News & Politics » Essay

Reading: Flashing Back to the 60s

Ed Sanders, Abbie Hoffman, Terry Southern, Richard Meltzer--as Fritz leafed through the reprints his teeth began to pick up tinny vibrations. The pangs of memory...why now after all these years?



"Oh wow!" Fritz Wildermood froze in his tracks. He couldn't believe his eyes. A misty oracular nimbus seemed to form in the hushed air above the "new arrivals" case at Babs's Bookstore.

"I can't believe they reprinted these," muttered Fritz to no one as he leafed through the new paperback volumes by Ed Sanders, Abbie Hoffman, Terry Southern, and Richard Meltzer, which had fairly flown to his hands through the gathering haze. The air had gone frizzled, electric, spidery. As he turned the pages, Fritz could barely see through the strobing splinters of light shooting out crazily from somewhere just above and behind his field of vision. When did they put those new lights in here?

His teeth began to pick up tinny vibrations that jangled them down to the roots. Was he actually having an acid flashback? The pangs of memory . . . why now after all these years? He hated the incessant memorializing of the 60s. He didn't want to cash in on Woodstock or Bobby Kennedy: he wanted to cash completely out. So why this dreamy lysergic excitement in his limbs, ghosts of patchouli and strychnine and 19-cent burgers? Abbie Hoffman laughed up at him from the back cover of his book, dead as a medieval pope and twice as randy. Gotcha, Fritzie!

Wildermood had grown up in one of the aging bungalow blocks gerrymandered onto the map of northwest-side Chicago, the grandson of workingmen and -women, Slovak on one side, German on the other, the son of a go-getter sprung from the Army into the Babbitt-nabbed middleclass and an apple-pie baker who once wanted to be an actress. In his house they worshiped newness. Fritzie was encouraged to go out and get his hands on it too, legally of course. What the hell's wrong with sales? This plan worked reasonably well until Fritz fell under the spell of certain authors and artists in his sophomore year at the local parochial diploma mill. After a long drink of J.D. Salinger, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Henry Miller, B. Traven, Bob Dylan, and Norman Mailer, suddenly Fritz's blender could only run at "purify" speed. When the aforementioned worthies mixed with his boyhood idols, Elvis and Fidel Castro, young Fritz was primed to explode--which, in a way, he did during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

Known to his friends as "Bewilder-mood" for his love of the weed, Fritz found a temporary outlet for his skepticism in the Radical Grease, a loose organization of white neighborhood corner boys who found common cause in the same political issues their black brothers in the ghetto were pissed off about. In Chicago in the 60s, this was a rare, exotic breed indeed. They didn't exactly hang with the Black Panthers. Their perspective was from the alleys and prairies of the lunch-pail class. For them, politics consisted of confirming what they already knew--for instance, that every third word their precinct captain said was "gimme." Fresh out of high school, Fritz put all this together with what he had experienced driving up and down Harlem Avenue, and realized he knew nothing. Zero. It's a great place to start, as the slogan says.

The fact that he was attending junior college and working part-time as his uncle's gofer at the Teamsters local and part-time pumping gas on the weekends didn't faze his new friends a bit. His old friends were busy being drafted or taking rides to college. He began to think of himself as the Righteous Outsider, and cultivated a Kirk Douglas Viking look, sans eye patch, to go with it. In a crowd of revolutionary greasers, Fritz was the thinker. In a crowd of college kids, he was the yodeling yobbo. It didn't bother him a bit. He was a party dude of the first magnitude, with a head full of poetry and reefer. The first time he heard the Fugs, he fell out of his hammock.

Ed Sanders was the funniest human being alive, hotter than Lenny Bruce, burning with otherness and bursting with ancient Greek verse, the king of the Lower East Side of New York. What his band, the Fugs, was to rock music, his daisy chain of linked short stories, Tales of Beatnik Glory, was to the observational mode of literature--ragged, exuberant, ecstatic at the prospect of notable poverty, drunk on life, and finally compassionate. Everything Fritz ever wanted to be. Through Sanders's East Village holy places (the Total Assault Cantina, the House of Nothingness) crawled a declamatory cast of bohemian characters Balzac would have admired: Claudia Pred, nymphomaniac founder of the Luminous Animal Theater; meth-and-Keats-crazed poet John Barrett, pamphleteer of the Shriek of Revolution; certified street crazy Uncle Thrills and his constant cry of "ImGrat! ImGrat!" (immediate gratification); and underground filmmaker Sam Thomas, who once lured a mob of speed freaks to an apartment with free dope to record their antics for a film called Amphetamine Head: A Study of Power in America.

And now, Fritz noticed as he cradled the new edition of Sanders's boho-Lost Generation-beat-hip-punk-anarcho Dead Sea Scrolls, the author has written a second volume, a continuation of the tales, which is bound together with volume one for a 543-page bath in the waters of pure possibility. Anchored by the characters' involvement in the civil rights summer of 1964 in Mississippi, the new stories include the achingly beautiful tale of Farbrente Rose, a 70-year-old widow, veteran of the New York labor struggles of the early part of the century, who returns to her old neighborhood and rejoins the revolution in time to experience an epiphany in a deep-south field 'neath the moonlight. Sanders flips the bird to "the dour mousetrap of infinity" on every page of this caterwauling comic epic.

Fritz, who winced every time he heard the term "boomer," had read only a very few of the dull, would-be didactic, self-serving rehashes of "what the 60s meant." Back then, he knew very well what they meant: life or death, the old existential boogie. A couple of his high school buddies had died in 'Nam, for absolutely fucking zip, and he was determined at the time not to do the same.

In that respect he was in the same boat with the overly bright counterestablishment types, vote hustlers in training, who always seemed to end up on committees of resistance or barricade advisory boards or whatever they called them. A lot of these politicos wrote books, and now they're available in reprint too. In those Kennedy-hangover days, they were still called the "best and brightest," this rebellious cream, which usually meant they were from the Ivy League, or wanted to be. Best and brightest. Fritz had met a few of the best and brightest. They sometimes stopped in when he was working at the Clark Super 100 station in the summer of '68, fresh off the tollway and looking for something to commit to. "Excuse me, maahhhhnnn, but which way is Lincoln Park?" You could pick out their prep L.L. Bean accents a mile away. They always acted as if they were on vacation. Fritz envied the shit out of them.

Abbie Hoffman was about as far from that management networking, preyuppie, candy-ass image as it was possible to get. He looked like he had just fallen off the back of a truck full of gears. Not that this alienated him one bit from his collegiate fan club. Hoffman had the gift, the salesman's, the rabble-rouser's gift, of making social change seem like a terrific all-day, all-night party that everyone was invited to. It didn't matter if you went to Harvard or worked lathe, you could join the fun. And you didn't have to take orders from any arrogant cadres. In Abbie's insurrection, you could be your own boss. The American Dream! Revolution for the hell of it! Steal This Book, if nothing else, caused a generation of future stockbrokers and attorneys to at least consider burning down the nearest bank.

Hoffman seemed to be everywhere in the eventful spring and summer of 1968. Fritz saw him and soon-to-be coconspirator Jerry Rubin (reborn in the Reaganaut 80s as little more than a door-to-door shill) at a be-in at Northwestern, and then again, just before the whole world watched the Democratic convention and its police riot, hanging around the Lincoln Hotel. The Lincoln was weirdo central that August. Cops used to go there just to jack the longhairs around. Yippies and out-of-town commentators sympathetic to them congregated there, a canister's throw across Clark Street from Lincoln Park, to be a part of the same scene they'd seen go down in Paris and Prague. The doomed-paradise scene. History.

Fritz made the scene, all right. In between trips back to his apartment farther north, he practically camped out at the foot of Lincoln Avenue, eyeing loose pavement stones and inhaling solidarity. It was hard to miss Abbie Hoffman in his American-flag shirt, with "FUCK" written on his forehead as a tease for news cameramen. And wasn't that Jean Genet, French playwright, chatting up a pair of hippie boys by the park lagoon? Every headline hound, every photog, mythmaker flack, and self-aggrandizer, every bearded bum and out-of-school hell-raiser, every poet, sage, and professional muff diver seemed to be in Chicago that week. Certainly every roller in the city was there as well, munching Italian-beef-and-hippie-headband sandwiches while practicing their nightstick swings. Batting practice, it turned out. In one of his first true failures of adult nerve, Fritz decided to stay inside when the shit storm hit. On the day when demonstrators tried to march all the way to Hubert Humphrey's coronation as Prince of Pigs in the stockyards, Fritz was laying up at Polish Ted's crib with his girlfriend Marilyn, using Demerol to recover from a rousing night at the Kinetic Playground. Who needed to get their heads busted? Leave that to the glory seekers. My goal's beyond, man.

Well, so was Abbie's. The last section of his collected works, The Best of Abbie Hoffman, is from the period in his life when he was finished running from the feds and had turned to ecological activism and making speeches on campuses. Here Hoffman waxes reflective: "The U.S. after Vietnam is not the U.S. after WWII. The country is more tolerant of different political points of view. And it's easier to organize 'workers' now than in the days of 'hippies vs. hard hats.' The counterculture has been absorbed and hippies now wear hard hats. A politics built around drugs, or dress, or diet, or even sex, race, or age is not necessary because there is a chance to reach all Americans now. This option was not available in the 1960s. Black power, a Woodstock Nation, a Lesbian Nation, and other 'nationalisms' were needed in the '60s to give each of us pride in who we were. We can go beyond that now. I am white, male, a member of the middle class, and Jewish--whoever tries to make me feel guilty about that is either an agent for the FBI or an asshole. What people are they are. They should be proud of it but not project an air of superiority. It simply is not correct that sex, sexual preference, race, age, or what people eat or smoke make them better than someone else. My Freedom of Information Act papers are an education in how the FBI and CIA exploited intergroup differences to disrupt activity and stifle leadership. We should stop demanding that we all become instant saints and be more tolerant of our comrades, especially if they are active." He was too good to be president, thought Fritz as he read this. He belongs in the pantheon with Tom Paine and Emma Goldman. "Sure we were young," wrote Abbie in 1987. "We were arrogant. We were ridiculous. There were excesses. We were brash. We were foolish. We had factional fights. But we were right."

When he discovered the wonderful world of rich suburban coeds, Fritz saw a way to parlay his love of license and the literary life into cocktail parties, sports cars, and a better class of pharmaceuticals. After all, he didn't want to be the best-read guy in the machine shop all his life. In the early 70s (the dirty, scary, unmoored finale, as Fritz saw it later, of this time everybody likes to call "the 60s"), at the wheel of the Austin-Healey of upward mobility, Fritz pulled up at a sartorial crossroads. Should he continue to wear the black cabretta leather jacket with the red armband, the one he'd proudly worn on moratorium-day forays into the North Shore to explain the Vietnam war to Republicans in their mansions, or chuck it for something less belligerent, like a corduroy jacket? At the urging of Annie, a Winnetka med student (Quaaludes! Dilaudid! Clinically pure coke!) who introduced him to family friend Terry Southern at a book reception, the leather jacket stayed, but the armband took a hike.

Southern, coauthor of the teenage jerk-off novel Candy and cowriter of two of Fritz's favorite movies, Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, was a very strange fellow. Many were the nights, bundled in Fritz's attic pad in Evanston with Annie, smashed on acid, that they alternated between furious bouts of Vedic sex and equally furious howls of laughter, hard laughter, wised-up laughter, from dipping into Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes. Southern had a cruel streak about him, and a fictional point of view that flipped like a greasy razor. He tossed around words like kike, commie, faggot, nigger lover, and teenybopper as if he were road testing them to see if they could stand the weight of meaning placed on them.

The nuttiest story in the book, the one everybody rhapsodized over, was "The Blood of a Wig," in which a thrill-seeking hack journalist gets himself injected with stolen blood from the veins of an institutionalized schizophrenic symbolist poet, then goes to work writing a magazine story about the untold true events of the day JFK was assassinated. The payoff image is of LBJ, crouched over the presidential casket in the cargo hold of the plane for Washington, fucking the neck wound. When read in the right way with the proper emphasis, this passage could make Annie, God bless her, come with a banshee scream. But Fritz's own favorite Southern exposure was a piece in the National Lampoon that featured rabid veep Spiro Agnew, attired in a bodysuit made entirely of the stitched-together sphincters of Viet Cong, being whipped by little boys while dancing around his White House office chanting "I'm a Greek gook asshole rimmer!" Fritz and Annie thought Terry Southern was the coolest thing since Liquid Prell. As Rod Stewart said, "Look how wrong you can be."

Just before he had come into the bookstore Fritz had downed three cold ones at O'Jay's down the street, where he had engaged in a spirited, impromptu debate/celebration with a youngish man in the next booth on the discourses of Cicero, prompted by the Penguin edition the man was reading. (Fritz, with a total lack of self-consciousness, pronounced the old Roman's name "Keek-ero," just as he had been taught by a bristle-backed instructor at Saint Philip's.) He was surprised that anyone still read Cicero but figured that if they did, they'd eventually find their way to O'Jay's, which had once hosted Nelson Algren, among other recondite and monumental gabblers. It was the sort of place you might find Richard Meltzer.

Meltzer was a rock music critic who only used rock, it seemed to Fritz, as a takeoff point for a brick-by-brick critique of the entire world. An erudite babbler in the tradition of slum intellectuals or the philosopher on the bus seat next to you, Meltzer had--has, he's still writing--opinions on everything. He knows and loves boxing. As of 1972, the year Gulcher was first printed, his all-time ring top ten was: Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Jim Jeffries, Sonny Liston, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Sam Langford, Rocky Marciano, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Max Baer, in that order, presumably. Meltzer is perfectly capable of exhausting other topics: bottle-cap collecting, the history of wrestling from 1945 to 1970, smack vs cough syrup, jazz, brands of imported beer, brands of snuff, a stroll through Mill Valley, and roller derby. And so on. His learned essay on tampons, "The Red Nappies," is not intended merely to shock. No, you see, Meltzer really cares. There isn't an aspect of pop culture, or everyday human experience for that matter, that he refuses to lavish his microscopic attention on.

This dedication to minutiae, combined with Meltzer's legendary sentence structure, has earned him comparison with every writer from Hunter Thompson to Charles Bukowski to A.J. Liebling, but Fritz always thought of Meltzer as a heavily doped ex-musician who now regarded words as notes. It was Meltzer who introduced Fritz to John Coltrane's outside stuff. Gulcher represents a slice--a mere fraction--of his New York period, before he settled, like a fly on a dung heap, in southern California. His detailed matchup of the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings had a firmer grasp of NHL hockey, to Fritz, than anything on the sports pages, and it was written by a hippie!

Smitten by reverie, Fritz scooped up the four paperbacks, mentally balanced his Mastercard account, and sauntered up to Babs's cashier. Behind the counter, the heavy-lidded young woman with bright orange (Bozo!) hair floated a smirk in his direction. "Catching up on your psychedelic reading?" Fritz Wildermood, former working-class freak and fan of the recreational aspects of revolution, summoned his best silver-plated, armor-piercing, semi-precious-stone-brooch-unfastening, heart-melting, undergarments-evaporating smile and said: "Yeah. I was stoned the entire decade and wanted to see what I'd missed." She smiled back. "Lucky you."

Tales of Beatnik Glory by Ed Sanders, Citadel Underground, $12.95.

The Best of Abbie Hoffman by Abbie Hoffman, Four Walls Eight Windows, $14.95.

Gulcher by Richard Meltzer, Citadel Underground, $9.95.

Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes by Terry Southern, Citadel Underground, $9.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

Add a comment