Tuli Kupferberg: Leading figure of the Beat movement who founded the provocateur rock band the Fugs

By Michael Carlson
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:49

The Fugs were the most unlikely of rock successes during the Sixties. Their lack of musicianship influenced countless underground, garage and punk bands, but no one matched their anarchic blend of sophomoric humour, mystical Beat poetry, and scatological revolutionary pacificsm, which owed much to the playful sensibilities of Tuli Kupferberg, the self-proclaimed "world's oldest rock star". Kupferberg was famously the character who "jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, this really happened" in Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl". Though it was actually the Manhattan Bridge, and as he explained in another poem by Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman, "nothing happened... so I swam ashore, went home and took a bath and went to bed. Nobody even noticed". He spent the rest of his life annoyed that people felt his surviving this putative suicide attempt was "a great accomplishment".

Naftali Kupferberg, who spent his life on the Lower East Side, was born in 1923 into a Yiddish-speaking family. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1944 and began post-graduate work in sociology at the New School before dropping out. Working as a medical librarian, he immersed himself in the bohemian scene of Greenwich Village; artists, jazz musicians, left-wing activists, and, of course, the Beats. In 1958, along with his future wife Sylvia Topp, he produced the first of three annual issues of Birth, an important Beat magazine, which he sold on the street, along with his own poems. He also hawked 1001 Ways to Live Without Working, whose suggestions presaged the Fugs' concerns, including the scatological ("eat shit") and anti-war ("invent gunpowder").

Kupferberg met Ed Sanders at an underground-film showing. Sanders's own magazine, Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts, had helped fill the gap left by the demise of Birth, and they bonded immediately. When the Kosher butcher next door to Kupferberg's place on East 10th street became available, Sanders opened the Peace Eye bookstore. After hearing the Beatles on a cafe jukebox he and Kupferberg decided to start their own band, along with Ken Weaver (who had been discharged from the army for smoking pot) on bongos. They wanted to call themselves the Fucks, but settled on Fugs, the substitution used by Norman Mailer in his novel The Naked and the Dead.

Musicianship was originally provided by The Holy Modal Rounders (fiddler Pete Stampfel and guitarist Steve Weber), whose own band later included Sam Shepherd. The supporting cast around the central trio included, at various times, Village stalwarts like guitarist Danny Kalb (the Blues Project) and ace session bassist Chuck Rainey. William Burroughs walked out of their first public performance, at Peace Eye, in February 1965, but Harry Smith, the renowned collector of folk music for the Smithsonian Institution, was entranced. He got them two recording sessions, and their first album, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction, was released on Smithsonian Folkways.

Their unexpectedly wide appeal can be understood in terms of the range of their songs, from settings of William Blake ("Ah Sunflower") and AC Swinburne ("The Swinburne Stomp"), to the droning Yiddish tune of Kupferberg's "Nothing" ("Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing...") which included the line "John Stuart Mill, nihil nihil". They leered at sex ("Slum Goddess" and "Boobs a Lot"), drugs ("I Couldn't Get High") and rock'n' roll itself, with "Carpe Diem".

Their second, more professionally recorded on the jazz label ESP, was called simply The Fugs, and featured liner notes by Ginsberg and Kupferberg's touching ballad "Morning Morning". The latter was covered immediately by Richie Havens and cracked the Billboard Top 100. ESP re-issued The Village Fugs as The Fugs' First Album. The Fugs played from a flatbed truck as anti-war marchers tried to levitate the Pentagon in October 1967, the same year Tuli's 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft appeared. These included tattooing "welcome members of the armed forces" around your ass, offering your mother and sister in your place to serve as hookers in Saigon and thus address the balance-of-payments deficit, or, inevitably, eating shit for the benefit of your draft board. Kupferberg also released a solo record, No Deposit, No Return, readings of found poetry from advertising.

The Fugs made three records for Reprise, the Warner Bros label, but the mainstream proved less fun, and in February 1969 they played a farewell concert with the Grateful Dead and Velvet Underground. Tuli wrote 1001 Ways to Make Love (1969), formed The Revolting Theatre, and played in two 1971 movies, a bit part in WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and as himself in Dynamite Chicken. The Fugs reformed in 1984 with a reunion album, Refuse to be Burnt Out, and, with a more stable back-up band, would release seven more albums. Tuli and Friends, a second solo record, appeared in 1989, and included Ginsberg singing "Go Fuck Yourself with the Atomic Bomb". The ironically titled Fugs Final CD (Part I) appeared in 2003.

Kupferberg published dozens of books, and began cartooning, work collected in Teach Yourself Fucking (2000). Along with Thelma Blitz he had a show, Revolting News, on Manhattan's public-access cable channel, and towards the end of his life he uploaded daily "preverbs" – jokes, cartoons, or anything else that caught his fancy – under the title Tuli Fuli, on YouTube. A mini-biography, drawn by Jeffrey Lewis, was part of Harvey Pekar's The Beats: a Graphic History (2009).

He suffered a stroke in April 2009, but continued working, though he was too ill to attend a benefit concert held in his honour in January this year, which featured Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth and Philip Glass. But Be Free: The Fugs Final CD (Part II), released this year, included songs he had recorded recently, including "Backwards Jewish Soldiers" and an adaptation of his poem "Greenwich Village of My Dreams".

Sanders, who is writing a history of the Fugs, visited Kupferberg shortly before his death and sang him "Morning Morning". In "Howl", Ginsberg's Kupferberg "walked away unknown and forgotten". Besides the bridge, it was the other thing he got wrong.

Naftali (Tuli) Kupferberg, musician, poet, writer: born New York City 28 September 1923; married Sylvia Topp (two sons, one daughter); died New York City 12 July 2010.

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