The most potent rock ’n’ roll satire of the 1960s was born in a former Kosher meat store on New York’s Lower East Side. It was there in December 1964 that Ed Sanders, a Kansas City-born poet with a degree in ancient Greek from NYU, and New York City native Tuli Kupferberg, the poet who had been described in Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl as “the person who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived,” concocted the Fugs. Thirty years later, as evidenced with the CD reissues of The Fugs First Album and The Fuqs Second Album, each painstakingly remastered and packaged with additional studio and live material from the period, the band’s comic skewering of social mores and taboos, politics, hippie pretensions, and rock itself, sustain striking relevance as documents of the counterculture.
“We had absolutely no sense or belief that there would be any interest in this stuff 30 years later,” says Ed Sanders, who lives in Woodstock, NY with his wife Miriam, and continues to pursue a successful literary career. “It didn’t occur to us at all, otherwise we might have paid more careful attention to the recording techniques—the placement of microphones, the quality of the tape recorder and so forth—especially with the live material. On one level, we just did all this for a joke. We decided to have some fun and party and write some songs. We were poets, and we certainly knew how to write words, but none of us went to Juilliard, and when we made the first record we didn’t even know how to face microphones. From watching Edward R. Murrow I guess we knew you had to get close to the microphone, but that’s all we knew.”
From the outset, when they began rehearsing in Sanders’s Peace Eye Bookstore (the converted butcher shop) on East 10th Street, the Fugs were up to something unique in the world of pop music--adapting the poetry of William Blake, Matthew Arnold, Charles Olson, Ginsberg, Swinburne, and others, as well as their own words, to a loose, psychedelicized folk-rock. A flexible Fugs lineup of poets and musicians—including percussionist/vocalist Ken Weaver, the Holy Modal Rounders (Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel), poets Szabo and Al Fowler—-gained notoriety from performances at Peace Eye, gigs in galleries and lofts in the East and West Village, and midnight shows at the Bridge Theater.
As they began committing their music to vinyl with The Village Fugs, a process which Sanders recounts in detail in his liner notes to each disc, the Fugs gained national prominence through their tours, their interactions with other countercultural figures, and their participation in antiwar politics. In the fall of 1965, they ventured westward to Berkeley and San Francisco, where they played a concert with Country Joe and Allen Ginsberg in a chemistry lab at UC Berkeley and appeared with the Jefferson Airplane, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others at Bill Graham’s first production, a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. They knocked around with Gary Snyder, Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, and the Mothers of Invention.
The commingling of East and West Coast rebels continued when the Fugs returned to New York City and eventually took up residence at the Astor Place Playhouse and, later, the Players Theater, where they staged more than 600 shows. “Country Joe and the Fish would rehearse at our theater,” Sanders recalls, “and when the Mothers opened a long run at the Garrick Theater, we spent some time together and a lot of cross-pollinization went on.”
As the Fugs personnel fluctuated around Sanders, Kupferberg, and Weaver—to include bassist John Anderson, keyboardist Lee Crabtree, guitarists Vinny Leary and Pete Kearney, and others—the band continued its dual life as recording “stars” and performance artists. After recording The Fugs in 1966, the band signed briefly with Atlantic Records in 1967, putting together an album that was never released. That same year, the Fugs conducted an exorcism of the Pentagon from a flatbed truck.
Before the ’60s saga of the Fugs came to an end with a breakup in 1969, the band had recorded four more albums (for Reprise Records) including Tenderness Junction, It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest, The Belle of Avenue A, and Golden Filth. Of the latter live recording, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote, “The music is, well, a mess, but a purposeful mess, and Ed Sanders’s proems are dirty jokes at their most divine.”
Fifteen years after their demise, the Fugs resurfaced, in the Orwellian year of 1984, to play a reunion concert in New York City and record Refuse to Be Burnt-Out, released in 1985. Yearly concerts followed, as did the albums No More Slavery (1986) and Star Peace (1987). According to Sanders, the current alignment of Fugs, featuring himself, Kupferberg, guitarist/singer Steve Taylor, percussionist/singer Coby Batty, and bassist/synthesist Scott Petito, threatens to make “our final rock and roll record” and, if not invited to play the 25th anniversary Woodstock reunion, stage “a Salon des Refusés sort of thing” at a theater in Woodstock.
In the years between their ’60s heyday and the current re-release of their earliest recordings, the Fugs founders have continued to produce important individual works. Kupferberg, who published such influential ’60s magazines as Birth and Yeah and wrote the crucial anti-Vietnam War text 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft, became a successful political cartoonist in the 1980s. His cartoons have appeared in more than 100 publications and have been collected in five anthologies. In the early ’90s, Shimmy Disc released an album of his songs, Tuli and Friends, and today Kupferberg continues to read his poetry around the world and occasionally performs with his own band, Tuli and the Fuxxons.
Sanders, meanwhile, has written such acclaimed books as The Family, the story of Charles Manson and his minions, and Tales of Beatnik Glory. The recipient of such awards as the Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships in poetry, Sanders has published his poems in the books Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century (an American Book Award winner in 1988) and the recent Hymn to the Rebel Cafe. He has also written the musical drama Cassandra, based on the poems of Aeschylus, Homer, and Euripides, and Chekhov, a book-length biography in verse.
Filmmaker Phil Hartman (not the Saturday Night Live actor) has optioned and scripted Tales of Beatnik Glory for the motion picture screen, recruiting Hal Willner to produce a soundtrack that will likely cast new light on the inspiration the Fugs provided subsequent generations of musicians. “Apparently we were an influence on guys like Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and Sonic Youth,” Sanders muses. “I had no idea. I’m amazed. But what do I know, I can barely get up in the morning. All I know for sure is that every time we stood in front of a microphone we did the best we could. We were like dadaists at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, we were just living for the moment. I also know that from those first two recording sessions came three LPs plus more albums of outtakes, and for 30 years things came out all over the world and we didn’t get a dime. So we’re honored to put out our art from our youth, as imperfect or perfect as it may be—-and get some royalties for it.”