Interview by: John Wisniewski
Paul Krassner is an American author, journalist, comedian, and the founder, editor and a frequent contributor to the freethought magazine The Realist, first published in 1958. Krassner became a key figure in the counterculture of the 1960s as a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and a founding member of the Yippies.
Krassner is the only person to win awards from both Playboy magazine (for satire) and the Feminist Party Media Workshop (for journalism). He was the first living man to be inducted into the Counterculture Hall of Fame, which took place at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. He received an American Civil Liberties Union Uppie (Upton Sinclair) Award for dedication to freedom of expression, and, according to the FBI files, he was described by the FBI as “a raving, unconfined nut.” George Carlin commented: “The FBI was right, this man is dangerous – and funny; and necessary.” In 2005 he received a Grammy nomination for Best Album Notes for his essay on the 6-CD package Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
What for you Paul, was the most important event of the 1960’s?
It could’ve been the assassinations of John & Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X & Martin Luther King, or co-founding the Yippies, or the demonstrations at the Democratic convention in Chicago, or my publication of “The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book” in The Realist and the Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster, but for me personally it was the birth of my daughter Holly.
Could you tell us about the book “Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders” that has been published recently. There is a statement from Harry Reasoner about you on the back of the book-could you tell us about this as well?
OK, first, Harry Reasoner. He was the anchor of the ABC Evening News and a 60 Minutes correspondent. He wrote in his memoir, “I’ve only been aware of two figures in the news during my career with whom I would not have shaken hands if called to deal with them professionally. They were Senator Joseph McCarthy and a man named Paul Krassner or something like that who published a magazine called The Realist.
“I guess everyone knows who McCarthy was. Krassner and his Realist were part of a ’60s fad — publications attacking the values of the establishment — which produced some very good papers and some very bad ones. Krassner not only attacked establishment values; he attacked decency in general, notably with an alleged ‘lost chapter’ from William Manchester’s book, The Death of a President.”
I appreciated Reasoner’s unintentional irony — having started my career as a political satirist by making fun of McCarthyism — but I resented being coupled with Senator McCarthy. Whereas he had senatorial immunity for his libels, I risked lawsuits for what I published. My fantasy was to crash a party where Reasoner would be. “Excuse me, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your work on 60 Minutes.” And then, as a photographer captured us shaking hands I would say, “My name is Paul Krassner or something like that.”
And so that quote — “Krassner not only attacked establishment values; he attacked decency in general” — appears on the back cover of Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders. I covered both trials. I was in the courtroom every day.
The Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped Patty was a group of white men and women whose leader was African-American Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze. On tape, he threatened death to Colston Westbrook, labeling him “a government agent now working for military intelligence while giving assistance to the FBI.” The communiqué was sent to a San Francisco radio station, and their news director told me that he checked with a Justice Department source who confirmed Westbrook’s employment by the CIA.
Conspiracy researcher Mae Brussell traced his activities from 1962, when he was a CIA advisor to the South Korean CIA, through 1969, when he provided logistical support in Vietnam for the CIA’s Phoenix program. His job was the indoctrination of assassination and terrorists cadres. After seven years in Asia, he was brought back to the U.S.in 1970 and assigned to run the Black Cultural Association at Vacaville Prison, where he became the control officer for DeFreeze, who had worked as s police informer from 1967 to 1969 for the Public Disorder Intelligence Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department.
After I revealed that in one of my reports for the alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian, I received a letter by registered mail from the Department of Justice, informing me that I was on a “hit list” of the Emiliano Zapata Unit of the NWLF (New World Liberation Front). The letter ended, “At your discretion, you may desire to contact the local police department responsible for the area of your residence.” Sources in Berkeley told me that the Zapata Unit was led by an FBI agent. So the right wing of the FBI was warning me about the left wing of the FBI.
Jacques Rogiers, the aboveground courier for the underground NWLF who delivered their communiqués, told me the reason I was on the hit list was because I had written that DeFreeze was a police informer. “But that was true,” I said. “It’s a matter of record. Doesn’t that make any difference?” It didn’t. He replied, “If the NWLF asked me to kill you, I would.” “Jacques,” I sighed, “I think this puts a slight damper on our relationship.” My 11-year-old daughter Holly and I moved to another home.
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TRIVIA: Krassner was a child violin prodigy and was the youngest person ever to play Carnegie Hall, in 1939 at age six
The defendant in the other trial, ex-cop Dan White, had assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King. I had underground sources, mainstream reporters gave me stuff they couldn’t publish, and I coined “the Twinkie Defense.”
White served five years of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter. At the post-verdict riot, the police ran amuck in an orgy of beating protesters indiscriminately and sadistically, screaming, “Get the fuck outa here, you fuckin’ faggots, you motherfuckin’ cocksuckers!” One cop struck me with a nightstick on the outside of my right knee, and I fell to the ground. He ran off to injure as many other cockroaches in his kitchen as he could.
Another cop came charging and yelled at me, “Get up! Get up!” I said, “I’m trying to.” He made a threatening gesture with his nightstick, and when I tried to protect my head with my arm, he jabbed me viciously on the exposed right side. I got a ride to the hospital emergency ward, and X-rays indicated that I had a fractured rib and a punctured lung. I didn’t have $75 for an attorney’s filing fee, and by the time I could afford that, it was too late to sue the San Francisco Police Department.
White committed suicide after he got out of prison. He was an uptight homophobic narcissist who needed an empathy implant. As a supervisor on the City Council, he was a puppet of the downtown real-estate interests and the conservative Police Officers Association. The book (available at my website) is relevant today. I’m getting positive feedback from young millenials and aging hippies alike. Both trials had aspects that were unjust, informational, and reeking with absurdity. The review in High Times concludes: “Think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.”
When did you meet Ken Kesey, Paul? and tell us about founding the counterculture group The Yippies.
On the afternoon of December 31, 1967 in New York, several activist friends were gathered at Abbie and Anita Hoffman’s apartment, smoking Columbian marijuana and planning the Chicago action. Our fantasy was to counter the convention of death with a festival of life. While the Democrats would present politicians giving speeches at the convention center that summer, we would present rock bands playing in the park. There would be booths with information about drugs and alternatives to the draft.
TRIVIA: Krassner is firmly secular, considering religion “organised superstition.”
Our mere presence would be our protest against the Vietnam war. Folksinger Phil Ochs crystallized our purpose: “A demonstration should turn you on, not off.” We needed a name, so that reporters could have a who for their journalistic who-what-when-where-and-why lead paragraphs. We sought to utilize the media as an organizing tool. I felt a brainstorm coming on. I went into the bedroom so that I could concentrate.
I paced back and forth, juggling titles to see if I could come up with words whose initials would make a good acronym. I tried Youth International Festival. YIF. Sounds like KIF. Kids International Festival? No, too contrived. Back to YIF. But what could make YIP? Now that would be ideal, because then the word Yippie could be derived organically from YIP. “Yippie” was a traditional shout of spontaneous joy. We could be the Yippies! It had just the right attitude.
“The Yippies” seemed like the most appropriate name to signify the radicalization of hippies. What a perfect media myth that would be. And then, working backward, it hit me. Youth –- this was essentially a movement of young people involved in a generational struggle. International — it was happening all over the world, from Mexico to France, from Germany to Japan. And Party — in both senses of the word. We would be a party and we would have a party.
So that became our immediate consensus. We would be the Youth International Party and we would be called the Yippies! The name provided its own power of persuasion. Yippie was simply a label to describe a phenomenon that already existed – an organic coalition of psychedelic dropouts and political activists.
There was no separation between our culture and our politics. In the process of cross-pollination, we had come to share an awareness that there was a linear connection between putting kids in prison for smoking marijuana in this country and burning them to death with napalm on the other side of the globe. It was the ultimate extension of dehumanization.
That evening we watched The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on TV. Judy Collins sang Randy Newman’s song “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” and I started weeping at a line in the lyric, “human kindness overflowing.” Then we all went to a New Year’s Eve party. On the way, I rubbed some fresh snow into Jerry Rubin’s bushy hair, singing the commercial jingle, “Get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie.” It was a new Yippie baptismal rite.
In December 1970, Stewart Brand asked Ken Kesey to edit The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, and Kesey said he’d do it if I would co-edit it with him. Brand called and asked me. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” In a letter of confirmation, he wrote: “For two prime origins of the Catalog to help finish it is nice. Even tidy.”
And I moved to San Francisco in February 1971. Kesey had already been in Palo Alto for a week. When I arrived, he was sitting in the backyard at a table with an electric typewriter. His parrot, Rumiako, was perched on a tree limb right above, and whenever he squawked, Kesey would type a sentence as though the parrot were dictating to him.
Hassler — that was Ron Bevirt’s Merry Prankster name — served as our managing editor, chauffeur, photographer, and general buffer zone. A ritual developed. Each morning, Kesey and Hassler would come by the Psychodrama Commune where I was staying. We would have crunchy granola and ginseng tea for breakfast. Then, sharing a joint in an open-topped convertible, we would drive up winding roads sandwiched by forest, ending up at a large garage which was filled with production equipment.
Kesey and I would discuss ideas, pacing back and forth like a pair of caged foxes. Gourmet meals were cooked on a pot-bellied stove. Sometimes a local rock band came by and rehearsed with real amplification, drowning out the noise of our typewriters. Kesey had been reading a book of African Yoruba stories. The moral of one parable was, “He who shits in the road will meet flies on his return.” With that as a theme, we assigned R. Crumb to draw his version of the Last Supper for our cover of The Last Supplement.
After a couple of months, we finished the Supplement and had a party. Somebody brought a tank of nitrous oxide to help celebrate. Kesey suggested that in cave-dwelling times, all the air they breathed was like this. “There are stick figures hovering above,” he said, “and they’re laughing at us.” “And,” I added, “the trick is to beat them to the punch.”
Kesey lived on a farm in Oregon, and also had a house in La Honda. We hung around La Honda for a while. We were smoking hashish in a tunnel inside a cliff which had been burrowed during World War II so that military spotters with binoculars could look toward the ocean’s horizon for oncoming enemy ships.
All we spotted was a meek little mouse right there in the tunnel. We blew smoke at the mouse until it could no longer tolerate our behavior. The mouse stood on its hind paws and roared at us, “Squeeeeeek!” This display of mouse assertiveness startled us and we almost fell off the cliff. The headline would’ve read, Dope Crazed Pranksters in Suicide Pact.
TRIVIA: In 1963, Krassner created what Kurt Vonnegut described as “a miracle of compressed intelligence nearly as admirable for potent simplicity, in my opinion, as Einstein’s e=mc2.” Vonnegut explained: “With the Vietnam War going on, and with its critics discounted and scorned by the government and the mass media, Krassner put on sale a red, white and blue poster that said FUCK COMMUNISM. At the beginning of the 1960s, FUCK was believed to be so full of bad magic as to be unprintable. […] By having FUCK and COMMUNISM fight it out in a single sentence, Krassner wasn’t merely being funny as heck. He was demonstrating how preposterous it was for so many people to be responding to both words with such cockamamie Pavlovian fear and alarm.”
Were the authorities actively watching the Yippies, Paul?
Absolutely. Here’s an example: An FBI agent using a fake name sent a poison-pen letter to Life magazine, including this: “To classify Krassner as some sort of “social rebel” is far too cute. He’s a nut, a raving, unconfined nut.” Before he could be permitted to mail the letter to Life, he was required to send a copy of it to FBI headquarters in Washington, along with a memo including this: “The 10/4/68 issue of Life magazine contained a three page feature on Paul Krassner, editor of The Realist and self-styled “hippie.” Krassner is carried on the RI [Round-up Index] of the NYO [New York Office]…It is noted that the Life article was favorable to Krassner.” I had broken no law.
The return memo –- approved by J. Edgar Hoover’s top two assistants, Kartha DeLoach and William Sullivan — was addressed to Mr. Floyd and Mr. Shackelford at the New York office. It stated: “Authority is granted to send a letter, signed with a fictitious name, to the editors of Life magazine. Furnish the Bureau the results of your action. NOTE: Krassner is the Editor of The Realist and is one of the moving forces behind the Youth International Party, commonly known as the Yippies…New York’s proposed letter takes issue with the publishing of this article and points out that the The Realist is obscene and that Krassner is a nut. This letter could, if printed by Life, call attention to the unsavory character of Krassner.”
What was the feeling by the counterculture, when poet John Sinclcair was arrested?
The bust was blatantly unjust. At Woodstock, during a break in The Who’s performance of Tommy, Abbie Hoffman went up on stage while tripping on acid, with the intention of informing the audience that Sinclair –- manager of the MC5 band and leader of the White Panther Party –- was serving ten years behind bars for giving two joints to a narc; that this was really the politics behind the music. “I think this is a pile of shit,” Abbie shouted, “while John Sinclair rots in prison.”“Fuck off,” Peter Townshend yelled. “Fuck off my fucking stage!”
He immediately transformed his guitar into a tennis racket and smashed Abbie on the head with a swift backhand. He assumed that Abbie was just another crazed fan. When The Who played at Fillmore East the previous month, a plainclothes cop rushed on stage and tried to grab the mike. He intended to warn the audience that there was a fire next door and the theater had to be cleared, but he was able to do so only after Townshend kneed him in the balls. Now, as Abbie fled from his bad trip, Townshend warned the audience, “The next person that walks across the stage is going to get killed.” The audience laughed. “You can laugh, but I mean it!”
What you have been working on for the past few years?
Expanded and updated editions of my autobiography, “Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture,” and an anthology I edited, “Pot Stories for the Soul,” were published. A new one, “Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders”—I covered both trials–has just been published. Those books are available on my website.
I’ve compiled a coffee-table collection, “The Realist Cartoons,” to be published by Fantagraphics in April 2016. And later they will also publish “50 Years of Investigative Satire: The Best of Paul Krassner.” My current obsession is working on my long awaited (by me) of my first novel, about a contemporary, controversial Lenny Bruce-type performer. I thought I was channeling Lenny until one day he said, “Hey, come on, channeling? You know you don’t believe in that shit.” And that was the end of it for me. No channeling Lenny any more.
Learn more on Paul Krassner’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE