Saturday, July 9, 2016

History, Nose Hairs and All

Buckley, Kerouac, Sanders and Yablonsky discuss Hippies

Allen Ginsberg, the famous poet, was in the audience. But up there on the set in front of the TV cameras was William F. Buckley, host and provoker of statements from guests that would titillate his audience. His guests on this occasion were the hyper-famous novelist, Jack Kerouac; Ed Sanders, publisher of  the infamous Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts and leader of The Fugs, a well known rock band; and Louis Yablonsky, an accomplished and well known (now largely forgotten) social scientist/professor who wrote and published very popular books about social phenomena, like the Hippie Movement.

Bill kicks off the party saying to Kerouac “Now, Jack, what I want to ask is ‘To what extent do you believe that the Beat Generation is related to The Hippies?” And Kerouac, sitting there in a conservative jacket and tie, puffing on a cigar, explains to Buckley that the difference is largely one of age, that he is 46 years old and of the elder Beat Generation, but that the 2 groups are largely the same: they're Dionysian movements.  

And as I recall it… in fact, I actually do recall seeing this show when it aired live a million years ago (well, actually 48 years ago), such statements were far too intellectual, too erudite to be comprehended by the audience sitting in front of their crude, black and white, cathode ray tube driven TV sets at home. What they actually tuned in for was to see iconic figures, like Kerouac. And to see them being who and what it was that they were famous for being;  a beatnik in the case of Kerouac – a hippie leader in the case of Sanders – Yablonsky? A college professor/author who eschewed a life of dignity and high status to consort with cultural revolutionaries… Juicy! All of them!

Buckley, with his ‘Ivy League professor manner and grooming, his Yale education and vocabulary, was the perfect host for this circus, staged weekly in which the famous and the infamous were subjected to TV camera scrutiny for the entertainment of the masses. It was a way for average folks to dabble a bit in something that went just a bit beyond the so very normal and ordinary lives they led. And as a popular entertainment it worked well because this ritual gathering was well wrapped by Buckley in layers of beyond reproach, dignified, conservative trappings.

This was a popular show and this particular episode,  a powerful, important historic artifact. To tell the truth, though, it comes off as BOR-ing, I mean, compared to anything that would be considered interesting by today’s standards; But I enjoyed watching it… even enjoyed being bored by it. True, what was considered daring and outrageous back in 1968 comes off as pretty much nothing to notice now. But THAT's interesting, I think, yesterday's revolutionaries seeming so hum drum today.

History? The literary achievements of all of those on camera in this video are well known and well accepted as important: the poetry of Ginsburg and Sanders, the novels of Kerouac, the social commentary of  Buckley and Yablonsky. But what we see here is more than their works; we see them clearing their throats, scratching their heads, … we see their facial expressions and reactions to one another’s statements… we see what gets their attention, and on and on. We witness a much subtler, more nuanced view of history as only the TV camera can reveal it, nose hairs and all... essentially unedited. This was live TV... now available on YouTube as a captured moment in time frozen.

By the way, Ginsburg, Kerouac, Yablonsky, and Buckley are all dead and gone. Sanders, an old man by now, is the sole survivor of this video.

Interestingly, a former graduate student of mine (Fordham University) not too long ago posted something about Ed Sanders on Facebook. Sanders’ work has always interested me and happily when I responded to the post  my student volunteered to mail me a copy of  Sander's book, “Fug You”, something I didn’t even know had been written. I found it to be a great read; a rollicking trip back to the tumultuous landscape of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, a time when I was in high school in New York City. I remember that one weekend my little posse of snot-nosed buddies and I went to see a show at the Astor Place Playhouse in Lower Manhattan, a stage performance by the rock group that Mr. Sanders led, The Fugs. We loved it! It was precisely the bit of subversion that we needed to carry us through the remainder of our senior year and on to college where we would attempt to discover the meaning of life and what we were meant to do in it. Not too much to tackle in 4 years, we didn’t think.

I was so taken with this book that on finishing it I immediately did a Google search for a review, finding an impressive, comprehensive discussion of it and Sanders in the New York Times titled Present at the Counterculture’s Creation. The article included a direct link to the video above.

Having watched its full 22 minutes now, I’m feeling unexpectedly vindicated. Yes, touching base again with these figures from the past, cultural icons who were caught at an off moment by TV cameras of yore, I find myself feeling like it is I who knew and understood and could see things back then; not those who ran the world as it was presented to me and my contemporaries, and not my teachers, either, especially not my teachers.  And as I'm feeling in such a vindicated, invigorated, inspired mood, I think I’d like to deliver a message to those high school teachers who disparaged my long hair and shabby jeans and who attempted to abort my incipient love for books by ramming Shakespeare down my adolescent throat – yes I’d like to recommend a book for them to read: Fug You!

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