Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Teach Yourself Fugging:
The Lower East Side's First Underground Band Refuses to Burn Out

The thing you have to accept about the Fugs is that they'll never sound as good as you hope. You assume the Lower East Side's first true underground band will be tough, gritty, minimalist, urban protopunks. Uh-uh. That was the Lower East Side's second true underground band, who were never quite as underground despite their name. Lou Reed was a contract songwriter, Andy Warhol a celebrity artist, so the Velvets signed with a major, where The Velvet Underground and Nico climbed all the way to 171 in Billboard. The Fugs recorded first for Folkways's Broadside "subsidiary" and then for ESP-Disk, conceived to promulgate Esperanto, where they became the first rock act ever to crack the Billboard top 100 on an independent label (an arty one, that is). This feat combined brand placement--Norman-Mailer-for-f**k name in the media capital of the world--with lyrics of a sexuality rarely if ever equalled. But ESP-Disk, which made its mark documenting Albert Ayler and other jazz wildmen, doesn't tell you what you need to understand about the Fugs. Folkways does. Like many daring white American rock musicians of the mid '60s, the Fugs were folkies.

All right, so I'm overstating. There were folkies who were musicians--and then surfaced in the Byrds, the Dead, etc.--and folkies who were fans. The Fugs--meaning Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg and not, for now, drummer Ken Weaver--were barely the latter. They were beatnik-turning-hippie poet-politicos who sang "We Shall Overcome" at meetings (Sanders) and had the immemorial folkie habit of pouring new words into old tunes (Kupferberg). That they were hardly musicians at all was definitely kind of punk, and crucial to their sound and achievement. Nevertheless--as was not true of the Velvets, or Bob Seger either--they filled out their band almost exclusively with folkies. Folkies who could play, too, starting with nutcases Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber and ending with technicians who would eventually emigrate to El Lay and back Carole King. Just as important, they had a deep pastoral bent. Lou Reed never set William Blake to music, Frank Zappa either. And you've heard of tree huggers? Here's Sanders's 1966 "Elm Fuck Poem": "How I love to rim/your bark slits/kiss the leaves/above your dripping elm crotch."

The Fugs' Folkways and ESP-Disk sessions remain available (on Fantasy), as does Songs From a Portable Forest (on Gazell), which cherry-picks the politer new material Sanders favored when the band re-formed in 1985, some of which--especially the prolonged, elegiac "Dreams of Sexual Perfection" and "Refuse to Be Burnt Out"--packs considerable power in the poetical mode that usually spells death in rhythm music. But in the '60s the Fugs also signed with a major, two in fact--first Atlantic, which refused to release the resultant album, and then Reprise, where Warners shunted its far-out signings. The Fugs made four albums there, all of which seemed gone forever and will probably be gone again soon. In the meantime, Rhino Handmade, where Rhino shunts its far-out reissues in limited editions of 5000, has brought out Electromagnetic Steamboat: all four Reprise albums plus the previously unavailable Atlantic plus (collectors, you gotta love 'em) the mono version of the Reprise debut Tenderness Junction. Three CDs, $56 shipped, available only at not for everyone, especially since they're unauthorized by the band, which Sanders says hasn't gotten a royalty statement from Warners in 35 years. But just as definitely worth knowing. However obscure the Fugs' corner of rock history may seem, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are bigger than that. We're lucky they passed through.

There are poets and there are poets, and don't ask me the difference. But Sanders's Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Poems 1961-1985 won an American Book Award in 1988, and he's published four collections since. A tireless, lifelong radical environmentalist, he also started a biweekly newspaper in Woodstock in 1995. This is no departure--his publishing ventures go back to the pre-Fugs Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, his journalistic career to 1971's The Family, an unequivocally disapproving investigation of the Manson murders that will soon be back in print where it belongs. So at 62, he has more going on than any but a few aging rock stars, active icons included.

Now 78, Kupferberg is a less obvious case, because he chose a less achievement-oriented life path. Like his departed contemporaries Neal Cassady and Harry Smith (who brought the band to Folkways), he's a pure bohemian, so well-versed in that proud tradition that he embraces the word itself. His Fugs connection is the highest-status credential of an oeuvre that includes the found-poetry comedy album No Deposit, No Return (out on CD and still funny after 35 years), countless topical lyrics set to one of the thousands of melodies he carries around in his head, two volumes of celebrity baby photos, and, most recently, Teach Yourself Fucking, a collection of crude cartoons and collages, mostly political, featuring, every 15 pages or so, "The Old Fucks at Home," in which two geezers one assumes to be Tuli and his mate (known around here as forceful former Voice production manager Sylvia Topp) watch TV and kibitz. "Flirt globally," "Fuck locally," goes one exchange. Another: "I'm going to be discovered after I die," "I hope it ain't too long after . . . you'll stink like hell."

The conventional wisdom is that the Fugs cleaned up too much on Reprise. This is debatable. Certainly the problem isn't the accomplished playing--it's material written after their first burst, when they were ejaculating poetic smut faster than hydropathes at a circle jerk. Few of the later songs have the scabrous rightness of "Kill for Peace" or "Doin' All Right" (with the famous line about screwing your mom), neither ever re-recorded. But most of the ace material on the Folkways debut was substantially improved on the farewell live Golden Filth. And while the ESP LP (now called The Fugs Second Album) is somewhat more consistent than the Reprise debut Tenderness Junction, it includes items no one mentions anymore ("Frenzy," "Skin Flowers") as well as the 11-minute fantasia "Virgin Forest," which isn't redeemed by its sex parts. I prefer Tenderness Junction's "Aphrodite Mass (In Five Sections)," easily the most dubious of the many tracks--pullulating "The Garden Is Open," brutal "War Song," doomed "Dover Beach"--on which musicianship comes to the aid of the part of Sanders that wasn't content describing group gropes. It's his NYU classics major side, his prizewinning side; not even Patti Smith made such convincing rock and roll from the likes of Blake, Arnold, Olson, and Berrigan. But for 20 tracks in 33 minutes, Sanders's poetic nature runs amok on It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest, one of the most eccentric albums ever financed by a major corporation. Right, I love the way "River of Shit" ("Wide Wide River" in the booklet) is surrounded by "Burial Waltz" and "Life Is Strange," both slightly superior versions of exactly what you'd fear. But the laughs are too rare.

Which brings us to long-departed avatar Weaver, the drummer-songwriter-monologist of whose current whereabouts Kupferberg has said: "Ken Weaver was born again and hasn't learned to talk yet." Truth is, as a reputed CIA translator with his name on a well-loved compendium of Texas vernacular ("slick as two eels fuckin' in a bucket of snot") as well as "Wide Wide River," "Slum Goddess," and "I Couldn't Get High," Weaver, like Kupferberg, probably remains a very funny man. Back when New Yorkers could catch the Fugs free at a different demo every month, he was an anything-for-a-laugh guy with no discernible poetic side--the one you could imagine actually trying to put his bad thing in a lesbian dwarf. But the rhetoric was Sanders's. For of course, beyond poetry and revolution, the Fugs were always (a) brazenly sexual and (b) unapologetically hilarious. Only Frank Zappa did anything comparable--and for Zappa, a very anal fellow, sex was interesting to the precise extent that it was also demeaning. The Fugs loved the stuff, enough to embarrass Richie Unterberger in his generally excellent notes to the Rhino set: "the humor can seem juvenile several decades down the road, when such language in popular culture isn't as shocking as it once was." But the Fugs never relied on so-called four-letter words. Instead, as becomes fully apparent on the monologues of the live Golden Filth, they were rich in incident and circumlocuted like crazy--like poets. "She's lying down in viscid, skooshy strands of cherry Jell-O, buttocks popping in arpeggios of lust. . . . She is as horny as a heathen. Her dildo is made out of a petrified tapir snout. Around her neck is an amulet made from onyx-colored tit wax."

Actually, Sanders does apologize for the '60s Fugs' testosterone content, but to me their comedy drips--nay, pullulates--with agape, tenderness, and sensual awareness. If it's long on high school jokes, well, most of the audience was under 25. And whatever the biographical details, about which I always used to wonder when our paths crossed back then, I note that Ed and Tuli have each stayed with one strong woman since the band began. I note also that their political passions remain uncompromised. Sanders, who wrote his first major poem on prison toilet paper after attempting to board a nuclear submarine in 1961, still commits acts of civil disobedience, and Teach Yourself Fucking is full of attacks on the war machine and The New York Times. They're recording a "final" album, too. Maybe their depth of commitment, as well as their genius, is why their '60s music, for all of its evident missteps and shortcomings, sounds even more compelling now than it did when they were a cultural force. I wish I could say as much of technically accomplished contemporaries like the Byrds and the Band. But I can't. I just checked.

Village Voice, Feb. 26, 2002