the main countercultural changes in the USA, the draft resistance, the Civil Rights Movement, flower power were all over.
Not that I’d like to live through a war like Vietnam again or to have to fight segregation and there were terrible things within the counterculture – another Ed Sanders book was about The Manson Family. In this book he gives his take on the 1960s, a detailed history. Sanders was, with Tuli Kupferberg, the main character in The Fugs, a political rock’n'roll band, and a poet. He was the proprietor of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the editor of Fuck You magazine, a friend of everyone from Janis Joplin to Allen Ginsberg. And when he came to Britain he visited Stonehenge with the poet Michael Horovitz, who I know, which makes me only two steps of separation from Janis Joplin!
Ah, the 60s. This was a period, under Johnson’s Great Society when he introduced “Medicare, Medicaid, the Freedom of Information Act, the Voting Rights Act, a law setting aside millions of acres of public land as permanent wilderness, and [his] executive order on affirmative action. … At the same time Johnson started up a ground and air war in Vietnam – with napalm, Agent Orange, fragmentation bombs… ” In response The Fugs tried to levitate the White House with the chant “Out, demons, out”.
Ed Sanders lived through it all, but more, in that he was a living link between the Beat generation of Jack Kerouac and the hippie era. Unfortunately, from this bookseller’s point of view, his promised history of the Peace Eye Bookstore is missing. Though the shop is constantly referred to we are left no wiser about what it stocked, other than at one stage he turned the shop over “to the community”. On his next visit he “noted that there were a lot of books in the garbage cans out front.” He was told that “the needed the wall space for psychedelic designs” and the floors were covered in mattresses as “what the community needed was space to crash”. Never anyone suggest Five Leaves is turned over to the community… At least he mentions a book party for the launch of Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It.
Apart from campaigning against the Vietnam War and trying to make a hit record Sanders campaigned for the legalisation of marijuana. Drugs were important to him and campaigns for legalisation took up much of his time. That had its dangers – the poet John Sinclair got ten years for supplying a couple of joints “to an undercover cop in Detroit who was pretending to be a volunteer from the Committee to Legalise Marijuana”. The drug parts of the book reminded me of the tedious parts of the counterculture, in Sanders case also hanging round with people who injected harder drugs and who used amphetamines. In my day I was partial to the odd joint (who wasn’t?) but making it the centre of your life seems pretty boring.
Having not read much about the counterculture of late, what is also striking is the awful, awful sexism of the men. Save for his comments that he would not have been so positive about the use of needles in the Fuck You artwork – Sanders reports what happened, often in great detail and with lots of archive and fugitive material, without judgement. I found it hard not to be judgemental. I’m glad I read the book but will not be rushing out to find his nine volume verse history of America.