Interview by Jason Gross (June 1997)
PSF: Could you talk about your writing and work before the Fugs?
I had a small book out from City Lights in '63. I had written it in jail in Connecticut, having tried to board a Polaris submarine at its commissioning in August of '61. So I wrote this poem which I smuggled out, written on toilet paper (because we weren't allowed to write) and copied it onto bits of foil and cigarette packs. I sent it to (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti and, to my everlasting gratitude, he published it. It was a long poem based on an ancient legend. Then I had a small book of poetry published from Renegade Press in Cleveland. There were also various pamphlets that I had published.
PSF: What kind of things were you listening to then that got you interested in music?
The Fugs musically grew out of the Civil Rights area when we all used to go out to marches in the South. We would sing all of these Civil Rights songs that had their basis in three chord, rural folk music: 'Down By The Riverside' and 'We Shall Overcome' and Pete Seegar's songs.
But also, I grew up in Kansas City and was exposed to a lot of jazz. I used to go as a kid to see Jay McShann and others. We didn't realize it was jazz. It was just this beautiful music we used to go see. And then of course, there was a country and western strain in the mid-West, like Roy Acuff. I also studied drums for a while with the drummer for the Kansas City Philharmonic- this gave me exposure to classical music. Then I took piano (lessons)- my mother bought one when I was a kid. Like most American boys of that era, I took piano for four or five years. Tchaikovsky's and Beethoven's piano concertos were a big influence on me. I also sang in my high school choir and I belonged to the Society of Barbershop Quartet Singers. I used to sing a lot of stuff when I was in high school, like the Cleftones- it was a Queens teenage band and we used to sing their songs in Missouri. There was also various arrangements of show tunes that we did. I got a lot of singing done as a kid and listened to a lot of music.
Of course, there was rock'n'roll with Elvis Presley. I used to go to Kansas City Municipal Auditorium where I used to see Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bill Haley. I used to come to New York as a kid and I would come to ABC Studios on 67th Street and see rock'n'roll shows. Then there was the happening movement. There was a lot of jazz and poetry. I went to see Sonny Rollins and others at the clubs in the Lower East Side.
It was a whole hodgepodge of music for me. As pacifists, we used to listen to Stravinsky's 'Rites of Spring' before we would go out to commit civil disobedience. Early Joan Baez records were really influential too. Then of course, there was Dylan. There was this thing called the Worldwide General Strike for Peace and this kid played there in the fall of '61 named Dylan. Then I later knew Phil Ochs and the folk singers. So everyone was influencing everyone else. That was kind of the way it was.
PSF: What kind of influence was the Beat movement for you?
When I was in high school, I first became exposed to Beat literature. I didn't knew what it was. The story's told in TALES OF BEATNIK GLORY, my book of short stories. In particular, I bought 'Howl' when I was 17 at the Univeristy of Missouri book store. It changed my life. I memorized it. I went to New York a few monthes later and I immediately went to all the poetry readings I could. I loved the Beats.
The poems in 'Howl' struck a note that reverberated across the entire culture of America. It had an impact on a number of generations right then. It had a long threnodic line that took quite a breath to read. It had interesting metrics and it had a brilliant analysis of America in a kind of Blake/Whitman/cavalistic, doom-tinged/Poe-like line that also had a lot of populism that grew out of William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandberg. At one point, Ginsberg had wanted to be a labor laywer. His mother was a communist and his father was a social democrat so he had a radical 'let's make a big change' upbringing that was reflected in 'Howl.' He called upon a new America to be formed really. He dared to be overtly sexual. It was quite a brave document. It changed my life.
PSF: How did things change for you when you came to New York?
There wasn't a tradition of coffee-house poetry readings in the mid-West, although there is now. I travel all over America now and there's coffee shop poetry and magazines in every city and college. It was quite different to come to New York because it had a lot of theatres. One of the first things I did was to see Anton Chekov's 'Ivanov' and 'Playboy of the Western World' and Beckett's 'Waiting For Godot' all in a short time. There was also a lot more bookstores in New York in those days. The rents were cheaper. Then there was the whole wonderful Beat culture, which was combative and controversial at the time. There were a lot of interesting gallery things happening- abstract expressionism like Franz Kline and William DeKoonig who I'd see in the Cedar Bar where I used to drink. I met people like Larry Rivers and Andy Warhol.
It was finding the best minds of my generation. In those days, if you were a poet, you went to San Francisco, Berkeley or New York. It was just packed and full of life. There weren't that many people doing it but you knew where they were. There weren't that many publications where you got data on where to meet people and where the shows were. That's where you went and hung out.
PSF: How did you meet up with Tuli?
Tuli was a Beat hero. He was in all these books. I saw him selling things on the streets. He had Birth Press and a magazine called 'Yeah.' I read these and I saw his picture around in various anthologies. Then I was publishing a magazine, 'Fuck You- a Magazine of the Arts'. He gave me some poetry for that in '62. In late '64, when I opened a bookstore on East 10th called Peace Eye, his pad was next door above Lescer's Wholesale Egg Market. I took over an old Kosher meat market with Hebrew on the window and kept the words 'strictly kosher' up there.
This was the time of Roy Orbison's 'Pretty Woman' and the Beatles' 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' and (Wilson Pickett's) 'Mustang Sally.' There was a lot of interesting music being created. Folk rock was a year away. Dylan hadn't gone electric yet. We decided to form a band and do some poetry and music. We didn't have any grandiose scheme in mind- we just wanted to have some fun. I had a bookstore where we could practice. I had met this guy who had played drums for his high school marching band named (Ken) Weaver so we asked him to come aboard. These guys from the Holy Modal Rounders were around for three years on their own so they came aboard. We did some gigs at little theatres on the Lower East Side and a bunch of little art galleries. One thing led to another and all of a sudden, these places began to get packed. People would line up outside. Right away, we wrote about 50 or 60 songs. Some of them were written right there in the bookstore- I had a little tape recorder. Junkies kept stealing our equipment though. We had our first gig at Izzy Young's Folk Center and a day or two before, the junkies broke into my store and stole our equipment. Ken had to use a cardboard peach box as a drum. I had a pair of maracas too so that might have been the whole sum of our music right then.
We had pretty humble beginnings and we stayed that way although we ultimately, after a few years, wound up on a major recording label. It was a LONG jump to make from such a primitive beginning.
PSF: Tuli thought that the Fugs were kind of punk band before its time because the band went ahead without any great technical skills.
It was the era of happenings. You could fill up a bathtub with cherry jello, get a strobe light and some paintings and have a happening in a gallery. We played all these galleries. We sang and shouted our songs but we had good timing. If you listen to those early tapes, one thing about them was that they weren't tuned perfectly to a tuning fork but the timing is good. Tuli, Weaver and I and the others had good time. We sang together, you could hear the words and they were quite clear. Our tunes seems to have some literary merit because they keep reissuing CD's of this stuff 30-35 years later.
We had an attitude to use our youthful energy to surge ahead and present our music, no matter what. But there has to be some level of talent somewhere in order to pull it off.
PSF: Another thing made the Fugs different were the lyrics. At that time, a lot of rock lyrics were love songs but your group was using poetry for your music.
I would love to say that this was a deliberate plot and we had a vast scheme to change American civilization but part of it was just to have fun. We were all 'literate.' Our whole life, in part, was books. Kupferberg, during the whole time I've known him, always goes out to look for books. When we travel in Europe, he's in the bookstores. He's always reading. I remember being in a van in Italy a few weeks ago. I look over my shoulder and he's reading a dictionary of obscure philosophical terms. But it's true that we did bring poetry to our songs but that's just the way we wrote. I had a bunch of books out, Kupferberg had a bunch of books out. I knew Greek and Latin, I had just graduated from college. I was corresponding with all these poets like Gary Snider and Charles Olson. I was writing these learned letters to Ginsberg and then hanging out with him when he got back from India in '63. I was friends with all these guys. I was invited to the Berkeley Poetry Conference where I gave a reading in '65.
I was a poet and I thought that this (the Fugs) was a joke and a game that would be over in a few monthes. But then it went on and on and on. Here we are, 30-35 years later, still surging onward.
PSF: Tuli was also saying that an important part of the band was dope and fucking.
That's a little bit simplistic. We were a pot band more than anything else. I certainly never take heroin, for instance. When my friend Janis Joplin died, I vowed to tell people as much as I could about the dangers of heroin. I wouldn't throw the word 'dope' around. If you mean pot or magic mushrooms, you could certainly say we were in favor of the legalization of the stuff and took our share of it. You can look at the songs we put out. 'Tune In Drop Out' was a satire on rock lyrics. 'I Couldn't Get High' was a satire too. Everybody has a right to have had a wild youth and I guess we did. But I would say our main thing was satire and anti-war. We were randy young men.
PSF: Did you think that the Fugs fit in with other bands at that time?
We got along with everybody. What upset me most is that we were promised to get invited to the Monterey Festival in '67- Derek Taylor promised me over the phone. Then they didn't invite us. But we knew Jimi Hendrix. We knew Frank Zappa- I just wrote the liner notes for this record of his that came out. At one time or another, I guess I met almost everybody. I don't think we were outcasts. But once we played a big hall, we had a hard time playing it again. It would be our lyrics like 'River of Shit' or other tunes we did. The concert managers tend to be pretty conservative.
PSF: You were talking about how politics were an important part of the Fugs.
We put daisies in the rifle barrels at the Pentagon. We did the excorcism of the Pentagon with the San Francisco Diggers. In October of '67, Tuli and I paid for the flat bed truck and the sound system for this. We stood outside the Pentagon with the Diggers chanting 'Out Demons Out' and it's on our record Tenderness Juncition. We must have done 50 benefits to raise money for the Resistance.
PSF: How about when the Fugs moved to a major label?
We did an album for Atlantic and they didn't like the cut of its jib. They bounced us off the label. We started the record in early '67 and we got bounced off in the early summer. We lost a year and that really screwed us up. I was on the cover of LIFE magazine and we were a very famous group. Fans camped outside our houses. It was right at the most optimal moment to do a record. Then we signed with Reprise, to their credit. We're very grateful to them. Mo Ostin and Reprise never censored us. They always put out what we released. They never told us to do anything at all. It was total freedom. But that record, Tenderness Junction, didn't come out until early '68.
PSF: What do you think changed for the band by that time?
We had done 700-800 performances by then. My judgment, as the leader of the band, was that we had to have some musicians who were stable- who would show up for gigs, who were willing to rehearse and could do harmony singing and who had good chops. By hook or crook, I finally came up with some guys who could really play. We had Danny Kootch there for a while- he was really a talented musician. He wrote with Don Henley of the Eagles later but he was just a boy from the East somewhere when he was with us. We finally wound up with Ken Pine on guitar and Bob Mason on second drums (we had two drum sets like the Mothers) and a bass player named Bill Wolf. They were really good, especially Pine. He was really an underrated, creative and talented guitar player. I understand that one of Jimi Hendrix's jam sessions has just been released with Ken sitting in on guitar (ED NOTE: he appears on 'My Friend' from FIRST RAYS OF THE NEW RISING SUN). We used to jam with Jimi.
PSF: What was the band doing at that time?
We went to Europe twice in '68 in the spring and the fall. Our opening band was Fleetwood Mac. We played constantly. We went to California twice. We played the Avalon Ballroom and psychedelic clubs up and down the coast. We went to Detroit, Chicago, Boston, all over the United States and we also put out two records that year.
PSF: If the band was really getting it together, why did it break up?
I reopened the Peace Eye book store. It had been closed for a while. I moved it to the old East Village Other office on Avenue A. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I was very discouraged with what happened in '68 with all of these assassinations. In early '69, it came out about the My Lai massacre. Nixon was president and we didn't know what the hell he was going to do. So these political things were very, very disturbing to me. '68 was a very good year and a very bad year. It should have been the best in American civilization.
By '69, I decided that I just wanted to be a beatnik and run my bookstore. So we did some touring and a gig with the Grateful Dead in Pennsylvania in the spring and that was it. I decided I had it. It was kind of dumb too. We had the opportunity to tour that summer for what was good money for us but I decided to turn that down. I did my own record for Warner Brothers called Sanders' Truck Stop during that spring and summer. In the fall, I got interested in the Manson case and I got a book contract. By then, it was really too late to get the Fugs back together. I was busy day and night, writing my book on the Manson family.
Then 15 years went by until we had our reunion. We started having reunions quite regularly because I found this guy named Steve Taylor who sings really well. We got a guy also to do harmony parts named Coby Baty. We did reunions in '84, '85, '86, '89, '94 and now in '97. We've just been invited to Japan. We're going to do one more studio record. We decided to do Fugs Final Record, just in case.
PSF: What do you see as the achievements or legacy of the Fugs?
I think it has an honest legacy. It wasn't perfect- there were plenty of things that I guess I wish I could re-record and fix up a little bit. But it's what it was. I'm honored that people are still interested. I thought that NOBODY would ever be interested and even think about it now. Because of these compact discs, I have more records out than when I was in my twenties. I think I'll do what Zappa did- put out a record of guitar breaks. I listened to a lot of those (Fugs) records and we had some really brilliant gutiar players- Pine, Kootch, John Kalb, Stefan Grossman.
PSF: Grossman once said that when you interviewed him for the band, you asked 'Are you crazy?'
No, I might have said 'you have to be a little crazy to join the band.' We had things like 'Kill for Peace' and 'River of Shit.' Anyway, he was a good player. So, Zappa did this guitar break album and I wanted to do Great Moments of Tuning. You didn't have the electronic tuners then so tuning was quite a existential praxis back then.
So again, I'm honored that people are interested. It was a little bit of poetry. It wasn't perfect. There was honesty, verve, energy, directness, a certain amount of skill, some timing in there. Tuli wrote some really good songs. You're rolling the dice when you leave art behind.
PSF: How did the reunions happen after all those years?
The first one made sense as it was 1984, the era of Reagan. We were a little bit upset with Ronnie. Tuli and I got together. We had written some songs and we were involved in a film project. We started working together again and we decided 'what the hell.' The guys who ran the Bottom Line were really decent. So we got together and it was wildly successful. People really liked it. I had worked also with Steve Taylor. We went to Europe that fall. Then in '86, I wrote this anti-war/Star Wars piece called 'Star Peace' which we performed here and there. We did another reunion in '88. We'd done a bunch of them up here (Woodstock) because they really like us here, we have a huge crowd. We're thinking about doing a salute to Allen Ginsberg maybe later on this summer if I can get it together. We did reunions here in Woodstock in '88 and '89. In '94, we did the Real Woodstock Festival with Allen Ginsberg and Country Joe McDonald. Out of that came a 2 CD set which Ace Records put out a couple of years ago.
The idea is to get together when it makes sense. It's wonderful to sing three part harmony. It's thrilling to sing with guys who know how to sing and to do some really good music. The band's really good now. I've had the same band now for 10 years.
PSF: How is this version of the Fugs different from the '60s band?
I don't know but I think the music is better. Another reason that I wanted to do these reunions is because I realized that there were some aspects of us that we did not reveal in our crazy '60s persona. So now he have a 33-year history. You do change a little bit as you get older. We're not quite as radically wild as we were but we're as politically dedicated. I'm a democratic-socialist and Tuli's an anarchist- between those poles, an interesting tension derives. It fuels some of our songwriting. Comparing our songs from the '60s with our songs from the '80s, I think a lot of our best music ultimately in the long run will be from some of our stuff in the '80s and '90s.
PSF: Outside of the Fugs, what have you been doing?
For the last two years, my wife and I have run a newspaper called the Woodstock Journal. We formed it directly to go up against the right wing after Newt Gingrich won in '94. In '95, I also finished my biography of Anton Checkov as a 240 page poem that traces his life. Just now a book is coming out called 1968- A HISTORY IN VERSE on Black Sparrow Press, a poem tracing that year. I completed Volume Three of TALES OF BEATNIK GLORY. Volume One and Two came out in 1990 and they're still in print. They keep re-releasing my book on the Manson family all over, like in Czechoslovakia, Japan and Poland. Then this record company in London keeps putting out Fugs records.
I have a very busy life. I'm going on a book tour for '1968' this summer and doing a bunch of book-signings. I'm lecturing at Yale. I'm going to teach at a poetry school this fall. I have a whole recording studio here. I build musical instruments. I'm working on an instrument with bird calls- it plays different layered sounds of birds so I can write poetry to it.
So my life is, knock on wood, not so bad. I'm 57 and I'm facing a kind of right-wing, blaisez-faire America that I thought would not be quite as cruel as it. But hey, it's not bad. I'm still having fun. I've been married 36 years now and we have a daughter that's grown up. I have a lot of be thankful for, especially considering that I'm missing a lot of my brothers and sisters who are now dead. Like Allen Ginsberg, who we really, really miss.
Also see our Tuli Kupferberg interview