A Much Older Wave
“Tell me where dwell the joys of old! & where the ancient loves?”
—William Blake, from Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793)
“The fact that Tuli and I, and later Ken Weaver, had not been educated at the Julliard School of Music did not create any problems, because we had already been fully trained in that very informal but exacting institution one could call the Beatnik Academy of the Outlandish Spectacle, and we harnessed our aimless frenzy beneath the inspiration of folk music, jazz, Canto singing, Stravinsky/Varese/Cage, left wing union tunes, rock and roll, and the milieu of the Civil Rights and peace movements.”
—Ed Sanders, from liner notes to The Fugs First Album CD reissue (1993)
Leave it to Ed Sanders to succinctly summarize the sprawling, chaotic splendor that has defined the bohemian folk/garage rock squall that has been the Fugs’ calling card for nearly four decades. Sanders and 40-year-old beatnik mensch Tuli Kupferberg started the band in 1964 after Sanders suggested that a band would be great way to chant poetry, write songs, and do a lot of partying. Tuli came up with the name Fugs, a “fornicatory euphemism” taken from Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead.
As band names go, it was (and is) a great one—its forthrightness, simplicity, and not-so-veiled undercurrent of Dionysian exuberance was indicative of the band’s weltanschauung of peace, unfettered artistic freedom, the equitable distribution of capital, and getting high and laid a lot. A few iterations of the band came and went, and it wasn’t until Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel (also gigging as the Holy Modal Rounders), and vocalist/percussionist/uberfreak Ken Weaver joined that the Fugs were able to fully develop their sound, described by Sanders as “rituals of shouted poetry, euphuistic multi moans, and testosterone-addled eros crooning.” Songs like “Slum Goddess”, Weber’s heartfelt paean to mammaries “Boobs a Lot”, “Kill for Peace”, and Weaver’s hilariously brilliant “I Couldn’t Get High” didn’t fit the mold of, well, anything that remotely resembled rock and roll at that time. The Fugs were a bunch of loud, crude, protopunks of limited musical ability who hated LBJ and Vietnam, and who believed in the radicalizing potential of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Were they ever popular? Well, not really. But as Robert Christgau points out in a wonderful essay entitled “Teach Yourself Fugging” (at robertchristgau.com), the Fugs’ debut on ESP-Disk was the first indie label rock release to crack Billboard‘s Top-100. That’s saying something, especially during the early days of Beatlemania.
So, here we are 39 years after the fact, there’s another Texan (sort of) in the White House, the “liberation” of Iraq is winding down, too many scoundrels are finding refuge in patriotism, and the Fugs, still righteously indignant after all these years, have released the first in what portends to be a series of “final” recordings. After a financially dissatisfying major label tenure on Reprise that predicated the band’s demise in 1970 (recordings which have been reissued by Rhino’s connoisseur imprint rhinohandmade.com), this current version of the Fugs has been together since Sanders re-formed the band in 1985. Weber, Stampfel, and Weaver are long gone, replaced by Steve Taylor (vocals/guitar), Scott Petito (bass/keyboards), and Coby Batty (drums). They now record for Danny Goldberg’s Artemis Records—a label that specializes in releasing excellent records by performers (e.g., Warren Zevon, Peter Wolf, and the Pretenders) whose primary audience isn’t the under-30 crowd.
Given their history, Final CD (Part 1), the Fugs first studio release in a decade, doesn’t have the berserk brio of their ESP-Disk years, or Reprise-era insanity like It Crawled into My Hand, Honest. But as old farts at play, Sanders (62) and Tuli (79!) still embrace the bohemian aesthetic that first fired their creative imaginations way back when the folk era was metamorphosing into the folk rock era. The music retains its shambling, eclectic folkie roots, complete with some judiciously employed howling and yodeling, as well as the occasional concession to contemporary technology (e.g., sequencers, sampling, Pro Tools perhaps?), none of which is an impediment to your listening pleasure.
While the newest Fugs bring a heightened level of musicianship to the proceedings, it’s Sanders’s warbling “Jesus is tapping your phone lines” on the countrified anti-John Ashcroft ode “Government Surveillance Yodel”, or Tuli’s weathered, intimate voice singing about the perils of screwing at his advanced age (“Each time we have some sex / It almost breaks my balls”) on “Septuagenarian in Love” (sung to the tune of Pomus and Shuman’s “Teenager in Love”) that give the record its, umm, balls. Tuli, in fact, frequently steals the show. He’s as indefatigable a character as has ever existed in popular music and bohemian culture, partly because he’s outlived many of his contemporaries, and partly because he writes such wry, heartfelt, totally unselfconscious celebrations of life like “Try to Be Joyful” and “A Short History of the Human Race”.
My enthusiasm notwithstanding, I can’t say that everything about this disc warrants your undivided attention. Taken as a whole, it’s a mess, but I challenge anyone to name a Fugs album that isn’t. It’s the warts-and-all experience that makes the Fugs so tantalizing; sanding the rough edges smooth would be senseless and counter-productive. “From now on nothing holds us back, cacophony forever”, crowed Ed Sanders during a 1964 recording session, a sentiment that has, to varying degrees, been true about the Fugs ever since. And with Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg as role models, old age doesn’t seem so foreboding, especially when you can still enthusiastically wave your freak flag high.