I'm finding it all too easy to buy books for the Nook. The cost is less per book than in a bookstore, but clicking that little tab quickly adds up.
My latest ebook purchase is "Fug You," the memoirs of Ed Sanders, one of America's overlooked cultural heroes. How ironic that I would follow Ed's career into the ebook era, when I first encountered his work on vinyl 33-rpm records when he was the leader of The Fugs and a solo artist who produced one of the great albums, the "Ed Sanders Truckstop." I have also read many of Sanders' books, including "Tales of Beatnik Glory," poems and "The Family," the best book written about the Charles Manson trial. Even when he was publishing iconoclastic works such as his "Fuck You, a magazine of the arts," Sanders stood outside of the bohemian counterculture.
Like another satirical genius of the '60s, Frank Zappa, Sanders has a conservative side that allows him to look critically at the excesses of the philosophies that took root in the '60s. As with Zappa, Sanders' songs take a broad aim, examining middle class conventional society as well as the hippie, left wing culture that brewed its own deadening conformity in rebelling against "the bourgeoise."
Like Sanders, Zappa first produced classics as the leader of a band. Zappa's Mothers of Invention and Sanders' Fugs produced brilliant satire that showed a firm grasp of a range of musical styles, not only in melody but with lyrics. Then both of them produced ground-breaking work as single artists. While Sanders also wrote poems and books, Zappa moved into different realms as a producer on Bizarre and Straight records, with such imporant works as a album of Lenny Bruce's Berkeley concert and Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica."
While Zappa's music grew more sophisticated and self-conscious with its models on jazz and classical music, Sanders found a similar model in country western and swing. Both found rich troves in early rock and rhythym and blues. Like all great parodies, Sanders "Truckstop" not only makes fun of country motifs, but shows great love and respect for them. As with Zappa making great rock and jazz while parodying them, Sanders makes great country and swing music.
Sanders with his blue collar characters such as "Johnny Pissoff" showed an early understanding of and sympathy for working class anger that most '60s writers lacked. Zappa understood a different class, a more suburban, California-mall-oriented group, while Sanders captured the feelings and cultural touchstones of truckers and plumbers and carpenters, haunted by Jesus, sex and booze. Sanders' humor is more free-swinging and guttural than Zappa's. The Fugs, who also included the late Tuli Kupferberg, were part of the New York village scene that also produced Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, while Zappa came from the Southern California freeway-oriented musical mix. While turning to country, Sanders and the Fugs kept the Lower East Side influence; while Zappa remained rooted in Laurel Canyon.
Sanders' self styled "investigative poetry" is too programmed and topical, but I'll always remember reading his "Poems for New Orleans," on the abuses in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. His poems put these in a more memorable and compelling form than the countless magazine articles and books about the storm's aftermath. As with all of his work, he shows a jazzy, free-form sensibility along with a deep knowledge of New Orleans' history and culture. I bought that book in Cambridge Square, then spent a nice morning in Harvard Yard reading it. Sanders' poems, like his other works, are viscerally entertaining.
The Fugs' name, like that of his new memoir, comes from the euphemism that Norman Mailer used in his celebrated first novel, "The Naked and the Dead," for the old four-letter Anglo-Saxon f-word . This nod to literary culture is another hallmark that set Sanders apart; he has a strong knowledge of American poetry and fiction, with Fugs songs making references to Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Hilda Doolittle (HD). He references Homer and the Iliad in "Truckstop." Unlike some anarchists and bohemian figures, he had a strong reverence for books and writing, a desire to preserve and celebrate the literary culture. That's why his book on Manson displays such deep understanding; Sanders knows and is part of the nihilistic cultural waves that produced Manson, but possesses the disgust and foreboding of a cultural conservative.
At 72, Ed Sanders continues to provoke and entertain. Reading him, I am saddened that Zappa didn't live to see the social media era. But I'm thankful to have Sanders still among us.
American literature is blessed with writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth who continue producing vital work into old age. Sanders, for all of his idiosyncrasies, can stand among them.