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.
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.
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."
a likely scenario.
"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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.