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Photo: Joe Schram

The Beat Goes On
It’s a different era and a different war, but poetic revolutionaries the Fugs are still at it—and still relevant—and their founders take a moment to retrace their history
By By Tom Nattell

Nearly 40 years ago, a converted meat market and an egg store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side provided the setting for poets Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders to join forces in what some have called the first underground rock band: the Fugs.

“In 1964 . . . I decided to open a bookstore called the Peace Eye Bookstore on East 10th Street, in an old kosher meat market,” says Sanders, who now resides in Woodstock. “Tuli lived next door, above a wholesale egg store on the second floor.”

Photo: John Whipple

The two met a couple of years earlier outside the Charles Theater on Avenue B, where Kupferberg—an anarchy-espousing beat poet and micro-press publisher—was hawking his latest issue. Sanders, a Kansas City transplant who came to the city to study poetry, Greek and the classics, was surprised to find Kupferberg living next door.

As Sanders readied the Peace Eye’s opening, a strange new musical genre was also taking shape in the small, three-room space. “We decided to form a group to do our poetry,” he recollects, “and we might try to sing some of it and have some music.” They weren’t expecting to be the next Beatles or Rolling Stones, but they were planning to be socially relevant and have some fun. “Sort of a mix of civil rights and rock & roll,” says Sanders, characterizing the band’s early years.

Nearly 40 years later, the Fugs are still having fun, they’re still socially relevant, and they’ll be at Page Hall to prove it for a local audience on Tuesday.

According to Kupferberg, “I picked the name Fugs from Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead. In the book it’s an expression of disgust, or a universal phrase for everything you don’t like.” In Sanders’ personal dictionary, it’s defined as “a euphemism for fornicatory coalescence.” Back in ’64, regardless of the ascribed definition, using the word “fuck” could get one in a heap of legal trouble.

The two poets added Ken Weaver, a Texan poet who had been hanging out at the bookstore, as the band’s percussion section. “[Weaver] had played drums in the El Campo High School marching band,” says Sanders—an experience that was, he adds, “sufficient to land a drumming gig with the Fugs.”

The Peace Eye Bookstore opened, and the Fugs were ready to make their performance premiere, but it was not to go smoothly. “Junkies had broken into the bookstore around that time, and stolen our microphone and all our equipment,” Sanders remembers. One result of the theft was that Weaver’s drumming talents were confined to beating on a used wooden peach box.

Despite the missing equipment, the show went on, surrounded by a densely packed crowd that spilled into the street, which included such literary luminaries as James Michener, William Burroughs and George Plimpton. The guitar and fiddle work of Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel, who played in the Holy Modal Rounders, added musical support for the Fugs that night. Weber and Stampfel would go on to join the band, completing the group’s first incarnation.

From their Peace Eye premiere, the Fugs went on to bring their brand of performance art to a number of off-Broadway spaces, and they built a growing following as word spread about this group that used strange props, confronted cultural taboos, condemned the Vietnam War and reveled in their crudity with dash and satirical humor. Kupferberg became known for his catchy rewordings of popular songs, which he calls “parasongs,” within the group’s repertoire.

Their growing popularity soon led to an album deal. In 1965 they got their first recording contract under the guise of being a jug band, and produced The Village Fugs: Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Points of View and General Dissatisfaction. Fourteen albums would follow, and their performance antics and satirical style would influence a wide range of rock groups that later emerged.

During the fall and summer of ’65, the group’s weekly Saturday-night shows at Greenwich Village’s Bridge Theater became legendary. Seating grew scarce as the Fugs added new and unpredictable elements to their performances—like bombing the audience with buckets of spaghetti “napalm.” One of the more popular tunes in their expanding repertoire at that time was “Kill for Peace,” which was inspired by the Johnson administration’s major escalation of the war in Vietnam begun earlier that year.

The war became a looming topic as their performances evolved, and the Fugs not only performed against the war, they actively demonstrated against it. “We were always taking part in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations during the first part of our existence, all the way through when the first version of the Fugs broke up in late 1969,” says Sanders. “We did probably hundreds of antiwar benefits.”

“I thought we never should have broken up,” says Kupferberg, who thinks there were plenty of social causes that could have used their radical artistic spirit. But the group did break up. Kupferberg remained in the Lower East Side, went on to expand his songbook of parasongs, developed his skills as a political cartoonist and put together a public-access television show.

Sanders honed his investigative techniques and wrote The Family, a best-selling book about the Manson murders in Los Angeles. This was followed by a move to Woodstock, the production of a series of books of poetry and the founding of the Woodstock Journal.

Both Kupferberg and Sanders continued their activist ways.

“We always thought we’d reunite,” says Sanders. And, eventually they did, in 1984. Sanders lists a few of the factors influencing the decision: “the second term of Ronald Reagan, the mining of the harbors of Nicaragua, the dirty war in El Salvador, the death squads, George Orwell’s 1984.”

Again, Sanders and Kupferberg were the poetic core of the group, and they added a new trio of musicians to form another quintet. “We got the guy who was playing with Allen Ginsberg, Steven Taylor,” says Sanders, “and we got a bass player and keyboard player named Scott Petito, who has a nice studio near Woodstock, and a drummer from Richmond, Virginia, Coby Batty.” This second incarnation of the Fugs have been performing together for more than 18 years, and they just released a new set of works, The Fugs Final CD (Part 1).

These additional Fugs are a bit more experienced and skilled than the group’s first incarnation. Taylor, who accompanied Ginsberg’s poetry on guitar for years, holds a doctorate from Brown University, is chair of the Department of Writing and Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., and has a book coming out this year. Batty has performed with the likes of musicians Don Cherry, John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne, and has picked up a recent HBO acting gig. Petito, composer, producer and engineer, has provided recording work for the Band, John Sebastian and James and Livingston Taylor, among others, and composed the theme song for National Public Radio’s With Good Reason program. He also performs with singer Leslie Ritter.

With Kupferberg hitting 80 later this month, the Fugs may well be holding their last U.S. performance (and first Albany performance) when they play Page Hall on Tuesday, under the sponsorship of the New York State Writers Institute. “It’s billed as a literary evening,” says Sanders, citing offerings such as “Shakespeare sonnets, lots of Blake, Bukowski and nuggets from Charles Olson.” They also expect to cover some of their more famous works as well as a revised “Kill for Peace.” “We’re going to rock Page Hall,” Sanders promises, “with some good rock & roll and some social commentary and some Brechtian intense lyrics.”

The Fugs perform on Tuesday (Sept. 16) at Page Hall (University at Albany’s downtown campus, 135 Western Ave.), sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. The 8 PM show is free of charge. For more information, call 442-5620.

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