Interview by Jason Gross (June 1997)
PSF: What were you working on before the Fugs?
Well, I was the world's greatest poet before I became the world's oldest rock n'roll star. I wasn't with the Fugs until I was 42 but before that my life was trivial. I went to graduate school for sociology in Brooklyn. I dropped out and became a bohemian, living in Greenwich Village. The rest is mystery and history. It's all one blur now.
I was a free-formist. I never took to the traditional forms. I never bothered to learn them. It's OK to learn the old forms though and study what you've inherited in any art. I valued spontaneity a lot and being young, you're always afraid that you're going to be overwhelmed by the masters so you try to avoid it.
PSF: What kind of things were influencing you then?
The usual things. Ego, sex, money, in that order I think. Money wasn't actually up there though. You could actually live on much less than you can today. I was sort of influenced by anybody I read.
PSF: How did you get interested in politics?
I was very political at an early age. When I was in my pre-teens they had those 'Hoover-villes' during the Depression. My father had a retail store that failed three times. We were just on the brink of going on welfare. You'd be amazed at how that can make you politically and economically conscious. My generation really experienced adversity so a dime is still big money to me! You had to be REALLY STUPID not to be political then. Even when things got better, you didn't see it was better for you personally. It could always happen again and it always does. Besides the economy, you also had wars. When there's a crisis in society, sometimes you see things more clearly. Otherwise, it just kind of waves right over you, especially when you're young.
PSF:What did think of the Beat movement when it first started happening?
I remember being shocked by it. I guess I was still in some sort of traditional mode. Shocked, jealousy and then adaptation. It was liberating. I was shocked by Ed Sander's freedom of sexual expression. I'm sure people were shocked by mine when I started. Ginsberg is your best example of a liberating force. It's not just the language or the freedom of the language because that just reflects character structure. A person who drops dead or wants to kill someone would use all those words you're not supposed to use. It's more than language. It's attitude towards sexuality and human relations along with domination and love. It's not that people who shout about sexual freedom understand everything that's involved. In order to have good sex, you have to have good human relationships and vice versa. When I grew up, in my community, you weren't going to have sex until you got married- this was a middle-class Jewish community. Maybe you went to a prostitute... But that gradually broke down. That was all for the good and not just for me but also for most of America.
PSF: So you got to be part of the Beats yourself then?
Everyone was. But I felt that they had a heritage with the bohemians. The term comes from 12th century University of Paris. The craziest students came from Bohemia and they gave them this name. There's this old tradition of living outside of the mores of society. Until the burgeouis revolution, most artists lived on the patronage of the ruling class. LA VIE DE BOHEME, the libetto for that opera, tells you what was happening then in the 18th century. So that's a 150 year old tradition that's still going on. It used to be linked to geography with places like New York, San Francisco, Munich, Paris. But now, with the Internet, you could be crazy, wild, free and self-destructive anywhere you want. But hopefully, there's still communities of people out there. Utopian colonies who are just friends.
PSF: Before the Fugs, did you have any interest in music?
I'm not a musician- I can't read music. The only thing I know how to play is the radio. I sing and write and compose songs. I have a memory of thousands of songs. There was always some music in the house. I seem to remember melodies better than some musicians I know. I had a sliver of that particular kind of intelligence. I listened to a lot of pop music on the radio but there were no musicians around me. Poetry and music used to be the same thing so if I had an interest in poetry, it was part of a musical interest as well.
Speech is music. It's bad music. Some languages are very musical. When you hear certain people read, it's almost music. Some people who do music, it's almost speech. It's a continuance.
PSF: A lot of your music comes from chants and sing-a-longs.
I like to invovle the audience like a number of writers, directors and political people do. I like to break down the barriers. The artist wants to move people and see the results. That's why performing is more pleasurable than just writing, to me at least.
PSF: How did you start out with Ed and the Fugs?
We were both poets on the lowest East Side. We met at a place called the Metro. They sold furniture and since they had the tables and chairs there already, so they decided to open a coffee shop. Once the coffee house was established, it became the center of poetry readings. This was in the early '60s. After the poetry, we would go to a place called the Dom on St. Marks. We would go there and try to dance, listening to the Beatles and the Stones. The early Beatles were not great poets but they did become great poets later. We decided that we could do something like that. So we decided to enter the field and we were sort of an instant hit. We had a wide range- Ed was a wild, crazy, mid-Western young man and I was a New York radical Jew. So together he had everything or, as some people would say, nothing.
PSF: Peter Stampfel said that he was impressed with all the songs that you and had written before the Holy Modal Rounders joined you.
He was a great help to us. He sort of gave us the illusion that we were musicians and a band. We were sort of a punk band. Our idea was that anybody could do this. Peter and Steve Weber gave us a lot of encouragement. We didn't give a fuck actually. We weren't out to do high art. For our first performances, our friends joined us on stage and carried on. We had a few people who would write songs like Ted Berrigan. The most archetypical Fug line was 'I ain't ever gonna go to Vietnam, I prefer to stay here and screw your mom' which was from Ted. That's from 'Doing Alirght.' That was enough to get us beaten up if we did it in the right place.
With the War going on then, it was a desperate time. There were thousands of dead and all the young men were facing that attempt to murder them. The nation was still supporting 'our boys.' We were really the ones being patriotic because we were trying to save lives. Other people were just trying to kill other people that they had never seen. That's what war is- you go somewhere and kill people you've never met.
PSF: What happened with the Fugs after Peter and Steve left?
We got other musicians. I was sort of opposed with the idea of perfecting our music. I felt that it would interfere with our message: love, sex, dope. The only thing I think is safe or worth doing is marijuana. Also, as Ed put it 'all kinds of freedoms given to us that the First Ammendment hadn't taken care of.' We were poets. Poets can say whatever they want about anything. So we felt that we did that with music. Pop music from the '20s to the '60s was mostly courtship music. In pop music, the Beatles sang about everything in life and so did everyone else, including us.
PSF: Do you think a lot of people who were getting serious about politics at that time were phonies or were they genuine?
There's the problem that if you keep faking something long enough, you start to believe your own lies. But I think mostly they were genuine. The '60s were a time of great crisis in America. The war was the focal point. There was also minorites who demanded equal rights and the womens' movement and various kinds of socialism, communism and anarchism. Then you saw that these things were connected. For instance, a woman couldn't have equal pay unless you had some sort of control over the economy unless you fixed it in the law (though I really don't believe in the law). It's still inter-related but people aren't conscious of this. You have to be very clever, quick and lucky to escape such an oppressive system.
PSF: You think that you did that?
Well, we were never arrested, which is amazing. We were threatened many times. Ed has these FBI advisories. Someone in the FBI probably realized what a farce it would be and what asses they would make of themselves if they put Ed on the stand. 'What exactly do you mean by 'Coca-Cola Douche' Mr. Sanders?' 'You know, Coke! No Pepsi!' There were suggestions that we'd be prosectued but nothing ever happened. People in the government aren't THAT stupid. After 'Howl' was being prosecuted, it became the most famous poem in the country and thousands of people wanted to read it. So if we HAD been arrested, we would have probably sold a few hundred thousand more albums.
PSF: Since you were talking about it before, what kind of interactive things were you doing with the Fugs?
Pete Seeger used to do it but going way back. There were whole societies that had huge choral groups. Mass singing was done with the Welsh and the Russians. You could do it in two ways. You could print up the lyrics and force the audience to sing with you. You could also repeat a line or do the song once and then give the audience the line. Depending on what mood they're in, you get audience response. It depends on the song too. The best audience was the third audience at midnight on a Saturday at a club we used to play at on MacDougal Street. They were all drunk so you could come out on stage and wave your hands and they'd scream and yell for you. In our first performances in the East Village, the audience would come on stage and do all sorts of things.
In the sixties, we were really the U.S.O. of the Left. We did a lot of benefits. We were one of the most conscious bands but we weren't the only ones. It was really the attitude and style, which later became co-opted. In all due modesty, I don't think there other bands that were as radical then. Zappa was kind of a cultural radical but he was a liberterian and a political idiot as far as I'm concerned. He started out in advertising and he stayed there to some extent. Ginsberg started out in advertising but he never looked back. The Who, The Stones and Beatles were saying very radical things. A lot of folk music is culturally and politically radical. There is a tradition in folk music for that though a lot of the songs are bad. It goes back to the Wobblies in the 19th Century. Woody Guthrie also. Dylan started very political. Phil Ochs too. Folk purists used argue about playing rock n'roll but good music is good music where ever it comes from. Music by itself can move people, sometimes very destructively like with a military march.
PSF: A lot of your songs involved writing new lyrics for songs.
It's a very old tradition. I used it a lot when I didn't have a band. The earliest singers I remember that did this was (Martin) Luther who took popular songs of the period and made church hymns out them. He said 'why should the devil have the best of tunes.' Then Joe Hill in the early part of the 1900's used church hymns and changed them into radical pop songs.Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try and tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked about something to eat
They are sure, they are sure to repeat
'You'll get pie...
You'll get pie in the sky when you die (that's a lie)
Work and pray
Live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die (it's a lie)'
So it's an old tradition. I call them para-songs.
PSF: Did the Fugs have any particular goals?
Our goal was to make the revolution. That would have been a complete revolution, not just an economic or political one. We had utopian ideals and those are the best ideals. What happened was that this movement that flourished then had a lot of problems. A lot of promises weren't as deeply rooted or as well grounded as we thought. The technological revolution and the movement of world capital created problems that no one had ever thought possible. The sixties never connected. It was basically a youth movement and basically a middle-class, male movement. That's not enough. There were students but the war fed itself on that part of the movement and the previous radical history. There were a lot of 'grown-ups' and academic people and ordinary people but its roots were not deep enough and its analysis (Marxist and anarchist) wasn't enough to take over. We didn't know how to get from our good ideas to the society we wanted.
Then it slowly collapsed once the draft ended and once the war ended. Obviously the forces of the old society (religion and tradition) were much stronger than we thought. So things continued the way they are. We still don't have the ideology to get out of this. We never connected to the working class and now they seem to be disappearing into microchips- you have a lot of 'surplus' people. We need some sort of understanding of what's going on because everything is out of control, especially out of our control. We have very little influence, we radicals today.
The sixties were a complete surprise because in the fifties, American society was just recovering from World War II and young man just wanted to go back to school and start a family. There was no politics. Then the sixties happened. You can never predict when it's going to happen because it's rooted in human nature that you can only take so much oppression before you do something. But sometimes you do the wrong thing. We don't have the answers but if they only gave us a chance... It was not a complete failure because a lot of the things we believed in have gone a long way to being realized. We were not the idealists. We manifested them and learned from other people.
PSF: With the Fugs, what was happening with the band after '65?
I think that our songs developed and become more sophisticated and complicated. We spread into different areas and the music got better. I don't think we should have disbanded. It was due to personal conflicts which I really don't completely understand. We would have been really needed in the '70s because that was a slow decline where everything that that generation thought was going to happen, just disappeared slowly.
PSF: What were you doing after the Fugs broke up?
I formed a group called the Revolting Theater, which sort of carried on in the tradition of the Fugs. Basically we acted out artifacts that we had found in society- advertisements or crazy songs or poetry. That had a mild reason for being. We played mostly at colleges. Then I formed a group called the Fuxxons and that was me and anybody that was around- we did some Fugs songs and other stuff.
Then in '84, the Fugs were reformed. I would have been always ready to reform but I think Ed decided that it should happen at that particular time. We did a reunion concert with new musicians at the Bottom Line. A lot of people came and it was fun. We've been playing on and off since then. I don't think that we had the impact that we did in the sixties for a number of reasons. We did the Real Woodstock Festival in '94 where Ed lives. That same year, we played in Italy.
PSF: Before you said the Fugs were about dope and fucking. What about now?
No, I said that the Fugs were about dope and fucking and any kind of mind liberation that didn't kill you or damage your internal organs. I was always careful about that because I'd been a medical librarian and I knew all about that. My phrase was 'better to be a live ogre than a dead saint.' I knew a lot of dead saints. It was about politics and it was about life and relations between people and 'freedom,' meaning the ability to explore and express yourself and other peoples' feelings. We were all about creating a utopia and we had our ideas about what it was. We tried to work for it and to live it because we weren't going to wait- 'we want the world and we want it now.' We were impatient, especially in the sixties where young people faced death and they weren't going to wait to enjoy anything after they were dead.
It's a mistake to put it (freedom) in terms of physiology. Nothing wrong with that. The basic unit of human society is the human body. You have to know how to use it and enjoy it. That's only part of it though because if you have a human body and you put it in the dark and leave them there, you get something that isn't quite human. It needs nourishment and human society. It doesn't have to be the patriarchal family. In the age of AIDS, I recommend group marriages with four couples. More than eight people would be too much.
Bascially, the Fugs are the same except we're more refined and more clever and more worked out and more beautifully put and less listened to.
PSF: You were saying that things are different for the Fugs now.
What's different isn't the Fugs- it's the society around which we function. There was more of a community for the arts before. If you lived in the Village, you knew the film makers and the painters. Due to mass media, there's no much of a community because there are many, many small communities and groups. If you go into Tower Records, you can find 2500 bands- that's good because it means a lot of people are doing things. But audiences have also become more broken down. There's no large community. The question is whether the times create the great artist or whether the great artist helps to create the times. It works together. If you're incredibly great, you can surpass the times. If you're just a little good, then times will push you onward and make you better. If the times are terrible, you've got to work against all of it. It's really complicated but we're always ready for more good music and more good times.
Witness some of Tuli's work:
Also see our Ed Sanders interview
ED NOTE: Tuli passed away on July 12, 2010. We were honored to present this interview and his work.
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