ALL-AGES DIALOGUES Part 8: Shannon Roach of the Vera Project (Arthur, 2006)

The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Shannon Roach
by Jay Babcock

In 2006, I spoke by telephone with Shannon Roach, executive director of the Vera Project in Seattle, for a piece on all-ages philosophy/history/yadda yadda. The piece kept expanding, so much so that it looked like it would have to be published as a series across multiple issues of Arthur. Some of the interviews ended up getting published; unfortunately this one didn’t, basically due to internal Arthur chaos in 2006-07. Anyways, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. — Jay Babcock

Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)

Interview with Will Oldham

Interview with Jim Ward (At the Drive-In, Sparta)

Interview with Shannon Stewart (Vera Project, All-Ages Music Project)

Shannon Roach: I’ve been involved with the Vera Project since September of last year, of 2005, as a staff member, but I went to the first show that Vera ever had, in January 2001. It’s a big part of the music community here in Seattle. That first show was the Murder City Devils, Botch and the Blood Brothers. It was really fun.

Arthur: The Vera Project has moved around, right?

It’s the name of the organization, not a particular space. It’s named after an organization called Vera in Gronigen, Holland. The Vera over in Europe is a community center that’s over a hundred years old and its focus is on the popular arts: music, film, visual art. And it’s truly all-ages: people from the entire community participate in it. Totally government-funded. Things are a little different in Europe, you know. (laughs) The idea of Vera came from that. James Keblis and Shannon Stewart, who you talked to, they did a study abroad over in Holland and found out a lot about the Vera Project and then brought those ideas back here, and filled a specific need in Seattle, which was for all-ages music. 

Why was it needed?

Well, there was a law called the Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO) here in Seattle that prohibited people under 21 from going to see live music with people over 21. So audiences under 21 …the venues had to have a lot of insurance. It was basically illegal for people under 21 to see live music. So there really wasn’t much of an all-ages scene here, which is kind of crazy because Seattle is known for its music, it’s totally culturally rich in music. When I was younger, I couldn’t go to see live music shows. I had to go up to Vancouver or down to Portland, leave the city to see some music. A little nutty. The TDO prohibited young people from seeing music so there was really a need here in Seattle for a place for that outlet, for young people to see and to play music.

Vera initially did shows out of a union hall called the Local 46, a huge union hall. Every show that Vera had, volunteers and staff came in and set up a PA system. They would have to take all of the folding chairs down from the union meeting, set up the PA system, run the show and clean everything up and set all the chairs back up exactly like they were for. Like 500, maybe more. It was huge. That was a fine space.

Vera also did some shows out of a theatre over in the international district called the Theatre Off Jackson. It was a good space, it was a little bit smaller, and it was also a theater so it was set up to be a little more acoustically sound and conducive to music. In 2003, Vera found a space in downtown Seattle on 4th Avenue. That was also an old theatre, the Annex Theater. It was really cool, this old building that was probably going to be torn down sometime soon and Vera moved into it as is, and the whole community came together to help build out the venue, helped to put together the sound system, do a bunch of construction in there to make it safe for people. So then for the first time the Vera Project had a home, and it just totally exploded from there, because it makes it a lot easier to have shows. So there were MORE shows available. And then ot also expanded to have an art gallery, a silkscreen studio and night tech classes, and all kinds of community events that were a little more difficult to put on before. 

Who gets booked there? Bands that normally play bars, or bands that are on a completely different circuit?

Both. The thing is, Vera has really great shows. I don’t know if you’ve been to the website, looked at some of the bands that have played, but there’s a good mix between established bands that are gonna draw really, really well and then also it’s a place where people who are getting established can come and play. So there are some shows that there’s gonna be a line around the block and people are gonna be turned away. And there are other shows that are smaller and more intimate. It runs the gamut really. We get national and international touring artists, and then we get local people as well. 

Door price?

Never more than ten dollars. That’s part of Vera, really, is for it to be an accessible space so that people can afford to come there. It’s a small capacity, the stage is low, there’s all these opportunities for young people to be involved in everything from stage management to being a sound assistant to taking tickets at the door to helping book, so it provides people with direct access to artists with makes it a little bit unique.

It’s run as a non-profit?

Non-profit, yeah. It became a non-profit in 2001. Our space on 4th Avenue was slated to be demolished and so we thought that we were going to have to vacate. One of the things that’s really important to Vera is to be in a central location where people from all over the region can access us. That’s a little bit easier said than done. It’s really hard for a non-profit to find an affordable space in downtown Seattle. Our shows don’t make a whole bunch of money because we don’t have alcohol there and the ticket prices are intentionally affordable. So the Seattle Center offered us a space there, it’s this big conference room, a long-term lease, a really affordable price. It’s called the Snow Kwami Room. The Seattle Center is where the Space Needle is. It’s a big city-owned property where there’s a big basketball stadium, the Space Needle, the children’s museum, the science center, it’s one of those big huge fun municipal campuses. So it doesn’t really have the street cred a space in the middle of downtown would have but at the same time it’s still downtown Seattle, and it’s easy to get to, and the cool thing about it is we get to build up this conference room into our own space. We’ve gathered up a whole bunch of people to help us come up with concepts for it, and we’re working with architects and construction people to turn this huge 6,500-square foot conference room with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights into a venue and an art gallery, silkscreen studio, recording studio, all kinds of stuff. It’s going to be really nice. It’s very ambitious. But it’s also, in the 4th Avenue space, what I hear a lot from people who use it, is that once they had a place to call home, everything, all the opportunities expanded for everybody, no matter what they were interested in, it really did help for the Vera Project to expand. And so having a place where we can stay for a while and grow into it is going to really benefit a lot of people for a lot of years to come.

The shows, do you run them earlier than a show in a nightclub would be?

They usually start around 8pm and are done by midnight. 

Weekend matinees?

Not very often. Usually we’ll only do a weekend matinee if it’s a performance that we can’t get any other time that’s really exciting. It’s nice to have a nightlife for all-ages. It’s so important. 

Urban kids don’t have garages. They NEED a place to go and play music and see music. It’s so important. It’s part of their culture. It’s so ridiculous for them not to be able to participate in it.

I think a big part of our success too is “No booze — no drugs — no assholes.” That really helps for the whole community to say, Yeah that place is okay. And the nonprofit model really helps too.

ALL-AGES DIALOGUES PART 7: SHANNON STEWART of The All Ages Movement Project (2006, Arthur)

The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Shannon Stewart
by Jay Babcock

This interview was conducted by phone in late summer 2006, as part of a series of conversations I was doing with various folks regarding the history of all-ages, philosophy/ethic of all-ages, the state of play of all-ages, yadda yadda.

If I remember correctly, when we did this interview Shannon was exiting her position at Seattle’s legendary Vera Project—where she was co-founder, program director and talent buyer—to start a new advocacy organization called the All-Ages Music Project. In 2010, she published In Every Town: An All-Ages Music Manualfesto, described as “part-history, part how-to,” with a foreword by Kimya Dawson.

This conversation shoulda been published long ago but stuff kept going awry and we didn’t get it in the mag. My apologies to Shannon, and to the readers. Hopefully this piece will be of use to present-day readers. — Jay

Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)

Interview with Will Oldham

Interview with Jim Ward (At the Drive-In, Sparta)

Arthur: What do you think happened to all-ages shows? Why did so much music become restricted to the over-21 crowd?

Shannon Stewart: Well, you have to look at the relationship of the music industry to alcohol. That’s the easiest answer to it. Those things are easily tied. Since the drinking age in this country is 21, therein lies your answer. Because those industries have become co-dependent, or I guess the music industry has become co-dependent on alcohol at least in terms of spaces. 

When did that happen, though? Because it wasn’t always that way.

That’s probably something I’d leave up to you to answer. I think it’s changed with the drinking age and the tightening liquor laws and the rules about youths not being able to be in a bar at all even if they’re not drinking. Every state has a different poilicy on that. Up in Washington State, until about four years ago, young people just couldn’t go into bars at all. It sort of loosened up a few years ago so that you can have separated areas, so there can be like an all-ages area and there can be a big wall or else some sort of rented gate system where you can herd up all of the drinkers sort of like cattle behind the all-ages area, and have all-ages shows that way. But still the venues are losing a lot of money because a lot of the ticket sales go to guarantees, and they’re trying to pay their bills on the bar sales, which is why I think there’s a burgeoning movement of nonprofit all-ages venues. 

Tell me about that.

There’s a lot of different versions of it. Like one version of it would be the teen center that the city starts to try to bring youth in and engage them in a way that’s meaningful to them that is moderately successful depending on who’s running it. There’s a ton of them. The old firehouse in Redmond, Washington, which is actually—when you talk to Shannon Roach you can ask her about that, because she used to work there. And in the Midwest there’s a bunch of them. Usually in affluent areas where the taxbase is such that it’s not inconceivable that the city would spend the money on a music space for teenagers. That’s sort of the bottom line of it. 

The other spaces that are getting the most momentum behind them are spaces like The Smell [In Los Angeles], these fly-by-night, making-it-up-as-we go-along but somehow they’re still existing ten years later even though it seems like every time you go there, they should be gone [chuckles] or be on their way down or something. The other ones around the country are the K Cafe Collective in San Diego, and ABC NO RIO in Manhattan, and Gilman’s in Berkeley. Those are the ones that have managed to scrape by for decades and have been really influential, I think, in this generation of new all-ages organizations, which are a lot more younger people forming collectives and starting their own spaces out of makeshift places and art galleries and stuff like that. If you ask a lot of those folks who influenced them, a lot of them will reference these old punk institutions that I mentioned before. They find out about them through D.I.Y./internet. 

The final piece of that are spaces that are becoming big non-profit institutions, and communities that maybe started out with a small gaggle of people working to just put on their own shows but had some really savvy business people involved who were like, ‘We should get money for this’ and then secured foundation grants and federal/state/local money in order to make their space sustainable. The Vera Project is an example of that. AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island is an example of that. The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’re generally between 200 and 500 capacity, which is about the size of your average competitive music club in urban areas. 

In suburban areas of major metropolitan cities there’s not so much a feeling of competition from other clubs because I think a lot of times people will just do two shows. So artists will have two shows, a 21 & up show and it’ll be at a bar in the city and then they will have an all-ages show and it will be on the outskirts in the teen venue. 

What kind of pressures, if any, are these spaces under from surrounding communities? 

The pressures from the surrounding community depend on how conservative they are. They are real and a lot of those spaces have to fight for their funding, and are usually really under-staffed and have to fight. Also there’s pressure to be sort of your conventional youth program with terms of supervision and rules and regulation about how you’re supposed to interact with youth. That definitely impedes the organic nature that goes hand-in-hand with being part of the show-going culture. And there’s so many rules about who can be a volunteer and who can’t be a volunteer and what age you have to be to go there. And how money gets handled, and dealing with the cash basis that artists need to deal with is really, really hard. There are a million little tiny things that get in the way that people have to weigh out—the pros and cons of either being affiliated with the city and having some security in your facility and your funding source versus being totally on your own and not having to deal with all those little regulations. 

In the older DIY institutions in the country, the issue is just one of staying relevant and staying young and connected to the constituents that are looking for all-ages places to go and see shows and being able to also stay solvent and keep track of financial records and keep an accurate archive/history of what’s happened there. All that stuff is really challenging because most of those spaces are organized all-volunteer, collectively run, with the exception of ABC NO RIO… well I guess Gilman now has a coordinator too, but ABC NO RIO has a director of the space that actually is in charge of doing that administrative stuff now, but that’s fairly recent. 

There is something that is totally fine about the culture of all-ages shows: that is, you get a lot of energy from young people who gather and get together and do their own thing for a while and burn out and it’s over. That is a huge piece of the all-ages music scene: spaces can come and go. It’s kind of okay because people pass through that time of their life, like you come and go through youth too, and so like at your point in time when you’re a young person going to shows there will be a space, and then it dies off about the time you’re old enough to go to bar shows, and then another space will bubble up and it’ll do the same thing. I don’t think that’s necessarily healthy or fair, especially to the spaces that really do want to survive but just can’t make it, but I also think it’s just something that is the natural cycle of space, and youth music stuff.

You’ve said you think all-ages spaces are going to be increasingly hip-hop–oriented.

I don’t have statistics to back it up, but just looking at the changing demographics of generations…of the young generation of the United States right now and what has been becoming more popular over time, I would go as far as to theorize that the majority of youth are into hip-hop in one way, shape or form. As they get older and want to go to shows and be part of the hip-hop music scene, they need outlets. A lot of spaces that are just putting on indie rock bands that appeal to the 30-year-old bearded guys or whatever aren’t necessarily doing it for them. I think definitely in cities and urban areas there’s a movement towards youth organizations that focus on hip-hop. I’d go so far as to point out that there’s actually a generation called the hip-hop generation and that’s very much about how young people in the US today are really interested in hip-hop and that’s a big part of their cultural identity. I think that’s going to start to take over all-ages music spaces as years go by.

What about these all-ages ‘emo places,’ what do you think about those?

This is just me personally but I really associate a lot of those emo places with the suburban teen centers for some reason. I see a lot of those kids coming out of these affluent areas where they happen to have pretty cool parents that empower them to use their garage as practice spaces. That could just be a gross generalization on my part but that’s how I’ve experienced it this far. 

There’s the Chain Reaction in Anaheim, the Showcase Theatre in Corona…? I assume there’s a bunch of those all over the country?

I don’t know if there’s a bunch of those. I’d say it definitely is region-specific. I think that some spaces have these ‘Bbig! All-ages! Venues! We are the hottest all-ages venue in this city!’ and sometimes those are emo and sometimes they’re are metal and sometimes they’re ska and sometimes they’re punk. I don’t know how long the Chain Reaction has been around but I sort of see those as part of the come-and-go spaces in some ways. I guess I’m just not versed in emo. It does seem like there are a ton of those shows because it is really popular with a certain section of the youth population but in terms of spaces that are explicitly emo…

The door price at all-ages show is still generally low, right?

There’s a few reasons for that. One is that some really foundational people in the all-ages movement—if we are to say there is one—set it up that way. Like Ian Mackaye or whatnot, with the $5 door, $8 record cover. There is the economic reality that in a lot of these areas, youth don’t have disposable income but there a lot of places where there is a healthy rock all-ages scene, you’re actually dealing with people who do have disposable income. Whether or not the ticket prices need to be a lot lower than your average 7 or 8 dollar show that I would go and see, or probably $10 now, if I wanted to go and see a show in San Francisco, I don’t know if it has to be lower. I think it really depends on the economic climate that you’re in. 

My project is looking at pretty much commercial-free spaces, nonprofits and collectives and whatnot, that are doing all-ages shows that have a big youth-run component: either they have all staff that are people under 25, or they have youth membership with voting power, or they have some piece of high-level youth involvement in their governments and running the organization. I’m looking at where these spaces exist and where they don’t exist and why. And the importance of having a space that is somewhat commercial-free and a cultural space for youth to come together and have their part in the music scene, and have a place to build community with one another. I’m almost looking at the civic engagement piece of that: if young people have a space like that where they’re engaged in, where the artistic medium is culturally relevant to them, then they’re likely to build skills and tools and relationships that help them start their own things on the outside, and also get involved in their community and become community leaders. That was definitely a piece of the Vera Project and I’m sure Shannon [Roach] will talk to you more about that. I’m looking at these venues like churches of young people that are secular.

Youth autonomy zones. Chuck Dukowski was saying it was very important to him not that youths have their own space but that there’s a space in which all ages can mingle, because otherwise the younger ones don’t benefit from the wisdom and experience of their elders, and the elders don’t benefit from the energy of the youth.

I would just temper that statement, which I absolutely 100% agree with, with also the notion that because most of our spaces in this country are set up to cater to adults, it’s important that all-ages spaces have a priority to catering to youth, just to combat that feeling that you get when you’re a young person and you walk into a space that’s full of adults… that feeling that you don’t really belong there, you don’t feel welcome there, you’re not really being treated like you belong there. I think the emphasis on youth, on having a high level of youth involvement is really important in all-ages spaces, just to combat that general societal problem. I am not a fan of cut-off ranges of ages, like ‘we only serve 13 to 19 year olds’ because I think exactly what Chuck said: there’s a disconnect between what it means to be an adult that has lifestyle that’s maybe a little different from what you think or what you’re told it’s supposed to be.

There are lots of communities that have been segregated by age. It might not be geographic, though. I’m going to go to this convention tomorrow, the national hip-hop political convention, and I really want to network with other folks that are gonna be there and probably a lot of that networking will take place in bars. But I am bringing someone who is 18. And it’s just a problem of I want her to be able to network with me, but there’s this cultural phenomena of adult organizers that you go to bars to do this, with because that’s a sort of set-up space for you. Youth don’t have that. Or, there is no place where it just naturally is both. 

ALL-AGES DIALOGUES, PART VI: JIM WARD of At the Drive-In, Sparta (2006)

The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Jim Ward
by Jay Babcock

This interview was conducted by phone in late summer 2006, as part of a series of conversations I was doing with various folks regarding the history of all-ages, philosophy/ethic of all-ages, the state of play of all-ages, yadda yadda.

When we did this interview, Jim was 30 years old and operating his band Sparta full-time, continuing on from his work as a member of the legendary At the Drive-In, which he co-founded as a teenager in 1994 in El Paso, Texas.

This conversation shoulda been published long ago but stuff kept going awry and we didn’t get it in the mag. My apologies to Jim, and to the readers. Hopefully this piece will be of use to present-day readers. — Jay

Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)

Interview with Will Oldham

Arthur: When you first started venturing outside of El Paso to play music, how did you do it?

Jim Ward: Well, I got a copy of Book Your Own Fucking Life, and I just started calling. My grandparents has set aside some money for college for me, like a hundred dollars a year or something like that, it wasn’t very much. But when I graduated [from high school], it was a couple grand, and so I bought a van, a $1,300 1981 Ford Econoline, with some help from my parents who were really supportive of what I did. And, yeah, just started calling people.

Were you still going with the all-ages ethic?

Yeah, basically there were no bars and booking agents in there. You were just calling somebody who was doing shows at their parents’ restaurant after it closed, or at a community center or a house. Then you just went out and played those, and from those you would meet people who were somewhat like-minded. I was 18 when I started touring, so I couldn’t even be in the bars. In L.A. in 1996, it was pretty hard to be all-ages, so you would end up playing a bar and just sitting in the parking lot all night. You were allowed to go in and play and leave.

Like a servant.

[Laughs] Yeah, sort of. I mean, I understood the rules and it wasn’t really … we weren’t really there to party or anything, we were just there to play.

It must have been strange to play places where a bunch of people were excluded.

Yeah, whenever we would end up in bars or places like that, when you had to get that show, it was rare that anyone was there, or that it was very exciting… Which I understand now at my age: to go to a bar and have some loud, crazy band playing? It’s not always what you want to do on a Friday night. But when you’re 18, 16, 15 … that’s everything in the world to you. The louder and crazier and more abstract the better.

That’s the thing: The under-21s are open to stuff.

Yeah, you’re looking for something that’s yours. You don’t necessarily want something that’s established. You want to discover, that age is all about discovery. Which is why bands come out of that culture, because it’s this intense batch of people trying to find themselves and find each other, and I love it.

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ON PRACTICE: Note from the Editor (Arthur No. 34, 2013)

Note from the Editor

ON PRACTICE

Let’s have a happy hurrah for Byron Coley, this publication’s longest-term continuous contributor, and as of right now its first and only Senior Writer. Coley earned this title the hard way, not just knocking out hundreds of column inches’ worth of learned music-art-poetry-film-comics-whatsit reviewage over the last ten years with Bull Tongue partner Thurston Moore on deadline for no pay, but also pinch-hitting on other stuff when ye young editor had yet again foolishly over-extended himself. (Plus there was that Yoko Ono feature that shoulda been a cover, back in 2007…) No one has flown the freak flag higher or for longer at Arthur than Byron…or done a better job of explaining why exactly that old flag was still worth checking out.

From what I can tell, Byron has always been like this. I first knew him by his editor/writer byline first, as co-prime mover with Jimmy Johnson of Forced Exposure, an irregularly published magazine that somehow covered almost all that was great and interesting in the ‘80s/’90s in a style/format that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since: a sweet combo of smart riffs, ribald japery, ecstatic poetics, subcultural scholarship and two bits of the old hairy shockola. The breadth of coverage, the depth of thought-feel about the subjects at hand, the high quality of the radar in choosing what was worthy of ink, the guts to run ridiculously long pieces regardless of overt commercial appeal, the relentlessly inventive wordspiel that flowed across page after black-and-white page…it all made each issue of FE a necessary acquisition. It was a lotta words to the wise from wise guides.

These are very different times than the ‘80s/’90s. No single independent entity today—certainly not this humble rag—could hope to cover the same cultural terrain as FE did with the same authority or insight, given the overwhelming glut of artistic production unleashed upon us all by our misguided computer nerd lords. You can’t keep tabs on it all. But what the hell. For the advocate journalist-scholar, there’s still the Basic Practice: find good stuff, tell other people about it. And don’t waste effort—try to be of positive use in times that aren’t so great. I know I’m embarrassing him into a startling new shade of pink-purple when I write this, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more personally inspiring figure in America in this regard than Byron.

And there couldn’t be a much worthier, more overdue subject for an extended Arthur cover feature by Byron than Matt Valentine. In a way, I’m glad it’s taken ‘til 2013 to get round to covering MV, because now we get to view such a rich, extended life/art/career trajectory—that is, how his move from college to urban to rural locale has played out, and how a musician with such a singular vision, rooted in so many intriguing aesthetics, has found a way to persist, on his own terms, for so long, in such a trying period for working artists. In short: Matt’s cracked a lot of codes, and Byron has shared them with us with 202 footnotes that only he could write.

Jay Babcock

Joshua Tree, California

LOVE AND DEBT: Note from the Editor (Arthur, 2013)

Jack Rose got paid.

Note from the Editor

LOVE AND DEBT

Originally published in Arthur No. 33 (Jan 2013)

“Follow your bliss”… “Do what you love, the money will follow…” —probably the two worst pieces of counsel that can be given to a young person seeking career advice—unless the counsel-giver is a credit card company, in which case they stand to profit handsomely from young people going into debt while following their dream, expecting the money to flow right in.

Jack Rose, a working musician who died suddenly three years ago this month at the unfair age of 38, knew that this kind of life advice was utter horseshit. Nothing magically comes to you because you do what you love. It can be hard for solo practitioners to stand up for themselves, to merge commerciality and hustling with artistic creation and expression. But there’s no getting around it. Jack made sure he always got paid, and he was justifiably proud of it. Jack knew that you gotta get compensated for your work, or have another source of income that funds your labor of love, or else you go into debt.

I got Arthur into a lot of debt. Giving away the magazine for free from 2002-2008 while relying on revenue for the enterprise from advertisers didn’t work. There were never enough advertisers, and all too few of them paid on time. Arthur was always short on cash. Writers, photographers and artists labored for free. By the end of 2008, when Arthur ceased print publication, I’d worked my way into six-figure nightmare debt trying to keep Arthur going, becoming a constant walking bummer to close friends and family. When Wall Street brought the global economy to a halt in September 2008, it was impossible for Arthur to go on. We weren’t alone, of course—countless other folks saw their worlds collapse as the economy contracted that winter.

But Jack Rose’s world kept getting brighter. Not only had he found a rich artistic path to follow, one that so many of us were eager to listen to him tread, he’d figured out a way to pay the toll for the road. That said, Jack wasn’t ever just about himself. Quite the opposite: Jack’s tenacity at getting audience members to pay a pitiable cover charge for performing musicians at Philadelphia house parties was legendary. I found out later that this was not an activity limited to Philly.

Jack looked out for Arthur, too. In early 2009, not long after we put the magazine on hiatus, sweet Michael “Mountainhood” Hilde organized Arthurdesh, an impromptu benefit concert for the magazine in Brooklyn, produced by the wonderful Todd P. Jack was one of the first performers to donate his services. Jack not only played onstage that night—a set that, typically for Jack, shushed and awed and moved a crowd waiting for louder fare—but he also helped hustle stuff at the Arthur merch table, standing there next to fellow performer Peter Stampfel, perhaps the most effortlessly hip/soulful odd couple I’ve ever been lucky enough to gaze upon.

Four years later, we’re back in action. I like to think that Jack would be happy to see Arthur alive again, and happier that we are charging five dollars for it, so that contributors can get paid, and nobody goes into debt doing it. Lesson learned, Jack.

Thank you for supporting our efforts by paying for the rag you’re holding. It’s good to be alive again, doing something that we love.

You might even call it a collective dream.

Jay Babcock

Joshua Tree, California

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT (Arthur Yahoo blog, 2007)

This was the first, introductory post for Arthur Magazine’s little-seen (and now erased) blog on the Yahoo Music site. Kind of a statement of purpose for Arthur circa 2007. It is a bit self-righteous/snide/grandiose, but geez, look at the dumbness that was going on. Different era now but maybe it has some resonance? I dunno. This was written for a general-ish audience (that didn’t really exist, haha) and it’s deliberately provocative. And it’s dated. But whatever. There it is. I was often exasperated by dumb stuff in the mainstream media, had trouble just ignoring it.

Hidden in Plain Sight

by Jay Babcock

I was recently asked by a newspaper reporter to comment on artists licensing their music for use in commercials. For a certain generation of fan, or music journalist, I guess, there is still some vestigial outrage over a musician playing for his supper. For these folks, selling your music to soundtrack an iTunes or VW ad is a big sell-out, a violation of some unspoken, unsigned compact between artist and fan regarding the purposes to which art can be rightly put. Few of us are surprised anymore by this casual betrayal—there’s all sorts of justifications for it, of course, and we all know it’s gonna happen anyway—but still, it stings to be reminded, once again, that nothing is sacred, not even our holy texts (cf. the Doors’ “Break On Through,” Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”). We hate to learn that even our monastics have a price.

Get over it, says everyone under 35. Raised on the Market Knows Best principles promulgated through hip-hop, sports, celebrities, government, public education and other wings of corporate capitalism (the real winner after the failed counterculture revolution of the Sixties), most of Gen X and Gen 9-11 don’t blink once at all the formerly taboo-on-their-face money-makin’ practices that have become commonplace in today’s music industry. (There’s that word, “industry”: whenever something stops being a Mode of Expression or Field of Endeavor and becomes an Industry, you can be sure a steep decline in quality is around the corner.) For most of us, there’s simply no issue here. An artist, if they’re not a fool or some weirdo on a self-denial trip, will of course sign a deal with a record label owned by a sleazy transnational corporation, perform on tours sponsored by other sleazy corporations and the US military recruitment machine, and participate in whatever crypto-payola scams are going on right now (radio station “charity” wintertime acoustic concerts being possibly the most egregious offenders in this category) in the hopes of getting some airplay, some screentime, some press, some publicity, some tour sponsorship, some ringtone deal, some movie soundtrack deal, some videogame deal, some slot in Starbucks in-store programming and yes of course, the grand slam, at least for a “new”/”fresh”/”buzz”/”breaking” band: a TV AD DEAL. Those who fail to do so are unlucky, or unworthy, market failures, yanked offstage by the proverbial cane—held, of course, by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.

But isn’t there a larger question here?

What if we turn it around a bit, and ask WHY IS IT that the only way a young musician can get across to the general public these days (to the degree that one exists anymore, having been successfully niche-ized, atomized and banalified in pursuit of corporate profits, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…) is as wallpaper for some other product? Why is it that we can’t hear new music on the radio, or see new music performed on television? In other words, why isn’t music on its own, given its own space in the still-powerful mass media? Isn’t music good enough? Or, could it be that it’s just not profitable enough? And if the latter is the case, shouldn’t we ask why the mass media system–and our planet’s airwaves, which belong to all of us–structured in such a way that our right to meaningful, rich, sensuous, full-of-life art is increasingly denied?

What I’m saying is: artists have not failed their obligation to their art by selling out to the system. Instead, the system itself has failed the artists, and by extension, the listening public. But even as music-as-itself has been deemed insufficiently profitable, people still want to hear it…and so our nation’s finest corporate super-brains have diligently supplied us with the most efficient, state-of-the-art music industry schemes available: Fox’s “American Idol”—a quasi-industrial training film disguised as a TV game show/soap opera, an idea borrowed from the Brits—and CBS’s corporate reality show “Rock Star,” which, in its initial season, featured actual humans competing on camera to replace the dead guy in INXS, the whole affair breathlessly chronicled by the co-hosting team of Brooke Burke and Dave Navarro.

Dave Navarro: now there’s a name to conjure with. Is there any other musician in recent memory who has so thoroughly–and publicly–squandered and betrayed all of his promise, talent, credibitlity and integrity? The man who who played guitar in Jane’s Addiction–a radical, somewhat-misunderstood band unfortunately overshadowed by the Lollapalooza colossus that its singer spawned–now spends his short time on the planet doing play-by-play for a fake band of rock careerists and hosting oh-so-dangerous-by-the-numbers premiere parties for insipid “torture porn” feature films. Dave has just launched “Spread Entertainment,” which is all about his deep desire to “to use the Internet to support artists and see things that are out there that other corporate structures aren’t allowing us to see. It seems with satellite TV, the Internet, magazines—there’s almost so many options, and we’re only seeing the same five things.” A rather breathtaking statement, asking us to somehow ignore Dave’s active participation in all the aforementioned craptaculars, as well as his “work” on the execrable Camp Freddy Radio program, broadcast Saturday nights in Los Angeles.

Which rather conveniently brings us back to where we started: one of the reasons musicians, especially young ones, license their music to all comers on the TV ad front, is because they can’t get substantial radio airtime anywhere, not even self-styled “indie”/”we can play whatever we want” shows like “Camp Freddy.” And so, everyone loses.

Case in point: on Saturday night, March 3, driving downtown to see Marnie Stern play at The Smell in her first-ever L.A. gig, my radio-scanning ended, naturally, when I heard Van Halen. Happiness! Until, at the song’s conclusion, it became apparent that I’d accidentally tuned in to the dread Camp Freddy. Now, this was in the week just after Eddie had announced that, unlike Amy Winehouse, he would go back to rehab, which in turn meant the summer’s Van Halen reunion tour with Diamond Dave Lee Roth and Eddie’s 15-year-old son Wolfgang on bass, was off—suckage!—which got non-Diamond Dave, that is Dave Navarro, talking about how Eddie’s signature fingertapping guitar style, once widely imitated, was now obsolete. Which was pretty laughable, given that within a half-hour of his making that comment, Marnie Stern was finger-tapping our faces off at the Smell. (Don’t believe me? Watch her and the equally remarkable free rock drummer Zach Hill in duo performance here.)

Now, if ever there was an artist worthy of mass media coverage, of being granted access to the airwaves, of being let through the gates to those of us who, in spite of everything, still have curious, engaged ears, it’s a once-in-a-decade (or more?) talent like Marnie Stern. You want finger tapping? Well, here you go! But she doesn’t even register with Navarro and the other gatekeepers, because they’ve all been paid off. Or are lazy. Or willfully ignorant. Or compliant. Doing what they’re told, letting in what the robots tell them to: drones for hire, de facto censors of consciousness. Bow down to the new kommisars: for-hire ad agencies and marketing firms, like Deutsch LA, whose boss told the Los Angeles Times last week that “Everyone has a cool friend that exposes them to new things—the idea is that a brand can become that kind of channel.” Word to the wise: a corporation doesn’t want to be your friend. It wants your money.

Opening up the gates, or rather, ignoring them altogether, is what Arthur—the print magazine, the website, the label, the festivals, and now this Yahoo!Music blog—is all about. Arthur isn’t for hire. (Arthur’s not even for sale—the magazine is free.) Arthur is a labor of love for those of us working here—it’s not a marketing initiative, not a quest for lucre. (Some things really are more important than money.) And so, when we’re given the opportunity to do what we want, we do what we love: we champion the musicians, the artists, the thinkers out there who are doing extraordinary work, who you might dig if only somebody hipped you to them—somebody who hasn’t been paid to do the job, somebody you could trust. That’s been our aim since we started Arthur in 2002: to be a learned, enthusiastic guide to the bustling, effervescent, mindblowing, and endlessly re-generating underground–the loamy place where everything good comes from. The place that denies entry to no one.

Not even Dave Navarro.

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ECSTATIC UPHEAVAL: A conversation with artist David Chaim Smith (Arthur, 2013)

Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April 2013)….

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DIAGRAMMING THE DIVINE SPARK
Is there a way to examine the nature of existence at its very foundation? Esoteric mapmaker DAVID CHAIM SMITH say yes—but there’s a price.
by Jay Babcock

I first encountered David Chaim Smith’s remarkable, bewildering work through Pam Grossman’s Phantasmaphile newsletter, a daily email bulletin spotlighting a contemporary or historic personage up to something witchy and beautiful, usually in the visual arts. Smith’s work was particularly striking in its unusual combination of diagrammatic composition, simple media (pencil!?!) and unapologetically rarefied Kabbalistic-Gnostic content. Generally that would be more than enough to warrant further investigation, but it was the work’s difficult-to-grok provenance that intrigued me the most: these pieces looked like plates that could have been included in Alexander Roob’s Taschen compendium of dazzling Medieval alchemical artwork, The Hermetic Museum (alternative title, courtesy of Adam Egypt Mortimer: The Original Face Melter Times A Thousand). They seemed like the kind of work that’s usually brought to light by accident, decades after the a recluse’s death or disappearance (or committal to a mental ward): strange, highly charged devotional work rescued from a trashbin, the details of its artist’s life and practice gone to dust, Iain Sinclair on the case.

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And yet, the author of these stupefying drawings is alive and well—David Chaim Smith [above] is a contemporary New York artist with an MFA, a publisher and (until recently) a gallery. Despite living a semi-monastic life, Smith seems eager to engage with a curious public. He has a website. He’s on Facebook. Dig a little and you’ll find a few occultist-oriented podcast interviews and accounts of public talks he’s given in the last few years around the publication of his two books—2010’s esoteric exegesis The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis: Commentary on Genesis 1-3 (Daat Press) and 2012’s massive art/text collection The Sacrificial Universe (Fulgur)—and a 2010 gallery show. And now, here he is on the other end of the telephone line in late January, just days after completing his new book, Blazing Dew of Stars, set for publication this springOctober 23, 2013 by Fulgur. A surprisingly garrulous fellow, Smith spoke frankly about who he is, where he comes from and how his day-to-day life and spiritual practice generates such artwork. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

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THE BIOPHONIC MAN: A conversation with BERNIE KRAUSE on the wild origins of human music (Arthur, 2013)

Originally published in Arthur No. 35…

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THE BIOPHONIC MAN
Guitarist, composer and analog synthesizer pioneer BERNIE KRAUSE left the recording studio to find that really wild sound. What he discovered was far more profound.
by Jay Babcock
Illustrations by Kevin Hooyman

“…The entity’s life will be tempered with song, music, those things having to do with nature.” — Edgar Cayce, the 20th-century American psychic, from a ‘life reading’ given when Bernie Krause was six weeks old, as reported in Krause’s Notes From the Wild (Ellipsis Arts, 1996)

Has any single person—any entity—ever been better situated to explore music’s Biggest Questions—that is: what is it, what’s it for, why do we like it, where did it come from, why does it sound the way it does—than Bernie Krause?

Check the biography. Born in 1938, Krause grew up a violin-playing prodigy with poor eyesight in post-World War II Detroit. By his teens he had switched to guitar and was making extra money sitting in as a session player at Motown. In 1963, he took over the Pete Seeger position in foundational modern American folk band The Weavers for what would be their final year of performances. He then moved west to study at Mills College, where avant garde composers Stockhausen and Pauline Oliveros were in residence. Soon he encountered jazz musician and inventive early analog synth player Paul Beaver, who was introducing the Moog to psychedelic pop music. They formed Beaver & Krause, an in-demand artistic partnership that released a string of utterly unclassifiable acoustic-electronic albums in addition to doing studio work with adventurous pop musicians (The Doors, George Harrison, Stevie Wonder, etc.) and composing and recording for stylish TV and film projects (The Twilight Zone, Rosemary’s Baby, Performance, etc.). After Beaver’s sudden death in 1975, Krause began to shift his attention towards field recordings of natural soundscapes.

This wasn’t such a great leap. In the late ‘60s, inspired by an idea from their friend Van Dyke Parks, Beaver and Krause had first tried to record outdoor sounds for use on their eco-musical album In a Wild Sanctuary. Now, Krause followed this thread more intensely, traveling to seemingly every far corner of the globe, innovating techniques and utilizing new technology to more accurately capture the sound of what’s left of Earth’s rapidly diminishing wild.

What Krause discovered there, and how it compares to what we now experience in daily life in the un-Wild, is the subject of his latest book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, published last year. Writing with a scientist’s precision, an artist’s poetic wonder and a human being’s persistent outrage, Krause tosses in astonishing highlights from decades of field notes (elk in the American West are into reverb; the sound of corn growing is “staccato-like clicks and squeaks…like rubbing dry hands across the surface of a party balloon”; ants sing by rubbing their legs across their abdomens; the fingernail-sized Pacific tree frog can be heard more than a hundred yards away; “You can actually determine the temperature by counting the number of chirps made by certain crickets”; etc.) as he make several interweaving arguments about the aforementioned Big Questions of Music. One thesis is that the sound of animals in a healthy habitat is organized, a sort of proto-orchestra. What follows from this is the startling argument that gives the book its title: our music comes from early humans mimicking the sounds of the soundscapes they were enveloped in—we “transform(ed) the rhythms of sound and motion in the natural world into music and dance… [O]ur songs emulate the piping, percussion, trumpeting, polyphony, and complex rhythmic output of the animals in the place we lived.” And we developed our music(s) not just by imitating animals such as the common potoo, who sings the pentatonic scale, but also by mimicking other natural sounds: in one of the book’s most striking episodes, Krause recalls hearing the church organ-like sound of wind passing over broken reeds in Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon. “Now you know where we got our music,” a Nez Perce tribal elder tells him. “And that’s where you got yours, too.”

This past spring, I interviewed the entity Bernie Krause via the far-from-ideal set-up of two speaker phones. Ah well. Following is some of our conversation, condensed by me, and edited with additional thoughts by Bernie via subsequent emails.

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THEIR WAR: Black Flag, the First Five Years

A version of this article ran in MOJO’s December 2001 issue — the one with Michael Jackson on the cover. That version was 6,000 words long. What follows is my original 9200-word draft. Also, you might want to check out “Black Flag: A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance,” a companion piece that I assembled for a special issue of the LAWeekly. There is a bit of overlap between the two, but not too much. If ever there was a band that deserved multiple histories from different angles, it was this one, I think. Enjoy. —Jay Babcock

THEIR WAR
or, Black Flag, 1977-1981.
or, Black Flag: The First Five Years
or, The Making of Hardcore: the problem child of punk rock

by Jay Babcock

“When I first joined Black Flag, I thought I was ready,” Henry Rollins told Mojo recently. “Greg Ginn taught me otherwise.”

During the four years preceding the then-20-year-old Rollins’ entrance as Black Flag’s fourth singer in midsummer 1981, the proto-hardcore punk rock band had already become a formidable musical and subcultural force. They’d looped across North America on epic-length low-budget tours, released a string of full-frontal, open-throttle, dark-humored EPs on their own label, and had become an underground sensation despite ongoing poverty, record industry disinterest, lead singer churn, news media hysteria regarding the violence surrounding the band’s performances and, most ominously, an ever-escalating amount of real-life conflict with local police departments. In those years, Black Flag had perfected a practice-tour-record-24/7/365-Do-It-Yourself work/life ethic that few people–even a young Henry Rollins–were prepared to adopt as their own.

Almost all of the songs on Black Flag’s Damaged–the band’s landmark debut album released 20 years ago this month–were written by Flag founder-guitarist Greg Ginn and/or bassist Chuck Dukowski before Rollins joined the band. It’s a remarkable, uncompromising album. But some would argue that _Everything Went Black_ and _The First Four Years_ — compilations of the band’s earlier recordings featuring vocalists Keith Morris, Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena — may have been even better.

“In my opinion, the finest Black Flag record is The First Four Years,” Rollins himself wrote in Get In the Van, his 1994 Black Flag memoirs. He still stands by that assessment today: “Greg had great work all through the rest of the Flag stuff but there’s something special about that early stuff. There wasn’t anything like it anywhere else. [Singing those songs] was a challenge because they were all great singers and I didn’t think that I measured up, really. I did the best I could.”

This is the story behind Black Flag’s first four years: how a group of self-described “geeky, nerdy beach rats” from Hermosa Beach, California took the punk rock emanating from New York and the UK and reshaped it into something more intense and single-minded. Aggressive, furious, desperate and darkly satirical music. Music completely divorced from fashion moves and art-school pretenses. Music that almost no one was ready for.


*****

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OUT, DEMONS, OUT!: The 1967 Exorcism of the Pentagon and the Birth of Yippie! (Arthur, 2004)


This piece was originally published in Arthur No. 13 (Nov. 2004), with cover artwork by John Coulthart and design by William T. Nelson, pictured above (click image to view at larger size). A correction involving Cosmic Charlie published in a later issue has been embedded in the text here at the most natural point. I’m sorry that I’ve been unable to include the many fantastic photographs from the print article here. However, I have added a still from the film “Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up” by Dick Fontaine, which we did not have access to at the time of print publication into the text, and there are more stills from various films appended. —Jay Babcock

Clip from Arthur No. 13’s Table of Contents page, featuring photo by Robert A. Altman.


OUT, DEMONS, OUT!

On October 21, 1967, the Pentagon came under a most unconventional assault.

An oral history by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Michael Simmons and Jay Babcock

* * *

INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL SIMMONS
By Autumn of 1967, the “police action” in Vietnam had escalated. The United States of America waged War—that hideous manifestation of the human race’s worst instincts—against the small, distant, sovereign land. 485,600 American troops were then stationed in Nam; 9,353 would die in ’67 alone. We were there under false pretenses (the “attack’ at the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened), operating under a paranoid doctrine (the Domino Theory, fretting that Vietnamese Communists fighting a civil war in their own country with popular support would envelop all of Southeast Asia and end up invading Dubuque, Iowa). Seven million tons of bombs would eventually be dropped, as opposed to two million during World War II. Indiscriminate use of gruesome weaponry was deployed, most infamously napalm, a jelly that sticks to—and burns through—human skin. Saturation bombings, free-fire zones, massive defoliation with the carcinogen Agent Orange. “Destroying the village to save it,” as one American military man put it.

For a generation that remembered the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals after WW II, something had to be done. Genocidal fugitive Adolf Eichmann’s “I was just following orders” excuse would not fly. The draft was sending 18-year-olds off to die. A domestic anti-war movement emerged, as had a counterculture of hairy young people who rejected the militarism, greed, sexual repression, and stunted consciousness of their parents and leaders to pursue Joy and Sharing as well as Dope, Rock and Roll, and Fucking in the Streets. Pundits spoke of The Generation Gap. A quaking chasm had split the nation.

San Francisco painter Michael Bowen had a dream of people coming together to celebrate his city’s burgeoning hippie subculture, and so he and his wife Martine initiated the Great Human Be-In on Sunday, January 14, 1967. Sub-billed as A Gathering of the Tribes, 10,000 hippies, radicals and free spirits convened in Golden Gate Park. Beat poets emceed (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lenore Kandel), rock bands rocked (Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans), Hell’s Angels returned lost kids to their mommies – and the cops busted no one, despite rampant open marijuana use. For many, the realization that there were other Martians was transcendental. Berkeley anti-war activist Jerry Rubin gave a speech, but his narrow political rap was dubbed “too histrionic” by Ginsberg and many in the crowd. It fortuitously forked Rubin’s direction. “It was the first time I did see a new society,” he said later. “I saw there was no need for a political statement. I didn’t understand that until then, either.”

Events ending with the suffix “In” became the rage. Bob Fass hosted the hippest radio show in the country, “Radio Unnameable” on New York’s WBAI. The all-night gab-and-music fest was Freak Centra, functioning as a pre-internet audio website. Regular guests included Realist editor Paul Krassner (dubbed “Father of the Underground Press”), underground film director Robert Downey Sr. (father and namesake of…), actor/writer Marshall Efron (arguably the funniest man on the planet), and a manic activist-gone-psychedelic named Abbie Hoffman—all rapping madly, verbally riffing and improvising like musicians. One night after participating in a UsCo avant-garde multi-media show of projections, movies, music, etc., at an airplane hangar, Fass stopped by nearby JFK International Airport and noticed a group of three dozen young people—clearly ripped to the tits—communally entranced by a giant mobile centerpiecing a terminal. The vast open spaces of an airport, with jet planes and stars in the sky, were the stage for dreams to come to life. Fass flashed on the infinite possibilities.

He conceived a Fly-In at JFK and announced it on Radio Unnameable. Though Saturday night, February 11, was freezing cold, 3,000 of the underground’s finest came to sing Beatles songs, torch reefers, dance the body electric, and groove with their sisters and brothers. “One of the things that happened,” Fass observed, “was that there was such a colossal amount of human connection that there was something akin to feedback that happened, and people really began to experience not ‘happiness,’ but Ecstasy and Joy. We’re planning another one at your house.”

New York responded to San Francisco’s Be-In with its own. Key to its success was Jim Fouratt, a young actor who’d become one of the most effective hippie organizers on the Lower East Side. Promotion for the event cost $250, which paid for posters and leaflets. On Easter Sunday, March 27, 10,000 full and part-time hippies came together—some in the carnal definition—at Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. It was a glistening, no bad vibes, lysergic day. Fouratt was central to virtually every NYC hip community event, including the infamous Soot-In at Consolidated Edison, where he, Abbie Hoffman, and others dumped bags of nasty black soot at the coal burning, energy company’s offices, in a protest that prefigured and influenced the birth of the environmental movement.

Emmett Grogan was a brilliant and enigmatic prankster/con man at the heart of San Francisco’s do-goodnik anarcho-rogues the Diggers. He suggested to his friend Bob Fass that a Sweep-In would strengthen the momentum the Fly-In had sparked. The idea was to “clean up the Lower East Side” area of NYC where the hippies dwelled. Fass conspired with Krassner and Abbie and listeners on his radio show, and they chose Seventh Street, where Krassner lived. The buzz grew louder and one day an inquiring bureaucrat from the Sanitation Department called Radio Unnameable. The potentates of garbage at City Hall were nervous about these beatniks with brooms taking their gig. While appearing cooperative on the phone and in a later meeting, the city pranked the pranksters on the day of the Sweep-In, April 8. When thousands of mop-wielding longhairs appeared at 11 a.m., they beheld a garbage-free, sparkling fresh, squeaky clean street of slums—courtesy of the Sanitation Department. Fass and Krassner were amused that they’d actually forced the city to do its job. Unfazed, they moved the Sweep-In to Third Street. When a city garbage truck turned the corner, the street peeps leaped on it and cleaned it as well.

No single human—other than Tribal Elder Allen Ginsberg—was as influential on this emerging culture than Ed Sanders. He led the satirical-protest-smut-folk-rock band The Fugs with East Village legend Tuli Kupferberg, ran the Peace Eye Bookstore (and community center) on 10th Street, published Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, made films like Mongolian Clusterfuck, wrote poetry, rabble roused for myriad peacenik causes and cannabis legalization. Sanders—one of the first public figures to live seamlessly within realms of Politics, Art, and Fun—was a first cousin to Che Guevara’s paradigmatic New Man—albeit thoroughly American and anti-authoritarian.

But the Life Actor who embodies the Revolutionary Prankster in 20th-century history books is Abbie Hoffman. And he is where our story begins…

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