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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?

 
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