Tuli Kupfberg, along with Ed Sanders, was the most notable and frequent songwriter for the Fugs, which he helped found with Sanders in the mid-1960s. Here he discusses the Fugs' groundbreaking lyrical focus, on-stage theatrics, and influence upon the whole of rock music.
What kind of musical experience did the Fugs have when they started playing?
I guess we, the three founding members were all writers, poets, and I guess Ken [Weaver] had played drums somewhere sometime. Ed had had maybe some slight school band experience. I had no instrumental experience, but as I look back on it, there was a lot of music, pop music, in my home. And I listened to a lot of music in high school, classical and pop over the radio. So I guess we, since we were all sort of rebels if you want to coin a phrase, to coin a word, we didn't see the formalities that other people might have seen as being necessary to do something in the arts, or in the area, that we wanted to do. I think we were young people who--I wasn't that young, actually--who would try anything to see if it worked, were ready to try anything and see if it worked.
Was is strange, going from not being a musician at all to being in a rock band?
In fact, I had a kind of suspicion of it, that it was stupid is too hard a word, but that it was kind of mindless and I think I coined the phrase, that it was mostly courtship music. Now what started to impress me, I believe, was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I was exposed to [them] on jukeboxes. Although the Beatles were not exactly the fine composers and poets and thinkers and feelers that they later became, they still had a lot of energy and kind of freedom [that] was admirable, and I think was new in, seemed to be new to me, and I guess to Ed and a lot of other people at that time. The same sort of holds true with the Stones. They were, I think, barely more sophisticated than the Beatles when their first albums came out.
There weren't many musicians of that time with your extensive background in political activism and the arts.
There was a kind of--I was very political. I had been political since I was 13, so it had a kind of social edge to it too. I was an anarchist already at the time. At the age of 13, I joined a Communist Front student organization. Actually, those things existed in the thirties in the period of the Spanish Civil War, 1936.
At college, I went to Brooklyn College. Actually, I was a member of the jazz society. But there was folk music there too. The jazz club would go to places in the Village. I lived in Brooklyn at that time, although I think my formative years were in Manhattan, and I was not in the ghetto here, I was in Yorkville. I thought that was maybe unusual and helpful to my later outlook. I remember we went to hear Charlie Christian at a bar in Bed-Stuy. Folk music was part of the college campus, and I think it was a highly communist campus, although there were Trotskyites. I guess we were really anarchists without knowing it there. There was an association there between folk music and the Communist Party.
Greenwich Village was always kind of a magnet for people who--there were a lot of political radicals. You would be a political radical, you'd be interested in folk music and jazz and the village and bohemian life. And since you believed that the revolution was about to happen, or could happen at any time soon, there was really no point in opting for a standard professional track.
My father told me that, as a teenager in his young twenties on the lower East Side, that would have been maybe around World War I or even earlier, that married couples would not buy furniture because they knew the revolution was going to come, and it would be confiscated (laughs). Ah, dream on, dreamers.
Did you feel odd, being in your forties already when the Fugs were starting up?
It just never occurred to me. Since I hadn't followed a professional course -- someone else would have been an instructor or an associate professor in academia, and I hadn't dug myself into the culture. So there was no--I think even second thought, that I was doing anything age-wise that was unusual. Certainly I seem to look younger than I am. People tell me that, which probably reflects a kind of biological age, hopefully. So that just never came up.
What were the similarities and differences between the main songwriters in the Fugs?
We brought a lot of things that were different [as songwriters], but that we all had in common. That was actually more important, I think, than our differences among ourselves. I guess I was the urban commie kid. And Ed was a kind of Mark Twain. I've always thought of him as a Mark Twain of rock'n'roll. He came from Missouri, originally, or his folks did, and he grew up in Kansas, I think. There's an old tradition of Southwest humor, and sort of sagacious craziness. Ken was from East Texas, he was an adopted kid, I think, a Latino, a part-Mexican kid. So he was always sort of an outsider, I think, or felt himself to be an outsider. And he had been in the Army and was in the Air Force and expelled for smoking and/or dealing pot. He used to hang his dishonorable discharge in his room, proudly on the wall. Ed, I guess, was a classics major at New York University. So he was a Greek and Latin scholar.
I always think of myself as the last of the red-hot ruthless cosmopolitans. Do you know that phrase? It was a phrase that Stalin used against the Jews, the cultural people, that he killed. So it was a pretty interesting mixture, I thought. I think we influenced each other a lot. I think I was shocked at first by Ed's language. But I think I swiftly caught up to the freshness of his so-called vulgarity and the honesty of his attitude towards sex. My parents were kind of puritanical. I had also passed through Reichian therapy. That was kind of liberating too. Just living in the bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side pushed you in a lot of free directions.
We also had contributions from other people. For instance, I think that Ted Berrigan's song, "Doing Alright," do you know that song? I think that's the archetypal Fugs song. It has sex, politics, and fuck you if you don't like it. That was contributed very early on.
The Fugs, along with the Velvet Underground, were the very first band to break a lot of taboos against certain subject matter in rock lyrics, particular with regard to profane language.
There's a long tradition of radical Americans, Joe Hill and way back. I have a book called labor songs, there are a lot of nineteenth century songs. But there's a long tradition of radical songs in American and English music. A lot of it was folk. There's a long tradition of radical poetry and music, and there are also hidden traditions of free sexual expression in English literature. Certain periods, maybe the Restoration, [had] a huge underground Victorian sex literature and Italian sex literature. And I'm sure the songs, too. I think somewhere I have a collection of eighteenth century bawdy songs, and some of them are British, and some of them are by well-known songwriters of the period, or people who wrote classical songs. These were also composers who wrote so-called respectable music, and there was even a tradition of bars or taverns that men would go to and sing bawdy songs to each other and get drunk. That was eighteenth century in London. I'm sure those songs existed in America too.
You know, there are lots of collections of bawdy songs. There was one guy in particular. They're on record, they're on albums [Ed McCurdy], and maybe someone else too. There's a long tradition, it's just that it wasn't--so we were not absolute--although I think when we started we didn't know that much about the tradition. But it's pretty hard to suppress sexual urges and sexual expression. In my house, I have an eighteenth century bawdy dictionary, and a lot of it is pretty humorous. English sexual terms go way back. I think I have a book here called Shakespeare's Bawdy, and a lot of the words in his plays had double meanings, they were double entendres. And since they were Elizabethan, and passed into the language, they're sort of not recognized today, and the texts are not recognized as having sexual references. So I guess we were groundbreakers here in the 1960s.
I think today that popular music can be anything, and can have anything as the subject. That was one of my other observations, that until the sixties, except for country and western, American pop music, in the mainstream, was 99% courtship music. It was wonderful music. Those songs of the twenties, thirties, and forties that I grew up listening to, they were wonderful. And the lyricists were wonderful too. But in the sixties, there was a cultural earthquake. You could talk about anything [in pop music]. As poetry talked about anything.
What were some of the best visual aspects of your shows that you might not necessarily suspect existed from listening to the records?
As an example of that kind of thing, we played 900 shows. We were really theater, you see. Ed had the idea that I shouldn't sing too much in the theater, so I started to do pantomimes. And I developed a routine for every song. For instance, in "Kill For Peace," I had a different costume for every song. I only sang one or two songs a set. My most highly developed one was in "Kill for Peace." Ed sang that song, although it was my song. Later on, I sang a lot more of my own songs. So I came out dressed as a Vietnam soldier lost somewhere in the jungle, and I had a very torn uniform, a torn khaki uniform. I had a machine gun, and I had a huge helmet on my head, which was a navy gunner's helmet. They're very huge, they have ear protectors under them. They look like a medieval knight helmet.
As the song would develop, I found this Vietnamese baby lying there, this young child. It was a doll with no clothing on, and it didn't have a leg. And I picked it up, and I cradled it, and I had a gross of chocolate-covered jelly candies. And I would offer this candy to the kid, who was dead. This was all going on while Ed was singing. Since the kid wouldn't react to the candy, I would take the jelly and smash it into the kid's mouth, and then the audience would go, "Uggggh!" And then I would run around sort of out of my mind there, and my US Navy would fall off. Underneath I had an authentic World War II German helmet that was easily recognizable, and I would realize that and suddenly be discovered and run off the stage.
I had similar acts for every song, and I would wear six different shirts, one on top of the other, so I had to peel them off for the next number. So we were theater at that point, and I think we are still are, to a large extent, although we don't use costumes now.
To get back to the language, when we were at the theater, we wanted to advertise in the New York Post. The New York Post was sort of a liberal paper at that time. So we put an ad in. It was only like a one-inch ad in the theater section, and we used the word Fugs, which was our name, Fugs. Till the ad appeared, we didn't know if it would be acceptable. So that was sort of astounding to us, to show you how slow things were. But like about a year after we left that theater, I was invited to a lesbian play. The stage manager had warned us that we shouldn't use certain language, or he would throw us off the stage. And we used it anyway, and he got very upset. In particular, I think it was not in the song, it was Ken probably improvised.
I love Catholics. Some of my best priests are Catholic. I know there are wonderful and radical Catholics. About a year, or less than a year, after we left that theater, I went to see a play there. It was a play about lesbians, and they were bare-breasted and they were hugging each other. And this guy was still the stage manager! So he must have had some kind of conversion, or was told probably to keep quiet or look for another job. But things started to move very fast.
On the other hand, I remember when Jonas Mekas--"Slimy Creatures," do you know that film? It was a cause celebre. It showed homosexuality and people jumping on top of each other, and it was busted by the cops. And then there was a benefit for it, and the benefit busted, because they showed the film. But it would be impossible to think that in New York, that film would be banned today. I don't think there was any nudity. So things moved very fast, that's my point, to a more tolerable attitude, at least in New York.
Someone who saw you back then told me you did a show where you did nothing but lie in a coffin.
There was a coffin, I remember. I'm trying to remember. I think maybe Ed'll remember that. I don't know why we brought the coffin. Maybe I was not the one in the coffin. I don't remember that. That would have been a very subtle thing, to have someone just lie there. We were more proactive. Maybe we tried to raise someone from the dead.
The Mothers of Invention were also playing in New York for an extended period, around 1967. Do you think you guys might have influenced each other, especially in your theatrical presentation?
I think Zappa was probably fully developed before we began. We knew each other, and we played bills together. I remember we actually played very early. When the Fugs toured and came to San Francisco, we did a gig with them and Paul Krassner and Grace Slick and her band, a benefit for the Mime Troupe. So I don't know about--actually, we were in L.A., we stayed in one of the band member's garage. We were visited by the police in the middle of the night. They claimed they were looking for a runaway, but I think they managed to go through all of our luggage looking for contraband.
Did you see your influence on some other of the more outrageous bands of the era, like the Bonzo Dog Band and the Velvet Underground?
The Bonzo Band, I just barely heard of them. The Velvets, we played with a couple of gigs with them in the Village at the Dom and the Electric Circus. I think we probably influenced each other, but not very obviously. And I remember being shocked by some of their songs. "Heroin" and the one about sadomasochism, "Venus in Furs." So there must have influences, but I don't know that they were very direct. Maybe Ed could speak to that. I don't--I think we were all interested in whatever people were doing. I think we were influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, too. I think we had a lot of musicians passing through, good musicians. Although they probably influenced our music, which was not exactly epic-making. Sometimes I thought we barely made it as rock'n'roll.
The Fugs lineup changed a lot throughout the 1960s, except for you, Ed Sanders, and Ken Weaver.
I didn't like getting rid of people. I thought maybe things could be worked out. Ed was sort of running the band. I don't think it was that disorienting, because the first thing we always did in a soundcheck was to make sure people were audible. It could be upsetting when someone left or Ed fired [them]. It was more of a personal thing. I don't think we were ever held back, [or] our performances were ever injured when we changed personnel.
Ed became a very good arranger. He really arranged the music, and picked the instrumentation. I think he hears every note. So he knew what he wanted. As far as I was concerned, there were a lot of excellent musicians who played with us. If they could establish the mood of the song and go with it, it satisfied me, or if they didn't interfere with the lyrics, that's all I asked for. Ed asked for more, but you should discuss the music with him. He'll know what happened. I was barely conscious of it. Later on, some of the albums would be put together with things that were recorded at different times, maybe. I don't remember how the music evolved. As a matter of fact, by now it's one big concert to me. He has a, I think, a photographic memory.
What were the good and bad things about being on ESP Records?
It was [good] that they put out our records, and let us do everything we wanted. What was bad was that we never got any money out of them. They were notorious for that. I think the owner, it was a family. I think the owner of the company, Bernard, was probably threatened by more musicians with physical bodily harm than any owner of any company that I know of. There is a chance that they never made any money, and they failed once. They have a wonderful catalog. But, still, not artists that were moneymakers. So they failed once, and I told someone, well, that proves that didn't make any money. But of course the other person said no, that's how you do it. You go into bankruptcy, and then you don't pay your debts, and then you start all over again. But I don't know what the money story really is.
But we were sort of the stars of the label. It was amazing to me to watch, right at the beginning, how popular we became immediately, and how widely popular we became. Like people tell me they found our records all over the world, and first heard us and were duly impressed, or deeply impressed. I think we were a good fit, because we could do what we want, and we were distributed all over. You don't need a huge publicity machine if you're doing something that people really want. They find you. Now, of course, it's harder and harder. You walk into a Tower Records store, there are 5000 CDs there. I'm sure there's good music there, but how do you find it?
I didn't want to leave ESP. I did feel that kind of thing. The fucking capitalists were using us, were using the revolution to coin a phrase, to make money. So we were pure. At least we didn't make much money. Very little money. Yeah, there was that conflict with me. But then again, you can rationalize and say, now you're able to reach a wider audience. We had this thing going for us that what was popular was countercultural radicalism, outrageousness.
The same phenomenon when Murdoch ran the Village Voice. It's become a terrible, boring paper, a useless paper now. But when Murdoch took over the Voice, maybe in the seventies, he left it alone, although he's a reactionary bastard. He knew that that's why people were buying it. The New York Press is run by reactionary [interests], but they have sense enough to put in the radicals, Cockburn and a lot of other people. They're way out as far as their cultural attitudes. Anything is permitted in that paper, which makes it interesting. Sometimes disgusting, but still much more interesting read.
How was your "Kill For Peace" written?
It was during the Vietnam War. The postal service, I don't know if they do it any more, but they had a little slogan that they would put on with their cancellation. Do you remember that? One of them would say, "mail early from Christmas," that would be one. But one of them was "pray for peace." This was at the time when they were killing people by the thousands, or ten of thousands, or a million, or maybe more. So I thought "kill for peace" was probably, could be applied to their slogan. I thought that would have been more appropriate then.
When I was allowed to do, let me put it that way, was "Jack-Off Blues" and "Coca-Roca." Let me say one thing about Ed's songs. "Dreams of Sexual Perfection," that's a very long song. It mentions Emily Dickinson. It's a long song, it's a very beautiful song. "Days of Auld Lang Hippie." The reason they're not well known, I think, is because they're sort of long, but no one else can perform them the way Ed can. Most pop songs, that isn't really true of. That's the secret of the fact that I think Ed's songs aren't covered that often.
Your ESP solo album is very rare, and strange. How did that come about?
It was found objects. It was a solo album I did. A lot of it is on cassette I did for Shimmy Disc, I think. What it is, is I found stuff in ads and magazines, and mail-order stuff, and want ads. And I had a musician work with me and [add] sound effects. It's kind of [an] unusual album. There's some songs on it. The other half of the CD is my Tuli and friends, do you have that? "No Deposit Return" was an LP that's hard to find. But most of it is on the CD. Some of the sound effects were a little fucked up.
Why did the Fugs split at the end of the 1960s?
There were personnel problems. There was friction in the band. I wasn't involved. I don't know if Ed'll want to talk about it. But I thought we were really needed most at that period, when everything was going down. We had functioned as sort of a USO. That really blossomed in World War II. We were sort of the USO for the left-wing movement. I think we probably played more benefits than any band I can remember. And we went all over. So I thought we were needed in that period. So I was really disappointed when that happened.
There was more raw energy and excitement at the beginning. But that's what the period was like. There was more excitement and energy and potentiality at the beginning. We were also more simple. But I think we gained a certain kind of--I don't want to use the word sophistication. In the nineteenth century, sophisticated meant adulterated. Our songs became more complicated, more intricate, and more subtle and more general, and in many ways more interesting and more universal, maybe. So I think our later work is just as good, but maybe it doesn't have the effect the earlier work had. But I think it's just as valuable, and accomplished, and worthwhile, as what we did before. But of course, I'm a little prejudiced. Which was more valuable, I'm not going to say. We had a greater effect in those days than we have now.
I think we threw politics into the arena of popular song. Some other people did it too, like a lot of folk singers did and still do it. There are other people--the Beatles did it, and the Stones did it, and Billy Bragg does it. But we did it too, and I think we also were part of making pop music able to sing about it anything. That means every aspect of human life. But between people in the community and work and life and family or lack of family and sex, we were part of opening up pop music to anything people wanted to write about. I think that was very important for human culture. I think it was always probably more true in Europe, that pop music was broader than it is here. It certainly is different than "I found a million-dollar baby in a five and ten cent store," a song that I love. You know that song? The guy goes into Woolworth's and he buys crockery. "I found a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store, she was selling china...I kept buying china until the crowd got wise." A lovely song, but it's basically all about courtship. Now compare that to "My Bed Is Getting Crowded," or "Kill for Peace." They're both good in their place.
We haven't retreated from 1968. Almost everything we believed in is correct. We're biding our time, and we're still keeping in shape. And one never knows. After the fifties, no one predicted the sixties. And the world is going to hell in a computer. We need radical changes. The problem is no one knows quite what to do, since the old theories of Marxism and anarchism are rather inadequate. So we need a lot of new ideas and ways of putting them into reality. And everybody who is reading this better get to work. That's my message.
What are you up to now (spring 1999)?
I still write songs, and I still perform a cappella. I'm asked to do poetry readings, and I do songs. I don't like to travel that much. I have a cable show on public access here, and I do perform on that too and some political comment and anything I want.
I do a lot of cartoons. I have a
book coming out, yesterday, on Autonomedia. It's an anarchist
The book is at the printers, supposedly. It's a book of cartoons
and collages. It's called, "Teach Yourself Fucking." I do a
lot of walking, and I keep busy. I sell my prints on the
Some of my musical cartoons--they're cartoons about music.
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