Teach Yourself Fugging

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

The conventional wisdom is that the Fugs cleaned up too much on Reprise. This is debatable. Certainly the problem isn't the accomplished playing—it's material written after their first burst, when they were ejaculating poetic smut faster than hydropathes at a circle jerk. Few of the later songs have the scabrous rightness of "Kill for Peace" or "Doin' All Right" (with the famous line about screwing your mom), neither ever re-recorded. But most of the ace material on the Folkways debut was substantially improved on the farewell live Golden Filth. And while the ESP LP (now called The Fugs Second Album) is somewhat more consistent than the Reprise debut Tenderness Junction, it includes items no one mentions anymore ("Frenzy," "Skin Flowers") as well as the 11-minute fantasia "Virgin Forest," which isn't redeemed by its sex parts. I prefer Tenderness Junction's "Aphrodite Mass (In Five Sections)," easily the most dubious of the many tracks—pullulating "The Garden Is Open," brutal "War Song," doomed "Dover Beach"—on which musicianship comes to the aid of the part of Sanders that wasn't content describing group gropes. It's his NYU classics major side, his prizewinning side; not even Patti Smith made such convincing rock and roll from the likes of Blake, Arnold, Olson, and Berrigan. But for 20 tracks in 33 minutes, Sanders's poetic nature runs amok on It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest, one of the most eccentric albums ever financed by a major corporation. Right, I love the way "River of Shit" ("Wide Wide River" in the booklet) is surrounded by "Burial Waltz" and "Life Is Strange," both slightly superior versions of exactly what you'd fear. But the laughs are too rare.

Which brings us to long-departed avatar Weaver, the drummer-songwriter-monologist of whose current whereabouts Kupferberg has said: "Ken Weaver was born again and hasn't learned to talk yet." Truth is, as a reputed CIA translator with his name on a well-loved compendium of Texas vernacular ("slick as two eels fuckin' in a bucket of snot") as well as "Wide Wide River," "Slum Goddess," and "I Couldn't Get High," Weaver, like Kupferberg, probably remains a very funny man. Back when New Yorkers could catch the Fugs free at a different demo every month, he was an anything-for-a-laugh guy with no discernible poetic side—the one you could imagine actually trying to put his bad thing in a lesbian dwarf. But the rhetoric was Sanders's. For of course, beyond poetry and revolution, the Fugs were always (a) brazenly sexual and (b) unapologetically hilarious. Only Frank Zappa did anything comparable—and for Zappa, a very anal fellow, sex was interesting to the precise extent that it was also demeaning. The Fugs loved the stuff, enough to embarrass Richie Unterberger in his generally excellent notes to the Rhino set: "the humor can seem juvenile several decades down the road, when such language in popular culture isn't as shocking as it once was." But the Fugs never relied on so-called four-letter words. Instead, as becomes fully apparent on the monologues of the live Golden Filth, they were rich in incident and circumlocuted like crazy—like poets. "She's lying down in viscid, skooshy strands of cherry Jell-O, buttocks popping in arpeggios of lust. . . . She is as horny as a heathen. Her dildo is made out of a petrified tapir snout. Around her neck is an amulet made from onyx-colored tit wax."

Actually, Sanders does apologize for the '60s Fugs' testosterone content, but to me their comedy drips—nay, pullulates—with agape, tenderness, and sensual awareness. If it's long on high school jokes, well, most of the audience was under 25. And whatever the biographical details, about which I always used to wonder when our paths crossed back then, I note that Ed and Tuli have each stayed with one strong woman since the band began. I note also that their political passions remain uncompromised. Sanders, who wrote his first major poem on prison toilet paper after attempting to board a nuclear submarine in 1961, still commits acts of civil disobedience, and Teach Yourself Fucking is full of attacks on the war machine and The New York Times. They're recording a "final" album, too. Maybe their depth of commitment, as well as their genius, is why their '60s music, for all of its evident missteps and shortcomings, sounds even more compelling now than it did when they were a cultural force. I wish I could say as much of technically accomplished contemporaries like the Byrds and the Band. But I can't. I just checked.

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