Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs (1923 – 2010): Rad pacifist street peddler who begat folk rock, hippiedom & punk
According to the family of Tuli Kupferberg, the poet-comic-satirist-cartoonist-street artist-community media star and truth teller who died last week at age 86, the public service at Manhattan’s St. Marks church from noon to 3 pm Saturday 7/17, will have “no religious element. . . and Fugs Coby Batty, Steve Taylor and Ed Sanders will be the main speakers, after which anyone who wants to can talk, sing, recite poetry, or whatever they like.” He’ll be buried on 7/19 at 9 a.m. in Brooklyn’s Greenwood cemetery, renown for its flock of wild green parrots.
This sounds like the right send off for Tuli, whose long talk with me about high times of the 1960s — including being better than the the early Beatles (or as good), the trials of Lenny Bruce and the Chicago Seven, and sensible suggestions for living the good life (no matter how marginal one is financially) — I posted yesterday on my blog.
I had gone to interview Tuli for an article in SignalToNoise magazine about The Fugs Final CD (Part 1). Obviously there is overlap between that interview and the following article. But as posted below in its textual entirety, my S2N also touches on the beginnings of the NYC folk and folk-rock movement, protest songs, diy culture, ’60s happenings and jazz — and the great Ed Sanders, Tuli’s fellow-Fug, has a say. . .
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THE OLDEST SURVIVING R & R BAND
They are the oldest surviving rock ‘n’ roll band, the original DIY arts project, literate folkies with a history of outrage and an outrageous history, life-long bohemians inspired to patriotic subversion, grungy prototypes of the Glitter Twins, godfathers of satiric nihilism and predecessors of punk protest. They are Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders. They are the Fugs.
“I picked the name Fugs, out of Norman Mailer’s ‘Naked and the Dead,'” says Kupferberg, referring to the post-WW II best-seller which used an innocent “g” to stand for the salacious “ck” of the Anglo-Saxon word for the deed essential to life. “Do you know that when Dorothy Parker met Norman Mailer at a party,” he continues, “she’s supposed to have said, ‘Oh, you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell “Fuck.”‘ Actually, I think it was his publisher that didn’t know how to spell it.”
Kupferberg and Sanders had no such spelling problem, or troubles with their publishers/record labels, when they started rehearsing their group in the Peace Eye Bookstore of New York’s Lower East Side in early 1965, because they were publishing themselves and had no record label. Sanders was editing “Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts,” which he printed on his mimeograph machine. Kupferberg was the poet who lived next door, “a beat hero who was featured in anthologies such as The Beat Scene, and who published several fine magazines, Birth and Yeah, which he sold on the streets of the East and West Village,” as Sanders writes in his lively, detailed “The History of the Fugs” on the website www.thefugs.com.
It’s a lengthy history, and a rich one which, we’re glad to say, is far from over. Just when America really needs a band that speaks its adult, informed, but highly unruly mind, Sanders and Kupferberg and their musicians (same lineup since 1985!) are back with a great album: The Fugs Final CD (part 1), on Artemis Records.
THE INCREDIBLE REALITY OF YESTERYEAR
More of that in a moment, but first let’s return to the incredible reality of yesteryear. There was no term like “folk rock” in those days, but the idea was very much in the spiced air of underground New York. “There were all those folk acts playing on Bleeker and McDougal,” Sanders recalls, “like Bob Dylan — when I first saw him he could barely tune his guitar, but who cared, he was great. Phil Ochs was a friend of ours. Richie Havens. The art song was proving it could be very political. You didn’t have to go to the Juilliard School to make an impact.”
“Pop music was becoming the next big thing,” remembers Kupferberg. “We’d go and drink coffee at the Dom on St. Marks Place, and they had a juke box with the Beatles and the Stones on it. The Beatles’ early songs were not anywhere near what they did later. So Ed said, ‘We can do better than that. Or at least as good.’ It was the mid ’60s, and we did as good as the Beatles’ early songs, I’ll say that.”
On their official website Sanders writes: “We drew inspiration for the Fugs from a long and varied tradition, going all the way back to the dances of Dionysus in the ancient Greek plays and the ‘Theory of the Spectacle’ in Aristotle’s Poetics, moving forward to the famous premier performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1896, to the poèmes simultanés of the Dadaists in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, to the jazz-poetry of the Beats, to Charlie Parker’s seething sax, to the silence of John Cage, to the calm pushiness of the Happening movement, the songs of the Civil Rights movement, and to our concept that there was oddles of freedom guaranteed by the United States Constitution that was not being used.”
Thinking of Lenny Bruce, whose was arrested for obscenity while doing his comedy routine at New York City’s Cafe Au GoGo on April 3, 1964, Sanders goes on: “My generation found these freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and you know the old phrase: Use it or lose it. Tuli and I think music has a responsibility to push for freedoms and be provocative.” So, in a fever, he and Kupferberg wrote between 50 and 60 songs, and determined to perform them and get them recorded.
Their topics were basic: sex, drugs, radical politics and transcendent literature. The original Fugs repertoire included a setting of William Blake’s visionary “Ah Sunflower,” a tune about frustration (“I Couldn’t Get High”), a paean to female charms (“Boobs A Lot”), and a mock gloomy chant called “Nothing.”
“We had two things going for us,” Kupferberg claims. “We were accused of being anti-establishment, and we didn’t care to ‘make it,’ whatever that meant. When we started out, we didn’t intend to become as rich as we never became. So we were having fun.
“You know, a lot of Americans are against fun, because this started out as a Puritan country, and it hasn’t really gotten over that. One of the first people arrested in America was Thomas Morton, a Puritan preacher who set up a May pole in a town called Merry Mount, and celebrated spring, supposedly with sex and drunkeness and the Indians — so he was arrested by the governor of Plymouth Colony, and deported. This was in 1627, and that was the end of America, before it started.
“Anyway,” says Tuli, who at age 80 spices his tales with the occasional related and entertaining digression, “we weren’t primarily trying to sell things. We could do whatever the hell we wanted, and have some fun with our friends. And we were surprised the Fugs took off.”
Take off is just what the band did. Sanders and Kupferberg enlisted drummer Ken Weaver, and, from the Holy Modal Rounders, guitarist-banjoist-harmonicaist Peter Stampfel and guitarist Steve Weber (over time, guest personnel came to include french horn player Julius Watkins, reedsman Jim Pepper, tubaist and baritone saxist Howard Johnson, guiatirist Danny Kortchmar, singer Bob Dorough and poet Allen Ginsberg). Andy Warhol decorated the Peace Eye; William Burroughs, George Plimpton and James Michener were among the attendees at the Fugs debut performance.
Soon, filmmaker Harry Smith brought them to the attention of Moe Asch at Folkways Records, who released their first album, The Village Fugs — Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Points of View and General Dissatisfaction. The Fugs traveled to California, where it gigged with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and Country Joe and the Fish, among others. Returning to New York, it played the aforementioned Cafe Au GoGo on bills with Al Kooper and the Blues Project. Sanders was arrested by New York City police — something to do with his magazine Fuck You. The ACLU got him off. The Fugs signed with ESP Records, “a strange, shackling contract . . . [with a] royalty rate was less than 3%, one of the lower percentages in the history of western civilization,” Sanders explains. The Fugs Second Album included the ditties “Group Grope,” “Dirty Old Man,” and the immortal “Kill For Peace.”
“That the second album reached number 75 on the sales chart with a roach clip and bullet,” Sanders says, still shocked by success. “At one point we were number ’89, just above Martha and the Vandellas! That was ’66, early ’67.” The Trogg’s “Wild Thing” and the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” were much higher on the list. But the counter culture had just begun.
Look, you can read all the rest — about the Fugs at the riotous Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, at the fiasco trial of the Chicago Eight (then, after Bobby Seale was shackled and removed, the Chicago Seven), about the FBI file that was kept on the band (they were eventually deemed “not obscene”), about their meetings with Richard Burton and Kim Novak, Johnny Carson and Atlantic Records, on the website. You can find out how and why they didn’t play any concerts from May ’68 — with the Grateful Dead — until 1984 (ok here it is: Sanders and Kupferberg agreed it was too auspicious a year to ignore, what with Orwell, the mining of harbors in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador, so they decided a reunion and new record, Refuse to Burn Out, was in order). I urge you to do so. Let me just provide some personal background that Ed overlooks in his version.
“Oh yes, we played a concert in New York with Albert Ayler in spring ’66, he had a wonderful band,” enthuses Sanders. “We also played dates with Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp . . . I grew up in Kansas City, so Jay McShann played high school dances I went to, me and my friends went to all the clubs on 12th and Vine streets. When I first came to New York I went to hear Lionel Hampton at the Metropol, went to the Five Spot to see Monk, Ornette, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins . . They had dollar seats at the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks, on the side of the room, so we’d sit there. Jazz spontaneity was an important part of the milieu. Also what Claes Oldenberg and Alan Kaprow were doing, you know, the Judson Church happenings. It was important to put on a spectacle. That’s what we were into, dancing around. We were mostly poets, but doing things spontaneously, with simple three chord hymns, civil rights songs like ‘Down by the Riverside,’ ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and things by Pete Seeger, who I met in ’61. The first time I saw him was at a Fair Play for Cuba rally.”
Kupferberg is somewhat less of a jazz fan, saying his tastes extend about as far as Art Tatum. “Pop music is what I love,” he says, “songs from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s that I grew up on, hearing them on the radio and everywhere. Some of those songs are wonderful, so romantic. You know, they’re courtship music.
“But,” to expand on the way they inspire him, well into the present, “that’s a very limited part of human life, getting married. Sex is even a little bit broader than getting married. Some other popular music, like country music and maybe black music, the blues, had more themes than courtship, but all you would hear on radio would be courtship songs. So for the Fugs we wrote about everything we felt like.
“There was a sexual revolution,” stresses the man who croons, on Final Album (part 1), of the not unremittingly sad plight of a “Septuagenarian in Love.” “Of course it goes in cycles. Restoration England was pretty wild. In Victorian England they had sex; people actually fucked in those days, otherwise there wouldn’t be any Brits today. It was sort of undercover, but it was strong. Sex goes inside sometimes. And now we have [Attorney General John] Ashcroft, who covers up the breasts of a statue of a woman before he does a press conference in halls the Justice Department. I’ll leave that to the psychologists. . .
“Hey, this is a jazz riff, and you’re a jazz guy, right?” he suddenly asks. “Can you tell me what this tune is?” And sings, sort of to a familiar whisp of melody, “Spread your legs/You’re breaking my glasses/Baby I’m in love with you.” Now, what’s the music to that”
“Count Basie’s ‘One O’Clock’ jump,” I supply.
“Yeah! Count Basie!” Kupferberg writes himself a note. “That’s going to be in my next songbook, though it’s a very short song.”
You see, Kupferberg has a practice of writing “parasongs” — new lyrics to old tunes, which he says is “a very old tradition. After all, the Star Spangled Banner is sung to the tune of an English drinking song. There’s a Latin term for it, which I lose track of it, so I made up a new name. And Martin Luther had this wonderful quotation: ‘Why should the Devil have the best of tunes?’ He wrote religious hymns to the popular music of his time. The Wobblies, the IWW [International Workers of the World] at the beginning of the 20th century, they found religious hymns and turned them into working songs. The best one was Joe Hill’s ‘Pie High’: ‘Long haired preachers come out at night/Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right/But when asked for something to eat/They are sure, they are sure to repeat/”You’ll get pie in the sky when you die/In that great big way up high/Work and pray, live on hay/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”/It’s a lie!'”
Kupferberg has three parasongs on Final CD (part 1) — besides “Septuagenarian,” sung to the tune of “Teenager in Love,” if you hadn’t already figured it out, “I’ve Been Working for the Landlord” and “Go Down, Congress.” He says that on the Fugs first album, “Nothing” was taken from an old Jewish song called “Potatoes,” which went “Monday potatoes/Tuesday potatoes/Wednesday, Thursday, potatoes/Friday for a change, potato kugel/Saturday again it’s potatoes.”
“I grew up in New York in the Depression,” Kupferberg says, “and I came of age, I guess, in 1934, when I was nine or ten. Like everyone then, I saw things . . . If you didn’t become radicalized by the Great Depression in America, you were an idiot. I’ll tell you frankly, I’m severely anti-capitalist, anti-class society, I’m an anarchist pacificist — that’s pacifist, Mr. Ashcroft — I wish you were a pacifist. I’m a Jew peddler by day. I do political cartoons and collages, and I sell some of them and then I sell other peoples’ materials, too. ‘Someday my prints will sell.’ I sell some of my songbooks — I’ve had four published, two I’ve published myself, and my CDs, I’ve done a couple of solo ones, and some of the Fugs CDs, too.
“See, a lot of the people come down to where I sell, in Soho, and they like this stuff, but say they aren’t going to buy it, they don’t have the money (although most of the people there do have the money). But I believe if we lived in a rational world, if they liked it they’d just take it. That’s the ultimate aim of a socialist, or communist or anarchist society: that you produce or give what you can, and you take what you need. I guess we’ll have that in a few weeks, right? It could happen. . . ”
Whatever Kupferberg’s political ideals, he’s no fool — he lives on the top floor of a walkup apartment on 6th Avenue in downtown New York, has been there for years, it’s stacked floor to ceiling with books, and he knows the score.
“I must say, the left and the radicals have a very fine criticism of what exists, but we haven’t found what we can really do to make things a lot better. We need the help of everyone reading this article to really think about it and to join with other people to figure out what we can really do. Because the forces against us are just amazing. incalculable, more atrocious than anything we’ve ever seen before. The media monopolies are taking over, and there’s so much noise you can’t hear the signal. And that in addition to this overlay of general crisis in all of America . . .”
This Fug doesn’t shirk political action — voting early and often, if you can manage it — but knows that the personal is political, too. His ideas allude to the earnest lyrics of “Advice from the Fugs,” on Final CD (part 1)”: “Pursue the small utopias. Nature, friendship, music, intimate love. That’s what you really have to do in our world. You can have the broad ideas, too, to change society, but don’t neglect your own personal life. Including all art and music.
“Every song is a personal utopia, because you can control what happens — when you write a song, you create a small universe. Enjoy it while you can. Thatt’s true of the arts, and also of good family relationships, or the relationships with a friend, or a lover. Even your wife — yes, it happens sometimes. And whatever trade or skill you use, take pride in what you’re doing. You should always make space and room for that, and not let the entire world crush all the joy from your life.”
Ed Sanders agrees. Living in scenic Woodstock — the artists colony, not the rock festival site which was miles away — for 30 years, he’s something like the unofficial Mayor, publishing The Woodstock Times, an offbeat newspaper, writing a nine volume history of America in verse, teaching and lecturing, still proud of his best selling non-fiction volume on the Manson Family murders and working on a movie deal for his four volumes of Tales of Beatnik Glory. And the Fugs remain a major part of his life.
“A lot of rock bands think after three or four years, they can’t go on. But ours is a longterm project. Tuli and I feel that while our early material still has a lot of interest, ultimately things will be rearranged and our later material will last as long as our earlier material does. If any of it lasts.
“I think our music has gotten a lot better, we’re trying things with overdubbing and the musicians that we never did in the past. And as far as lyrics go — we can be direct, like ‘Government Surveillance Yodel,’ or very oblique. You can have attacks in a song that can be baffling, that don’t point to any necessary social change. Who would think about how ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ is roughly equivalent in its meaning to John Lennon’s Imagine, or The Bee Gee’s ‘Stayin’ Alive’? ‘Life is but a dream’ — what is that about? Those are examples of songs that don’t have a direct societal urging, but have a profound way of helping you figure out what’s right, and what’s wrong.
“Some of what has come after us is shocking. Now there are very few taboos in music. I suppose you couldn’t go on Jay Leno with a song about making it with a sheep. Or supporting child porn. Shooting up on stage would get you popped. But violence, murder. . . Some of today’s lyrics remind me of a Lenny Bruce rule. He said if you gave people total freedom, they’d run over babies and charge admission.
PROMISE OF THE LEFT WING PATRIOTS
“But I’m a left wing patriot. I don’t hesitate to sing ‘America the beautiful’ — in fact, I wrote a bunch of new words for it. I was raised very patriotic, and I realize it is a wonderful country. Despite its numerous flaws, it has many, many, many good qualities. Despite being too militaristic, having no national health care, you know, ‘sea to shining sea is a beautiful and very true phrase. If you fly across the US and your heart doesn’t reach out to the beauty beneath you, you have problems. I’m controversial out here in the country because I’ve worked to put a stop to extensive commercial development, but I don’t let anyone question my patriotism.
“And what we really need is a revolution so rents are guaranteed low, because you can’t have an avant garde culture if you don’t have cheap rents. That’s the sine qua non. Until that’s resolved, I tell people to follow the Ginsberg line: find the best minds, look for the best art they can discover, in any art form.”
What are the Fugs contributing to that?
“I hope there will be a Fugs Final Album (part 2),” says Kupferberg. “Mel Brooks has never done the second part to his History of the World, Part 1. And I’m looking forward to that. So we’ll continue until it ends.”
“Sure, we’ll do the Fugs Final CD (part 2),” Sanders insists. “And we’ve more or less scoped out the next seven or eight part of the final CD, too. We want to do some different thematic albums. Fugs Do Showtunes, Do Covers, Beatle Songs, a country record, then pure rock ‘n’ roll. The band has been together since ’85, and is very tight and good. We’ll do show tunes from imaginary shows. We want to resurrect the great concept of the space cadet, and do a pure psychedelic album to remind these young people with their kundalini tattoos of the golden age of the space cadet. Then an album of science and technology rock, with the latest Hawkins’ theories considered, then an album of anarcho-Hassidic communist center left utopian themes. . .”
Isn’t it reassuring: As long as there’s an America, it will be all Fugged up.