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Arts and Culture

Mr. Fish in Conversation With Paul Krassner: The Politics of Being a Smartass

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Posted on Oct 17, 2012
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

Paul Krassner, a founding member of the Yippies, a Merry Prankster and the editor of what writer Terry Southern said was “the first American publication to really tell the truth,” The Realist, has been called the father of the underground press. He has also been called a lousy motherfucker by his establishment detractors, an addendum that, if true, calls into question the genetic integrity of the children that he is purported to have fathered, which are typically depicted as cross-eyed and babbling and groping at their groins in total disregard for whoever might be watching. Of course, when it comes to creation myths all over the world and the grotesquely unflattering depictions of every mother made to appear in each—whether they are virgins, a discarded rib or a duplicitous and distrustful moon—most people are encouraged by Krassner’s relentlessly infectious curiosity about how and why the American culture dysfunctions so well, so much so that they are more than willing to ignore the details of the underground press’ inception and to simply marvel at the multitudinousness of the father’s offspring.

Not only that, but there is something to be said for getting to bear witness to the blessed miracle that, at 80, Krassner is still writing books and articles that continue to influence the best and the brightest hell-raisers among us. His new book is an updated and expanded version of his wily classic memoir, “Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture.”

What follows is a portion of a conversation that I had with him at his home in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., one morning in May, while lizards baked euphorically on the sidewalks outside, the odorless hot springs for which the town is famous percolated through the dry earth all around us and the ruddy piquant of slow-burn marijuana made the air as festive as if christened by a flatulent Christmas tree ablaze with good cheer.

***

Fish: Because you have smoked pot with, interviewed and/or published so many of the most important and influential thinkers and artists of the mid-20th century, I thought it might be smart to get your perspective on why, when it comes to contemporary culture, artists and writers and poets and painters and social philosophers, either by accident or by deliberate design, have been removed from the national debate about who we are as a species and where we are going as a society.

Krassner: I’m going to have to plead the Fourth [the amendment that guards against unreasonable searches and seizures] on that.

Fish: Well, let me give you an example about what I mean. Besides the obvious superstars of the time, people like [Lenny] Bruce, [Marshall] McLuhan, [Norman] Mailer, [John] Lennon, [Mort] Sahl, you also had television personalities like Millicent Martin in 1963 on “That Was the Week That Was” singing a song, dressed as Uncle Sam, called, “I Want to Go Back to Mississippi,” which contained the lyric:

Where the Mississippi mud
Kinda mingles with the blood
Of the niggers who are hanging
From the branches of the trees

Krassner: Wow.

Fish: There’s even a refrain that describes a ” … butter-colored moon” and “cutting up a chocolate-colored koon.” Now, what’s remarkable about that is how brutally frank the social commentary was delivered and how bluntly the satire was played and how it was broadcast on mainstream television. Remember, this was not a nightclub or some underground cabaret somewhere—it was on the BBC. 

Krassner: Well, I did recently see a repeat of something from “MADtv”—it was a sketch where there was a group of black actors who were all dressed as pimps waiting at an audition. It was a takeoff of the old Snickers bar commercials, but instead of saying Snickers the announcer says, “Gonna be here for a while? Have a Snigger’s bar.”

Fish: That’s different, though. That’s more like a parody that addresses the laziness of the culture and the inability of decent society to acknowledge the broader implications of racism in general, whereas the piece on “That Was the Week That Was” pointed a very direct finger at how ugly the prejudice is able to manifest itself in very specific acts of race-based violence within American society. In fact, the song states clearly ” … If you ain’t for segregating white folks from the black, then they won’t hesitate to shoot you bravely in the back.” In other words, [the “Week That Was” segment] handles the issue with much more seriousness instead of merely playing it as farce.

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