Tuli Kupferberg, 1923-2010: The Fine Art Of Whittling It All Away To Nothing


By all rights Tuli Kupferberg, who died Monday at age 86 after suffering two strokes last year, probably should have died decades ago. A poet, anarchist, pacifist, author, and co-founder of the Beat generation’s first rock stars, the Fugs, Naftali “Tuli” Kupferberg was memorialized in Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl as the guy “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown.” Having lost “the ability to love,” as recounted in Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan’s poem “Memorial Day 1971,” Kupferberg climbed atop the Manhattan bridge in 1945 and leaped into the void. “[B]ut nothing happened. I landed in the water, & I wasn’t dead. So I swam ashore, & went home, & took a bath, & went to bed. Nobody even noticed.”

Raised in a Yiddish-speaking New York household, Tuli embodied the Beats’ hedonist ethos as well as a deep-rooted sense of justice. He was a punk-rock Pete Seeger, an anarcho-situationist with a serious and dedicated commitment to doing the right thing. Publishing Beat poetry, as he did in his seminal yet short-lived magazine Birth, which he founded in 1958, was for him more a political than literary act.

A sleazy yet saintly early hybrid of high and low impulses, the Fugs originated when Tuli and his friend Ed Sanders heard the Beatles and decided to start a band called the Fucks, although they ultimately opted for the euphemism Norman Mailer made famous in his 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead. Formed in 1964, the Fugs mixed songs about bawdy debauchery with beatific Blake-ian visions and political satire sharp enough to draw the attention of the New York Police Department, who raided Tuli’s Peace Eye Bookstore on New Year’s Eve 1965.

For the group’s first album, recorded in 1965 for Folkways Records by bohemian-archivist Harry Smith and released originally as The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views [sic], and General Dissatisfaction, Kupferberg contributed “Supergirl,” a musical list of desirable female attributes, and “Nothing,” a Zen-inspired contemplation of emptiness whose negations include:

Oh, Village Voice nothing
New Yorker nothing
Sing Out! and Folkways nothing
Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg
Nothing, nothing, nothing

“Obviously his greatest hit is the song ‘Nothing,’ Kupferberg’s friend Jeffrey Lewis says. (Tuli has a cameo in Lewis’ era-defining “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” video.) “That’s the one most people have heard, and it really is one of the great recordings of the century. I don’t think anyone can hear that and not fall in love with it. It’s scary, funny, sad–it’s got everything. If any one song is a cultural document of the Lower East Side, that’s it. There are verses in Spanish and Yiddish, political and cultural references, it’s got everything. All of Tuli’s life-long irreverence, all of that outrageousness in language and song and drawing, the assault on ‘respectable’ ways to talk and sing and act and be, it was at heart a way to whittle it all away to ‘nothing’ and leave what was really respectable: love and compassion.”

Tuli pulled the same sort of yin-yang combo out of his hat on the group’s next album. The Fugs contained both his Summer of Love hit “Kill for Peace” and the majestically melodic “Morning, Morning.” His other memorable tunes included “Seize the Day (Carpe Diem),” “My Bed Is Getting Crowded,” and “The Ballad of the League of Militant Agnostics.” He recorded “Backward Jewish Soldiers,” “I Am an Artist for Art’s Sake,” and other tracks for the Fugs’ Be Free! Final CD – Part 2, released in February, from his apartment. The self-described “world’s oldest hippie” would later refer to himself as “the world’s oldest rock star.”

“Tuli was a true American maverick original in the best, Whitmanesque sense of the word,” says guitarist Gary Lucas. “He contained multitudes. A genius poet/Zen songwriter/deadpan Jewish anarchist/comedian/insurrectionist of a million minds, his songs with the Fugs stormed my teenage consciousness and greatly affected the warp and woof of late-’60s counterculture in general–a Golden Age.”

A prolific poet and late-blooming cartoonist, Kupferberg contributed countless verses to the Village Voice, usually via letters to the editor. He was also a prose pioneer who discovered perhaps his truest voice in the list. The publishing world would exhibit a far different landscape today without the lexical inspiration of Tuli’s 1961 book 1001 Ways to Live Without Working and its sequels, 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft (with Robert Bashlow) and 1001 Ways to Make Love. “He was a pioneer of list-making as art,” notes notable list-maker Matt Groening. The Simpsons creator spent many a teenage afternoon enjoying “Wide, Wide River,” “Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel,” and other Fugs hits purchased at Portland, Oregon’s very own Psychedelic Shop. “My only regret was that I was too young to see them play the Crystal Ballrom,” he adds.

Tuli was one of the city’s great unheralded multimedia artists. Like nearly everything he did, his poetry was both absurd and conceptual. He titled one collection I Hate Poems About Poems About Poems, which is almost as good a title as that of his 2000 cartoon collection, Teach Yourself Fucking. His life was a constant performance. You can still watch reruns of Kupferberg’s cable-TV show, Revolting News, on Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Channel 56 on alternate Mondays at 10 p.m. And after discovering YouTube a couple of years ago, the octogenarian began uploading a “Daily Perverb” from his kitchen, usually a cartoon, poem, or found object that had taken his fancy. “He who laughs last . . . laughs alone,” goes one of my favorite moments from the “tulifuli” channel. At the time of his death, Tuli was compiling a collection of perverbs, perhaps as many as 1,001 of them. Lewis says he was also working on a history of radical cartoons that would draw upon his voluminous personal collection.

Married to Sylvia Topp, Tuli also enjoyed a longtime public relationship with his friend and collaborator Thelma Blitz, with whom he could often be found selling books, records, and other things on the sidewalk of Spring Street. Tuli embodied alternative culture even as it was displaced and outpriced by his beloved city’s inexorable transformation into someplace very different than the dirty demimonde in which he once thrived. Lewis recalls a sometimes sad and cantankerous elderly Tuli who nevertheless continued to make light of himself, the sacred, and the profane, seemingly at once. “He left a phone message for me several months ago,” Lewis recalls. “He started to say something and then stumbled as he forgot what he was talking about. And then he said, ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my condoms rolled.'”