An IMC Interview with Paul Krassner
Paul Krassner is an emminent cultural critic, drug warrior (on the other side) and comedian. He is a one the co-founders of the Yippies, along with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. His publication, the Realist, was a monument to irreverence and nose-thumbing rebellion that helped spawn many of it's kind. This Saturday at 8pm, he will be performing at the Old Church at 1422 SW 11th & Clay. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door. I took a few minutes of Paul's time to ask him some questions specifically for IMC at Powell's Books last night before his reading and signing of his new book, Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: from Toad Slime to Ecstasy.
BP: You've been referred to as ?the father of the underground press?
PK: Oh yea, it's great to see what the grandchildren are doing.
BP: So you're reputation is most as a satirist...
PK: Pretty much.
BP: How dangerous is humor?
PK: As far as I'm concerned, the more dangerous, the better. I saw a woman interviewed on one of the TV magazine shows who was a Muslim. She does her show in black, this one she said just a few weeks after 9/11, it was in England, but still, I'm not sure if there would have been a different reaction in New York, but her opening line was 'My name is so-and-so and I'm an airline pilot.' I thought that was courageous, you know and dangerous, because it's taking a risk. You don't know, you can't predict how an audience will react, it's funny at the same time, but the point is the danger in stereotypes. I mean, they laugh because they know it's not true, in a sense. But it is true that people do stereotype people who are different in almost anyway.
BP: Do you think that with recent events and the, you know, chilling effect that it's too cold to break the ice, or has the ice been broken when it comes to dangerous humor?
PK: Oh I think it will boomerang. I think there's people now, they'll play with things. They know they can't say ?holy shit!? but they know they can say ?holy Shiite!? So, ah...oh I think I'll use that, I haven't said that before, but I am going to say it again. Because I think on a general level, the more need there is for irreverence toward the authority that brings about that repression.
BP: You've referred to creeping fascism, how far do you think it's crept?
PK: Now it's galloping fascism. At the same time, I think there's, I have a visceral feeling and it may just be wishful thinking?I guess false hope is better than none at all?that there's some kind of mass awakening going on, similar to the one that occurred in the 60's, where the truth is like grass growing through a crack in the cement. That seems to be what's happening and it's giving me a sense of optimism, which I hope is not just a result of chromosome damage.
BP: Speaking of that, one of the most recent things I have read of yours was in one of the Disinformation guides, Abuse Your Illusions, I believe. It seems like there's an explosion in small press. Can you comment at all on some of these other children of the Realist?
PK: I would've happened anyway without me. I just happened to be on the front lines, in terms of chronology. Even then, it was part of a tradition going all the way back to I.F. Stone's Weekly, all the way back to Tom Paine...well, look, Indymedia is the best example of it, because it's all volunteers, there's a purity about it and that's the continuation of the spirit of the Realist, which was, I wouldn't take any advertising. So I had to answer to nobody, I had no publisher to answer to, because I was the publisher. I had no advertising to answer to, no corporation?I had no one to answer to except the readers and the Realist grew because the readers trusted me not to worry about offending them.
BP: How do you feel about MAD Magazine succumbing to taking advertising after all these years, having been bought by AOLTimeWaner?
PK: Well, I'd like to see them have a policy that called for the advertiser to sign a contract saying that if they take an ad in there, that there would be a parody of it in the same issue. Because that's the danger there, because that's one of their stocks and trade was making fun of ads. So, I guess for the advertising company, it can be a kind of insurance that their brand name won't be sullied in these pages.
BP: Okay, given that this interview will be on Indymedia and everyone who reads Indymedia is part independent journalist themselves, what do you have to say to this large audience of potential independent journalists and publishers?
PK: I would say, if you eat a club sandwich at the deli, be sure to take the toothpick out before you take your first bite...and then you can come up with a philosophy. It's funny because I am working on a novel now, my first novel and I said to a friend of mine, Avery Corman, who wrote Kramer vs. Kramer and Oh God! 'It's hard writing fiction, because you have to make up stuff,' and he says 'C'mon Paul, you've been making up stuff all you're life!' and I said 'yeah, but that was journalism.' What would I say to them..? I feel like George Bush now, a rare feeling, I don't know, why didn't you submit that question to me in writing so I had time to think about it?
BP: So maybe think on your feet a little bit?
PK: No, no, that was just a joke, I would prefer to think on my feet...I'm just, it feels presumptuous to give advice. The thing to remember in journalism, and in my novel, the narrator is a journalist and at one point she says the thing that she's learned from being a reporter is that everyone is there own spin doctor and therefore you have to trust any little visceral flashes of skepticism that you get, because usually there is some basis for it. There, that was good for being on my feet, if I had to think about it, I wouldn't have come up with something like that!
BP: Tell us about your latest performance, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh.
PK: Well, that's just the title, it's actually the title of the first album that I produced with Scott Kelman live and that was suggested to me by Wavy Gravy. I have two friends, Jerry Garcia and Wavy Gravy who are ice cream flavors. That's a nice claim to, ah, your sweet tooth.
BP: Do you think you'll be next?
PK: Hah! Let's see, what would I be, I would be...coconut swirl, with slivered almonds. So what I am doing now is I'm on tour I'm going to San Francisco and Berkley after Portland, developing material, so it's like a work in progress, for my sixth album, which will be out in September called 'The Zen Bastard Rides Again'. It's going to be a lot of course about the presidential race, the campaign-in-the-ass, as I call it. It struck me, the other day the news guy said that John Kerry was going to do something, something like this or that, but he said 'it may be too late now'. I thought, what is this, like six months before whatever it is, we haven't had the conventions yet, and we already say well, 'it may be too late'. There's something about the alchemy of turning journalists into cheerleaders.
BP: The ?Right Wing Echo-Chamber? as I have heard it called.
PK: Oh yeah? I like that, that's what it is. It's not only the War on Irag, it's the War on Drugs, it's the War on Indecency, pick a war, any war, but it all has to do with control.
BP: One of the things that has struck me in reviewing some of your history is you have known, well, Wavy Gravy, Jerry Garcia, you hung out with John Lennon, a lot of them are no longer with us, but some of the most brilliant and talented people of your contemporaries, who strikes you as really up and coming, cool, in arts, culture, whatever?
PK: It's hard to say. Let's face it, the personality cult was supposed to be a bad thing, and yet these were all, Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, these were all figures, like Wavy Gravy, who were leaders and were charismatic and so what's happening now, I think because the organizing is done on the Internet, which is in a certain sense more anonymous, so who knows the leaders in the antiwar movement, or in Students for a Sensible Drug Policy or in the feminist movement? I mean, there are a few names who are the leaders of the organizations and there are I may just not be unaware of them, and it's my loss, not that there are not these kind of people developing. It's my ignorance. For example, in the mainstream media, people know Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, are like stars. They're like a cross between a rockstar and a politician. Indymedia, especially as it becomes more international, is intensified it's significance and yet, who knows the names of the people? Are there stars of Indymedia?
BP: Sometimes...You can use a handle, there's anonymity built in. So you can be Donald Duck if you want, or you can use your own name, or you can do both.
PK: In the new anthology I edited, Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: from Toad Slime to Ecstasy there is a long piece in it by Ralph Metzner called Ode to the Sacred Toad and it treats ingesting, smoking toad slime as a spiritual experience, in Shakespearian language and at first he did it under the name Raul Adamson. I said 'That's up to you, if you want to use a pseudonym'. Metzner one of the Three Musketeers at the LSD Research Institute in Millbrook, Upstate New York, along with Tim Leary, Ram Dass who was then Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, so, he's still at it. At the last minute, before it went to press, he told me by email, he agreed to use his own name, Ralph Metzner. To me, it didn't matter either way, but it does have an extra dimension the fact that is he, because it gives you a sense of continuity. So it's kind of relevant, there. I am not making any judgments about anonymity or star power, because star power helped Bob Woodward get the interview he did for Against All Attack.
BP: So, have you ever used a pseudonym?
PK: Once, a long time ago, in Cavalier Magazine which was trying to be a slick magazine with underground sensibilities and I was writing a column for them and I interviewed George Lincoln Rockwell who was the head of the American Nazi Party and put it in there. Some magazines don't want you to have more than one byline in the same issue, so at the time I had a comedy partner named Stanley, before I started working alone, so I used the byline Stanley Spartner so it was just a private joke. I remember I got an angry letter from the Nazi, Rockwell, complaining that another jew had written this article, Spartner sounds like a jewish name, I guess. When I interviewed him, I remember I ended the interview saying something like, 'Okay, this will be in the June issue,' and he said 'The JEW issue?!' 'JUNE! JUNE!' That's what I mean by spin doctor, because it gives you tunnel vision.
BP: I have actually read a lot of your interviews, so it's really an honor to be interviewing you. I have noticed that you often ask people what their awakenings, their turning points are, especially people who are really deep into conspiracy research. What kind of awakenings have you had?
PK: How far back to go? I guess that the earliest one, the main awakening was, I was a child prodigy violinist, the youngest in any field ever to give a concert at Carnegie Hall, which was the age of six. I had practiced myself out of my childhood. In the sense that I was like asleep. I was playing by rote. What woke me up was, I had an itch in my leg and the natural inclination is to scratch it. But I knew, I had been trained as a little professional, you don't stop in the middle of playing to scratch you leg with your bow. The itch became fiercer, our minds have a hidden vestibule for alternative possibilities and so I got a flash of that possibility which was, and which I did, to stand on my left leg and scratch it with my right leg, without missing a note. And the audience laughed and that's what woke me up, y'know, to the sound of laughter and I got hooked?the first one was free. So that was the first step, the second was a saw a movie called Intermezzo, it was the first movie I saw and Ingrid Bergman was in it, it was her first movie and she had a crush on her violin teacher. Intermezzo was the name of the song in the title theme and it had a beautiful melody that just haunted me. I was enchanted by the mystery of why different notes and different rhythm and different tones would make you feel good. So I told my violin teacher that I wanted to learn how to play 'Intermezzo' and he said 'That's not right for you,' and that was the other shoe dropping of my awakening, that, y'know, who was he to tell me what not right for me? So that put me on guard. It's like Tim Leary said 'Everybody tries to get you onto their game board' and Ken Kesey put it 'Always stay in your own movie'. Everybody has their own metaphor. It's a continuous awakening because, especially conspiracy theory, because Ishmael Reed said 'The history of civilization is the history of warfare between secret societies.' and so if you tell people somebody they say 'Oh, c'mon, if their's secret societies, how come I haven't heard of them?' 'Because they're secret, schmuko!' So there's organizations that are structured like a pyramid, and up at the top, even if their religious organizations like the Moonies or Scientology, there can be murders at the top and you have to pass all kinds of implied blackmail and other tests they have, like in a gang it might be to kill a stranger, but whatever the initiation is to get up there so that you loyalty will be pretty secure. What's interesting to me is that a lot of comedians think in terms of conspiracy because you have to think outside the proverbial box to find a laugh or to see an alternative to what the official story is. So, Lenny Bruce, Mort Saul, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart to different degrees, Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes they can see the power behind the throne.
BP: So, perhaps that is why comedians and comedy is so dangerous, because it has that ability to see through the bullshit?
PK: Oh yeah. The reason they arrested Lenny Bruce ostensibly it was for obscenity, but really it was because he was choosing targets like political and religious figures, he was talking about nuclear testing, racism, abortion rights, teacher's low salaries. So in that sense he was a threat, just as the counter culture was seen as a threat in terms of what it meant economically. They were sharing cars, taking care of each other instead of buying insurance, making your own clothes, using candles instead of electric bulbs, and really trying to live their ideals. There must be the same kind of economic basis for marriage to remain as an institution at all because of the brides magazines alone could stave off the national debt!
BP: Y'know, LSD is sort of outside the mainstream politics, you're talking to a Marxist or a labor unionists and you bring up LSD and all the sudden you're on the outside. I was wondering, I read a statistic that said that LSD use has dropped dramatically over the last five years...
PK: ...And the use of ecstasy has risen. There was a guy named Shane Mage, who spoke before the Socialist Scholars Conference and I had met him a week before at an LSD session at Leary's mansion. He gave an incredible speech about combining Socialism and LSD. The thing about acid is if you're Catholic, you'll probably have a Catholic trip. So I was once at Leary's house and he got a phone call. It was from a stockbroker that he had turned onto acid. Leary pointed to me to pick up the phone and eavesdrop. I heard the guy thanking him for turning him onto acid, because it gave him the courage to sell short. So you can't separate acid from what your values are, you can just take it from a different perspective. I mean it can help change your values, it can be a catalyst. I think the most important thing lacking, they should be teaching it in kindergarden, is empathy. One thing about acid and maybe even more so, ecstasy is it's ability to engender empathy.
BP: Thanks a lot, Paul.
PK: Thank you! This was very stimulating!
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