Today we celebrate the life, poetry, and music of counter-culture icon Tuli Kupferberg, born on this day in 1923. He was a ground-breaking New York City Bohemian in the right place, at the right time, to find his claim to fame in the Hippie era.
The Fugs were, in the view of the longtime Village Voice critic Robert Christgau,
“the Lower East Side’s first true underground band.” They were also
perhaps the most puerile and yet the most literary rock group of the
1960s, with songs suitable for the locker room as well as the graduate
seminar (“Ah, Sunflower, Weary of Time,” based on a poem by William
Blake); all were played with a ramshackle glee that anticipated punk
songs like “Kill for Peace,” the Fugs also established themselves as
aggressively antiwar, with a touch of absurdist theater. The band became
“the U.S.O. of the left,” Mr. Kupferberg once said, and it played
innumerable peace rallies, including the “exorcism” of the Pentagon in
1967 that Norman Mailer chronicled in his book “The Armies of the Night.” (The band took its name from a usage in Mailer’s “Naked and the Dead.”)
The Fugs formed in 1964 when bookstore owner Sanders and poet
Kupferberg, both barely musicians, teamed up to play an unpolished rock
& roll combined with lyrics stocked with political satire and
profanity. Because of their anti-war imagery — “Who can train guerillas
by the dozens? Send them out to kill their untrained cousins?” asks
frontman Kupferberg in “CIA Man” — and rambunctious live shows in the
mid-’60s, the FBI reportedly investigated the Fugs. The band ultimately
recorded six albums between 1964 and 1969, with Tupferberg contributing
some of the band’s most renowned tracks: “Nothing,” “Kill for Peace,”
“The Ten Commandments” and “CIA Man.” After a 15-year hiatus, Kupferberg
and Sanders reformed the Fugs with a new lineup.
Kupferberg earned a reputation as one of New York’s foremost
bohemians, and even served as the inspiration for the man who jumped off
the Brooklyn Bridge and survived in Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl.”
Kupferberg “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and
walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown,”
Ginsberg wrote. Kupferberg later admitted he was the jumper of
Whenever things get too real for me, I remember The Fugs Gospel-inspired tune Wide, Wide River, which, in a perfect world, should have been Number One on the Hit Parade longer than Carole King’s reign on the top of the charts. Crank it up!!!
PSF:What did think of the Beat movement when it first started happening?
I remember being shocked by it. I guess I was still in some sort of
traditional mode. Shocked, jealousy and then adaptation. It was
liberating. I was shocked by Ed Sander’s freedom of sexual expression.
I’m sure people were shocked by mine when I started. Ginsberg is your
best example of a liberating force. It’s not just the language or the
freedom of the language because that just reflects character structure.
A person who drops dead or wants to kill someone would use all those
words you’re not supposed to use. It’s more than language. It’s
attitude towards sexuality and human relations along with domination and
love. It’s not that people who shout about sexual freedom understand
everything that’s involved. In order to have good sex, you have to have
good human relationships and vice versa. When I grew up, in my
community, you weren’t going to have sex until you got married- this was
a middle-class Jewish community. Maybe you went to a prostitute…
But that gradually broke down. That was all for the good and not just
for me but also for most of America.
PSF: So you got to be part of the Beats yourself then?
Everyone was. But I felt that they had a heritage with the
bohemians. The term comes from 12th century University of Paris. The
craziest students came from Bohemia and they gave them this name.
There’s this old tradition of living outside of the mores of society.
Until the burgeouis revolution, most artists lived on the patronage of
the ruling class. LA VIE DE BOHEME, the libetto for that opera, tells
you what was happening then in the 18th century. So that’s a 150 year
old tradition that’s still going on. It used to be linked to geography
with places like New York, San Francisco, Munich, Paris. But now, with
the Internet, you could be crazy, wild, free and self-destructive
anywhere you want. But hopefully, there’s still communities of people
out there. Utopian colonies who are just friends.
It was always about the poetry. Here’s Tuli in recitation: