Ken Weaver - The Fugs
Interview by Ashley O'Dell
"It was 1965! I don't even remember what the hell was popular back then but it wasn't freaks."
He was the scourge of west Texas marching bands, then a Cold War Air Force spy who deciphered Russian in the skies across the Atlantic. Oh, and he was the original drummer for the Fugs. He once spoke highly of absurd gods - Burnt Sienna (the Crayola crayon) and Rondo Hatton (the old horror movie star). After staggering and swearing his way through the sixties under the influence of everything that came his way, Weaver became a hard laborer, a ditch digger, a zookeeper, a professor of Russian, a father, and an author: Texas Crude, with illustrations by R. Crumb. He's handy with a pair of drum sticks and the body of a Harley and his own skin covered with garish and glamorous tattoos and the now-faded scars from skin grafts and vicious alley fights with broken bottles.
By all accounts, he is living a quiet life now - summers in France, a solid marriage (his second), a big orange cat, long walks looking for iguanas in Floridian swamps, 18 years sober. He is currently trying to find a distributor for his autobiography. It's working title is A Sewer Runs Through It.
This interview took place on July 3, 2005.
PSF: Who were The Fugs?
KW: The Fugs were what the 50's deserved. The 50's created the Fugs, I think - the enforced hypocrisy and the hubris and the just - stalking all over the world and knocking off people and just, all these little adventures and things. They kinda stun me because, the politicians don't ever seem to put the people first. Never. America created us.
PSF: Where did the name come from?
KW: Norman Mailler created that word in one of his novels, "Naked and the Dead" I think. You couldn't write 'fuck' in a novel and so he put in 'fug.' That was the closest- it was scandalous. But he was writing about soldiers. He got away with it in the novel and so the Fugs adopted it.
Disc jockeys wouldn't play our music, but they wouldn't even say the name of the band they wouldn't play. This was AM radio - FM radio was in its infancy. There were like college students who had little radio transmitting stations set up whose range was maybe the campus or a couple of miles, and so they'd play our stuff late at night. And I had more than one of them come up to me and say he'd lost his job for playing our records.
PSF: Who did what in the band?
KW: Well, all of us, Ed, Tuli and I all wrote songs and we all sang. We did a variety of other things. Ed was like the leader of the group and the master of ceremonies, he ran his patter and brilliant stuff, totally incredibly shocking, but that set the tone (laughs) for the evening I suppose.
We were playing a club in Canada once and we had gotten word that the morality squad or something was coming to sit in on the show. So this couple of guys shows up and so Ed gets up there to open the show and he says, "Well she was Roman Catholic so of course you had to fuck her in the ass to keep from breaking her hymen." And these guys just fell off their chairs laughing. We were always getting threatened with busts.
I was sort of a percussionist wannabe - at the first gig, we had no equipment. I just had a pair of brushes and a cardboard box from Crasdale peaches and that's what I'd play. I'd borrow a conga drum; a guy gave me a nice African drum but that was in Ed's store, which got broken into and stolen.
Tuli had costumes and he had a remarkable instrument, a broomstick with nails nailed through bottle caps and they jingled -chingchingching - it was really neat. At first we had a couple guys working with us who called themselves the Holy Modal Rounders. They weren't your typical folk singers, both sort of insane. Steve Weber played the guitar. He was a whiz kid on the radio in the 40's and 50s. [Peter Stampfel] played the violin, and they taught us some stuff about singing, like 'You're gonna be nervous so sing your song in a key lower, cause your voice is gonna tighten up and then it'll be in the right key.'
We had discussions about whether we should write our own songs, 'cause none of us had ever written our own songs, or should we use other people's tunes and then just play with the words, and we just decided to write our own songs.
PSF: Who were your musical influences?
KW: We were all influenced by every poet we'd ever read and every rock and roll musician - rock and roll was only like 10 years old then, hadn't settled into any permanent configuration, as it still hasn't today. You pretty much had freedom to do what you wanted depending on how much risk you were willing to take, and obviously we were willing to take all the risk there was, almost more than anybody.
The Rolling Stones didn't use the word 'shit' in a song till they said something about wiping the shit off their shoe or something [in 1972's "Sweet Virginia," off the album Exile on Main Street]. We cut a lot of new trails, 'cause we would do just about anything.
PSF: What were the Fugs like in comparison to other bands of the time?
KW: We weren't like anybody else. We had our own niche and we were not anybody's competition, certainly because none of us were musicians. I did drums in the [El Campo, Texas] high school marching band. I'd sit in for another drummer in a country western group when he couldn't play. We didn't know shit, man, so I don't know.
We started off at zero, we had just Ed's or Tuli's idea of melding rock and roll and poetry, and I'm sure songwriters through history would say, 'Well, that's what I do, lyrics and tunes.' But we'd all liked poetry. Ed knew a lot about it. We used to go to poetry readings and afterwards we'd go to the Dome, this Polish hall, and all these poets would go there and drink beer and dance, like Allen Ginsberg, and to that came the idea of music and our own tunes.
I was working a gig at a bookshop when I wrote "Slum Goddess" and "I Couldn't Get High," tugging one of those two wheeled New York grocery carts down the street to the post office. Peter Orlovsky was working as a janitor at the 8th Street Bookshop, he was Allen Ginsberg's partner and lover, and Peter was the kind of job whose yoga is cleaning up, almost to the point of cleaning the sidewalks with his toothbrush. He showed me what he did at the job - they had a restroom, and he just goes in there with incredible detail how to keep the toilet as immaculate as the holy water font, which I - I didn't listen to a word of it. I worked in the bookstore, and - I don't even remember what the question was.
PSF: How did you meet Ed and Tuli?
KW: When I was in the Air Force, I went to radio spy school in San Angelo Texas, in west Texas, and when I was there I met this woman named Brooke Broadway. She wrote poetry and all the people who wrote poetry and dug Jack Kerouac books, you find each other somehow, like junkies can always find each other. She went to New York and met Tuli somehow, or wrote to him.
Anyway, she met him and gave me his address and so I got out of the radio school and I went from there to Reno, Nevada, went to Air Force survival training January 1961 and I think I met Tuli on the way to Germany. I looked him up. He was very nice, and kind, and we corresponded while I was in Germany. I think I was corresponding with an awful lot of people then.
When I got out of the Air Force, I wasn't gonna go back to Texas, and I got discharged in New Jersey and so I went up to New York. I got a job and started hanging around, checking out the scene, and somebody told me about this guy, Ed Sanders, on the Lower East Side who had a magazine, "Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts." He liked to have people come in and staple and collate and put the damn thing together, so I went down there. I was living on the Lower East Side by then, moved down there May Day 1964, and that's how I got to know him and started going to poetry readings and it happened.
And people couldn't believe it, they said 'Good lord, nobody's interested in a long-haired rock and roll band!' It was 1965! I don't even remember what the hell was popular back then but it wasn't freaks. There weren't any hippie bands back then, there was shit like this band - I have to keep it written down on a piece of paper cause I'm always forgetting it - The Dave Clark Five, that's it - all these Beatle imitators, all these cute people. We weren't cute.
PSF: Were you the craziest one?
KW: No, we were all just crazy, it was like a crazy tripod. I was crazy in my way and Ed was crazy as hell in his way - we all three did things that the other two couldn't do, just our own unique things.
Ed was a great (laughs) "raconteur," and just - he had his own way of language. Charles Olsen wrote a poem about him, "Ed Sanders' Language." Ed was crazy in that rapid-fire staccato patter that he did, hyper patter. I mean, nobody'd ever heard anybody talk like that then, it was almost American dada, "Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel" (laughs).
Tuli had his old Bolshevik progressive Jewish daily forward kind of aura. He'd been fighting the power since before Ed and I were born I guess. He could write these very gentle, just, ethereal songs, "Morning Morning," lovely song, Richie Havens [covered] it.
Ed and I would do these interviews. I'd never let him tell me what he was gonna do, so he'd interview a camel driver on the run from Sodom to Gommorah, or whatever, and then I'd be that person, instantly. (In a ghastly voice) "Yes, and she was 250 pounds, beat her poodle to death in Washington Square Park." I mean, I was drunk all the time.
And I had a way of pulling my dick out on stage that made it look like it was about a foot and a half long - I saw a guy in the Air Force do it once and I said "God damn!" I'd take my dick out and hook my left pinkie finger around the head and then I stretch my member out, and I've got my left thumb extended and I wrap my right hand up by it and then my right thumb is stuck out and crank it around, whip it around in circles. And if you do this with your back to people and then whip around, people don't know what they'd seen.
I did it before Jim Morrison did it. I did it in front of some Hell's Angels in Cleveland and one of them came up and said "My God, Weaver you really get loose up there." When one of them says something, you know; the Cleveland chapter of the Hell's Angels was an incredibly rough bunch.
PSF: The Fugs toured with Fleetwood Mac. Bob Dylan attended your shows. Paul McCartney and Steve Martin are fans. How far did the band's circle extend? How much fame did you achieve?
KW: We got our own little rinconcito del cielo, I guess. We were kind of a cult band I'd say. If they name the top 50 rock and roll bands, we wouldn't be on it. But I've met people here in Florida who went to see the Fugs. I knew a guy in Tucson who took a first date to the Fugs; she was so offended I don't think she ever saw him again.
I met lots and lots and lots of people because you'd either be playing on the same bill or just meet 'em at parties or you'd go to San Francisco and you'd go see 'em. We knew Jimi Hendrix really early on and later, saw him in a club - a club, in New York - when he came back from London, Resurrection I think it was called, and it was the loudest thing I'd ever heard in my life. I got to know Janis, the Grateful Dead - we played gigs with them in Golden Gate Park and in Pittsburgh, the Velvet Underground, we played at the Filmore East. We played with Sly and the Family Stone in Detroit, MC5 in Detroit, Iggy Pop somewhere along the way, 13th Floor Elevators.
Jefferson Airplane, they wouldn't even speak to us - (laughs) they were royalty and we were just these bad-singing- we weren't slick, Grace. I don't give a shit about that. We were on the bill with Moby Grape and they got interviewed and asked 'What do you think about playing on the same bill with The Fugs?' and they said (whines) "It's shitty." They wanted to be rock and roll royalty. Moby Grape. Where are they now? (pauses) Where am I now?
We didn't take drugs with us because it would be too dangerous but they'd be waiting for you. You'd get off a plane in Sweden and these people would pick you up and whip out the hash. I did one show on acid, never again, never again. One of these days I'll have to sit down and read one of those rock and roll books and find out what happened.
PSF: Did you ever have any hangers on?
KW: We'd have people in different towns who would- you'd always see them when you played that town, and several guys who wanted to play with the band. There was one guy, a young bass player, and I said 'Look, we're not sane, this isn't the Partridge Family, we're nuts. We were playing somewhere, Kansas, and the next morning we get up and this guy's gone, he'd called his mom in the middle of the night and she wired him some money and he got O-U-T. (laughs) I told him!
PSF: What was your relationship with Janis Joplin?
KW: We were drinking buddies. We would just meet and play and I was really impressed, never heard anybody sing like that. I found out she was from Port Arthur, [Texas] and we used to drink. I'd show up with a bottle of Southern Comfort for her and a bottle of Jack Daniels for me and we'd do that and go out, drink the whole thing, and go out to bars. She said 'Jesus Christ, Weaver, you're the only son of a bitch I ever met who can drink more than me.'
It was the 60's- I don't think it was about romance too much. She had boyfriends, Country Joe, I don't know who else. I wasn't. Once, she was in New York or some place and she said 'Would you be my boyfriend when I'm in New York?" I thought she meant her pal, because I was living with Betsy [Klein, a Fugs backing vocalist], so God damn. I'd see her in New York because I'd go to parties at the Chelsea Hotel where she was staying. We slept together, but it was just what you did in the 60's if you wanted to, mostly just drunk and groping. We got along, enjoyed each others company. (laughs)
Freewheelin' Frank, he was the Secretary of the Oakland Hell's Angels, the one Sonny Barger was the president of, He had a mototcycle that was heliotrope, almost pink. I think we all went out to dinner once, Jim Morrison was having the meal at a restaurant. Went out to [Janis'] house once and she's saying to [Frank] (lapses into perfect Janis Joplin impression) 'I mean Jesus Christ, Frank, I could see a couple of you guys but you want me to fuck 14 of you?'
PSF: Why did the band break up?
KW: Ed, I think, wanted to go solo and we'd been doing it for almost five years straight. It was, I think if we'd tried to do it another year, somebody would've gotten murdered. We were just worn out. I was. I'm surprised I didn't have cirrhosis of the liver by then. I've got this Irish drunk constitution, that was just the way, there was no moderation at all. Tuli didn't drink much, Ed would every once in a while, but I was like, Jesus, really a heavy, heavy drinker.
We played a gig in Seattle, when we finished the next gig was Copenhagen. We left Seattle, flew to L.A., picked up our luggage that we'd left in LA after we'd played there, flew to New York - and I'm drinking, every minute of every flight. Got to New York, went to Kennedy Airport, to the VIP lounge for about four hours or however long our layover was, drinking like quadruple Jack Daniels, and then I drank all the whiskey on the plane, every little bottle. On the plane everybody else went to sleep and I stayed up with the stewards and the stewardesses and we just got shit-faced. By the time we got to Copenhagen, I was blind drunk.
PSF: Did you hope to do anything with the legacy from those days in your future? Did you ever want to be a rock star?
KW: Nah. I thought of it, of course the thought's passed my mind, like one reunion concert. There was an opportunity in the 80's and Ed and Tuli wanted to make a film and then tie the film in with a filmed reunion concert and they sent me this treatment and I hated it. I didn't want to be handed a fait accompli with none of my own input in it. There didn't seem to be any suggestion as to how I would do this, get to New York, where am I gonna stay? I'm not gonna sleep on someone's couch I mean. And I didn't like the story. I would have probably been more amenable to it if we could have sat down and talked. So I told them to shove it up their ass.
I was also very uptight at the time, at school at the University of Arizona and had gone through neo-conservative fundamentalist Christian convulsions [in Tucson]. The marriage [to Iowan artist Nancy Evans, which lasted from 1980 until 1990] was stressful, the school was hard, hard work.
PSF: What did you do with your Fugs albums when you became a father?
KW: Cutting those records up [with a straight razor], that's all tied in with my conservatism. I didn't want my daughter to grow up with some kind of idea that I was a filth-monger; that was my twisted logic at the time. I didn't want my daughter to grow up hearing that kind of thing.
I'd gotten out of New York and decided that the upper East Coast doesn't know everything in the world. The day after I left New York I was working for [Timothy Leary's patron, heiress of the Andrew Mellon family] Peggy Hitchcock digging a ditch with a pick and shovel. And I worked on a surveying crew, we resurveyed the Central Arizona Project, outside of Yuma, Arizona in high temperature. It was so hot the hair that wasn't covered by my hat was bleached blond. I enjoyed that job - it was just extreme. I worked a little over a year in the oilfields without a day off, seven days a week for about five or six dollars an hour, in a sawmill. I fed mountain lions as a zookeeper [at the Desert Museum, outside of Tucson], then I got into construction, did that and then I got out of that and went back to school.
I was in school, getting my BA in Russian; that's when the reunion idea came up. I don't think I really understood what the Fugs meant from a socio-historical context. Other people understand it but I don't and I didn't. But I don't think I screwed all the record. I didn't cut up the other guys' songs.
PSF: Do you think there's as much point for bands to be as crazy as they were 40 years ago? Is there as much an establishment to rail against?
KW: I think there's a drastic need for more and more of that stuff. I mean if you take a look at the way the press has been just totally weak and jelly fish, I mean I'm ashamed of the press in this country. You've gotta go someplace and read something like The Nation to read journalism, or maybe blogs. I mean, this country's warped - but in answer to your question I think there's an emergency need for political entertainment if the media's not gonna take care of it. Business is boring and dry and the people in it can't dance and they have thin lips - look at the eyes of the people doing the news on Fox News, they have hard ball-bearing eyes, the kind of people that [William] Burroughs railed against. Yeah we need that just, immediately, STAT.
I think yes, certainly, otherwise if people don't do anything the goddamn, the fundamentalist Christians and the conservatives are just going to fuck the world up. I mean, I've been around a lot and some are wonderful people and a lot are like the Baptist Taliban. They like to go to church and so they think everybody else oughtta like it.
I wrote a song once called "Four Minutes to Twelve and There's a Madman At the Wheel." That sounds like today, but it's four seconds to twelve and we damn sure have a guaranteed mad man in the White House at the wheel. They sit around in Donald Rumsfeld's living room singing 'Oh bury me not on the lone prairie'? I mean, come on, that doesn't make you a better American than Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem the way he does- did.
Ken Weaver lives with his second wife, author Maxine Weaver and their cat in a senior community in Deerfield Beach, Florida. He takes care of his 95-year-old father-in-law, works in a sweltering highway tollbooth checking SunPasses and continues to search for a publisher of his autobiography.
Moby Grape released what VH1 has described as "one of the most disappointing records of the '60s" and disbanded not soon after.
Also see our interviews with Ken's Fugs bandmates
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