The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

All Issues
NOV 2011 Issue

Slum Gods of the Lower East Side

Photo: Dan Wilcox

If I could inhabit one moment from America’s musical past, I’d plop my time machine down at the grand opening celebration of a tiny bookstore in the East Village during the late winter of 1965.

Located in an abandoned kosher meat store on East 10th Street (the words “strictly kosher” still decaled in Yiddish on the front windowpane), the Peace Eye Bookstore was a labor of love of local beat poet and anarcho-socialist entrepreneur Ed Sanders, who opened the shop to showcase the beat writers that contributed to his controversial literary journal, Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, and the other small-press periodicals and chapbooks accumulating in the neighborhood.

For the opening party, the flaking walls of the Peace Eye were bannered with silkscreened flowers created by Sanders’s friend Andy Warhol, and the steady stream of artists and writers who squeezed through the crowded space (Warhol, Burroughs, Plimpton, Harry Smith) were treated to an opening musical set by guitarist Steve Weber and fiddle player Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders. The Rounders had recently released two brilliant recordings of original and second-hand Americana, and the band’s deranged, fiddle-driven mayhem provided the perfect lead-in for the unprecedented eruption of musical insanity that followed.

A couple of months before the Peace Eye’s grand opening, Sanders had approached his good friend Tuli Kupferberg, a local beat legend who lived next door, with the idea of starting a band to showcase the two men’s poetry. Kupferberg, then in the midst of composing his inspirational self-help manual, 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft, was immediately drawn to the idea. Two other neighborhood poets, Szabo and Al Fowler, were recruited to improvise wobbling duets on “amphetamine flute” while Sanders and Kupferberg (neither of whom were musicians themselves) sang, chanted, and screamed the lyrics to the more than 50 songs composed during the first few weeks of the band’s existence. A young émigré from Texas named Ken Weaver was recruited to play congas.

On stage at the Peace Eye, the new band was simultaneously an unprecedented display of poetic pretension, verbal obscenity, and amateurish instrumental dissonance and an irresistible embodiment of the break-every-rule, libido-celebrating spirit of the times. There were songs inspired by the band’s past and present poetic heroes (Wordsworth, Blake, Ginsberg), songs against war and social oppression, songs celebrating drug use and sexual freedom (“group grope” was a favorite phrase), and rapturous psalms about the ultimate meaninglessness of life. From the start, every number was performed with outright abandon, even when the key was in doubt, and the crowd at the Peace Eye listened, many of them in stunned disbelief, as the American musical landscape was suddenly and irrevocably transformed.

Stage-struck from the start, Sanders and Kupferberg soon decided that the time was ripe to capture the band’s magic on vinyl. Filmmaker and musicologist Harry Smith, a longtime friend of both men, agreed to pitch the idea to Moe Asch at Folkways Records. In 1952, Asch’s Folkways had issued Smith’s seminal six-album collection of idiosyncratic American roots music, The Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith somehow persuaded his old musical patron that the contemporary “folk jug band” his friends had formed would be a perfect addition to Asch’s new Folkways subsidiary, Broadside, which had recently introduced listeners to emerging folk artists Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Bob Dylan (under the pseudonym “Blind Boy Grunt”) on its Broadside Ballads series.

Smith’s depiction of the band as a folk ensemble was made at least slightly plausible by the recent addition of band members Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber of the Holy Modal Rounders, who accepted Sanders’s invitation to join the band after Szabo and Fowler (both of whom were chronically inept at attending rehearsals and performances) were dismissed.

The 62 year-old Asch, who balked at the prospect of releasing a recording by a group called the Yodeling Anarcho-Socialists, the original band name suggested by Sanders and Smith, was inexplicably satisfied with a second name proposed by Kupferberg, the Fugs Jug Band. The term “fug” was derived from an inane sexual euphemism that Norman Mailer reluctantly accepted to get The Naked and the Dead past the internal censors at Rinehart in 1948.

The contract signed and the band’s name securely in place, Asch booked space for what eventually turned out to be two separate recording sessions at the Cue Recording Studio in midtown Manhattan. The first session was held in the spring of 1965, with Harry Smith behind the soundboard. Smith’s appropriately minimalist approach to production consisted of turning on and off the recording equipment and occasionally prodding the undisciplined and overstimulated band members to get with the program. You can barely hear his frustrated shout, “Just get going!” above Sanders’s and Kupferberg’s mischievous laughter at the beginning of “We Are the Fugs” (an outtake from the original recording included on the 1994 re-release on Fantasy Records).

The personnel for the initial session included Sanders and Kupferberg on vocals, Ken Weaver on vocals and conga drums, and Stampfel and Weber on both vocals and fiddle/harmonica and guitar respectively. While the initial three-hour session yielded 23 tunes (including seven covers of Holy Modal Rounders material), only three of these tracks were included on the Fugs’s debut recording. Two of the songs (“Swinburne Stomp” and “Nothing”) were essentially percussion-driven vocal recitals, with (apart from Stampfel’s muted harmonica on the latter tune) no discernible instrumentation from either of the Rounders.

For the second session, recorded in late summer of the same year, the Fugs’ earlier acoustic settings were completely abandoned in favor of the louder, more guitar-driven style that the band had adopted while performing throughout the East Village during the summer. By the time the band members schlepped their modest gear back uptown to Cue, Stampfel was long gone, replaced by Chuck Berry–style guitarist Vinny Leary and bassist John Anderson, whose falsetto tenor vocals were even more joyfully deranged than Stampfel’s high-end vocal harmonies on the earlier sessions. To complete the transition, Weaver had also traded in his congas for a full set of drums.

The Village Fugs: Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Points of View, and General Dissatisfaction was released by Broadside Records in January of 1966. The band’s loud, jangling, slightly out-of-tune performance on the opening track, Weaver’s “Slum Goddess,” announced the emergence of a droning, garage-rock aesthetic that would inspire an entire generation of avant-rockers like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and Patti Smith. But before early listeners could settle into the aggressive rhythm of the opening track, the bass and electric guitar suddenly disappeared, replaced by the delicate vocals and muted percussion of the second track, “Ah, Sunflower Weary of Time,” a Sanders composition inspired by the poetry of William Blake.

The shift from aggressive and deranged to gentle and meditative continued throughout the recording. The Blake tune was followed by the jerky, bass-propelled “Supergirl,” Kupferberg’s ecstatic, R. Crumb–like paean to the unattainable object of adolescent male fantasy. Weaver’s proto-punk drug anthem, “I Couldn’t Get High,” was followed by the gentle harmonies and countrified guitars of “How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field,” another Sanders/Blake collaboration. At the end of the album, the bouncy, infantile frenzy of Steve Weber’s “Boobs a Lot” (the only Rounders tune to make the final cut) emptied abruptly into the mournful chanting of “Nothing,” Kupferberg’s droning Yiddish dirge about the vanity of everything.

Harry Smith’s description of the Fugs as a contemporary “folk jug band” turned out to have been right all along. While the group’s artfully poetic pretensions, garage-rock production, and Lower East Side politics bore little external resemblance to the old-time country and blues performers featured on Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the sound and the sensibility that leapt from the vinyl grooves of The Village Fugs were far closer to the mad, joyous, anarchic spirit of those early 78s by Dick Justice, Charley Patton, and Uncle Dave Macon than any of the more disciplined and authentic folk ensembles associated with the American roots-music revival.

By virtually every musical criterion, the group’s follow-up, The Fugs (re-released as The Fugs Second Album by Fantasy Records in 1994), was a superior recording, and Sanders would employ a stable of professional musicians on future Fugs releases that rendered the giggling amateurishness of The Village Fugs a distant memory. But it’s precisely the unresolved mix of artistic ambition and personal urgency with an unapologetic lack of instrumental facility that has made the earlier album such a seminal influence on the DIY movements that would follow, such a quintessential documentation of a sadly lost era in American art and performance, and (at least to my Fugs-friendly ears) such a joy to hear today.

Sanders is probably best known among non-Fugs enthusiasts as a writer, particularly for his wrenching account of the Charles Manson murders, The Family, and his ever-expanding collection of tales about bohemian life in the East Village during the 1960s, Tales of Beatnik Glory. He has also remained a disciplined and prolific poet, with two recent volumes of collected works and his multi-volume America: A History in Verse.

Over the years, Sanders and Kupferberg never completely abandoned their original commitment to the Fugs, staging a series of special performances by the band in 1984, 1994, and 2003, and releasing several new studio and live recordings along the way.

The musical partnership finally came to an end in 2009, when Kupferberg suffered a debilitating stroke. On January 22, 2010, Sanders and the remaining members of the band (Steve Taylor, Coby Batty, and Scott Petito) hosted a benefit at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (along with Peter Stampfel, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, and others) to assist with Kupferberg’s medical expenses. The performance was followed later in the year by the release of the sadly but appropriately named Be Free: The Fugs Final CD (Part 2) (Fugs Records). Tuli Kupferberg died of kidney failure in Manhattan on July 12, 2010, at the age of 86.

Sanders’s and Kupferberg’s legacy with the Fugs is far from forgotten, however. Da Capo Press has scheduled the December 2011 release of Sanders’s 400-page memoir of his experiences with the Fugs and the Village underground during the 1960s, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side. And if that weren’t enough to satisfy the ardent citizens of Fug nation, Wounded Bird Records has recently reissued several Fugs classics from the late 1960s (including Tenderness Junction; Belle of Avenue A; It Crawled out of My Hand, Honest; and Golden Filth).

In 1999, Tuli Kupferberg reflected on the past, present, and future of the Fugs for interviewer Richie Unterberger: “We haven’t retreated from 1968. Almost everything we believed in is correct. We’re biding our time, and we’re still keeping in shape…The problem is no one knows quite what to do, since the old theories of Marxism and anarchism are rather inadequate. So we need a lot of new ideas and ways of putting them into reality. And everybody who is reading this better get to work.”


David Shirley

DAVID SHIRLEY and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

All Issues