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A Benefit for Tuli Kupferberg
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Friday, January 22
Nothing crystallizes the identity politics lurking somewhere near the core of pop music quite like benefit and tribute concerts, where donor acts reconstruct the beneficiary in their own image, often to revelatory – or, nearly as often, dumbfounding – effect. Just ask Hal Willner, who’s made a fine career out of assembling such confabs, including Friday’s three-hour, suitably beat potpourri he and St. Ann’s threw for beatnik king, multitalented rabble-rousing hedonist, and Fug emeritus Tuli Kupferberg, who, at age 86, is burdened by medical expenses after suffering two strokes last year.
So, depending on who you asked on Friday, Tuli Kupferberg was:
Tuli the Tunesmith. The Fugs made America’s first great folk-rock protest music, and its ugly beauty turned out to be a lot more difficult to capture onstage than you might think. Tuli may have been the funnier Fug, but FlutterBox unpacked a luminous rendition of his loveliest melody, “Morning, Morning.” The Fugs’ nastier side was channeled to perfection by the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. “Slum Goddess” fit these four painted, bewigged, stiletto-heel-booted, but otherwise nekkid art women to the proverbial T. And rooster-headed kids-music star Dan Zanes has probably dreamed about leading a “River of Shit” sing-along – with or without bonus health-care rant – for years.
Tuli The Teacher. Eighty-year-old composer-gadabout David Amram delivered the sweetest encomium to Tuli, describing him as already an East Village elder when Amram arrived in town back in ’55. Another relative old timer, Philip Glass, performed (maybe improvised?) a lovely piano solo constructed around a cunning two-note motif – Tu-li! Tu-li! – as Harry Smith’s childlike animations flickered nearby. Guitarist-throat singer Elliott Sharp who joined the current Fugs – co-founder Ed Sanders, Steve Taylor (guitar), Coby Batty (drums), and Scott Petito (bass) – for “Carpe Diem,” lauded Tuli as a “role model for my juvenile delinquency in the ’60s.” He sure wasn’t alone; Lenny Kaye also heralded Tuli as a linchpin in decision to align himself the “poetry, rock, and avant-garde.” Short-term Fug Peter Stampfel deemed his stint with the group “one of the happiest days of my life,” then transubstantiated Tuli’s ironic “Duke of the Beatniks” into biography.
Tuli the Brand. The first-generation New York bohos on hand embraced Tuli as part of their heritage and as a longtime presence in SoHo, where he sold his art and writing on the street over the decades. It was a fine opportunity to pick up his latest collection: Teach Yourself Fucking – an immensely cooler souvenir than a “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” scarf – or a T-shirt depicting Tuli and the title of his Zen masterpiece, “Nothing” (“Monday, nothing, Tuesday, nothing, Wednesday, nothing, Thursday nothing, Friday for a change a whole lot of nothing/ Allen Ginsberg, nothing, flesh and sex, nothing.”)
Tuli the Elder Provocateur. Scheduled to MC the show, comedian Richard Belzer got sick or something, so Jeffrey Lewis, Tuli’s friend and probably greatest acolyte, picked up some of the slack. Other neo-beats on hand included the ubiquitous John Kruth, who led chaotic renditions of “Defeated” and “The 10 Commandments”; Jolie Holland (“Coming Down”); and White Magic (“Life Is Strange”). Guitarist Gary Lucas laid down a kinetic bluesy breakdown in Tuli’s honor, and performance artist Penny Arcade covered “This Land Is Their Land,” one of Tuli’s many parody songs (dig ’em here).
Tuli the To-Do Item. No one’s happy when benefit headliners, however well-intentioned, simply phone it in. So suck it anyone who came to see Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and John Zorn play anything more than a meh show-opening improvisation. And Sonic Youth, minus Lee Renaldo, were the only act who played their own stuff (“Antenna” and “Massage the History” from The Eternal) rather than the Fugs’. Great that they all showed up for the occasion, as they so often do, but still.
Tuli the Televised. While Tuli “caught some Z’s” at home, according to Ed Sanders, the remaining Fugs did him justice with ragged but righteous renditions of “When the Mode of the Music Changes,” “Crystal Liaison,” and “Nothing.” Unfortunately, they didn’t play Tuli’s “This Is a Hit Song,” “Backward Jewish Soldiers,” nor anything else from Be Free (The Fugs’ Final CD Part 2), which Tuli recorded with the band last year (it comes out February 23). But Tuli Kupferberg did bid us adieu via a short video in which he thanked us for attending and urged us to go out and have some fun – because you never know, “It might be later than you think.”