By Robert Christgau /
August 27, 2013
I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, for two reasons. The first is the glut of rockbooks written by boomer musicians with time on their hands for boomer fans with memories deteriorating. The second is that I’m writing a memoir of my own, and always immerse in work that might clarify the project at hand. Ed Sanders’s Fug You fits both bills: the Missouri-born poet, publisher, classics major, and peace creep who led the band that provides his title lived within blocks of me in the East Village for the entirety of the high ’60s, and I knew him slightly. Originally published in 1988 and reissued twice since, Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water is a less obvious case. But science fiction meistersinger Delany, author of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Triton, the beloved Dhalgren, and many others, is like me a product of the New York public school system, born in April 1942, and was also a Lower East Sider for much of the ’60s. In his 1979 memoir/”essay” Heavenly Breakfast, he recounts his six 1967-68 months in a 2nd Street commune with the never-recorded band that provides his title. The Motion of Light in Water reaches back earlier. Although never more acute than when revisiting the Bronx High School of Science, its main event is Delany’s four-plus years, summer 1961 to autumn 1965, in “squalid” apartments on 5th and then 6th between B and C with his wife, the poet and Bronx Science graduate Marilyn Hacker.
Two things about memoirs often annoy me: they go on too much about the nature of memory and there’s not enough sex in them. Memory is indeed unreliable; memory does oft support alternate, nay, contradictory narratives; memory speaks loud and ineffable to our mortal selves’ longing for an immortality that would drive us nuts if it proved our fate. Got it. As for sex, it’s not because I like pornography, which I do, and which performs its arousal function quite well with no outside help. Nor is it because I’m nosy, which I am, and aren’t you? It’s because in my experience sex and the love that generally comes with it‑-a big qualification, I know, but even memoirists who’ve had a lot more loveless sex than I have either include sex in their primary love relationships or should explain why they don’t — plays a determinative role in most lives. Trying to avoid this evasion in my own book, I soon came up against the logic of discretion — however ready I may be to give up my own privacy, I don’t have the right to demand that of anyone else. Nevertheless, it’s a formal problem that cries out for a solution.
Rereading two classics I’ve long admired — Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki — I was struck by how thoroughly both authors ignored their wives, but those were troubled relationships in more circumspect times. Less acceptable is how few of the contemporary memoirs I’ve downed recently do justice to the power of sexual fulfillment and domestic partnership. Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22, for instance, profiles so many bigshots I think I’ll just can my Mick Jagger story altogether, but never reveals when or why he married either of his wives, the second of whom helped him through quite a lot as I understand it. Major exceptions are Richard Hell’s tell-all, David Carr’s scabrous The Night of the Gun, and Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, which counterposes her affair with Jack Kerouac against auxiliary relationships I found just as interesting. And of these, only the supposedly titillating Hell provides much sexual detail.
Since the ’60s Fugs may have been the raunchiest rock group ever — Sanders’s “Slum Goddess” intro began, “She’s lying down in viscid, skooshy strands of cherry Jell-O, buttocks popping in arpeggios of lust . . . ” — one might expect Sanders to be like Hell, but no. He cheerfully describes the lost 16-mm footage he shot of couples copulating on the floor of the “secret location” where he mimeographed Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts — a chip-on-shoulder poetry outlet that once designated itself “the magazine of street-fucking” — and in the Allen Street apartment where he gave away speed to speed the filming of the never-seen Amphetamine Head: A Study of Power in America. He recalls many occasions musical and political when he implored his public to “grope for peace.” But does he himself grope once in the pages of his “Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side”? He does not.
With no access to the real dirt, I’m certain that sometimes he was just kidding, as when a police sergeant who hates him on principle fails to find “the Ankh symbol tattooed on his penis” and “the first 53 hieroglyphs of Akh-en-Aten’s Hymn to the Sun Disk on his nuts” even though both delights were attested to in his pornrag. I’m also certain that in later years, after the successfully revived Fugs had recorded an extraordinary 12-minute suite on polymorphism, mortality, and mating for life called “Dreams of Sexual Perfection,” he had second thoughts about the band’s sexy bits, just as Fug You regrets the needle imagery he fooled with. And I note that a special hero of the memoir is his wife of 52 years, Miriam. Three times she talks him down from bad trips, and though she appears seldom elsewhere, Sanders’s last paragraph begins: “The 1960s had ended, and Miriam and I were still together. We had survived the Revolution. I was very grateful for that.”
A pack rat taught by Allen Ginsberg “to clip articles. I mean oodles of articles,” Sanders holds his meditations on memory down to a prefatory pledge to settle no scores; after all, “I was sometimes imperfect in my behavior toward others, tending at times toward arrogance and egotistical smugness.” His approach is flatly factual, based on his archive and broken down into hunks of a page or a paragraph rather than flowing narratively or developing thematically (and illustrated with the “glyphs” he used to draw freehand on mimeo stencils). Expedient though this method might seem, I loved the bite-sized pieces myself — as with pistachios, there’s a just-one-more effect. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Sanders’s longtime bond with Andy Warhol. A radical pacifist turned rabble-rousing anarcho-utopian who’s now a “European-style social democrat,” he also admired JFK and RFK. Having helped found the Yippies, he was appalled to hear Jerry Rubin call RFK’s assassination “good news” because it meant the absurdist politicos could proceed with their Chicago plans. That was a turning point. But it didn’t stop him from immersing in Chicago or testifying in Rubin’s defense.
As regards memory, Delany is Sanders’s opposite — from its title on, The Motion of Light in Water is bound up in instability, stepping aside to undermine its own reliability with disquisitions on “parallel narrative” that come naturally to a creator of imaginary worlds who’s immersed in structuralism and its brainspawn since the ’60s. He’s Sanders’s thrice-dislocated opposite in other things too — homosexual (although polymorphous enough to sleep with women and marry one), African-American (although middle-class and light enough to pass), and acutely dyslexic (although he too has studied Greek). And as regards sex, well, he leaves Sanders behind. As a lifelong erotic adventurer who believes sex is always “personally difficult” and usually “socially difficult,” of course Delany writes about it. The Motion of Light in Water is full of explicit encounters, most of them gay and what some would call impersonal, a characterization Delany vehemently denies, but warmest and also hottest in a menage he and his wife share with a rough-hewn male friend. Around when Sanders was introducing “Slum Goddess” in 1968, Delaney followed the nine science fiction novels and novellas he’d then published with Ace Books by concocting the semiotic, arousing child-and-death-porn minisaga Equinox.
Although I myself value the Fugs’ legacy not much less than, say, the Byrds’, history will probably rank Delany’s art higher than Sanders’s. But he’s never made much of a living writing — long an academic without B.A., he teaches because he needs the money — and although each man proved himself a titan before the high ’60s even began, they were very different status-wise back then. Where the Peace Eye Bookstore was a community center, the Fugs the first indie-rock band to breach the Billboard album chart, and Sanders’s unflinching 1971 Charles Manson report The Family a bestseller, Delany’s feat of selling his first novel at 19 left him neither rich nor famous, and for most of the ’60s he got by busking in folk clubs and buckling down to straight jobs. From their different vantages, both writers recount everyday kindnesses and heroic shows of mutual support that seem more historically significant in retrospect than the counterculture’s inevitable destruction by war creeps zeroing in on its weaknesses, and both praise rent control, a left-populist leftover that succored hungry artists as watered-down rent stabilization would not. Still, it’s Delany who has the kinder and lower-rent tale to tell.
At its core The Motion of Light in Water is the story of two young artists who marry long before they’re ready — Hacker gets pregnant, then miscarries — and try to love each other in an open relationship that even a doctrinaire monogamist like me finds emotionally credible. It’s a book about no lock on the street door, about reading Middlemarch in a day to forget how scared you are, about the man doing the housework, about sexism in jeans design and the book trade, about the endlessly courteous W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman coming to dinner, about how many truckers you can suck in a night, about visiting your wife’s lover’s much nicer place, about shutting down an argument by talking literature, about stolen goods and health crises and the rat on the sink and friends dropping by to mess up your night or your life, about not being able to stand her another day and hanging in for four years because you love this now-blocked poet so much you quote her published and unpublished work 25 times (and it’s all good too). It’s exceptionally novelistic and more evocative than Fug You. I only got to East 9th Street six months before Delany left Marilyn — with whom he later had a daughter — and flew to Europe. But the marginal life he celebrates feels like the East Village I moved to.
By 1967, many things had changed, for me and the neighborhood, and I expect I would have been unconvinced by a visit to the commune Delany reconstructs from his notebooks in Heavenly Breakfast. But though some may find this benevolent microcosm harder to believe than Triton, I feel enriched to have encountered it. Delany has said that one incontrovertible social benefit of literature is that it teaches compassion, and compassion, often for human beings most readers would do their best to ignore, rises to the surface of almost everything he writes. In yet another memoir — the charming, sexually explicit Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, illustrated by Delany’s friend Mia Wolff, first published in 1997, and now reissued by Fantagraphics with illuminating addenda — Delany tells how he got together with the love of his life, a homeless bookseller with whom he’s now lived for 22 years. Three of its 44 pages are devoted to how filthy Dennis was when Delany brought him to the Skyline Hotel the first time they had sex — the innermost of his three pairs of socks had decayed to oozy shreds on his feet. Yet Dennis — like Sonny and Bob, nice guys some would dismiss as rough trade who play major roles in The Motion of Light in Water — comes alive as both sex object and autonomous subject. He’s a good man and an appealing love partner. I hope I can write as well about the women I’ve loved. It’s part of the job.Tags: ROCK & ROLL &
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About the Writer
Robert Christgau's writing on music and books has appeared in numerous publications. The contents of his long-running music column "Consumer Guide" can be found at robertchristgau.com. His most recent book is the memoir Going into the City.