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The Fugs: "Rock 'n' Roll Dissidents" (long)


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7/16/2003 11:02 PM
Mark Lavelle
The Fugs: "Rock 'n' Roll Dissidents" (long)
Nice little article/interview on the Fugs in yesterday's NYTimes:  
 
Rock 'n' Roll Dissidents, Fearless for 4 Decades  
By BEN SISARIO  
 
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — Four decades ago Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg founded the Fugs in an East Village bookstore on a bedrock of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and poetry.  
 
They sang raunchy encomiums like "Slum Goddess" and set Blake and Swinburne to a groovy beat at a time when "Leader of the Pack" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" were the cutting edge of pop. With the coming of the Vietnam War they developed a confrontational, absurdist pacifism in songs like "Kill for Peace" and became what many pop historians call the first underground rock band.  
 
And though Mr. Sanders, who is 63, and Mr. Kupferberg, who turns 80 in September, have reached what one of their lyrics calls the "time to think of ultimate things," they still sing about sex and peace and poetry (though not about drugs so much anymore).  
 
On July 8 they released their latest album, "The Fugs Final CD (Part 1)," on Artemis Records — "Never let yourself get painted into a corner," Mr. Sanders said of the title — and on July 16 the Fugs will sing with their band at the Village Underground on West Third Street in Greenwich Village, in what they say might be their last gig.  
 
"If you're a rock 'n' roll band, they say if you can last five years, then it's forever," Mr. Sanders said in a recent joint interview with Mr. Kupferberg. They were reclining in lawn chairs set beside a clear brook on Mr. Sanders's three-acre wooded home here. As they spoke, a half-dozen deer came to peck at corn that Mr. Sanders and his wife, Miriam, leave for them twice a day.  
 
"William Butler Yeats, his career was 65 or 70 years long," said Mr. Sanders, who with his bushy hair and mustache and air of gruff erudition resembles a hippie Mark Twain. "I'm one to believe that a career lasts 50, 60, 70 years."  
 
"Or 80," Mr. Kupferberg said wryly.  
 
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Kupferberg have long balanced their careers between rock 'n' roll and poetry. When the two met in 1962, peddling homemade magazines outside an avant-garde movie theater on Avenue B, Mr. Kupferberg was nearing 40 and already an established poet and Lower East Side mainstay. "I knew Tuli as a Beat hero," Mr. Sanders said. "He was in all the anthologies."  
 
Mr. Kupferberg's magazine was called Birth. The title of Mr. Sanders's publication was a blunt profanity, with the more descriptive subtitle "A Magazine of the Arts."  
 
It was love at first mimeograph, and by late 1964 the pair had begun writing witty, crass and catchy rock tunes in Mr. Sanders's Peace Eye Bookstore on East 10th Street.  
 
They reveled in risquι topics, from the decidedly earthly qualities of "Supergirl" to the devious ways of "C.I.A. Man." ("Who has got the secretest service/The one that's got the other service nervous?") Their concerts, at the Bridge Theater on St. Marks Place and at innumerable benefits and peace rallies from Tompkins Square to Berkeley, Calif., were chaotic in a way that jibed with the times. "It was the whole Happening movement," Mr. Sanders said. "You could get a storefront and a couple of naked people and a tank full of Jell-O and call it art and charge admission."  
 
Mr. Kupferberg responded, "We charged admission?"  
 
As the Fugs' antiwar stance grew more extreme, and their songs became more outrageous — one, the pseudo-gospel satire "Wide, Wide River," pictures a tide of excrement — the group came to embody a defiantly raucous side of the peace movement.  
 
"They were the anti-Joan Baez," said Happy Traum, a folk musician and former editor of Sing Out! magazine.  
 
Today Mr. Kupferberg remains as much a living symbol of the bohemian lifestyle as ever. The author of "1001 Ways to Live Without Working" and a new book of cartoons whose title promises a self-guided education in the sex act, he still sells his poems and drawings on the street near his home in SoHo and remains spry from a vegetarian diet and twice-daily walks up five flights of stairs. He also refuses to see his poetry and lyrics as mere provocation.  
 
"The goal is not to shock people but to change their attitude," he said. "I don't think there's anything people shouldn't say unless they're directly urging people to do harm to each other. Shocking people is stupid and infantile. That turns people against you."  
 
Mr. Kupferberg has always operated just outside the bounds of propriety — he suggested the band's name, taken from Norman Mailer's copulatory euphemism in "The Naked and the Dead" — and on "The Fugs Final CD" his talent remains poignantly intact.  
 
In "Septuagenarian in Love" he rewrites the 1959 hit by Dion and the Belmonts, "A Teenager in Love," as a bitter complaint about sexual dysfunction in the twilight years, with graphic illustrations and a crying chorus: "Each night I ask Venus up above/Why must I be a septuagenarian in love?"  
 
The Fugs included a rotating cast of poets and musicians with Mr. Sanders and Mr. Kupferberg at the core. The group made six albums and had more than 700 performances at the Players Theater on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, and Mr. Sanders made the cover of Life magazine in 1967 before the band broke up in 1969.  
 
In 1971 Mr. Sanders wrote "The Family," an investigative book about Charles Manson and his cult that has become a true-crime classic and has sold more than a million copies. He also began writing what he calls investigative poetry, completing "1968: A History in Verse," two volumes of his projected nine-part series "America: A History in Verse," and four volumes of "Tales of Beatnik Glory."  
 
On his grounds in Woodstock, Mr. Sanders houses a countercultural archive that fills his garage to the ceiling. He has voluminous files on Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg and of course Mr. Manson.  
 
"Final CD" is the Fugs' first album of new material since 1987. The inspiration for the revival, Mr. Sanders said, was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; Mr. Kupferberg had watched in horror from his apartment window as the World Trade Center was destroyed.  
 
The attacks awakened feelings of political outrage and set Mr. Sanders and Mr. Kupferberg to writing a pile of new songs. As it was in the 60's, the Fugs' approach to protest music is a combination of juvenile antics, black humor, sweet hopefulness and pointed satire.  
 
"Go Down, Congress" accuses the Bush administration of having ties to terrorists in the Middle East and argues for that claim in a printed insert that comes with the CD.  
 
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Kupferberg are both radical utopianists, but from different perspectives. Mr. Kupferberg's "Short History of the Human Race," for example, is just six lines, ending with:  
 
World War I: The human race stinks  
World War II: The human race shrinks  
World War III: The human race extincts.  
 
"Tuli's more anarcho-syndicalist," Mr. Sanders said, "and I'm more social democratic."  
 
Mr. Kupferberg said: "We're both looking for the path that will take us closer to where we want to go. Marx was quite good at analyzing what was wrong with capitalist society, but he was wrong in formulating the approach to his utopia. The anarchists have the right idea, but they don't know how to get there."  
 
Mr. Sanders insists that rock music remains a viable method for political dissent. And the catchier the tune — and the raunchier the lyrics — the better.  
 
"Rock 'n' roll can be incredibly dappled with dissent," he said. "It's a mnemonic art form, in the sense that people can remember the messages in both parts of the brain. There are eros and lust and mating associated with certain vowels and certain forms of singing, so there's a kind of lusty, dissent-dappled fabric to rock 'n' roll."  
 
Mr. Kupferberg, who joined a Communist youth group called National Student League while in high school in the 1930's, has learned to avoid what he calls the "big utopias." Instead he expresses his aims in the song "Advice From the Fugs."  
 
"Pursue the small utopias," it goes. "Nature, music, friendship, intimate love."  
 
"We sing it in a round," Mr. Sanders said.  
 
 
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
 
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7/17/2003 10:20 AM
Mark Hammer
Re: The Fugs: "Rock 'n' Roll Dissidents" (long)
Thanks so much for that. Pure delight from beginning to end.  
 
Tuli is 80?!! We charged admission?!!  
 
I think what I like about those two is the sense they give you that there is this alternate universe. Phrases like "Dappled with dissent" make you turn your head and go "Huh?" and then the rest of what they have to say just sort of lures you in and you just sort of disappear into the wordplay like some rock and roll Narnia.  
 
When I was but a lad I made a T-shirt with "FUGS" written across it in ornate letters similar to the lettering on Tenderness Junction. Being a lad my aim wan't that good and the letters were not centred very well. The S and the part of the G that allows you to differentiate it from C sort of went under my left arm. It used to get some stares when I went to the shopping mall.  
 
This may be the first new CD I've bought in years. Certainly the radio isn't going to play it. On the other hand, I could see these two making a video with women shaking their asses at you in closeup, so there's hope for MTV....  
 
Tuli is 80? Yeesh.
 
7/17/2003 1:50 PM
caffeine head
I love reading about cool elderly people, which I plan to be.  
 
As Frank Sinatra said upon turning 50 (my age): "I look at this as the halfway mark."
 
7/17/2003 2:35 PM
Mark Hammer

The only problem with it (I hit 51 yesterday) is the anti-log taper (or maybe its log). My favourite quote on this comes from a PBS series on the Brain from about 20 years back where actress quiz-show-panelist remarks "My mother always used to say 'When you get to be my age, it feels like it's breakfast every 15 minutes' ".
 
7/17/2003 4:21 PM
Rob Mercure

Hey Mark,  
 
Thanks - was just using one of my favorite quotes yesterday - from 'Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel of Death" (or something like that, on "It Crawled Into My Hand Honest") -  
 
"Hell, I almost had to kill a couple of peace-queers holding signs outside of church Sunday"...  
 
And here's your story today - quite a fug...gin coinkydink.  
 
Rob
 
7/17/2003 5:52 PM
Mark Hammer

Johnny Pissoff showed up on the very country-flavoured "Sanders Truckstop" which Ed Sanders put out in 1970 or so.  
 
That'll get ya thinkin' buddy. ;)
 
7/17/2003 7:09 PM
AnonyNuts
So do you guys like the Fugs just because they have some historical significance, or because they actually made good music?  
 
I heard a few of their songs on a special "Fugs" radio show back a few years ago and did not understand what the excitement was about.
 

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