Sunday, July 18, 2010

R.I.P. Tuli Kupferberg

Tuli Kupferberg, a founding member of the Fugs, beat poet, punk prophet, and "world's oldest rockstar" died on July 12 at the age of 86.

I was fortunate enough to see a Fugs reunion show back in 2004. I was so moved that I wrote a review about it, which is kind of embarrassing to read now, but I'm going to share it anyway. I was corresponding with author (and Eclectica reviews editor) Kevin McGowin at the time, and he said he'd help me edit it and would consider for publication in his zine. After McGowin's tragic death that January, I tucked the review away in the far recesses of my "Documents" folder and hadn't looked at it until now. Anyway, here it is:

Enduring the “Torturous Twists of Time”
An Evening with the Fugs

Before I say anything else, I have a confession to make: I love America. There, I said it. It hasn’t been easy for me these days, but dammit, I love America.

Like many members of my generation, certain recent events and a certain current political regime left me feeling outraged, alienated, and sometimes even utterly helpless. My musical tastes have followed accordingly—I’m once again in a punk rock phase. It seems blaring the Dead Kennedys out the windows of my Volvo is usually enough to both nourish and sooth my angst. My renewed interest in the genre led me to stumble across a band that ironically rekindled in me a new patriotism, of sorts.

Several months ago, I read Steven Taylor’s memoir, False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground. In it, Taylor discusses the punk phenomenon from an ethnomusicological perspective, drawing on his experiences as a guitarist with the hardcore punk band False Prophets. In an overview of punk’s origins in the US, Taylor credits a rather colorful, albeit obscure band, the Fugs, with having been a significant influence on the precursors to punk. Started by poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1965, the Fugs combined rock n’ roll with the beatnik building blocks of radical politics and, of course, poetry. What resulted was an early form of art-rock which Taylor contends laid the foundation for the birth of punk over the next decade. My imagination tickled, I turned to the internet to tell me more.

Lo—the Fugs still existed, with (surprise surprise) Steve Taylor as their current guitarist. I’ll admit, this made me a little skeptical, but I was still curious. In a happy coincidence, I found that in a week they were playing the Knitting Factory, just a hop, skip, and a train ride away. I mentioned the show to my father, whose face immediately lit up.

“The Fugs? They still exist?” Although it’s difficult to see it now, my father was a hippie in college, back when the Vietnam War was in full swing. The pictures of him during this time never cease to astonish me—the man looked like Jesus and wore a peace sign as big as my fist. Now he’s a Reagan-convert, as clean cut as can be, working at an investment banking firm in Manhattan. Despite his current guise, at the mere mention of the Fugs a spark of nostalgia appeared in my father’s eyes so bright I knew what had to be done.

“Want to see them one more time?”

“I’ll meet you there.” Excellent, I thought, this will be nothing if not interesting.

Like any great venue for underground music, the Knitting Factory is, put simply, a shithole. Now this is perfect for me—I mean, with two-dollar PBRs, freaky people, and cheap live music, this place was heaven. The club is used to a young crowd, so it was quite a spectacle to see an audience of people who were mostly in their fifties or over, well past their partying days. Actually, I suppose a few of them looked as if they were still partying as hard as ever, but I digress. Certainly, the majority of these aged hippies and beatniks had been laying low for a while. “Where are the seats?” I overheard one woman ask an amused bouncer. “You mean we’re supposed to stand here the whole time?”

What followed was one of the most bizarre performances I’ve ever witnessed. Ed Sanders looked like an old professor and was just as fond of lecturing about relevant political issues. This was not, of course, without a sense of humor. A sense of self-awareness over their own preposterousness pervaded the Fugs’ entire performance. The band and their audience remembered the battles of the past with a certain pride mixed with incredulity over the memory of their rebellious generation’s triumphs and ordeals. They had once stood with open umbrellas to face a tidal wave, and now the Fugs were singing the old hymns with a new twist. When Sanders started an “impeach George Bush” chant, I could not help but chuckle at its obvious futility, yet I came to be moved by the band’s ability to revive the unapologetically idealistic spirit of American rebel rock.

Tuli Kupferberg received the most emphatic response from the audience. “Tuli! Tuli!” they chanted in between songs. This was not surprising, nor was it undeserved—the man is eighty years old and still going strong. Kupferberg reminded me of an old billy goat, thin and wrinkled, a natty little goatee hanging from his chin. His most hilarious performance was “Septuagenarian in Love,” set to the tune of Dion and the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love.” With a gruff voice like Jewish grandfather, he delivered delightfully childish lines like “If you should say ‘fuck off!’ today / I would still whack off to you.” The crowd was rolling. Kupferberg smiled, flexing a flabby bicep.

Other crowd-pleasing songs included “Slum Goddess,” “Kill for Peace,” and a rousing sing-along of a Mel Brooks classic. The crowd seemed to have mixed reactions to the Fugs’ slower, humorless adaptations of classic poems by Emily Dickinson and William Blake. The last few numbers were all mellow poetry tunes, and after each one, the fans would scream out requests for their favorite comical ditties. A man near me kept on shouting for a song called “Boobs-A-Lot.” When the last piece turned out to be another Blake poem, I thought I would surely see some of the worn-out old folks heading for the door. Instead, I was awed to see the bearded silhouette of the “Boobs-A-Lot” guy swaying in the dim light of the Knitting Factory, his whiskers bouncing as he sung along. In fact, I did not see anyone leave or even seem disappointed that some of their requests had not been met. What I did see was a small mob of aged hippies and a smattering of young punks and indie kids grooving together to a simple melody that was neither apologetic nor pretentious. It was music, pure and simple.

To be sure, the show was wrought with obvious mistakes. The band clearly had not rehearsed much, but their clumsiness actually added to their charm. A lot of bands like to brag about sincerity, inclusiveness, and their ability to “make the crowd part of the act.” This was truer for the Fugs than any other band I’ve seen. The show I saw was less a concert than an overall experience, albeit a bizarre one. The band’s childlike playfulness, coupled with a political idealism that would seem anachronistic to some, left me with a sensation I had not felt in a very long time: hope. The spirit of rebellion the Fugs captured in their performance is one that is as absurd, varied, and paradoxical as the American Left has been throughout its history. I could see why art-rockers, beats, hippies, and punks could all find inspiration from this band. As for me, I felt that I had caught a fleeting glimpse at the sort of revolution my father had been a part of in his earlier years and I felt that my generation could rekindle that passion and build upon it. My country was starting to seem less dismal again.
After the show, my father headed for home and I made for the Knitting Factory’s bar with a couple friends. Upon seeing Steven Taylor walk past the door, I bolted out after him.

“Dr. Taylor, you were awesome out there,” I said, shaking his hand. “Would you like to take a shot of tequila with me and my friends?” At the word “tequila,” he stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening. He considered it for a moment.

“Tequila? You know what…thank you but I better not. I really should help the band pack up.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “God bless you.” God bless you? Is that an appropriate thing to say to the guitarist for the Fugs? Sure, I’d had a few, but since when did a few beers turn me into Tiny fucking Tim? While I still cannot offer a reasonable explanation, I will say this: as the night progressed, I found myself blessing everyone. I mean, I blessed the boys I drank tequila with, I blessed the bartender who served it to us, the people outside who eyed my friend’s hand-rolled cigarettes with a mixture of suspicion and jealousy, and the cabby who ferried our asses back to Grand Central. Shit, I probably blessed the train.

So God bless you too, dear reader, and God bless the Fugs, Ed, Tuli, Toby, Steve, and Scott, and God bless my father and all the aging hippies, beatniks, punks, new-agers, and the young people like myself who came to absorb their insanity. God bless us, everyone.

And dare I say it—God bless America?