As Octavia Butler, Seattle-based author and national treasure (and heroine to Ishmael Butler) once said in response to a question about terrorism in the future, she was more afraid of our negligence. Outlandishly benefiting the rich (such as tax cuts before and after 9/11), a lack of innovation in the sciences (giving up on things like the space program), and persistent bigotry seemed to be guiding this country for as far back as we remember.
But we will prevail, because America is based on the theories and actions of weirdos, and in this world the weird will prevail. Three great new, lavish, history-mining books celebrate this deliriously esoteric nation fire-branded by barely subterranean secret societies, scary cults, and hedonistic freethinkers. I highly recommend all of them.
Port Townsend is the City of Dreams -- it was supposed to be the big port city in our area a century or so ago, but since Seattle and Tacoma took that gig over, it’s hosted generations of artists a little on the outside of cosmopolitan politeness. PT-based Feral House’s publisher Adam Parfrey is a great example of a literary pioneer who has published dashing chronicles about how companies connected to Nasa were built from a milieu of occult-fascinated drug-taking orgy indulgers; the biographies of mystical musicians like uber-head Roky Erickson and cursed crooner Russ Columbo; and proudly promotes essential underground screeds like American Hardcore and Apocalypse Culture (l & ll).
Parfrey himself has worked with Craig Heimbichner to compile an extravagant visual and text compilation of the various fraternal orders that at one time most Americans belonged to. Half a century ago, if some of your relatives weren’t Masons, or Elks, or one of the many other ritual-based lodges, it was probably unusual. Ritual America is a very funny, sometimes scary, beautiful-to-look-at treasure of oblique community peer pressure that dates back before we even were a nation. The celebration of drinking and raunchiness of hazing, the outright racism and sexism of members privately and in civic functions, and the dank sweat of male dominance will probably disturb you if you’ve kept your uncle’s Fez-like hat for nostalgia’s sake.
But the draw to the 400 rarely seen images in the book, from passed-by-hand pamphlets, personal scrapbooks, and guides held sacred by the fraternal orders, will be exactly the same as why you probably can’t stop watching Twin Peaks no matter how outlandish its plots would get. This is artwork and anecdotes about “ordinary” Americans, proving that our national culture doesn’t need conspiracy theories about international bankers or “guiding hands” to creep future generations out -- evidence is here that our own families and employers were doing some very strange things in awfully plain site, for generations.
Propaganda And The Holy Writ Of The Process Church Of The Final Judgment is a great Feral House book(end) to the previous tome -- even more luxurious, and far more disturbing too, as it gloriously shows the bizarre underground lit expressions of a spiritually-inspired art-terrorist group from the everything-comes-apart 60s.
The magazines collected for this volume are from a Church that embraced both Jehovah and Lucifer, and ran editorials alongside each other praising either. Caught up in this delirious Gnostic-apocalyptic vibe would include many Los Angeles musicians, most remarkably Charlie Manson. Last year FH published Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Inside Story of The Process Church of the Final Judgment and put out a startling accompanying CD of the organization’s hypnotic psyche-praise chants and trances. This was all accomplished with the assistance of Timothy Wyllie and fellow ex-members of the inimical body heretic, detailing the believable psychodramas and extraordinary reaches into magick-dallying celebrity culture The Process courted.
Why should you care about creepy fanzines about god, death, free love, etc., from the Age of the Aquarius? Because the alley-spawned, art school damaged, chemically-infused sinister shine in their aesthetic can be heard in the music of a lot of bands these days that are crawling into the mainstream (Odd Future, you’d love this stuff). Every time I look at its psychotropic pages I hear the bass-line from The Black Angels’ “Young Men Dead.”
This glistening, glowering coffee table book from a velvety chamber of divine infernal dementia comes with an audio download of Genesis P-Orridge, Lydia Lunch, Adam Parfrey, and Wyllie reading the final issue of The Process, the Gods of War. Perfect to listen to when you aren’t strapped in for some syrup-heavy skronk-house or dusted-weed kill-core.
The Fugs’ Ed Sanders’ Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, The Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side is, believe it or not, far less sensitive peeps-damaging than the Feral House releases. Oh sure, there’s still plenty of darkness -- JFK and Robert Kennedy assassination ruminations, cops busting poets for reciting verse in coffee houses, junkies galore, the soul-shattering heart-break of Vietnam.
But the book is actually a joy to read, filled with wonderful accounts of hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol, publishing mimeograph chapbooks by William Burroughs, publishing zines when famous national poets would contribute to your wild efforts, seeing Dylan and Ochs and adventurous NYC jazz artists and Lenny Bruce make incredible music and piss off The Man with expressions of absolute joy and protest. All detailed through the open, far-from-bleary, happy-as-hell-to-be-there senses of a a bushy, small town college boy from Blue Springs, Missouri.
When I first became a punk, The Fugs would always be on mix tapes we swapped. Their oeuvre was far from classy, but their jams (sometimes with people like Ginsberg) were too filled with a fraternal hedonism, a freak out to implore us to grope each other and gobble as many intoxicants as possible to attain higher states of ecstasy. These were way-before-their-time “anti-folk” songs created by Ed Sanders and friends (including poet Tuli Kupferberg) in a period when they were also making indie films about their friends raving on with wild stories about how the country was founded on speed (Amphetamine Head), maintaining Secret Locations where fresh art and innocent orgies could be recorded, leading up to making footage of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and conspiring to bring down the big bad voodoo daddy of them all, the Pentagon.
This memoir is delightfully illustrated with flyers for Sanders’ contemporaneous Peace Eye bookstore happenings and mimeographed creations; song lists for lusted-after bootlegs of The Fugs; and detailed by explanations of how all their songs were written and recorded. It doesn’t flinch at reporting the perennial reasons for the race riots and class war in that era -- and no doubt in eras to come. A book of freak genealogy and prophecy any fan of fringe rock and politics shouldn’t miss.