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Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Paul Krassner's 50 Years of Misadventures in Satire and Counterculture

An interview with co-founder of the Yippies and legendary satirist Krassner on his new book and his recent forays into journalism and activism.
 
 
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Last month, Paul Krassner released a new and expanded edition of his acclaimed memoir, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture. Given the author's iconic status in the annals of self-publishing, it is only appropriate that the paperback is available solely at Paul Krassner's personal site. (But Krassner is no Luddite; the Kindle version is available via Amazon.)

Now 78, Krassner is decades from his busiest days as the Zelig of the American counterculture. But unlike many of his former comrades in America's postwar cultural revolution, Krassner is both alive and kicking. He never gave up his passions or jumped the political fence. An original collaborator of Lenny Bruce, he still performs stand-up, heavy on social satire; a co-founder of the Yippies, he still attends noisy protests; a participant-historian of the last half-century of American publishing, journalism and activism, he still lectures and writes.

Along with the new edition of Unconfined Nut, Krassner has just finished editing a 500-page collection, The Best of Paul Krassner: 50 Years of Investigative Satire, and is waist-deep in the process of writing his first novel -- working title, Court Jester -- about a modern-day Lenny Bruce-type character. (All of which suggests that the Oakland branch of the writers' organization PEN might have jumped the gun in December when it presented Krassner with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Not that the recipient is complaining. "I was happy to receive it, but even happier that it wasn't a posthumous honor," says Krassner.)

When it appeared in the early '90s, the first edition of Raving, Unconfined Nut was arguably the most raucous insider's account yet of the 1960s. The new edition only adds ballast to the argument. The memoir takes its name from an angry letter the FBI sent to the editor of Life after the magazine ran a friendly profile of Krassner. "To classify Krassner as a social rebel is far too cute," wrote the agency. "He's a nut, a raving, unconfined nut."

Krassner began his career as an unconfined nut at the age of six, just as he became the youngest concert artist ever to perform on Carnegie Hall. He was playing Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in A Minor while wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit when he felt an itch. The young Krassner tilted on one leg to scratch the itch with his other leg without missing a beat. The hall erupted in delighted laughter. This was the moment, Krassner writes, when he was first "zapped by the god of Absurdity."

What followed was a career as "investigative satirist" that would place him at the center of every major event and current in the postwar history of the alternative press and the counterculture. Krassner made his name as the publisher of the Realist, which appeared intermittently between 1958 and 2001 and peaked with 100,000 subscribers. But the influence of the Realist was always greater than its circulation, and it ranks in importance alongside other storied self-published journals of the last century such as I.F. Stone's Weekly.

Krassner's goal in starting the Realist was nothing less than the revival of American satire, which was withering under the blanket of fearful conformity that was the 1950s. The journal was something like Mad magazine meets Dissent, but more radical--more extreme, we'd call it today--than either. By a mile. (In a perfect biographical detail, Krassner lost his virginity under the watchful eye of Alfred E. Neuman in the offices of Mad, to which he was an early contributor.)

Those drawn to the first issues of the Realist included the New York radio monologist Jean Shepard, the comedian Lenny Bruce, and the novelist Robert Anton Wilson. Anticipating the cultural curve, its first interview was with the Zen philosopher of the sexual revolution, Alan Watts. Artists sent in cartoons that had been rejected by The New Yorker and Playboy for reasons of taste or controversy. The publication would bring Krassner fame and become a touchstone for a generation of cultural and political radicals. It is a story that predates the drugs with which Krassner would later become associated, first as an acid-eating Yippie and later as a columnist for High Times. As the straight editor of the Realist, Krassner began shifting the American paradigm half-a-decade before he finally took LSD with Timothy Leary in 1964.

The Realist always blurred the line between journalism and activism. For years, Krassner ran an abortion referral service through his magazine's office. He used the profits from his famous "Fuck Communism" poster to send a young reporter named Robert Scheer to Vietnam. His freedom of speech was often challenged by lawyers, district attorneys, and would-be censors; he stood his ground with humor and determination and won every time. Where Lenny Bruce expanded the boundaries for what could be said on stage, Paul Krassner enlarged the realm of what could be printed and sold (and, in some cases, thought). The last words of the final issue, published in 2001, came from Kurt Vonnegut: "Your planet's immune system is trying to get rid of you."

I recently spoke with Krassner by phone from his home in Southern California about the new edition of his memoir, as well as his more recent adventures in journalism and activism.

I can hear Al Jazeera in the background. Do you see shades of the '60s in what's happening in Cairo?

Well, they don't seem to need the same kind of charismatic leadership. Unlike the 1960s, there's no Abbie Hoffman organizing protests and getting media attention. The Internet has changed the nature of organizing. Facebook and Twitter are the new Abbie.

There's also probably not much acid in Egypt these days...

When I was there in '78 when the Grateful Dead performed three outdoor concerts at the Pyramids, there was a lot of hash. Powerful hash. One inhalation, and you were sweating like a barbecued pig. I remember the Egyptians were laughing at us. There was a bubble boy who'd go around and light the coals of each gigantic hookah, and he'd get a toke from each little group as his reward. I was there with two women from the Pranksters, Mountain Girl and Goldie Rush. We were not exactly keeping a low profile. We traded liquid acid with them that we had smuggled in with Visine bottles. A true cultural exchange.

Was it hard to get permission to put on a rock show at the Pyramids?

The Dead had actually been invited there by Anwar Sadat's wife. And while he was in the U.S. at Camp David for the peace accords, we were like visiting American ambassadors. The concerts were a benefit for her favorite charities. One of the nights there was an eclipse of the moon. I remember the Egyptian kids were running through the streets shaking tin cans with rocks in them to bring back the moon. I told them the Grateful Dead would bring the moon back, and then, in the middle of "Fire on the Mountain," the moon reappeared. It was as if that was the power of music.

Do you still protest these days?

I just returned from a demonstration in Palm Springs against the Koch brothers. It's important to bring out information about them, because everything they've done is legal, aided by a corrupt Supreme Court that rewarded corporations with personhood. It was encouraging to see the enthusiasm of the demonstrators. It brought back some memories. But today's technology has changed things. You can reach a wider audience immediately, without costing anything or getting your hands all messy with mimeograph ink.

Did you see any old comrades there?

I saw some old faces, but not the same old faces.

Not to be morbid, but reading the new edition of Raving, Unconfined Nut, it occurred to me that few of the main characters are still around.

It's true. Abbie, Jerry [Rubin], Ken Kesey, Tim Leary, Phil Ochs, Tuli Kupferberg --a lot of them are gone. It feels like I'm the last of the Yippies.

Do you think about them often?

I still have dialogues with them in the sense that they're touchstones. If I'm doing stand-up, I imagine Lenny in the audience saying, "Don't say that, it's a cheap shot." I dialogue about political things with Abbie, cultural things with Kesey. It's like a conversation with people who are dead. I don't believe in that kind of communication, but if you knew 'em well enough you could kind of sense how they would react to something. It happened with this novel I'm working on about a contemporary Lenny Bruce-type performer. For a while I even thought I was channeling Lenny -- until the day he said, "Come on Paul, you know you don't believe in that shit."

You are one of the only people at the center of so much counterculture history. Do you find interest in this period is still strong?

I seem to have become the go-to guy for countercultural stuff. I just accepted an invitation to give the keynote address at the University of Southern Illinois, where they're having an all-day symposium about the counterculture, but it's increasingly difficult for me get around, stemming from an old police beating. I should have a template by now of certain answers. There's a lot of interest among the young. Those days just sound like more fun than now. But people have a lot of media stereotypes. They know that Leary was a cheerleader for LSD, but not that he published hundreds of academic essays in psychology journals. It's ancient history to a lot of people. They think that Abbie Hoffman is the congresswoman from upstate.

Do people often ask you about Lenny Bruce?

Yes. I was at a comedy convention in Las Vegas recently and the names that always come up are Lenny, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Those are the big three. Stand-up comics today use the freedom that Lenny pioneered. They don't have to fear being arrested for what they say. That's Lenny's legacy.

There are so many adventures recounted in the book, it's hard to know which ones to ask about. Do any stick with you more than others, or is it all just a blur?

The whole period of psychedelic macho. I took 300 micrograms of LSD before testifying at the Chicago Eight trial. Abbie stopped speaking to me for 10 months after that. He thought it was irresponsible. I also tripped on The Tonight Show. That whole period of doing everything—going into the subway at rush hour—just to see what it was like on acid, is very memorable. Also, the decade of running an underground abortion referral service when it was illegal. I was subpoenaed by DAs in two cities, but I refused to testify before their grand juries. It was all part of a pattern of blurring the line between observer and participant in. I assigned a story to Robert Anton Wilson to cover Leary's compound at Millbrook, then Leary invited me up for a visit. I ended up tripping with him.

You also tripped with Ram Dass, Kesey, Groucho. Is there anybody you didn't trip with?

Harpo Marx, Aldous Huxley, Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh and you.

Do you still take psychedelics?

I was taking ecstasy for a while, and mushrooms. Now it's pretty much just pot. But the [society's] priorities are insane. Cigarettes kill 1,200 individuals every day—and that's just in this country—whereas the worst that can happen with marijuana is maybe you'll raid the refrigerator at midnight. The soul of the Yippies was understanding the linear connection between busting a kid in this country for smoking a weed and dropping napalm on a kid on the other side of the globe. It was the ultimate extension of dehumanization. As long as any government can arbitrarily decide which drugs are legal and which are illegal, then anybody who's behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense is a political prisoner.

Where is the counterculture of today?

There's always been a counterculture, and always will be. While cave-dwelling parents were doing hieroglyphics on their stone walls, the kids were out carving messages on a boulder. That was the first attempt at alternative media. There's always a counterculture. It's the essence of evolution. It just takes different forms -- in modern times, from the Bohemians to the Beats, to the hippies, the Yippies, punk, hip-hop. It's interactive in a new way with the Internet, that's blurring the line between mainstream and counterculture. Everything is accelerating so information rises to the top faster and faster.

It used to take years to get the word out about, say, a secret war in Peru. And now it's more immediate. That's why I've become almost as much in awe of technology as I am of nature. In the '60s I wore two buttons. One said, "No secrets." The other said, "Information is Free." But they were just abstract ideas. WikiLeaks is a heroic organization actually carrying out those ideas. What they reveal spans the whole spectrum from embarrassment to criminality. Secrecy is the basis of maintaining power.

If you were starting out now, what do you think you would do?

My goal with the Realist was communication without compromise. I wanted to put myself out of business eventually. And with the Internet, this became real. If I was starting out today, I might just do stand-up, which is what I was doing before the Realist. I'd be doing satire in one form or another. Absurdity is my religion, so I start with that perception.

Does anything remind you of the Realist today?

There are different aspects of that same tradition in Doonesbury, The Onion,Ironic Times, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy. The more repression there is, the more need there is for irreverence toward those authority figures who are responsible for that repression.

Watching those shows today, can you believe you were ever actually involved in national controversies over the public use of a four-letter word?

"Fuck" has become an all-purpose noun, verb, adjective, adverb, epithet. Now I feel like an English teacher—"Don't you have a larger vocabulary?"

Alexander Zaitchik is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and AlterNet contributing writer. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, is published by Wiley & Sons.
 
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