It takes an arcane, close-knit subset of music aficionados to note the passing of – maybe not a great man necessarily, but an intense, devoted and oddly influential one. To sniffle as you hail Tuli Kupferberg’s gentle float down the River Styx, you have to be a certain age, but first and foremost you have to be a Fugs fan.
I was a young teenager when my interest in folk music led me to a ramshackle album on a tiny label better known for authentic acoustic artists, country music for snobs. It was by the “Village Fugs,” and it was as revelatory for my generation as the Ramones or the Sex Pistols were for theirs. These people couldn’t sing, they couldn’t play. “Production values” were nil. The instruments were out of tune, the drummer had a rough time with a simple surf-music pattern. Besides all that, when they weren’t singing about getting high and female nether regions, they were using A. C. Swinburne and William Blake as lyricists!
They were fantastic.
From far-off Mississippi, I had no way of knowing that the Fugs were the troubadours of the real Lower East Side, the East Village Other to the rest of the industry’s Village Voice. At first you thought (as with the Ramones and the Pistols!) “How did anybody let these guys into a recording studio?” But, like the garage-band and punk movements which came later, that was the whole idea: who exactly decreed that there was an unscalable wall between the givers and receivers of music?
The “band’s” leaders – and forever the soul of the Fugs – were poets Ed Sanders and our current subject, Tuli Kupferberg. They bestrode both the beat and hippie eras, and were as comfortable with Allen Ginsberg as with Timothy Leary. They may have even been a bit surprised when their odd little album earned a fair amount of notoriety in the mid-Sixties, especially in New York. The Lp was reissued on ESP-Disk’ Records, an eccentric label that also featured Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, as THE FUGS FIRST ALBUM. Their second record, THE FUGS, was much tighter: aside from an echoey, made-inside-a-tin-can feel, the boys were in tune most of the time (Ken Weaver still had trouble counting time, which is not the best attribute in a drummer), and even rocked out solidly on a few tunes, thanks to ringers like Danny Kortchmar and Charles Larkey. Tuli’s song “Morning, Morning” actually sounded very sweet, even better when Richie Havens covered it on his first Lp. Yet it was still the indomitable, anti-trendy Fugs: some William S. Burroughs prose even sneaked into the epic-length “Virgin Forest” suite at the end.
Fugs fans appreciated both their musical sloppiness and lyrical courage. But there came a point when the band was at a crossroads: evolve upwards or quit trying. Serendipitously, a big record label was busy establishing itself as the hip home for unusual artists. This was Warner Bros. Records, which signed the band without, I believe, really realizing what they had wrought. (Actually, it was Atlantic which first signed our boys. Then they realized that outliers like the Fugs might become a drag on their own planned sale to the Warner behemoth, so Atlantic kicked them away. The Fugs contract eventually wound up at the selfsame mega-corporation. As Ed would sing years later, “Ain’t life funny?”)
About that time, in the summer of 1967, some friends and I took our first trip to New York. The Fugs were holding forth at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street in the Village, while the Mothers of Invention played the Garrick Theatre above the Café au Go Go. We saw both bands live. I remember waiting outside the Players for the place to empty so we could go in for the late set. It was a warm, temperate summer night. In those days it was fashionable to wear printed buttons sporting ironic or peacenik sayings. I was wearing one that read, TULI KUPFERBERG: THE SECOND COMING. The audience filed out, then the band. I was talking to my friends when somebody noticed Tuli a few steps away. “You gotta see this!” Tuli walked up to me, looked down to read my button, slowly looked me in the eye again, shook his head no, and strolled away without a word.
Their first album on Warner’s Reprise label (founded by Frank Sinatra!) was professional as all get-out, but that was precisely the problem: it had utterly lost that do-it-yourself feeling. The Fugs were now a mainstream opening act with managers, roadies, all that stuff. From a marketing standpoint they were a perfect fit with their new label. The late Stan Cornyn, the Grammy-winning creative chief of Warner’s promotion department, had actually created a hip, ironic persona for the record company, combining disarming candor, brainy humor, wry in-crowd satire, and the comforting feeling of being backstage, struggling along with the music-loving working stiffs at Warner Records. One of his best and funniest print ads, WIN A FUG DREAM DATE COMPETITION, graced with the ugliest shot he could find of a glowering Tuli, invited Fugs fans to write in and explain why the decidedly non-dreamboat should favor them. (Full disclosure: years later, Stan became a beloved author and good friend of mine, but I’d still love his work even if I didn’t know him. And I don’t believe Stan – a true-blue Sinatra man — ever really cared for the Fugs. “Stan”‘s comment on this post now comes from beyond the grave.)
The boys turned out to be too raw even for the other hipsters at Warner/Reprise, but any of their fans could have predicted that. A few years’ worth of struggle, three more albums including a live set (a hard-chargin’ valedictory for Blake et al.), and both band and label had finally had enough of the slow-motion train wreck. It’s easier now to find their first two albums than anything on Reprise. The Fugs disbanded in early 1969. Ed Sanders stuck around for a couple of solo albums done in a faux-country twang, but that one joke wears thin very quickly. He went on to write the definitive book about the Charles Manson case, THE FAMILY.
In 1984, Ed and Tuli decided to re-form on a much smaller scale, with intermittent concerts and recordings of new material. They played more modest venues (I was thrilled to see the Fugs again in 1989 at New York’s late, lamented Bottom Line), and staged an alternate Woodstock 25th anniversary festival (that’s where Ed lives) upon realizing how commercialized the “official” one would be. Finally, as shall happen to each of us, length of life caught up with Tuli. Too many miles on the road. Strokes. Eyesight. The need for constant care. Yet he still stayed strong enough to finish what is now the Fugs’ final album. (It’s really good!) A benefit for Tuli last February featured Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Lenny Kaye, and more. That’s how cool he was.
Tuli’s 1001 WAYS TO BEAT THE DRAFT, a famous pamphlet from the period when there was a draft (if conscription existed today, we wouldn’t still be in Iraq because we never would have gone in the first place: potential draftees would have risen up in anger and cut off Mr. AWOL National Guard Pilot at the knees), was brave and funny. One of the ways was to hide a $10 bill in your rectum, and when the examiner is poking around, tell him, “There’s this and more in it for you if you can get me out of here.” That’s typical Tuli: so outrageous, all you can do is laugh. If you saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s BURN AFTER READING and wondered who the oddball vocalist was on the strange end-credits song “CIA Man,” well, you were listening to the Fugs, and that was Tuli. There’s a big rip in the space-time continuum now that he’s gone, but at least I know he’s no longer suffering. Ed Sanders has an existential decision to make: did the Fugs just die, or didn’t they? We’ll find out, just as we have to find out what it’s like to live in a world without Tuli Kupferberg.