Teach Yourself Fugging

The Lower East Side’s First Underground Band Refuses to Burn Out

The thing you have to accept about the Fugs is that they'll never sound as good as you hope. You assume the Lower East Side's first true underground band will be tough, gritty, minimalist, urban protopunks. Uh-uh. That was the Lower East Side's second true underground band, who were never quite as underground despite their name. Lou Reed was a contract songwriter, Andy Warhol a celebrity artist, so the Velvets signed with a major, where The Velvet Underground and Nico climbed all the way to 171 in Billboard. The Fugs recorded first for Folkways's Broadside "subsidiary" and then for ESP-Disk, conceived to promulgate Esperanto, where they became the first rock act ever to crack the Billboard top 100 on an independent label (an arty one, that is). This feat combined brand placement—Norman-Mailer-for-f**k name in the media capital of the world—with lyrics of a sexuality rarely if ever equalled. But ESP-Disk, which made its mark documenting Albert Ayler and other jazz wildmen, doesn't tell you what you need to understand about the Fugs. Folkways does. Like many daring white American rock musicians of the mid '60s, the Fugs were folkies.

All right, so I'm overstating. There were folkies who were musicians—and then surfaced in the Byrds, the Dead, etc.—and folkies who were fans. The Fugs—meaning Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg and not, for now, drummer Ken Weaver—were barely the latter. They were beatnik-turning-hippie poet-politicos who sang "We Shall Overcome" at meetings (Sanders) and had the immemorial folkie habit of pouring new words into old tunes (Kupferberg). That they were hardly musicians at all was definitely kind of punk, and crucial to their sound and achievement. Nevertheless—as was not true of the Velvets, or Bob Seger either—they filled out their band almost exclusively with folkies. Folkies who could play, too, starting with nutcases Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber and ending with technicians who would eventually emigrate to El Lay and back Carole King. Just as important, they had a deep pastoral bent. Lou Reed never set William Blake to music, Frank Zappa either. And you've heard of tree huggers? Here's Sanders's 1966 "Elm Fuck Poem": "How I love to rim/your bark slits/kiss the leaves/above your dripping elm crotch."

The Fugs' Folkways and ESP-Disk sessions remain available (on Fantasy), as does Songs From a Portable Forest (on Gazell), which cherry-picks the politer new material Sanders favored when the band re-formed in 1985, some of which—especially the prolonged, elegiac "Dreams of Sexual Perfection" and "Refuse to Be Burnt Out"—packs considerable power in the poetical mode that usually spells death in rhythm music. But in the '60s the Fugs also signed with a major, two in fact—first Atlantic, which refused to release the resultant album, and then Reprise, where Warners shunted its far-out signings. The Fugs made four albums there, all of which seemed gone forever and will probably be gone again soon. In the meantime, Rhino Handmade, where Rhino shunts its far-out reissues in limited editions of 5000, has brought out Electromagnetic Steamboat: all four Reprise albums plus the previously unavailable Atlantic plus (collectors, you gotta love 'em) the mono version of the Reprise debut Tenderness Junction. Three CDs, $56 shipped, available only at www.rhinohandmade.com—definitely not for everyone, especially since they're unauthorized by the band, which Sanders says hasn't gotten a royalty statement from Warners in 35 years. But just as definitely worth knowing. However obscure the Fugs' corner of rock history may seem, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are bigger than that. We're lucky they passed through.

There are poets and there are poets, and don't ask me the difference. But Sanders's Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Poems 1961-1985 won an American Book Award in 1988, and he's published four collections since. A tireless, lifelong radical environmentalist, he also started a biweekly newspaper in Woodstock in 1995. This is no departure—his publishing ventures go back to the pre-Fugs Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, his journalistic career to 1971's The Family, an unequivocally disapproving investigation of the Manson murders that will soon be back in print where it belongs. So at 62, he has more going on than any but a few aging rock stars, active icons included.

Now 78, Kupferberg is a less obvious case, because he chose a less achievement-oriented life path. Like his departed contemporaries Neal Cassady and Harry Smith (who brought the band to Folkways), he's a pure bohemian, so well-versed in that proud tradition that he embraces the word itself. His Fugs connection is the highest-status credential of an oeuvre that includes the found-poetry comedy album No Deposit, No Return(out on CD and still funny after 35 years), countless topical lyrics set to one of the thousands of melodies he carries around in his head, two volumes of celebrity baby photos, and, most recently, Teach Yourself Fucking, a collection of crude cartoons and collages, mostly political, featuring, every 15 pages or so, "The Old Fucks at Home," in which two geezers one assumes to be Tuli and his mate (known around here as forceful former Voice production manager Sylvia Topp) watch TV and kibitz. "Flirt globally," "Fuck locally," goes one exchange. Another: "I'm going to be discovered after I die," "I hope it ain't too long after . . . you'll stink like hell."

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