Paul Krassner
Paul Krassner

Zapped by Absurdity: Paul Krassner Can’t Stop Now

One of the forefathers of underground culture and Free Speech advocate extraordinaire (who turned 87 on April 9), Krassner has a new book, Zapped by the God of Absurdity (Fantagraphics), that takes aim at the Age of Donald Trump.

Counterculture Hall-of-Famer Paul Krassner, the editorial father of The Realist, is not known for one-word answers. After all, from 1958 to 2001, his magazine gave full voice and welcome relief to those questioning the mind-numbing drip of a solemn, military-minded, God-fearing, Commie-hating, white-shirt-wearing America. The Realist required its readers to stop and reflect; it presented complicated cultural issues, sometimes as straight journalism and but more often as brazen satire. Not everyone got it.

There are those, like my mother, who feel all Krassner did was print “fuck” so many times that people were forced to look at what he was doing. Whether The Realist appealed to you or not, there’s no doubt its writers and artists set benchmarks for free speech and made America more interesting. Krassner’s collaborators and contributors included comedians Lenny Bruce and George Carlin; cartoonists Dick Guindon and Gary Trudeau; writers Joseph Heller and Terry Southern––a partial list that leaves out Ken Kesey, Abbie Hoffman, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, Robert Crumb, Jules Feiffer, Norman Mailer and many others.

It was the question of what became of The Realist that prompted Krassner’s uncharacteristic one-word answer: “The Internet.” That is, in fact, two words, but like many of Krassner’s responses, his answer has more than just one meaning. First: the complete issues of The Realist are archived online, diligently posted by artist Ethan Persoff, the curator of an unfathomable cache of drug comics, government comics and “other strangeness”. Second: the Internet––with its fierce devotion to free speech and with its dizzying mobile supernetwork––has made The Realist moot. The irreverence the periodical once provided to a few is now available in a flash across the globe, conceived and “shared” by ten billion hyperfast thumbs.

Religionland by Paul Krassner

Still, the content Krassner and his co-conspirators came up with is impossible to mimic. When Krassner took to creating an anagram for fallen politician Spiro Agnew, it came out like this:

If you take the name of a certain former vice president, Spiro Agnew, and scramble the letters around, you can rearrange it to spell out Grow A Penis. Such appropriateness can give your boundaries of coincidence permanent stretch marks. After all, when Senator Charles Goodell came out against the war in Vietnam, it was Agnew who called him “the Christine Jorgensen (the first famous transsexual) of the Republican Party “––thus equating military might with the mere presence of a cock.

In talking about our current president, Krassner likes to refer to Trumpo, the Republican Elephant, evoking a singular attraction in a larger freak show circus. Again, Krassner is singular in his ability to provide a you-are-there experience when it comes to that larger circus. That’s mainly because he was there and he remembers.

Carrying over from Reel One, published in November, here are a few more of Krassner’s recollections, in his own words:

You Got No Guts

“When the Vietnam War was going on, I would do comedy at demonstrations, in the guise of a lecture. I would make a list of about seven areas that I wanted to talk about, and, like Lenny Bruce taught me by working with just one word or a couple of sentences, I would let things change as I went along. People laughed. It’s great feeling, getting an audience laughing at something. They’re unified; it’s like they’re all having that one thought at the same time. It’s a gratifying response.

Anyway, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and me were like the psychedelic Three Stooges, and we were often invited to campuses by college newspaper editors to talk about the war and what was going on. Abbie was a friend from New York and I met Jerry in Berkeley at that Teach-In [Editor: May 1965]. Abbie was all right lobe: he had a powerful, spontaneous humor. Jerry was very calculated, all left lobe. The irony in this was that Abbie was witty and became an activist, and meanwhile Jerry was an activist but before he went out to speak he would listen to a Lenny Bruce album.

The three of us went together, by train, from New York, to an event in Washington in early 1968. When we got to the station there, we saw Bobby Kennedy standing talking to one person, an aide maybe. He hadn’t yet decided to run for president and didn’t have an entourage or anything. Jerry said, “Look at him. Look at how handsome he is. We got to do something.” Abbie just yelled out, “You got no guts!” That was the difference between them.

The whole Chicago thing started the December before the convention [December 1967, prior to the August 1968 Democratic National Convention]. I was on a work vacation, staying in little shack in the Florida Keys with Abbie and Anita, his wife. We were in the middle of a hurricane; papers were swirling around. There was a black and white TV set turned on, but the screen looked orange and purple to us; we were tripping, by the way. We watched Lyndon Johnson say something like, “We’re going to continue this war; if not, we’re just pudd’nheads.” That’s when Abbie and I decided we wanted to go to the convention.

We had no phone, so I walked into town the next day and called Jerry from a pay phone at a gas station, and we set up a meeting for when we got back to New York at Abbie and Anita’s apartment. Then I called Dick Gregory; he lived in Chicago and he said he would help us organize things there. He also let me know that he was going to run for president and asked me what I thought of having Bob Dylan as his vice president. I assured him Dylan would have nothing to do with being a politician.

When we had the meeting in New York with all the activists we knew, it was the afternoon of December 31st, New Year’s Eve 1967. That’s when I came up with the word, “Yippie”, because we needed a name, a label, for the phenomena of radicalized hippies coming together with psychedelic activists.”

When Cops Riot

“[In planning what the Yippies would do at the Democratic Party Convention], we talked about having a counter-convention, so that while politicians were doing speeches we would have bands in the park. We wanted to have booths with information on drugs and on the draft, but we couldn’t get permission to do anything, not even sleep in the park, even though the Boy Scouts were allowed to.

That didn’t stop us. Eventually we got an eleven o’clock curfew and we had the MC5 come from Detroit to do a show one of the afternoons. The band was in the middle of playing when the cops came to break up the crowd. They came with tear gas and were chasing us and beating people; I was yelling at them, “It’s five o’clock. You don’t have the right to cancel this until eleven!” But they weren’t so good about timetables. I remember one journalist saying to another, “Whoever thought that we would be wearing gas masks at a political convention.” After that incident, and all the TV coverage it got, the slogan came out: “The whole world is watching,” but nevertheless Nixon won.

An Abbie Hoffman produced film; scripted by Paul Krassner

I didn’t get beat there; that [beating] happened in San Francisco. I covered two trials in San Francisco. One was the Patty Hearst trial and the other was the Dan White trial. White was the ex-cop who assassinated George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Moscone was the mayor of San Francisco, very progressive in that he wanted to legalize marijuana; Milk was a city supervisor and the first openly gay politician.

There was a shrewd defense for Dan White––that he was stressed out. He stayed up all night before he went to kill Moscone and Milk, and all had he eaten that night was all sorts of sugary stuff, including Twinkies. In the morning, he climbed through a window to get in the building because he had a gun and couldn’t go through the metal detector. White went into each of their offices and shot them. During the trial, I coined the phrase, “The Twinkie Defense”. He only got, I think, seven years for pulling off a pre-meditated double murder.

When the verdict was announced, there was a big riot outside city hall. It was something like five thousand people, mostly gay men, and the police beat everyone on the streets with billy clubs, trying to get rid of us, like we were all some kind of plague; they were stepping on us the way you step on cockroaches when you put the light on in the kitchen. I got caught in all that and that’s where I got beaten. [Krassner sustained a fractured rib and a punctured lung; the blows to the right side of his knee have since affected his posture and gait.]”

You Could Get An Abortion from a Butcher

“During the ’60s, when abortion was illegal, I interviewed a humane abortionist. I promised him I would go to prison before identifying him. I can say now that it was Dr. Robert Spencer. He would charge as little as five dollars. African-Americans were not allowed in the hotels and motels there so he had a special room for them at his clinic. Spencer was famous as a local physician––he would go into the coalmines and take care of the workers with black lungs––but he was known around the country as a saint. [Spencer was an Ashland, Pennsylvania general practitioner, who is said to have performed some 40,000 abortions from the 1920s into the late 1960s.]

After I did the interview [for Realist #35, June 1962], I began to get calls almost every day from women. I never thought I’d be an abortion referral service, but that’s what I became. I got caught doing that and was brought before two district attorneys in what was called “a clinic court”, a court that decides whether somebody should be arrested. One of the DAs said to me, “We’ll give you immunity for testifying or you’ll get arrested for the money that you got from abortions.” I knew he was bluffing because I never accepted a penny from any of the doctors. He put his hand out to shake hands and I said, “No, you’re bluffing. I never got a penny from a doctor.”

My lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, told one of the DAs that he was going to challenge the unconstitutionality of the New York anti-abortion law and he did. It was turning point for me, taking me from satire to activist. Not that I gave up the satire, but it made me more of an activist. I still sometimes hear from some women that I had helped; I couldn’t say no. It was no big thing as I think about it. It wasn’t like the rallies against the war; this was something more personal, connecting to an individual that I could help, who needed help.

That was also gratifying because when abortion was illegal––when you could get an abortion from a butcher––women would go to the hospital bleeding and the hospital would call the police who would sometimes tell the doctors not to give any painkillers until the women gave the information on where they had had their procedure. It was really a horrible thing. It’s so weird thinking about that. I thought abortion would never be legal in my lifetime but then it became legal. Now, they’re trying hard to make it go backwards, to being illegal. It’s like we’re devolving, instead of evolving.

[Lefcourt argued the DA had no power to investigate the violation of an unconstitutional law, and therefore he could not force Krassner to testify. In 1970, Krassner was the only plaintiff in the first lawsuit to declare the abortion laws unconstitutional in New York State. Later, various women’s groups joined that suit, and ultimately the New York legislature repealed the criminal sanctions against abortion, prior to the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.]”

What’s Happening Today

“One of the things that brought on Trumpo was his being on Alex Jones’ TV show and on Jones’ Jones told Trump that his audience really liked him. Trump didn’t know that. This was a turning point for Trump because he realized neo-Nazis weren’t voters; he ended up telling them what they wanted to hear.

Then Trump went to all kinds of other sub-cultures that weren’t voting, like evangelical Christians. You wouldn’t think evangelicals would go for what Trump had to say, but they did. Trump brought out a bible and, again, told them what they wanted to hear. Trump kept doing that with other sub-cultures, uneducated white males for example, and talked about things they wanted to hear. It gave Trump voters that probably had not voted before.

It’s unbelievable what’s happening today; we’re making a U-turn on abortion, on free speech, on marijuana. Can you imagine Jeff Sessions [who was still Trump’s Attorney General until just before this interview] said that people who smoke pot are bad? That’s how insane it is! And the people into Trump’s scene are insane. It’s a relief they caught that guy in Florida who was sending those letter bombs, but it goes to show you their kind of insanity. He probably thought he was helping Trump; Trump probably thought so, too, but he couldn’t admit it.

In The Realist I never talked down to people or told them what they wanted to hear. It was just the opposite: I tried to live up to people’s point of view. I’ve always been a collectionist––gathering ideas––and I became a sort of clearing house for what others thought was in bad taste or too controversial. What I’ve done all along has been a two-way street for me; I’ve learned from my readers, my audiences, my family. When I was a child prodigy violin player, I had the technique to play, but I found I had a passion to make people laugh. It was thrill to find that, to know I liked serious things and that I liked satire. Now, I’m hoping to write my first novel, about a contemporary Lenny Bruce type, and what he would be saying now. I’m just hoping my vocabulary will stop leaking.”

Krassner speaking about the Yippies at MIT:

End of Reel Two.

There’s more––there’s always more with Krassner; it’s a good thing. At the end of Reel One, we included his unique description of the LSD-fueled Summer of Love. Here, we offer a glimpse into Krassner’s latest collection, Zapped by the God of Absurdity, which will be available this August on Amazon (pre-orders are being taken now), and also via its publisher, Fantagraphics Books. In our interview he said, “I just finished one piece; it’s called The Itinerary of the FBI Agent Bates.” Enjoy:

The Itinerary of FBI Agent Bates

In another case, a member of the Santa Clara district attorney’s office testified that FBI agent Charles Bates had “categorically denied” having any of the stolen documents sought by the Santa Clara district attorney for an investigation of FBI-sponsored political burglaries. After being confronted with the testimony of one of his own subordinates, Bates ultimately turned over the documents. Some of the stolen documents, according to Sundaz, ended up with Catherine Hearst’s pet project, Research West.

In 1969, Charles Bates was a Special Agent at the Chicago office of the FBI when police killed Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark while they were sleeping. Ex-FBI informer Maria Fischer told the Chicago Daily News that the then-chief of the FBI’s Chicago office, Marlon Johnson, personally asked her to slip a drug to Hampton; she had infiltrated the Black Panther Party at the FBI’s request a month before. The drug was a tasteless, colorless liquid that would put him to sleep. She refused. Hampton was killed a week later. An autopsy showed “a near fatal dose” of secobarbital in his system.

In 1971, Bates was transferred to Washington, D.C. According to Watergate burglar James McCord’s book, A Piece of Tape, on June 21, 1972 (four days after the break-in), White House attorney John Dean checked with acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray as to who was in charge of handling the Watergate investigation. The answer: Charles Bates -– the same FBI official who in 1974 would be in charge of handling the SLA investigation and the search for Patty Hearst. When she was arrested, Bates became instantly ubiquitous on radio and TV, boasting of her capture.

And, in the middle of her trial –- on a Saturday afternoon, when reporters and technicians were hoping to be off duty –- the FBI called a press conference. At five o’clock that morning, they had raided the New Dawn collective –- supposedly the aboveground support group of the Berkeley underground Emiliano Zapata Unit –- and accompanying a press release about the evidence seized were photographs still wet with developing fluid. Charles Bates held the photos up in the air.

 “Mr. Bates,” a photographer requested, “real close to your head, please.”

Bates proceeded to pose with the photos like Henry Fonda doing a camera commercial. Was there a search warrant? No, but they had a “consent to search” signed by the owner of the house, Judy Sevenson, who later admitted to being a paid FBI informant.

Not only did the raid seem timed to break into print simultaneously with the Sunday funnies, but the investigative technique also smacked of comic-strip morality. In Dick Tracy, the “Crimestoppers Textbook” depicted a trio of stereotypical hippie terrorists preparing a time bomb, underscored by the question, “Would you deny police access to knowledge of persons planning your demise?”

Almost six weeks after that Saturday-morning raid, I received a letter by registered mail on Department of Justice stationery:

Dear Mr. Krassner:

Subsequent to the search of a residence in connection with the arrest of six members of the Emiliano Zapata Unit, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, San Francisco, has been attempting to contact you to advise you of the following information:

During the above indicated arrest of six individuals of the Emiliano Zapata Unit, an untitled list of names and addresses of individuals was seized. A corroborative source described the above list as an Emiliano Zapata Unit “hit list,” but stated that no action will be taken, since all of those who could carry it out are in custody.

Further, if any of the apprehended individuals should make bail, they

would only act upon the “hit list” at the instructions of their leader, who is not and will not be in a position to give such instructions.

The above information is furnished for your personal use and it is requested it be kept confidential. At your discretion, you may desire to contact the local police department responsible for the area of your residence.

                                                                   Very Truly Yours,

Charles W. Bates

Special Agent in Charge

But I was more logically a target of the government than of the Emiliano Zapata Unit –- unless, of course, they happened to be the same. Was the right wing of the FBI warning me about the left wing of the FBI? Did the handwriting on the wall read COINTELPRO Lives? (COINTELPRO was their Counter-Intelligence Program.) Questions about the authenticity of the Zapata Unit had been raised by its first public statement in August 1975, which included the unprecedented threat of violence against the Left.

When a Safeway supermarket in Oakland was bombed by the Zapata Unit, they claimed to have called radio station KPFA and instructed them to notify police, so they could evacuate the area, but KPFA staffers insisted they never received such a call. Now The Urban Guerrilla, aboveground organ of the underground NWLF, commented:

Without offering any proof, the FBI has claimed that [those arrested] were members of the Emiliano Zapata Unit and mistakenly claimed that the Zapata Unit was part of the New World Liberation Front (NWLF). These FBI claims and lies had been widely repeated by the media.

As soon as they were arrested, Greg Adornetto, whom we knew as Chepito, was separated from the others and disappeared . . .

A close analysis of all the actions and statements . . . by Chepito leads [us] to the inescapable conclusion that he is not just a weak informer, he is a government infiltrator/provocateur. No other conclusion is possible when one considers that he led our comrades to a house he knew was under surveillance . . . carrying along things like explosives and half-completed communiqués . . .

He recruited sincere and committed revolutionaries who wanted to participate in being a medium for dialogue with the underground, got a bunch of them in the same room with guns, communiqués and explosives, or even got some of them involved in armed actions, and then had . . . Bates move in with his SWAT team and bust everybody . . .

In addition, a communiqué from the central command of the NWLF charged that “the pigs led and organized” the Zapata Unit. “We were reasonably sure that it was a set–up from the beginning and we never sent one communiqué to New Dawn because of our suspicions.”

After publishing the FBI’s warning letter to me in the Berkeley Barb, I received letters from a couple of members of the Emiliano Zapata Unit in prison. One stated:

I was involved in the aboveground support group of the Zapata Unit. Greg Adornetto led myself and several others to believe we were joining a cell of the Weather Underground, which had a new surge of life when it published Prairie Fire. I knew nothing about a hit list or your being on one, and can’t imagine why you would have been. When we were arrested, FBI agent-provocateur Adornetto immediately turned against the rest of us and provided evidence to the government.

Another Zapata Unit prisoner advised:

You shouldn’t have believed the boys in the black shiny shoes (FBI) about being on a Zapata hit list. They just found some addresses, and Bates and his running partner Hearst wanted to build up some sensationalism to take the heat off of Patty’s trial. They had over 75 people (politicians and corporate execs) under protection, thinking all of us didn’t get arrested.

 Jacques Rogiers -– the aboveground courier for the underground New World Liberation Front who delivered their communiqués — told me at my house that the reason I was on the hit list was because I had written that Donald 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.

“If the NWLF asked me to kill you,” Rogiers admitted, “I would.”

          “Jacques,” I replied, “I think this puts a slight damper on our relationship.”

          So my daughter Holly and I moved to another home.