by Jesse Jarnow
I asked Tuli Kupferberg once, "Did you really jump off of The Manhattan Bridge?" "Yeah," he said, "I really did." "How come?" I said. "I thought that I had lost the ability to love," Tuli said. "So, I figured I might as well be dead. So, I went one night to the top of The Manhattan Bridge, & after a few minutes, I jumped off." "That's amazing," I said. "Yeah," Tuli said, "but nothing happened. I landed in the water, & I wasn't dead. So I swam ashore, & went home, & took a bath, & went to bed. Nobody even noticed."
- Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan, Memorial Day, New York: Poetry Project, 1971.
"The basic unit of human society is the human body. You have to know how to use it and enjoy it."
- Tuli Kupferberg, Perfect Sound Forever Interview with Jason Gross, 1997.
Tuli Kupferberg was never blessed with a traditionally sweet voice. He sounded like, and was, a dude from the Lower East Side. It was his Yiddish-tinged baritone that gave the Fugs' harmonies their delightfully guttural unhingedness. Yet it was also Tuli who produced perhaps the Fugs' two most legit pop tunes--the bubblegum stomp "Supergirl" and the folk-pop charmer "Morning Morning"--and thus the radical poets' most radically mainstream dalliances.
Already 41 at the time of the Fugs' 1964 founding, Kupferberg, a self-described anarcho-pacifist, remains philosophically a lover, not a fighter. And, despite the brief crisis of confidence that resulted in his infamous bridge-jump, documented in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" ("who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten"), he has at least never lost his ability or desire to express it. And though the Fugs are mostly (and, to be fair, accurately) remembered for their political humor, there remains a rich vein of love songs in their discography, many of them by Tuli.
For Tuli, love was an entrance point to politics, because it was the most important thing about humanity. "On the 6th of August in 1945, a bomb on Hiroshima killed 120 brides," he sings on a duet with the otherwise unrecorded Viki Pollon, his first, deeply humanist concern about the atrocity. On "the Hidden Dissuaders," a track on No Deposit, No Return, a 1966 collection of found poetry, he recites an article from a beauty magazine, which becomes the inverse of "Supergirl," a giant wink from Tuli, who knows (his sarcasm implies) what makes for a genuine, beautiful human being. (see also: Frank Zappa's "You Can Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.")
Whether any of this is profoundly Jewish, or merely humanist, is irrelevant. But it's definitely not not-Jewish.
Since the Fugs' 1984 reunion, it's not that Tuli's voice isn't what it used to be. It's exactly what it always was. Only more. In the latter-day Fugs, he has sometimes passed gentler tunes to junior Fug Steven Taylor, who has sung "Dover Beach" (a setting of a poem by Matthew Arnold on 1985's No More Slavery) as well as "Try To Be Joyful" (on the The Fugs' Final CD [part I]), both reissued digitally by Fugs Records this year.
But once a lover always a lover. On the latter album, though Tuli passes his "Joyful" off to Taylor, he then delivers a throwaway "Septuagenarian In Love" Dion parody, but then "Where Is My Wandering Jew?" "Does ecstasy count in the fall of the night?" he asks, sounding very much like a 70-year old Jewish man, still figuring out the human body, even in its inevitable decline.
Since 2007, Kupferberg has seeded YouTube with nearly 150 videos, including song parodies, lectures about labor relations, collaborations with Jeffrey Lewis, Yiddish folk tales, and daily "perverbs." Even after suffering two strokes in 2009, and losing much of his eyesight, the bed-raggled Kupferberg continues to offer daily aphorisms.
Included in the YouTube flood is a quietly stunning November 2007 take of Tuli's own arrangement of the song "Moscow Nights," retitled "When I Was A Young Man." Tuli sings a capella. The official description notes that "Tuli has said this is the song he would most like to be remembered by." "Czars shall come but different czars will go, but darling, I still love you so," Tuli sings on the refrain.
It belongs on a collection of field recordings, one of those places where tradition and expression and politics collide in one, natural place -- the pure process of tradition and creativity entwined. Maybe not so radical, after all.
"Living In Hope" mp3
by Tuli Kupferberg, 1990.
available on Rutles Highway Revisited
by The Fugs, 1965.
available on The Fugs First Album
"Morning Morning" mp3
by The Fugs, 1966.
available on The Fugs Second Album
"Love and Ashes" mp3
by Tufi Kupferberg and Viki Pollon with Peter Rawson, 1967.
available on East Village Other: Electric Newspaper
"The Hidden Dissauders" mp3
by Tuli Kupferberg, 1966.
available on No Deposit, No Return
"Dover Beach" mp3
by The Fugs, 1985.
available on No More Slavery
"Where Is My Wandering Jew?" mp3
by The Fugs, 2003.
available on The Fugs Final CD, Pt. 1
"When I Was A Young Man" mp3
by Tuli Kupferberg, 2007.
available via YouTube
Jackson Browne, Tuli Kupferberg (center) Stefan Grossman and Steve Noonan by David Gahr, 1967.