Ben Morea: Garbage Guerrilla

An interview with Ben Morea, member of Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!, conducted by Jon McMillian for New York Press on 5th June, 2005.

Submitted by wojtek on March 25, 2012

In the late 1960s, Ben Morea was the notorious leader of an unsavory Lower East Side anarchist collective called Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker. As a young historian who studies that period, I'd spent almost three years trying to locate him. All the leads I'd followed went nowhere. It was as if Morea had vanished, every bit as thoroughly as a jet contrail.

Not that this was terribly surprising. Even in his heyday, Morea cultivated an air of mystery. In the early 60s, he was an abstract-expressionist painter who signaled his lack of compromising nuances by dressing completely in black. Later in the decade, he used to strut around St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, longhaired and bearded like any number of hippies, but instead of adorning himself in flowers and beads, he wore a leather jacket, carried a switchblade and peddled manifestos full of cryptic poetry and angry agitprop. The Motherfuckers described themselves as a kind of politicized street gang, but in the media they were known only as "a group with a certain unprintable name." Their general attitude toward the counterculture summons to mind something Patti Smith later said about rock 'n' roll: "We created it; let's take it over!"

This is a group who once carried piles of stinking, festering trash from the East Village and dumped it on the steps of Lincoln Center. ("WE PROPOSE A CULTURAL EXCHANGE," they declared in an accompanying leaflet: "garbage for garbage.") In 1968, they rallied in support of Valerie Solanas, the tormented feminist who shot Andy Warhol. A year later, they cut the fences at Woodstock, famously helping to turn it into a free concert for thousands.

Then they disappeared, or, some said, escaped. Morea had already been acquitted of attempted murder after allegedly stabbing a hawkish thug known for preying on hippies and draft resisters in Boston. After that came a highly publicized turf war with rock impresario Bill Graham, owner of New York's hippest club, the Fillmore East. At issue was whether or not denizens of the East Village could have free use of the Fillmore one night each week for revelry and community organizing. After a confusing volley of words and threats, someone smashed Graham in the face with a chain, shattering his nose. Later, a superintendent who oversaw a building where the Motherfuckers were squatting was found stabbed to death.

Ben is 63 years old now, small and wiry, with a Fu Manchu moustache and jet-black hair that he combs backward. He lives in the Southwest, but still visits New York periodically. So long as we're indoors, he politely keeps his cowboy hat on the bench beside him. For all his past reticence, he's an effusive talker and a gifted raconteur. If he'd been born just a little bit earlier, I could imagine him showing up in one of Jack Kerouac's road novels. Sometimes he recounts past exploits with exactly the type of joyful, stiff-necked pride one might expect from an ex-prizefighter. He smiles easily and impishly.

Right upfront, he tells me what I already know: that but for one recent exception, he hasn't appeared in public as "Ben Morea" in 35 years. So why the change of heart? His answer unfolds gradually, and betrays a genuine ambivalence. On the one hand, he's always been reluctant to be singled out. He tells me how he made a point of avoiding the cameras when he was backstage at Woodstock, and how he once turned down an offer to play a part in Michelangelo Antonioni's film about 60s American youth culture, Zabriskie Point. Yet he regrets that the Motherfuckers remain obscure and poorly understood. The 1960s may be one of the most overwritten decades in American history, but the only scholarly treatment the group has ever received was a 2003 Harvard honors thesis. Again and again, Morea rails against how the counterculture's values have been domesticated, sanitized and exploited.

Morea moved to New York City at the age of 10, where he hung out with black and Puerto Rican street kids in Hell's Kitchen. As a teenager, he guttered out on heroin. While in treatment for his addiction, he was introduced to two of his longstanding passions, which were also his salvation: painting and reading. He speaks plainly and clearly, yet sprinkles his conversation with references to Michael Bakunin, Guy Debord, Franz Fanon and that lion of New Left thought, Herbert Marcuse.

In the early 60s, Morea was befriended by the cofounders of the Living Theater, an experimental theater company whose loose and challenging performances forecast the coming countercultural style. In 1966, he helped launch Black Mask, a short-lived, crudely mimeographed arts magazine that he peddled in the East Village for a nickel. Later, he connected with a group of artists who were likewise politicized by the antiwar and black-power movements. Out of this mix emerged Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker, the name taken from a line in a Leroi Jones poem.

The Motherfuckers never had more than a couple dozen full-time members. Their ranks included an Ivy League dropout, autodidacts and barely literate street people; in all the counterculture, there was nothing quite like them. Though sympathetic with the hippies, they mocked their flowery fantasies and chided them for their weakness. They had a tenuous connection to Students for a Democratic Society, the New Left's main political organization, but recoiled from sectarian intellectual debates, and regarded even the most militant students as cloistered and unreliable. The media-obsessed Yippies were far too playful; the Black Panthers were sufficiently ferocious, but too rigidly hierarchical and doctrinaire. Probably the group that they most closely resembled was the San Francisco Diggers, an artistically inclined, utopian-minded collective who championed an ethos of maximum personal freedom and set up various "counter-institutions" around Haight-Ashbury.

Though both groups had their dark side, there was a key difference of temperament: The Motherfuckers were tougher and angrier. "They lived like gutter rats," Abbie Hoffman once recalled. Susan Stern, a former member of the Weather Underground, called them "the downright dirtiest, skuzziest, and loudest group of people [she'd] ever laid eyes on." In their creepy broadsheets, which frequently ran in an underground newspaper called the Rat, they trumpeted the most extreme formulations of the counterculture cosmology. "We are the ultimate Horror Show," read one. "Hideous Hair & Dangerous Drugs . . . Armed Love striking terror into the vacant hearts of the plastic Mother & pig-faced Father."

After the Motherfuckers disbanded, Morea and his wife lived on horseback for five years in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, illegally hunting and gathering and constantly evading the Forest Service. Later he became a lumberjack -- a job he now admits he wasn't well suited for, given his slight frame. Today he limps, having once sliced his leg with a chainsaw, and he's deaf in one ear because, he says laughingly, he was "too macho to wear earplugs."

Ben hadn't even finished his pancakes when I brought up Solanas, the radical feminist who founded her own one-woman organization, the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). After Solanas shot Andy Warhol on June 3, 1968, the Motherfuckers staged a vibrant street performance on her behalf in Tompkins Square Park, at which Ben distributed a leaflet lionizing her as a "cultural assassin -- a tough chic with a bop cap and a thirty eight."

I put the question bluntly: "How could you rationalize supporting her?"

"Rationalize? I didn't rationalize anything," Ben says with a shrug. "I loved Valerie and I loathed Andy Warhol, so that's all there was to it." A few seconds later he adds, "I mean, I didn't want to shoot him." But then he doubles back again. "Andy Warhol ruined art."

"But let me tell you how I met her," he says, excitedly.

"I was selling nickel copies of Black Mask on the corner of 8th St. and 5th Ave. one day. Valerie came by and said, 'Hey, I'd like to get one of those, [but] I don't have a nickel.' So I said, 'Oh, that's alright, you can have one, you don't need a nickel.' She said, 'Wait here!' And she ran into the bookstore and she stole a copy of her [SCUM] manifesto -- stole it! -- and came out and said 'Here, I wrote this,' in exchange for the nickel paper. And see, she used to stay with me after that."

In the 1995 film I Shot Andy Warhol, there appears a character identified in the screenplay as "Mark Motherfucker," who, director Mary Harron tells me, was modeled after Morea. In one scene, the two are together in Morea/Mark Motherfucker's "chaotic tenement apartment," which is "strewn with piles of laundry, books, papers, empty bottles, overflowing ashtrays, revolutionary posters, combat gear." They vamp around the room, mouthing militant platitudes and striking cartoonish poses with guns. When they finally collapse into bed, the screenplay calls for "Strobe cuts of more banal sex action." Later, while Morea/Mark Motherfucker is asleep, Valerie steals his gun -- the gun she uses to shoot Warhol.

Ben enjoyed the film, but he says none of this happened. "First of all, Valerie was my dearest friend, and we had guns all over the place, but she would never steal a gun from me."

Later, Morea tells me how he once asked Valerie where he fit within her revolutionary plan to "destroy the male sex."

"She thought about it a minute, pensive, you know, like she'd never thought about it before. And she said, 'I'm gonna promise you something -- You'll be the last man we kill.' And I said to her, jokingly, 'Can you put it in writing?'"

She did. "And I wish I had it to this day," he muses softly.

"Yesterday I saw that Hippie book," says Morea.

He's referring to a slick, bestselling coffee-table book by Barry Miles, which was released this year by Sterling Publishing Co., a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble.

"And there was a picture of Jerry Rubin with a [National Liberation Front] flag wrapped around his shoulders, holding a plastic machine gun. And it's like, 'Wow, I have to smile.' Our idea was, if you're gonna pick up a machine gun, it shouldn't be plastic."

Later on he makes the same point again, in reference to the Motherfuckers' existentially flavored willingness to take such tremendous personal risks. "We weren't like Jerry Rubin walking around with a plastic machine gun and a flag draped on [his] shoulder," he says.

He later brings up "that idiot Rubin" a third time, after describing one of the Mothefuckers' most legendary actions. On October 21, 1967, Morea and several others broke into the Pentagon during an antiwar rally, after which they were beaten bloody by American soldiers. "It didn't bring the world any closer to [betterment]," Ben shrugs. "We didn't know if they would start shooting! They could have. We really thought they might."

I used to wonder whether the Motherfuckers weren't a bit of a put-on, proto-punks more like Ramones than Jacobins. Ben bristles at the notion.

"If you had any instinct of self-preservation you couldn't do what we did," he says. But for all of their pick-up-the-gun militancy and acid-fueled rhetoric, he remains proudest of their contributions to the community: providing food, comfort, and shelter to teenage runaways who flocked to the Lower East Side's mean streets, feeding the homeless, guiding hippies through bad LSD trips, and pluckily standing up against the Ninth Precinct's notoriously gruff Tactical Police Force.

It's no wonder, then, that Rubin should make such a convenient foil; the Yippies' light-hearted, media-driven antics constantly called into question the movement's authenticity. By contrast, the Motherfuckers immunized themselves from any possibility of cooptation by virtue of their name alone. The one thing Morea seems determined to convey — through all of his boasts about his street-fighting days, his unrepentant loyalty to Valerie Solanas, and his heckling of Jerry Rubin — is the depth of his sincerity. Unlike Rubin (or for that matter, Malcolm X, Che Guevara or the Weather Underground), the Motherfuckers have thus far managed to avoid becoming an empty signifier. The flipside is that even though they played a unique role in the counterculture, they remain virtually unknown. It's a thorny problem; one way to remedy it is by writing about them, and yet to do so is to grant them a status Ben says they never coveted.

But might he enjoy just a little recognition? Recently I walked into a Barnes & Noble and had a look at the Hippie book Ben referred to, which was prominently displayed at a table near the front of the store, alongside piles of several other self-congratulatory books on the counterculture, including The Hippie Dictionary and The Hippie Handbook (promising to teach its readers how to "tie-dye a t-shirt, flash a peace sign . . . and other essential skills for a carefree life.") To my pleasant surprise, its index indicated that "Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker" was mentioned on page 282. But upon turning to that page, I discovered that the reference is not to Morea's group, but rather to the disembodied slogan, "Up against the wall, motherfucker!" — just five words ripped from a Leroi Jones poem.

On the opposite page is a giant photograph of Jerry Rubin, an NLF flag draped around his shoulders, a toy machine gun in his hands.