Return Of The Sixties:
The Fugs Renew Their Scatalogical Dada Romp Through America

The seminally edgy New York rock group Fugs, featuring poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, are back.

A preview of their work, at least the Sanders contribution to it, was to be had for those who heard the Kansas City born writer and performer in solo concert at the Bowery Poetry Club during the week of March 10-15, 2003. A compendium of Sanders' continued alternative-based oeuvre, presented in a relatively sedate radical cafe atmosphere on the Bowery, the performance is being transformed through collaboration with the decidedly street-smart antics and trash talking chic of Kupferberg for a Spring 2003 re-emergence, when the group struts their new "stuff" at the Village Underground.

"We need rebel cafe's like this," said Sanders to a properly raucous crowd Saturday evening for his final performance of the week. Just as Sanders - who came from the midwest to study engineering at NYU- needed the influence of people like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olsen to keep him from becoming "a man with an eskimo pie franchise in Kansas City."

Not a likely scenario.

A recent "greatest hits" CD by the reconstituted bad boys of 60s alternative rock - including one cut that provides a faux "practice session" in which the Fugs try on and reject a series of increasingly rude and outrageous numbers - is evidence enough that those who show up for their concert are in for the latest resurrection of an unadulterated Scatalogical Dada Romp through politics, religion, sex and ancient culture.

A note here: the Fugs are as likely to surprise you with tenderness of lyrics as they are with crude in-your-face satire. Songs created out of great poems of the English language, like Dover Beach or Ode to a Nightingale, jostle on their stage with overt sarcasm and sexual references. A translation of an ancient Greek ode, set to Andalusian mode, and including the version in its original language, may be sandwiched in with bawdy lyrics and Zappa-esque slam-guitar. Arcane references to Egyptian culture, Sapphic odes, or Surreal Parisian cafe society abound, and hints of the socio-ethnology of its principal members are traceable in the music... from Kupferberg's Klezmer-like Yiddish Theater vocalizations to Sanders' musical debt to Bible Belt hymnals and proto-country music.

Thirty years on, the oeuvre of the Fugs - cognizant of AIDS, womens rights, OD'd musical collaborators, and ex-hippies who now chair university departments - has quite a bit more perspective to its formerly wanton overtones. The work is more wistful at times, and has more three dimensionality in its point of view.

Still, the political radicalism remains intact...and though the song for which the Fugs were kicked off Atlantic Records for two decades ago would scarcely raise an eyebrow in today's world of gangsta rap and reality TV, in plain point of fact, when they want to be rude they can still be very very rude.

Yet fans of the group would argue that their lyrics and attitudes are celebratory, ironic and anyhow rooted in a great tradition of "expanding the envelope" of social commentary. Don't forget the outrageous antics of the Italian futurists, Russian avante gardists, and dadaists of Paris and New York - or the fifties bohemian version which had manifestations in the Beat writers and abstract expressionist painters. Risque satire and bawdy, confrontational behavior has a well-established place in the arts, though depending on your point of view it may alternatively be seen as School boy scatalogical play, teen ranting or more mature and calculatedly confrontational art. To the extent it is the latter, such behavior may serve to extend the reach of artistic expression - or lead to a decline in the accepted mores of a society at that point in time. Those who believe it extends the reach of artistic expression would insist that the repetitive historical incidence of outraged guardians of society and culture who tried to ostracize or ignore people whose art or ideas we today cherish - not to mention our deeply held cultural belief in America that maximizing freedom leads to the greatest degree of societal innovation and personal happiness - argues for a loose rein.

It is in the saddle of this cultural belief that experimentation - rough, raunchy or rare - by performers like The Fugs rides. And that saddle can be a precarious perch. As Sanders notes in his song "perp walk," everyone who wants to be free and creative and expressive runs the risk of being paraded before society as a criminal - the list of such people runs back to Socrates and Joan of Arc, and races forward through the generations to such as Booker T Washington and Ghandi to Martin Luther King, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The protest element is worth noting here. It would seem no coincidence that the Fugs re-emergence this time occurs as the country faces a level of anti-war sentiment unequaled since the Vietnam era - the precise time in which they were born. Sanders likes to recall the group's associations with the 60s protests in Washington (levitating the Pentagon with Allen Ginsberg) and at the Democratic National Convention (the words and actions of Abbie Hoffman, Jean Genet, Mayor Daly, Abe Ribicoff). As a popular cultural commentary, his personal reminiscences, shared verbally or in the monumental poem - published by Black Sparrow Press recapitulating in three volumes that era and others in a more-or-less radical social history of America - are well-written and worthwhile essays into detailing the times.

It is Sanders' ability to combine rigorous intellectual inquiry with radical wordplay - and wrap it up in the pop culture of the moment - that makes the periodic resurfacing of his work - either with the Fugs or solo, as he appeared last week at the Bowery Poetry Club - a challenging and electrifying event moment in pop culture.