July 18, 2010

The World Just Got Two Steps Blander


The day before Tuli Kupferberg died, I was thinking of an old story while on my way to the post office. It was a piece Ed Sanders had written, I think, about a day in 1965 when he and Tuli were hanging around Washington Square Park, and traded a pair of X-Ray Specs (you remember those) for some stoner kid’s acoustic guitar. That, he wrote, was how the seminal Beatnik band The Fugs were born.

            I place no significance on the fact that I remembered that story the day before Tuli died, other than it’s a really funny story, and one I think of regularly. It only took on significance the next day when I heard the news—especially following as it did the death of American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar the day before.

            Normally I save all of the notable deaths of any given year for an annual obit round-up that runs in early January, but the loss of those two was particularly meaningful for me, as they’d each had an enormous influence on both what I did, and how I viewed the world.

            Green Bay being what it was, it wasn’t until I was in college that I encountered both American Splendor comics and The Fugs for the first time. In Harvey Pekar, I saw a pitch-perfect example of how the simplest banalities of daily life—work, car trouble, health problems big and small—if told well and with some attitude, could be turned into tragicomedy of the highest order. Later, when Pekar became a regular and extremely cranky guest on the Letterman show, my respect for him only grew.

            Then there was The Fugs. When I was a student at Madison, a funny, droll, Romantic nihilist by the name of Lars gave me a tape that included a couple of tracks off The Fugs’ first album (entitled, conveniently enough, The Fugs First Album). I’d been listening to punk rock for years, but I’d never heard anything quite as literate, crass and funny as the lo-fi Beatnik folk-rock of The Fugs. They weren’t the most adept musicians, but still, playing cheap instruments only semi-competently, they were able to craft some mighty catchy songs that weren’t trapped within any specific era or genre. Tuli and Ed Sanders wrote songs about sex and drugs without bothering with euphemisms, and set poems by the likes of Blake, Swinburne, and Ginsberg to music. It didn’t sound dated in the mid-eighties, and holds up just as well today.

            I was hooked, and immediately went out and paid twenty dollars (an exorbitant price for me at that time) for a first pressing of the album. The second I heard the first line of the closing song, “Nothing,” I knew I had a personal anthem. By the time the song ended, I had a fully formed philosophy. I’d been leaning toward Nihilism for some time, but had never heard it expressed so simply and eloquently, as a dirge accompanied by harmonica and percussion:

Reading, nothing

Writing, nothing

Even arithmetic, no-o-othing

Geography, philosophy, history, nothing

Social anthropology,

A lot of nothing

            (There were much slicker, bouncier versions of the song on later albums, but nothing could touch the drone of the original.)

            In one way or another that song made an appearance at every Nihilist Workers Party event, and it follows me to this day.

            When news of Tuli's death broke, I was pissed to see the AP headline refer to him simply as an “anti-war rocker.” He was so much more than that. He was an anarchist, an activist, a prankster, musician, writer, artist, philosopher and madman—and an almost mythic icon of New York’s bohemian scene (whatever form it happened to be taking) for over forty years. The feminists and other groups had their problems with him, and perhaps justifiably so—he was a very blunt fellow, and songs like “Boobs a Lot” and “Supergirl” might not have helped—but there was no denying his stature and importance to the counter culture. Musically alone, I’d argue that The Fugs were just as influential as the Stooges, the MC5, or the New York Dolls, even without any radio play.

            One of my big disappointments was that my own encounters with Tuli were not just brief, but embarrassing.

            He provided the cover art and an essay for the one and only issue of Factsheet Five magazine I edited back in the early nineties. In the end I never spoke with him directly, and my name was excised from the masthead shortly before the issue hit the newsstands.

            The only time I did talk to him was about six years later. I was the receptionist at the NY Press when Tuli submitted an unsolicited story. Well, to be honest the piece wasn't that good, and my editor at the time rejected it. Usually rejected submissions earned a standard, chilly, two-sentence form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but the story does not meet our current needs. We wish you the best of luck in the future.”

            My editor, however, was a hip enough guy, and felt that Tuli was owed the respect, even if he was being rejected, of a personal phone call to break the news. Unfortunately my editor was also a coward—Tuli was a big, hairy guy, after all—so he handed me the phone number and told me to make the call.

            I stared at the number for a long time. The Fugs had changed my life. Tuli was a huge figure to me. And now I had to call and reject his story. This was awful. Might as well just ask me to go in the back yard and shoot my dog. Worse, I’m pretty sure my editor knew exactly was he was doing to me by asking me to make the call for him. Bastard. It took me most of the afternoon to work up the nerve, but finally I picked up the phone and hit the buttons.

            As I recall, the conversation that followed went something like this:


            “Hello, is, um . . . is this Tuli Kupferberg?”


            “Oh. Hello . . . um . . . My name’s Jim, and I’m the receptionist at NY Press, and I’m calling on behalf of my editor . . . Who asked me to call you.”


“See . . . he’s a gutless coward, my editor . . . A real son of a bitch, believe me, and he was afraid to call you himself to tell you that, umm . . . he won’t be able to, um, use your story.”

            “Oh. Okay.”

            “I’m real sorry.”

            “It’s okay.”

            “He’s a real jerk, the editor. Personally I think you’re better off. You wouldn’t want someone like that editing you anyway.”

            “It’s fine.”

            “This might be real bad timing, but I just want to tell you what a huge influence you’ve had on me. I think you’re great.”

            “Uh-huh. Thanks.”

            “I’m sorry about the story though.”

            “It’s okay. I’ve got to go now.”

            So not only did I call to reject him, but I was a raving fanboy on top of it. What could be worse?

            So now that they have split this mortal coil, I’d just like to offer a tip of the hat to both Tuli and Harvey, who helped turn me into the well-adjusted individual I am today. And Tuli—I’m still really sorry about that story.


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