My loyal readers have followed me down some long, narrow pathways, but usually — I hope — we’ve ended up standing on an eminent point with a spectacular view. Today our path may be tortuous and dark, and I’m not certain if the vista at the end is quite so vast as some others. Still, I want to take this trip. Please hang with me. I advise you now that this article is not entirely self-contained; you should be prepared to click on the links provided to listen to and read a few bits, or it will make absolutely no sense unless you possess an encyclopedic memory of a certain time in popular culture. Because the subject of this piece is, itself, anarchism of a sort, it still may not make sense, but if you follow those links it should be at least an informed senselessness. There, I think that qualifies for consideration in 2012’s “most elaborate caveat” awards. Onward.
I recently read about a new book by an author I trust that few of you know. Upon finding the review of his book, however, I was galvanized with excitement. His name was one that had not come to mind for many years — decades, even. But there was a day when, well … let me start at the beginning.
My part of this story begins in London in 1971. I had the priceless opportunity to travel around Europe that summer — the whole backpack, youth hostel, hitchhiking thing. For the ambitious six weeks’ trip, my buddy, Joe, and I faced all those challenges travelers confront: how to transport ourselves from one place to the next, identify edible food we could afford, and find places to sleep on a budget that — two decades after its publication — was not much more than Mr. Frommer’s iconic “$5 a Day.” Given the rate of inflation at that time, it was an insanely optimistic goal.
We also faced language barriers. It wasn’t so bad in France and Italy and Germany where, even in those ancient times, the people who came in contact with tourists spoke some English, except for guards. Travel Rule #357: European security people carrying automatic weapons don’t speak English. Make a note of it. We did encounter severe difficulties with English in places where it’s never been heard. Glasgow comes to mind. There, when a man, after repeating his request three times, seemed to be asking us, “Lads, are ye tame?” he was actually asking, “Lads, can ye tell me the time?” A foreign land, indeed.
To Joe’s unending credit, he had secured a place for us to stay in London — then, as now, one of the world’s most expensive cities — where our trip began and then ended, six weeks later. Even as a college sophomore, Joe was an intellectual force to be reckoned with, and had impressed one of his history professors substantially enough to have her offer to put us up for a couple of nights in the flat she’d be occupying during a summer of study in London. This was in Hampstead, at the extreme southern edge of Hampstead Heath. She was doing research at “The B.M.” — the British Museum; I have no idea on what arcane aspect of world history her researches that summer focused, although it would speak better of my native curiosity were I able to give at least some sketchy idea. I have none. Well, we stopped into the BM ourselves and did a bit of research. Caught a glimpse of the legendary Reading Room (now a place that ordinary people can visit but then limited only to scholars with special passes), as well as the manuscript of Beowulf:
The digs in Hampstead were utterly classic — a tall, narrow townhouse from the 19th Century with three storeys, set shoulder-to-shoulder with nearly identical other brick houses, distinguished from one another primarily by the color of the front door (ours was a glossy black). Each house had a shallow, railed “area” in front between the building and the street, and a little enclosed rear garden backed up against the garden of the house on the parallel street. It had high ceilings, narrow, steep stairs, kitchen in the rear. It’s exactly the sort of place the Beatles occupy in the movie. To go there now, set your GPS coordinates to 51°33’19.96″ N 0º09’35.89″ W. Just to north is the wide expanse of Hampstead Heath. All around were little shops and coffeehouses. It was the ultimate London suburb. I hope I can someday go back and see what it’s like 40 years later. Here’s a Kodachrome image of that scene (click on image to enlarge):
Helen, Joe’s professor, had a roommate. M, we’ll call her. She was Indian, dark-skinned with deep dark eyes and wore exotic (to my mind) saris. She spoke in the soft, precise accent of the educated subcontinent of the latter days of the Empire. I never learned what she did in the way of a profession, but clearly she was a writer, poet or artiste of some sort, part of the polyglot community of global inhabitants in the World City of London. To my mind, the most compelling thing about her was that she knew Allen Ginsburg and the circle of Beat poets and writers. I’m sorry to report that I have no clear memory of any anecdotes she might have related during the couple of days Joe and I came and went from the little flat on Mackeson Road; a major failure of writerly curiosity that I’ve labored to overcome in the intervening decades.
Even in the brief time we stayed in the little flat, camped out on the first-floor parlor floor, there were lots of comings and goings of colleagues of Helen and M’s, both Brit and American. It was an academic idyll of sorts, a pro tem expatriate summer for Helen in the academic stewpot of the Old Country while, clearly, for M., it was part and parcel of the cosmopolitan life she led. Joe and I were — mostly — silent observers of the lively, hip, educated cats who came and went. Ah, could I go back there as a grownup, and understand more about what was going on among those only slightly older people!
On one of the evenings, a friend of Helen and M’s named Peter started playing some records. I must explain that “records” — for those of you too young to remember — were sound recordings pressed into circular vinyl discs that played analog sound by conveying vibrations from irregularities in the surface of the disc through a thin needle that rode a groove … well, heck, just imagine that we were playing CDs. Same thing. “Say, lads,” (or something like that) he said, “Do you know the Fugs? My god! You must!” When we expressed our utter ignorance (a quality of which I possessed in 1971 — as I do still –an unlimited supply), young Peter — chipper, handsome, blithe, clever, no doubt a scholar at Oxford or the London School of Economics or something — put on another record. “Listen to this!” he exclaimed.
Then, from the little portable stereo emerged — not music, exactly, and not poetry, but something in between. With a wacky backbeat of unrecognizable instrumentation, a not-very-polished voice declaimed a sort of poem in an exaggeratedly accented manner:
BeFORE the beGINning of YEARS/There CAME to the MAKing of MAN/TIME with a GIFT of TEARS/GRIEF with a GLASS that RAN ….
My nascent command of the corpus of English Lit. allowed me to recognize it as a recitation of Charles Algernon Swinburne’s “Before the Beginning of Years,” (precocious lad, wot?) but rendered in a way that, well, beggared — and still beggars — description. This was a rendition done by the inhabitants of an asylum for the insane! It was madness, I thought.
No, it was The Fugs, and that was (click to listen) The Swinburne Stomp.
There was a lot going on in the late 1960s and early 1970s of which, I was quickly learning, I was not aware. Some of the awareness had started to hit me when my Ohio school shut down and ended the academic year early after the events at Kent State in 1970. These guys, The Fugs, were in the midst of it all and had been, it turns out, intimately involved in the attempt to levitate The Pentagon, as Norman Mailer documented in Armies of the Night. Radical dudes! One of the founders of The Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg, was a longtime fellow traveler with The Beats, Ginsberg and those cats. So, there I was, sitting on the floor of a flat in Hampstead, with M. not far away, listening to the Voice of a Generation that might be mine, but also was rooted in the generation before mine.
There wasn’t anything that could be much more compelling to a college sophomore in those heady days of the Nixon administration than this sort of artistic anarchism. During this six weeks’ tour, I hit my 20th birthday and got my draft lottery number: 300, exempting me, almost certainly, from carrying an M-16 in southeast Asia upon my graduation and the loss of my II-S deferment. I became a Fugs fan, however oxymoronic that term may be. Forget the Grateful Dead and The Band, The Fugs were my guys.
Now, decades later, I am pleased to read that Ed Sanders, Kupferberg’s collaborator and partner, has published a memoir, Fug You. To read the review in the NY Times, CLICK HERE. Both Sanders and Kupferberg’s bios identify them as “anarchists.” Unless I take radical steps, and soon, it’s not a term that is likely to be associated with me in any future biographies.
As we labor through this endless, eternal year of ceaseless political campaigns, it’s refreshing — to my jaded ears and eyes, at least — to recall an era in which “music” didn’t consist entirely of corporate-manufactured singsong and when voices not of the mainstream found a platform. Music was actively involved in commenting on, promoting and opposing whatever was current in politics and culture — “protest music” was not new, even in the 60s, of course, but that may have been its zenith. I vividly remember seeing a single-page mimeographed (don’t make me explain it, look it up) sheet of “official” songs of Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The mind, of course, reels to think of what music to associate with today’s candidates.
The ultimate expression of The Fugs and their post-Dada, anarchic/ironic mode of expression may be encapsulated in their epic anthem, “Nothing.” I think they may still have something to say to us. CLICK HERE to hear it. CLICK HERE to read the lyrics.
Forty years on, I am one of the older generation who just don’t GET what is going on with a lot of contemporary culture. Then, though, I was mesmerized by some truly outrageous stuff that seemed — to me — to capture the angst and anger and disassociation of a world wracked by meaningless violence and greed. One would never expect the mainstream adult world to accept the premise that this “music” “represented” anything except mayhem and idiocy. I don’t think much has changed, except that The Fugs would probably not have a recording contract in 2012. Acts more extreme and outre’ have them, though. Back then, my age group represented the biggest buyers of recorded music, so we ruled the marketplace, and — we still like to think — understood the irony of irreverence that informed our choice of endorsing “anti-social” acts. I don’t think much has changed. I will take my own object lesson and attempt to understand that what seems meaningless to me today may speak loudly and precisely to people from another generation. Maybe that’s the lesson of today’s text.
Thanks for following me along this path. As Uncle Bodie said, play the music that’s in you.
© 2013 Brad Nixon