"The '60s. There was an evolutionary jump in consciousness around the globe."
Paul Krassner: The alchemy of transforming fantasy into reality
Paul Krassner is an author, journalist, stand-up 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. Paul Krassner calls himself an investigative satirist.
When People magazine called Krassner “Father of the underground press,” he immediately demanded a paternity test. Actually, he had published The Realist magazine from 1958 to 1974, then as a newsletter from 1985 to 2001. "The taboos may have changed," he wrote, "but irreverence is still my only sacred cow." He covered the antiwar movement; then co-founded the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (writing a few animated re-enactment scenes for the documentary “Chicago 10” four decades later). He published material on the psychedelic revolution; then took LSD with Tim Leary, Ram Dass and Ken Kesey, later accompanying Groucho Marx on his first acid trip.
He edited Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, and with Lenny’s encouragement, became a stand-up comic himself, opening at the Village Gate in New York in 1961. Paul is an occasional contributor to the Huffington Post. His articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Spin, Playboy, Penthouse, Mother Jones, the Nation, New York, National Lampoon, Utne Reader, the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly, New York Press, High Times and Funny Times. Mercury Records released his first two comedy albums, “We Have Ways of Making You Laugh” and “Brain Damage Control.” Artemis Records released his next four: “Sex, Drugs and the Antichrist: Paul Krassner at MIT,” “Campaign in the Ass,” “Irony Lives!” and “The Zen Bastard Rides Again.”
Do you believe that nowadays there’re things to change in any level?
Yes, at all levels. Everything is increasing with greater speed, aided and abetted by cable news channels and of course the Internet. Even the rate of acceleration is accelerating.
My mother’s favorite: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Also, my own favorite: “Don’t take yourself as seriously as your causes.” And my personal definition of success is “Trying to do the appropriate thing every moment.”
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
The ’60s. There was an evolutionary jump in consciousness around the globe. My daughter Holly was born, the Yippies were founded, and I launched The Realist, a satirical magazine for adults, since Mad was aimed at a million-and-a-half teenage readers. I told the publisher of Mad, Bill Gaines, “I guess you don’t want to change horses in midstream.” He replied, “Not when the horse has a rocket up its ass.”
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the art, the life and music?
Journalism from Lyle Stuart, stand-up from Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, satire from Joseph Heller, music from the Beatles, Etta James, the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin. Wisdom from the unlikely: Comic strip character Mary Worth--“When in doubt, do the kindest thing.” And from Mother Teresa, about how she dealt with taking care of children who were dying--“I love them while they’re alive.”
My goal as editor was to communicate without compromise. When abortion was illegal, I interviewed a humane doctor who performed such surgery, got myriad calls for help when I published it, and ended up running a free underground abortion referral service. I guess I’d like to be remembered for making people laugh and think at the same time, and maybe even be inspired by my writing. My autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture, is my favorite. (An expanded & updated edition is available at paulkrassner.com.)
Which memory from Ken Kesey & Merry Pranksters makes you smile?
Kesey lived on a farm in Oregon -- in a huge, sectioned-out barn, with a metal fireplace that hung from the living-room ceiling -- and he also had a house in La Honda, across the street from a hill where a pair of speakers were embedded and could be turned on from the stereo system in his living room. One evening, we were sitting on the large front lawn of the La Honda house, watching the sunset, when a car stopped on the road. A couple inside were arguing fiercely. Kesey, with his wrestler stride, returned to the house and put on a record of Frank Sinatra singing “Strangers in the Night.” The couple was stunned by such loud – and appropriate – music emanating from the hill. We could see them smiling as they shared that mystery, then drove away.
Are there any memories from The Realist, which you’d like to share with us?
Walt Disney's death occurred the same year as Time magazine's famous “Is God Dead?” cover, and it occurred to me that Disney had indeed served as the Creator of that whole stable of imaginary characters who were now mourning in a state of suspended animation. Disney had been their Intelligent Designer and he had repressed all their baser instincts, but now that he had departed, they could finally shed their cumulative inhibitions and participate together in an unspeakable Roman binge, to signify the crumbling of an empire. I contacted Mad artist Wally Wood and, without mentioning any specific details, I told him my general notion of a memorial orgy at Disneyland. He accepted the assignment and presented me with a magnificently degenerate montage. It was the centerspread in an issue of The Realist and became a poster. Attorneys for the Disney Empire considered suing me, I learned, but they discovered I had no assets, and besides, they didn’t want a lawsuit to attract more attention to the poster. Recently, a former employee of Disney (who prefers to remain anonymous) digitally colored it in ‘authentic Disney colors’ – you can see it on my website – and the Disney people can’t sue me because the statute of limitations has run out.
What is the “think” you miss most from the Youth International Party? Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?
I miss the camaraderie, the idealism, the humor, the imagination, the spirit of liberation. As for historical personalities: Thomas Jefferson. John F, Kennedy. Cleopatra. Saul Alinsky. Albert Einstein. Disraeli. Shakespeare.
Photo: Paul with Ram Dass "We have been friends since my first acid trip in 1965"
Of all the people you've meeting with, who do you admire the most?
Ram Dass. We have been friends since my first acid trip in 1965. I once asked him, “If we exchanged philosophies – if I believed in reincarnation and you didn’t, how do you think our behavior would change?” He paused a couple of seconds, them responded: “If you believed incarnation, you would never ask a question like that.”
What mistakes of your generation would you want to correct?
None. Everybody does the best they can. It’s up to them if they want to change. On the other hand, in the words of Little Richard, “People can’t help who they are. If they could, they would’ve been somebody else.”
When did you last laughing and cry and why?
I laughed a little while ago when I was watching the news, and the all-male Republican candidates were discussing their positions on abortion and contraception, pandering to what the think their constituents want to hear. I cried yesterday, talking with my daughter who just became a mother, and she wished her mother was still alive so she could tell her how much she appreciated the way she had been nurtured as a child.
Barack Obama. It would be such a pleasure to make him laugh.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best was in 1967 when I published “The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book” in The Realist. My printer refused to print it, and it took me months to find a new printer who would. It’s included in my collection, The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race: The Satirical Writings of Paul Krassner,” with an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut. The worst was being beaten by cops in 1979 during the post-verdict riot at City Hall in San Francisco. I had been covering the trial of Dan White, who killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and for that double execution he was sentenced to only seven years. I was the reporter who coined the phrase, “the Twinkie defense.”
Why did you think that Paul Krassner continued to generate such a devoted following?
They were delighted to find that they weren’t the only Martians on their block. I was able to articulate their consciousness and that connection resonated with them.
If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
I would have had more empathy. And I would have been less self-righteous.
My secret dream is now awake. I’m working on my long awaited (by me) first novel, about a contemporary Lenny Bruce. I edited his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, and came to know him well and understand his process. Writing a good sentence turns me on. Happiness for me is having as little separation as possible between my work and my play. And sharing that wave length with my wife Nancy.
Which things do you prefer doing in your free time?
Watching a really good movie. Reading a provocative book. Getting stoned with friends.
You have been “traveling” all around the “Psychedelic ways on the Mind”. What are your conclusions?
I started smoking pot in 1965. I still do but now it’s medicine. I think it’s important to realize that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America was founded and funded by the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, and they don’t like competition. Why should anyone take Prozac and have suicidal tendencies when they can grow marijuana and enhance the pleasure of being alive. I believe that as long as any government can arbitrarily decide which drugs are legal and which are illegal, then anyone who is serving time for a nonviolent drug offense is a political prisoner.
Greed combined with the lack of compassion.
What advice would you had given to new generation?
When eating a big sandwich in a delicatessen be sure to take out the toothpick before biting into it.
How you would spend a day with Timothy Leary?
Tripping the light fantastic with him once again.
What would you say to Lenny Bruce?
Hey, remember when I actually thought I was channeling you from the grave, until that day when you said, “Come on, Paul, you know you don’t believe in that shit.”
Do you feel betrayed or satisfied of your generation?
I don’t like to generalize about generations. All I can say is that my friends still practice living by the humane value system that blossomed in their countercultural days.
The claiming and the fighting of your generation was just a trend or a real hope?
Real hope? Should optimism be considered a mental disorder? Backstage at a benefit, the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin once said to me, “If you don’t act like there’s hope, there is no hope.” And don’t forget, placebos work.
In which things can hope be based on?
Well, I have been wavering between despair and hope, but the Occupy Wall Street movement has pointed the arrow toward hope. That’s the thing about evolution.
"Backstage at a benefit, the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin once said to me, 'If you don’t act like there’s hope, there is no hope.' And don’t forget, placebos work."
What would you like to ask Mickey Mouse?
When you were fucking Minnie Mouse, did she squeak a lot?
What is the “think” you miss most of the 60s?
The alchemy of transforming fantasy into reality.
What was the relation between music and activism?
It was our sound track.
Can music have words and the words to have notes?
Only if they’re consenting adults.
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