NONFICTION: Craziest Guys on the Lower East Side
Osha Neumann, Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker: With Notes on Reason, Obsession, & The Dream of Revolution (Seven Stories, 2007)
It used to be that calling an autobiography “thesis–driven” was akin to an insult, but to my mind the best recent life stories are of this type. Just compare last year’s Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere by John Nathan to David Amram’s Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat. While Nathan’s story of his friendships with Mishima, Oë, and other Japanese writers is enthralling, much of his life, when he is making commercials and business promotional films, is not very engaging. Amram, by contrast, says he only wants to talk about certain music-related feelings he’s had, so he pulls nine episodes from life, such as a trip to Kenya, narrates them, and drops the rest. This is a more engrossing read.
Osha Neumann’s Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker is like Amram’s book in this sense. Growing up in a household of intellectual Jewish refugees—his father was a prominent economist and his stepfather, who arrived on the scene when his father died, was Herbert Marcuse—Neumann came to have an ambiguous relationship to the rationality that dominated his elders’ conversations. His family’s emphasis on sober living gave Neumann a Portnoy-sized sense of guilt about his own morbid sexual fantasies, leading to fights with his mother and estrangement from a middle-class career track. He dropped out of Yale in the early ’60s and joined the Lower East Side Motherfuckers, a street gang with an anarchist philosophy.
The group’s charismatic leader was Ben Morea, whom Neumann contrasts to the men in his childhood: “My fathers’ minds floated from thought to thought in a…world separate from the world of doing and making. Ben’s thought flowed naturally and directly into action.” The Mothers combined militant, Black Panther-style rhetoric with social services they thought would draw hippies and street people to their philosophy. “By the beginning of 1968, we had become a formidable presence on the Lower East Side. We ran free stores and crash pads. We organized community feasts in the courtyard of St. Mark’s Church.” They were involved in numerous provocations and disruptions, including joining the striking students at Columbia and confronting rock impresario Bill Graham to demand a weekly free night at the Fillmore East, which they obtained. Although the concession at the Fillmore was short-lived, it did reinforce their point that businesses that live off the youth culture should give something back to the community.
Finally, when things got too hot for the Mothers, the group imploded, and after various adventures Neumann moved to Berkeley and became a radical lawyer. But he still had not laid to rest his mixed feelings about rationality. He has now transformed this dilemma, which deeply affected how he lived, into an intellectual concern. For the last quarter of the book, Neumann drops the chronology and further develops his critique of his ’60s politics (decrying, for instance, the Mothers’ male chauvinism and macho posturing) by presenting an enlightening examination of the interplay of reason and unreason in movements for change. He argues that the inability to coordinate these strands hobbles current anarchist organizing and other progressive ventures.
Overall, while “driving a thesis,” Neumann presents a double reward to readers: both his recounting of his role in an aspect of the radical ’60s, one that has been neglected but is brimming with significance, and a thoughtful, energetic account of the part the duality of reason/irrationality plays in life and social movements.