Historians have opined that everyone in America was invited to Luci Baines Johnson’s 1966 wedding, due to all the media attention it received. This was likely due in no small part to the machinations of the father of the bride, Lyndon Johnson, the larger-than-life U.S. president at the time. In Lower East Side New York as all the events were unfolding, the editors of the underground East Village Other newspaper and a group of artists realized the wedding day (August 6) coincided with the 21st anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. More than a coincidence, it was an opportunity to make a statement, which led to the creation of the album The East Village Other Electric Newspaper. On the record, news reports of the wedding blared away (credited to “plastic clock radio”), with snatches of songs, poems, chants and noise superimposed over it. And who better to release the results than ESP-Disk, a label already notorious for Albert Ayler, the Fugs and numerous other albums that could leave people both impressed with their audacious quality and wondering if their contents were fit for release.
The East Village Other Electric Newspaper fit both criteria. Its mere existence deserves a five-star review. Never mind the fact that some of the conversations are drowned out by the banal interviews with Luci and her husband Pat Nugent, or that the album includes 10 nearly unlistenable minutes of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky chanting mantras. The overarching crazy idea makes it work. Of course, 47 years later, its reissue (on CD and vinyl, via the current incarnation of ESP-Disk, offers a fascinating convergence of free jazz musicians, denizens of Andy Warhol’s Factory and beat poets.
A year before The Velvet Underground and Nico was unleashed on an unsuspecting public, here are the Velvets making their unofficial debut with 1:44 of “Noise.” Their frantic strumming and viola scrapes linger briefly before Factory fixtures Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar gossip about their friends. These both follow a brief song by Steve Weber of the Holy Modal Rounders, “If I Had a Half a Mind,” which sets the scene for the whole production.
Next up is another short but focused blast of free jazz from alto saxophonist Marion Brown (at the time, soon to be an ESP artist), bassist Scott Holt and drummer Ron Jackson, who would become better known by his full name: Ronald Shannon Jackson.
The original side two began with the Fugs’ Tuli Kupferberg and Viki Pollon’s “Love and Ashes,” which lyrically contrasts the wedding and the bombing. For a guy who loved being the ham, Kupferberg gives a straightforward performance, and the duo sounds like a couple of typical coffeehouse folkies. Poet Ishmael Reed rapidly fires off an excerpt from his The Free Lance Pall Bearers, which is so rich in metaphor it takes a few listeners to fully grasp.
A few different reissues of this album have appeared in the last two decades, but this one is the first to restore “Interview with Hairy,” a scatological contribution by Ken Weaver and Ed Sanders of the Fugs, which ended the album. Previous versions faded out abruptly, causing confusion since the last track is titled “Silence,” and credited to Andy Warhol. This reissue’s press release explains the Pop Artist’s contribution isn’t an actual “track” inspired by John Cage but what Andy created in the studio while everyone else spoke or played. (“Hey, it was the ‘60s. It’s a concept, man,” the release says.)
There are probably people who have been waiting years to hear “Hairy,” their curiosity stoked by Lester Bangs’ reference to it in his infamous “Do The Godz Speak Esperanto?” essay. And while it’s nice to have the complete artifact, there is no stereo separation between the radio and the artists, so it’s hard to hear it clearly, even with headphones. The participants sound like they were trying to create their own X-rated version of “The 2000 Year Old Man,” as Sanders plays the straight interviewer and Weaver tells sexual stories. What comes across sounds more like a couple of 15-year olds trying to come up with the most depraved stories they can. (Even Bangs seemed somewhat put-off by it.) It makes you wonder if they intentionally put their voices low in the mix to bury the subject matter.
Like most current ESP reissues, this one recreates the original album cover, which included some far out liner notes and a subscription form (on the back cover, so using it would require cutting up your album). While some new liner notes would have been a welcome addition, the package is nevertheless a welcome reissue, taking us back to a time where it was possible to make a statement with music and art that brought together people that would never commingle like this again.