After becoming well-known as a Beat-era poet, Allen Ginsberg became heavily involved in the downtown’s activist and arts scenes during the 1960s, when Hibiscus (George Harris III) met Ginsberg and the two became lovers.
By 1962, Jonas Mekas began hosting Film-Makers’ Cooperative screenings at his loft at 414 Park Avenue South, between Twenty-Eighth and Twenty-Ninth Streets. “A normal evening at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative,” Mekas recalled, “you could see Allen Ginsberg, you could see Robert Frank, you could see Larry Rivers, you could see Bob Kaufman or Jack Smith—all the filmmakers, painters, or musicians. It was a mix, and not as separated as today. They were very close, they were using each other.” Mekas’s loft was the office of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, a space lined with shelves of films and an old Moviola film-editing machine that Jonas slept under to save space. “It was also the office of Film Culture magazine,” he recalled, “and then we built a space with a screen that was good enough for twenty people or so. Every evening, filmmakers used to bring their own films and friends to check what they did just a few days ago. It was very, very active. The low-budget or no-budget filmmakers stuck together because they had nothing to lose and nowhere to go. Nobody wanted to distribute our films, but here we had our own distribution center. The rule was, no film was rejected. The film, good or bad, is your ticket.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol circulated among the artists, poets, theater people, and gay crowds that populated Greenwich Village bars such as Lenny’s Hideaway, the San Remo, and the White Horse—which were central nodes in social networks that connected artists who worked in different mediums. Playwright Robert Heide first encountered Warhol around 1960 at a place named Aldo’s on Bleecker Street, a relatively upscale gay restaurant with white table cloths. “That’s where I met Andy,” Heide said, “but I didn’t really connect with Andy until a little later, though I would see Andy now and then in different situations.” In the late 1950s, Heide began coming to the Village from his parents’ house in New Jersey, hanging out in the Gaslight on MacDougal Street and other coffeehouses. Before it became known for hosting Bob Dylan performances in the early 1960s, the Gaslight was a haven for Beat writers. “One night there was Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Ted Joans, Taylor Mead—all these people,” he recalled. “So I was the middle of this crazy scene.” Heide permanently settled in Greenwich Village, and by 1965 he began working with Warhol on screenplays for some of his early films.
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Ed Sanders met many interesting and prominent people during this time, but nothing compared to the thrill of befriending Allen Ginsberg, who lived on the Lower East Side. “When I was first exploring New York City in 1958 and 1959,” Sanders enthused, “I never thought in a cycle of centuries that I’d ever become friends with such a hero.” He first met Ginsberg in front of Gem Spa, a newsstand located on St. Mark’s Place that sold chocolate egg creams for a quarter. St. Mark’s Place was a three-block street that terminated on its east side at Avenue A, in front of Tompkins Square Park, and to the west of Second Avenue it turned into East Eighth Street—a major throughway to Greenwich Village. Gem Spa was a popular hangout, where poet Ted Berrigan held court, smoking unfiltered Chesterfields while surrounded by younger poets such as Andrei Codrescu. “It was my first time staying in New York and I’m having a wonderful extraterrestrial floating experience,” Codrescu recalled. “I saw Ted outside Gem Spa, and I just rushed him and said, ‘Ted, I’m on acid!’ And Ted just looked at me and he said, ‘Yeah. I always wondered how it would feel to kill somebody on acid.’ And I just thought it was the greatest, most wonderful thing to say. I just followed him around like a puppy for the rest of the day.” (Berrigan also founded his own mimeographed zine, C: A Journal of Poetry.)
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In 1967, Ed Sanders began collaborating with Shirley Clarke and fellow filmmaker Barbara Rubin on a satirical anti-Vietnam project, Fugs Go to Saigon. (Sanders also suggested several alternative titles: Eagle Shit, Aluminum Sphinx, Oxen of the Sun, America Bongo, Vampire Ass, Gobble Gobble, Moon Brain, and It’s Eating Me!) After Rubin took Sanders to see the Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre in late 1965, they began discussing ideas for the film, which was to star the Fugs alongside William Burroughs, LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg, and a host of other downtown denizens. Clarke attempted to fundraise from summer to fall of 1967, but she still wasn’t being taken seriously as a filmmaker, despite her previous successes with The Connection and The Cool World. Clarke’s inability to get funding for Fugs Go to Saigon may have also had to do with the outrageous “plot” ideas supplied by Sanders: “William Burroughs dressed as Carrie Nation attacks opium den with axe,” he wrote. “LeRoi Jones as homosexual cia agent. naked viet cong orgasm donuts suck off gi’s with poisoned teeth. . . . horny priests disguised as penguins fight savagely for captured viet cong grope boy. . . . Shower of candy canes comes from sky over us headquarters in Saigon.”
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
George Harris III had lived a fairly apolitical life until he appeared with James Earl Jones and Al Pacino in Peace Creeps, which awoke him to the horrors of the Vietnam War. He drifted away from the New York theater world and began to be more openly gay and free, taking different lovers, including Allen Ginsberg. George accepted a ride to San Francisco in a Volkswagen van driven by Ginsberg’s longtime partner Peter Orlovsky, who took a detour to the antiwar protest in Washington—where George was famously photographed placing flowers in National Guardsmen’s rifles. This act was influenced by the street theater that surrounded him in downtown New York, and it effortlessly displayed the idea that love can overcome political tyranny and break the war machine. The next day, G3 excitedly called home to tell his mother that photojournalists snapped pictures of him. “George loved having his photograph taken,” recalled Jayne Anne Harris. “So it was probably a combination of things. He probably saw the cameras, he of course was a bit theatrical, he was probably high, and he believed in peace and love.”
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Soon after Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg formed the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders teamed up with them to create the first incarnation of the Fugs. “Someone told me Sanders and Tuli had written a bunch of songs like ‘Coca-Cola Douche’ and ‘Bull Tongue Clit,’ ” Peter Stampfel recalled. “So I went to listen at the Peace Eye Bookstore, and I saw that the only instrument was Ken Weaver playing a hand drum. So I said, ‘Hey, you can use a backup band.’ It was an obvious thing to put together, so that’s how Steve Weber and I started playing with them.” After signing a deal with Folkways Records, the band recorded their first album in April 1965. Along with several original songs, the Fugs included two Blake poem adaptations on their Harry Smith–produced debut, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction. In addition to live gigs and vinyl records, the group could also be heard on free-form radio shows. Their performance of “Carpe Diem” at a Judson Church memorial service for comedian Lenny Bruce, for example, was recorded by Bob Fass and aired on WBAI (Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and many other musicians, poets, and political activists also made appearances on Fass’s show over the years).
“Announcing the Fugs Cross Country Vietnam Protest Caravan, October 8–28th,” trumpeted Ed Sanders’s press release in advance of their 1966 tour. The group planned to promote their antiwar message across America, and the primary destination was Berkeley, California—another site that fostered the emerging peace movement. At the University of California, the Fugs played among the Bunsen burners on the chemistry room’s demonstration table, along with Allen Ginsberg and the first-ever performance by Country Joe and the Fish. Back in New York, the Fugs were banned from their regular venue, Astor Place Theatre, after they burned a flag that was printed with the words lower east side. The point was to illustrate how burning a symbol didn’t actually hurt the thing it represented, but newspapers claimed that the group burned an American flag—which led to an FBI investigation. The Bridge Theatre came to the rescue and gave the Fugs a new home, where they settled into a successful residency that ran for seven hundred-plus performances from late 1966 through 1967. The Bridge was above the Café Au Go Go on Bleecker Street, which benefited from the abundant Greenwich Village foot traffic, so the shows were often sold out. “The theater was filled,” Sanders recalled, “and the shows were fluid, well done, and hot. It was the peak time for the Fugs.”
When Ed Sanders signed the lease for his Peace Eye Bookstore in late 1964, at 383 East Tenth Street, Beat hero Tuli Kupferberg was already living next door, above the Lifschutz Wholesale Egg Store. They first met in 1962 outside the Charles Theatre on Avenue B, where Jonas Mekas screened underground films and Kupferberg was selling copies of his magazine Birth to the audience. Sanders let Kupferberg publish a poem in Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts and the two attended poetry readings at Café Le Metro, where Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga mixed with literary heavyweights like Allen Ginsberg. After these readings, everyone congregated at a dance bar on St. Mark’s Place called the Dom—formerly a Polish wedding and social hall—where Sanders suggested to Kupferberg that they should form a band. Sanders suggested various band names such as the Yodeling Socialists and the Freaks, but it was Kupferberg who came up with the Fugs—fug was a term that writer Norman Mailer had used as a euphemism for fuck in his novel The Naked and Dead. With a name secured, their next order of business was to write songs. Sanders had been setting William Blake poems to music since his days of sitting in Washington Square Park as an NYU student, and he was more a poet than a rocker. “I don’t think I took the Fugs seriously as music. I just liked the scene, but I didn’t really listen to it as music,” said Village Voice rock critic Richard Goldstein. “But the idea of Blake’s ‘Ah! Sun-flower! / weary of time’ as a rock song was amazingly unusual.”
John Vaccaro’s combative nature was perhaps rooted in his working-class Italian immigrant background, which he desperately wanted to escape. “He reminded me of my Italian grandmother,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “Sicilian and hardcore.” Vaccaro first performed comedy in a nightclub act while at Ohio State University and then began doing plays like Waiting for Godot; after graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City. “When I got to New York,” he said, “I had a loft and everybody used to come to my place on 9 Great Jones Street—artists, jazz musicians. I ended up paying seventy-five bucks a month. I had a big record collection, and we’d hang out and listen. I had everything. Jazz and the Beatles and stuff like that. I was heavy into rhythm and blues, but mostly jazz.” Vaccaro got to know Thelonious Monk when the pianist regularly performed alongside other jazz legends at the Five Spot Café, which was frequented by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and other writers. “John was coming out of the world of beatnik poetry readings, with bands playing in the background,” said Penny Arcade. “His friends were all these big jazz guys, and also he was an intellectual. When I met him, he had just stopped working as a rare book appraiser.” He became part of the New York Poets Theatre, which Diane di Prima ran out of the Bowery Theatre on East Tenth Street, near Third Avenue. The first show they mounted was the Frank O’Hara play Loves Labor, with Vaccaro part of a cast of twenty cavorting on the tiny stage. “There was a screaming queen in a tiger skin playing a shepherd, with many dancers for his sheep,” di Prima recalled. “Freddie Herko in a black cape was Paris; John Vaccaro, slim and monocled, with a top hat, played Metternich, and no less a personage than the ‘great’ freak show artist and drag queen Frankie Francine portrayed Venus.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith had been interested in doing public poetry readings, though she was wary of many of the poets’ staid, practiced delivery. In the early 1970s, Beat poet Gregory Corso started taking her to readings hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a collective based at the same church where Theatre Genesis was located. It was home to A-listers like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan, but Corso was less than reverent. He heckled certain poets during their listless performances, yelling, “Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!” Sitting at Corso’s side, Smith made a mental note not to be boring if she ever had a chance to read her poems in public. On February 10, 1971, Gerard Malanga was scheduled to do a reading at the Poetry Project and he agreed to let Smith open for him. Her collaborations with Shepard taught her to infuse her words with rhythm, and she sought out other ideas about how to disrupt the traditional poetry reading format. For the St. Mark’s event, Sam Shepard suggested that Smith add music—which reminded her that Lenny Kaye played guitar. “She wanted to shake it up, poetry-wise, and she did,” said Kaye, who recalled that it was primarily a solo poetry reading, with occasional guitar accompaniment. “I started it with her,” he said. “We did ‘Mack the Knife,’ because it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, and then I came back for the last three musical pieces.” Setting chords to her melodic chanting, Kaye recalled that she was easy to follow because of her strong sense of rhythmic movement. “I hesitate to call them ‘songs,’ but in a sense they were the essence of what we would pursue.”
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore