TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We’re going to listen back to an interview with Paul Krassner, who was a prominent figure of the 60s counterculture. He died Sunday at the age of 87.
Krassner was considered one of the fathers of the underground press because he published and edited The Realist magazine from 1958 to 1974. He described The Realist as a magazine of free thought, criticism and satire. Pieces that were too radical or controversial for the mainstream press found a home in The Realist. Lenny Bruce, Jean Shepherd, Abbie Hoffman, Terry Southern and Jules Feiffer were some of the people Krassner published. He also contributed to his own interviews with people ranging from Woody Allen to Patty Hearst.
Krassner described his editorial philosophy as combining entertainment with the First Amendment. He was also famous for confounding the Yippies, along with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The Yippies were a politically and culturally radical group whose protests and demonstrations sometimes took the form of pranks or street theater. I spoke with Krassner in 1988.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You started The Realist in 1958, and this was really before the underground press, or at least before the alternative press was given that name of the underground press. Why did you see a need for something like The Realist, for publishing the kinds of things that were either so radical or so bizarre that they wouldn’t appear in the mainstream press?
PAUL KRASSNER: Well, I had been doing freelance stuff for Mad Magazine and for “The Steve Allen Show.” And I just came in contact with more and more taboos. The first thing I did for Mad Magazine was a thing called If Comic Strip Characters Answered Those Ads In The Back Of Magazines. And we had Dick Tracy getting a nose job, Alley Oop getting rid of his superfluous hair. We wanted to have Olive Oil sending away for falsies, and the publisher said no. He didn’t want to do that because his mother would object. And I said yeah, but your mother’s not a typical subscriber. And he said yes, but she’s a typical mother.
So there was really no humor for adults in this country except for maybe cartoons in The New Yorker. This was before Doonesbury, before National Lampoon, before Spy Magazine, before “Saturday Night Live,” so I had a pretty clear field to say in print what I would say in the living room.
GROSS: So tell me more about your vision for The Realist when you started it.
KRASSNER: Well, first thing, I was still living with my parents at the time. I was publishing what was considered the hippest magazine in the country, and I was living with my parents. And I remember they were watching a telethon. And I suddenly blurted out, this is barbaric. And they looked at me as if I were a Martian.
KRASSNER: And of course in their eyes, I was a Martian. And I think it was a kind of species – a need for community, for an extended family so that I knew I couldn’t be the only Martian on my block or there was no hope. And so The Realist served as a kind of network for Martians all over the country. And the first thing I published, in fact, in 1958 was a piece – a child’s primer on telethons called “See The Tired Man,” which talked about the contradictions of having the private sector raise money to cure leukemia while the government was exploding test atomic bombs, which had fallout that caused leukemia.
GROSS: You were one of the founders of the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. And it was you who actually coined the name. So why don’t you tell us how you did it, how you came up with it?
KRASSNER: Well, we were having a meeting. This was on the afternoon of December 31, 1967, on the Lower East Side of New York at the home of Abbie and Anita Hoffman. There were several of us there. And we were planning a protest to the Democratic convention in Chicago that year – 19 – the coming year, 1968. I, as a journalist, knew that reporters need the who for the who, what, when, where and why.
And I remembered that a few months before that, the Diggers, which were sort of psychedelic social workers in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, that they had held a parade for the death of hippie because they felt that it had become such a media-exploited term. And so they wanted to be called free Americans, which was – you know, you don’t find people yelling, get a haircut, you lousy free American.
So I knew that it needed something else. And I started going through the alphabet – ippy, bippy, kippy, dippy (ph) and was about to give up when I said Yippie to myself and realized that that would be perfect and then worked backwards to see what acronym that could come from.
GROSS: ‘Cause everything has to be an acronym, right?
KRASSNER: Well, just to give it an organic derivation even though I was working backwards. So the letters Y, I and P – Yippies would derive out of that. And then, again, working backwards, I saw that the words youth and international and party were so appropriate because it was a youth movement, it was international, and it was a party in both senses of the word.
GROSS: I’m sure in the ’60s that you always wondered if you were followed by the FBI and what was in your FBI files. I don’t know if you ever filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
KRASSNER: Oh, no, I got my files, my FBI…
GROSS: You got your files?
KRASSNER: …And my CIA files, both. Yeah.
GROSS: What’s one of the most interesting things in your file?
KRASSNER: I guess the most frightening was that, in 1969, the FBI published and distributed anonymously a flyer which had on it a large swastika. And in each square of the swastika was a photo of Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Mark Rudd of SDS and myself. And then the headline said Lampshades, Lampshades, Lampshades. And the copy underneath said that the only way that oppressed blacks would get rid of their oppression would be for the elimination of these Jewish leaders.
Then the approval letter from the Washington office of the FBI said that the publication and distribution of this flyer should not be traceable to the bureau – this flyer, which has the facetious suggestion for the elimination of these leaders. So I guess they were covering their tracks, though, if anybody killed us, they could say, well, we said facetious. So that was the most frightening thing that, you know – and especially that it was being done with taxpayers’ money.
GROSS: Did you ever get rid of the paranoia that there was maybe somebody tapping your phone or following you.
KRASSNER: Well, I tried to avoid the paranoia by having as a criterion that everything I said was on the record. And so I virtually had no secrets except perhaps the name of my marijuana dealer. But everything I did was really legal. There was one demonstration that I got arrested for, and they dismissed it for lack of evidence. And the judge started lecturing us saying, next time don’t tempt fate. And I started arguing. I said, well, wait. Is freedom of assembly tempting fate? And my lawyer jabbed me in the ribs and said shh, quiet; this is my first case. Don’t blow it for me.
GROSS: Well, listen. Paul Krassner, thank you very much for talking with us.
KRASSNER: My pleasure.
GROSS: Paul Krassner, recorded in 1988. He died Sunday at the age of 87.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Lulu Wang. We’ll talk about drawing on her own experiences to write and direct the new film “The Farewell.” When her grandmother in China was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given three months to live, the family flew to China to see her but decided not to tell her about the prognosis to spare her the anxiety. Lulu had to betray her instincts and hide the truth, too. I hope you’ll join us.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. I’m Terry Gross.
We’ll close with a song featuring Art Neville singing lead. He died yesterday at age 81. He was a founding member of the Neville Brothers and The Meters, famous for their New Orleans sound. As the Rolling Stone obituary says, perhaps no song better summed up Art Neville’s influence than “Mardi Gras Mambo,” which he recorded with The Hawketts when he was 16. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MARDI GRAS MAMBO”)
THE HAWKETTS: (Singing) Uhh – down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn. On LaSalle and Rampart Street, the combo’s there with a mambo beat – the Mardi Gras mambo, mambo, mambo; Party Gras mambo, mambo, mambo; Mardi Gras mambo, ooh, down in New Orleans. In Gert Town where the cats all meet, there’s a Mardi Gras mambo with a beat… Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.