Anti-heroes of jazz-beyond-jazz

Fug Tuli Kupferberg and comic-book depressive/trad jazz fan Harvey Pekar dying the same week thins the ranks of American refuseniks, those Bartleby-like individuals who didn’t drop out of society so much as dive in by insisting on their contrarianism, right or wrong. In my book (or blog) they join Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Harry Partch and William Burroughs in the pantheon of unapologetic warts-and-all individualists, cultural heroes who speak their truth, regardless of consequence, and offer devastating critiques though from often dysfunctional points of view.

 

harvey pekar.jpeg

I never met Pekar, though we talked once or twice and I dug the film about him, American Splendor – in which he participated — for getting some of the texture of life of U.S. bohemians of a certain small success closer to right than anything else I’ve ever seen. 
Tuli I became aware of decades ago, as a teenager amused by his greatest hit, “Nothing.”  I got to interview him in 2004 for an overview of the first (only?) genuine don’t-give-a-damn-art, poetry & truth band, the Fugs, prior to the release of The Fugs Final CD, Part 1. That story was published in Signal To Noise magazine. 

tuli reading.jpeg

Below is a slightly edited transcript of my hour with Tuli Kupferberg. I clambered upstairs to his dark, dusty loft on Sixth Avenue in New York City on a cold day in February 2004. To my polite opening “Nice to meet you, how are you?” Tuli answered, “Pretty good. Still above room temperature.”


HM: Let’s talk about what you’re doing now.

TK: Now I’m a jew peddler in the daytime. Someday my prints
will sell. A friend of mine has a license. I do cartoons and collages, and I
sell some of them and then I sell other peoples’ materials, too. I don’t work
there [on the boutique-lined streets of fashionable Soho] full-time, I sort of
relieve my friend. And it’s become quite an issue in New York City politics,
because the landlords and the art dealers and the storekeepers, especially the
ones who aren’t doing well, object to the peddlers. But I think it works two
ways, because a lot of the people come down for the street merchants — street
merchants, they like to be called. But I like the term peddler. What’s happened
lately is that there are more and more people coming down, but the proportion
of peddlers to people has gone up, so generally income has dropped. 

The word store means a place where you store things. Let’s
get this straight from the beginning. I’m severely anti-capitalist, anti-class
society. I’m an anarchist pacificist – 
pacifist, Mr. Ashcroft, and I
wish you were a pacifist, too. So a lot of the people don’t like this stuff, or
say they aren’t going to buy it because they don’t have the money although most
of the people here do have the money,
and then my partner, sometimes, will stay out there all day and not sell
anything. But a lot of people like
this stuff. So if we lived in a rational world, if they liked it they’d just
take it. That’s the ultimate aim of a socialist, or communist or anarchist
society. That you produce or give what you can, and you take what you need. I
guess we’ll have that in a few weeks, right? It could happen.

I set up on Spring Street — actually she sets up, she does
most of the work, Selma Blitz, and she’s been doing this for 25 or 30 years.
But not everyone can get a license. Someone named Robert Lederman, who’s been
arrested 20 or 30 times for peddling, brought a case I think it went up to the
Supreme Court establishing first amendment rights for artists to sell stuff. I
think everyone should have that right. Now you can sell anywhere except the
blocks the city has decided you can’t
sell on, and those are the blocks you have the best chance of making money. 

So
on the weekends, for instance, it’s forbidden to sell on Prince St. and Spring
St. Supposedly it’s a traffic problem, but I think the storekeepers are having
trouble with too many people on the street. They put these huge planters out
which block stuff. The planters are put there to block the peddlers, because
they’re on the curb. But anyway, that’s
another program.
She [Selma]‘s sold
all over the city, but we’re in Soho, right, fashionable Soho, where I think
Helena Rubenstein was paying $50,000 a month’s rent for a store. That must have
been a tax right-off. The rents are going through the roof.

There’s also music there, street groups, what’s the term –

HM: Buskers?

TK: Buskers, no, but these are street singers, and they’re
black groups, doowop singers, and they’re really great, and they sell cds, too.
I sell some of my cds on the street, too. The Fugs cds? Well, I used to. I did
a couple of single cds. One was called No
Deposit, No Return
, which was found pieces set to music. I guess the most
evolved piece was a ’60s ad, two ads, actually. One was for a Hyper-hemiater.
Hemi is “blood,” you know. It’s basically a vacuum tube that looked
like one of those old bicycle pumps, you know? And you put it over your dick, and
it’s supposed to make give you a big prick. They still sell something like that
all the time. You get too many of these ads over your computer. And the funny
thing about that ad was they told you not to use it too much, because a too
large penis might be too uncomfortable for your partner.

Then I found an ad for an artificial vagina, that was used
to collect bull semen from a bull for a cow. I saw the pictures that didn’t
come with that ad, I don’t think, but what they used to do — maybe they still
do it — the bulls that are productive, it’s prize semen, so how do they
collect it? They have a machine, and they cover it with a cowskin, and they
have an artificial vagina. And maybe they have some scent, some artificial
sent. So the bull comes into this, and then they collect the semen. This is
very primitive jerkoff methodology of the early ’60s, and they tell you that
you can buy it through the mail. So I used to do a performance. First I had a
hyper-hemiator, then I had a cow-sound, you know how they had those things they
used to sell from Japan or China? And then I’d sing or play “Here comes
the bride,” and then when it stopped I’d say, I now pronounce you man and
machine. That’s one of the pieces I did on No
Deposit, No Return
.

I call them parasongs. I’m collecting them — I’ve put out
four of these songs books. Two I self-published, but two are [commercially] published
and one was even translated into German. It’s a very old tradition, there’s a Latin
term for it, which I lose track of it, so I made up a new name.

Martin Luther had this wonderful quotation: “Why should
the Devil have the best of tunes?” He wrote religious hymns to the popular
music of his time. And the Wobblies, the IWW — my voice is cracking, I must be
reaching adolescence — the IWW at the beginning of the century — it was
founded in 1905 and is still going, sort of — they found religious hymns and
turned them into working songs. The best one was Joe Hill’s “Pie High.”
Not the Communist Part song, “I Thought I saw Joe Hill Last Night.” No,
this one goes:

Long haired preachers come out at night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked for something to eat,
They are sure, they are sure to repeat:
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
In that glorious by-way up high,
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die –
It’s a lie!

That’s a hymn. I forget the popular American hymn it was
based on. 

I also did “I’ve been working for the landlord,”
based on “I’ve been working on the railroad.” Nothing — it’s taken
from a song called Potatoes. Instead of “Monday nothing” it’s “Monday
potatoes. . . Friday for a change, potato kugel, Saturday again it’s potatoes.”
I was surprised, about 15 years after I wrote that song, to find it again on a
Romanian record.

The jews are travelers. There are lots of nationalities that
wander, that are wanderers. The Scottish people, the Greeks, the Armenians,
Irish: for one reason or another, they’re all over the world. And you pick up
melodies. Also food. Jewish food is basically Slavic food, or East European
food. It’s good to travel; then you can pick the best, not the worst, of
whatever you meet, whatever you find.

Where is my wandering Jew? Wandering has it’s disadvantages.
We’re all wanderers on the earth, we’re sort of issued a visa that lasts a little
while. I think Voltaire said it, “Comedy’s a bad very last act.” But
we’re all visitors, we’re all tourists here.

I read a lot. It takes your mind off living. I think some
British wit said, “Between life and reading, I prefer reading.” But
then some American said, “I prefer tv.” Balance, balance . . . A lot
of these books [his loft is lined with bookshelves] I’ve read each one three
times. A lot of them I use for illustrations. I do collages, and sometimes I find
stuff other people have done before.

HM: What are the collages about? What do they have in
common?

 TK: I never thought of it that way. I guess they share in
common a kind of inventiveness. You don’t want to do something that’s already
been done. You want to do something that strikes you, that makes a point. I’ll
show you an example. It’s the end of an ambition which was to do a whole series
explaining my career, which is ironic, because career means fun. But my
experiences, I guess as an activist, as a radical.

I grew up in the Depression and I came of age, I guess, in
1934, I would have been nine or 10, and I saw things. If you didn’t become
radicalized by the Great Depression in America, you were an idiot. So anyway,
this was part of a longer piece, it was going to be a suite, covering my and
the world’s history, starting before the Russian revolution and ending in hell,
where we are now. Instead, I did this one: I don’t think I’ll have the energy
and I know I don’t have the interest to finish it.

But I’m imagining a young
man in Moscow. . . It’s the first of May, 1920 and it says “Long Live the
Festival of Workers of the Worlds’ Countries.” It’s beautiful, . . . The
only one [Soviet era Social Realist poster] I found after going through
hundreds of them that didn’t have a weapon. It’s just a beautiful woman and
ordinary people celebrating the first of May, which goes back to pagan times,
spring time. So this was the only Russian poster I could use. And why were the
Russian posters full of guns? There was a reason for it. In the first years of
the Bolshevik revolution there were 14 capitalist armies in the Soviet Union
trying to destroy everything they were working for. But that didn’t work out. So
this is an amazing illustration, the only one I could use that expressed my
ideals. I was happy to find it.

That will be on the next Fugs album.

HM: So you’re about to release The Fugs Final CD (Part 1). Will there be a part 2?

TK: I think we hope so. Mel Brooks has never done his second
part to a History of the World, Part 1.
So I’m looking forward to the History of
the World, Part 2
and The Fugs Final
CD, part 2
. And you continue with it until it ends. Most of the songs are
Ed [Sanders]‘s. . .

HM: There’s something in the vein of Mark Twain in the Fugs’
humor, I’ve always thought.

TK: Well, Mark Twain had a pretty tortured life. His kids
died, he self-published, started his own publishing house, his big economic
tragedy was his attempt to invent a typesetting machine. . . .One of my
favorite expressions of his was “Members of congress are idiots — but I
repeat myself!”

Humor, I don’t know. . .But the thing about proverbs — I
collect them — is you can find very wise sayings prove the very opposites. Like
“A stitch in time saves nine,” but “Haste makes waste.” That’s
exact opposites. I like to combine them. Like, “You can lead a horse to
water, but what if he’s another color?” Or, “If at first you don’t
succeed, fuck it.” You can have a lot of fun with that.

When we [the Fugs] started out, we didn’t intend to become
as rich as we never became. We were just having fun. A lot of Americans are
against fun. Because as Ed will tell you, this started out as a Puritan
country, and it hasn’t really gotten over that. One of the first people
arrested was, I forget his name now [Thomas Morton], he had a place in or near
the original Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he had a May Day thing, supposedly
there was sex and drunkeness with the Indians, so he was arrested, and exiled
out in the middle of the wilderness [This is a slightly inaccurate account of
the scandal of Ma-Re-Mount, or Merrymount]. That was the end of America, before
it started.

We [the Fugs] are accused of being predecessors of the punk
scene, and I think we were, because we had two things going for us. We were
accused of being anti-establishment, and we didn’t care to “make it,”
whatever that meant, and we were poets, as a matter of fact we were writers. When
people ask me if I’m a writer, I say “Yeah, I know how to write, I’m a writer.
You’re a writer too.” Because I
don’t likd to make a distinction about people who are artists. Matter of fact,
in Bali there is no word for art, and if you look at the household utensils,
they’re all what we’d call works of art. So we had the advantage; since we
weren’t primarily trying to sell things, we could do whatever the hell we
wanted, and have some fun with our friends. We were surprised it took off.

We started out of a poetry place on Second Avenue called The
Metro, and when we were done we’d go around the corner to a place called the
Dom, and pop music — the Beatles and the Stones — were around, so pop music
was becoming the next big thing. We’d go and drink coffee at the Dom, and they
had a jukebox with the Beatles and the Stones on it. And the Beatles’ early
songs
were not anywhere near what they did later. So Ed Sanders said, “We
can do better than that. Or as good as that.” It was the mid ’60s, and we
did as good as their early songs, I’ll say that. I picked the name Fugs, out of
Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.

Some of these stories are too good to be true: When Dorothy
Parker
met Norman Mailer at a party, she’s supposed to have said, “Oh,
you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell ‘Fuck.’” But I think it
was Mailers’ publishers who didn’t know how to spell it. You know, if Allen
Ginsberg’s poem Howl hadn’t been
arrested, it would have taken a lot longer to become popular. Anyway, the best
story like that I know goes back to the 19th century, and prints were very
important. There was a print store, I think it was on Madison Avenue or Fourth
Avenue, and they had this painting of a woman with her breasts exposed, leaning
over — maybe later on she became the White Rose? Or “September Morn”? 

september morn.jpeg

I don’t know. But anyway,
there was a private person appointed by the U.S. Post Office to make sure we
were all pure? Especially children. So the owners of the print shop put the
poster in the window, and they hired, they found some newsboys — who were like
the charity kids, everyone wanted to protect the newsboys — and they posed
them in front of the poster, and then they called the cops. And it became a big
story. Then the print became the best selling print in history up to that time.
So it just goes to show you . . .

HM: When I first heard the Fugs, my high school buddies had
the records in a pile with a band called Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, that sung
raunchy songs.

TK: I didn’t know about Doug and the Hot Nuts . . . I
knew about Redd Foxx, and his party records. But we [the Fugs] didn’t invent sex,
you know, it goes way back. As poets, as writers, we thought we could make use
of it, and do something in pop music, which I love — the stuff from the ’20s. ’30s
and ’40s that I grew up on, hearing it on the radio and everywhere. Some of
those songs are wonderful. They’re romantic. They’re all courtship music,
though that’s a very limited part of human life, getting married. Sex is even a
little bit broader than getting married. Other popular music, like country
music and maybe black music, the blues, had more themes than courtship. All you
would hear on radio would be courtship songs.

So we [the Fugs] wrote about
everything we felt like. There was a
sexual revolution. Of course, it goes in cycles. Restoration England was pretty
wild. In Victorian England they had sex — people actually fucked in those days,
otherwise there wouldn’t be any Brits today. It was sort of undercover, but it
was strong. So it goes inside sometimes. And now we have Ashcroft, who covers
up a woman’s breasts on a statue before he does a press conference in halls the
Justice Department. I’ll leave that to the psychologists. . .

Hey, this parasong goes to a jazz riff, and you’re a jazz
guy, right? [He sings] “Spread your legs/ You’re breaking my glasses/Baby
I’m in love with you” — What’s the music to that?

HM: Count Basie’s “One O’ Clock Jump.”

TK: That’s going to be in the next songbook, though it’s a
very short song.

HM: Did you know Lenny Bruce?

TK: I went to Lenny’s trial. There were three judges, a
three-judge panel. I’ll name their religions. The head was a Catholic, the good
guy was a Protestant and there was a black judge. And the persecuting, I mean
prosecuting attorney, was a Jew, a Mr. Kuh. It turned out he was a Bruce fan,
and he asked Lenny at one point in the trial for his autograph, Meanwhile, he’s
trying to send him to jail. Alright, there was a lot of guilt down the line.

But the story that impressed me was that someone named Eric
[Hobsbawm]
, an Americanist from a London school [Kings College, Cambridge], was
there. I met him years later, and I said “Why didn’t you come back?”
And he said, “I was terrified and horrified. It was a fascist trial.”
I’m reminded of Dave Dellinger at the Chicago Seven trial when the judge came in
he didn’t stand up. And the judge said, “Stand up!” and Dellinger
said, “No I won’t, I only stand when I respect the judge and the proceedings.”
I think he got a year for that. It reminds me of that joke: “Are you
trying to show contempt of court?” “No, your honor, I’m trying to
hide it.”

Phil Ochs was at the [Chicago Seven] trial. We were
mentioned by Country Joe MacDonald, who was at the trial. The Fugs were almost the
only group — Ed and I were the only ones–  who went to Chicago [for the Democratic Party convention of
1968, and protest by the Yippies], the others were too afraid to go. And we
never got a chance to play. The MC5 played, then someone pulled the plug. There
were eight or 10 different undercover spies there in the park before the riot –
Army, Navy, state, federal, city. I think the guy who tore down one of the
flags was actually a cop. They were starting to do things that would make other
people do things to get them arrested. So Country Joe got beat up on — his
band went somewhere to do a gig, but his arm didn’t let him play a guitar. Phil
Ochs
tried to sing at the trial, but the Judge wouldn’t let him.

HM: Sometimes it seems the counterculture you guys
represented won the culture war.

TK: It’s happening. But what we really have today — one of
the problems, there are a lot of problem — we walk into Tower Records, and
there are three or four thousand cds. Among those there must been some good
music, but how in the hell are you going to find it? You know, when we played
[in the '60s] in the Village we knew everybody, all the other bands, all the people
who were here. We knew people who were making movies, we knew the artists.
Today there is so much of everything. There are a lot of good songs being
written. But at the same time, the media monopolies are taking over, and
there’s so much noise you can’t hear the signal. So it’s very difficult. And in
addition, the overlay of this is the general crisis. All of America, on account
of the war, we’re either going to go for Bush in this election — if there is
an October surprise, there are enough fools in this country to elect him, or he’ll
try to steal the election. And if that happens, there are a lot of people who
will be going somewhere else. Or else fighting in the streets, and that’s not a
popular alternative today.

Even real people can’t afford to live here. If you walk in
Manhattan any night, walk to Union Square, you see all the construction. What’s
happening is that the rich are getting richer, and they’re coming here from all
over the world, and the poor are going down. If you walk in Soho, you see all
the leading merchants of the world are here. Obviously they’re making money.
And obviously they’re putting high-rises up in which a million dollars is cheap
for an apartment. That’s happening at the same time that the middle class and
the lower class are getting lower.

We all knew, a lot of us knew, that we were getting screwed
all the time, but now they don’t care, it’s transparent. It’s like Bush, who
was a draft dodge
r. Good for him, for not going to Viet Nam. But he has no
hesitation about sending other young men to get killed, something he wouldn’t
do. Accept all these contradictions. And the torture — torture has been going
on in American prisons for a long time. But we’ve transferred the technology. You
know how Rumsfeld is settling that problem? He just forbad using digital
cameras on any military installation. That
will solve the problem! And meanwhile, they’re releasing thousands and
thousands of these pictures. I mean, if they [the Bush administration] weren’t
guilty six months ago, I assume they are not guilty now.

There is too much going on. I must say, the left and the
radicals have a very fine criticism of what exists, but we haven’t found what
we can really do to make things a lot better. So we need the help of everyone
reading this to really think about it and to  join with other people to figure out what we can really do.
Because the forces against us are just amazing. incalculable, more atrocious
than anything we’ve ever seen before.

HM: Do you have ideas about what to do?

TK: Pursue the small utopias: nature, friendship, music,
intimate love. That’s what you really have to do in our world. You can have the
broad ideas, too, to change society but don’t neglect your own personal life.
All art and music, every song is a personal utopia, because you can control
what happens — when you write a song, you create a small universe. Enjoy it
while you can. It’s true of all the arts, and also of good family
relationships, or the relationships with a friend, or a lover. Even your wife
– it happens sometimes.

Also: whatever trade or skill you use, take pride in what
you’re doing. You should always make space and room for that, and not let the
entire world crush all the joy from your life. And the communes . . .  You go back to Brook Farm in the 1840s,
when the old America, rural America, was being transformed into “satanic
mills,” as Blake called them. In New England there was a movement to go
back to the land, and to small communities — Brook Farm was just one example
– and they’re still going on. They really bloomed in the ’60s, and they’re
still going on. There are whole magazines devoted to them, but they don’t want
you to know about them . . . There was one in upstate NY that was religious,
but you could have sex whoever you wanted . . .

Choose very carefully. You’ll learn that if you get in a
coop. It’s the same thing. The Soviets had a slogan: they were going to create
the new man, the new human, because everyone else was raised in a fucked up society,
so they were fucked up. But it’s very difficult to create more perfect beings
among people who have been raised in an imperfect society. One of the main
things fucking up America is all the competition. Remember that slogan,
“America Number One, but Only With A Gun?” In America, if you’re not
number one, you’re a piece of shit, you’re nothing. I always use this example:
In America there’s a best actor of the year, who is chosen every year. Well, I
go to a number of off-Broadway plays, and off-off Broadway plays, and in my lifetime
I must have seen 50 actors and actresses that are just as good if not better
than the ones who are called the best actor in America, and the best actor in America
is going to be the biggest property owner in Hollywood because they’re going to
make a fortune. That’s one the drawbacks of capitalist society and American
society. America only needed one poet, Allen Ginsberg, and everyone else. . . Well,
if you enjoy doing something, and are getting paid for it, and you get an
award, that’s just gravy.

I was saying about Brook Farm: they had intellectuals there.
Most of them went to Harvard, they were ministers, but everyone worked the
fields. . . Later there were communities inspired by Charles Fourier [French
writer and social theorist], who was insane and wonderful. Everyone had to change
their jobs every six months or year. Like in the Wobblies you could be a union
officer for six months, but that was it, and you got paid the average wage of a
worker, not $100,000 dollars a year. There is a lot of work to be done. . .

I met a fellow on Wall Street, he was walking down Broadway
with a three-piece suit on and he comes up to at me and says, “I remember
you from the ’60s. And now I’m working on Wall Street, but when I go home, I
still listen to the Fugs. We had an effect not just on the hippies, and it
wasn’t just a movement of music. Of course, the general atmosphere has changed
a lot, but some of it will never go back to the way it was in previous times –
joyless, as it were. Although they’re doing their best [the opposition forces].
Back in the ’60s you could live on beans. And in one of the drawings I’ve done,
beans have gone up to $2 a pound. Where are you going to get the $2?

You know Gore Vidal? The subtitle of his new book is
“the United States of Amnesia. Whenever I hear about $100,000 million going to education, I
shudder to think about the ridiculous things that are going to be taught. The
best parts of our Constitution are the amendments. What kind of a document is
that?


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Comments

  1. Tom says

    Howard – GREAT interview! It’s good to remember what the 60′s were about – especially in these times – and to remember Tuli. So many of us didn’t survive with our ideals intact.

  2. Louis D. says

    Howard, thanks for caring, feeling and for the wonderful interview. Tuli, what a great man.

  3. michael waterman says

    Thanks for the insight ,, I met him at Izzy Young’s Folflore center summer of 66 ,I had run away from Calif. to be the next Bob Dylan … Izzy asked him if he new somewhere I could stay we walked thru the village together , I was 15 it was amazing … always wanted to meet him again ,, thanks for the glimpse …

  4. Danny O'Bryan says

    Howard:
    Great interview. I got to interview Ed Sanders several years ago.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Danny