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The Return Of The Fugs

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After 43 years The Fugs return to London. America's legendary subversive rockers are curator Ray Davies' special guests at this year's Meltdown Festival. Playing the Southbank Centre this Saturday, June 11 are the current Fugs, together since 1985: guitarist/singer Steven Taylor, bassist Scott Petito, drummer/singer Coby Batty and, of course, singer/co-founder/guiding light/poet/journalist/novelist/activist Ed Sanders. Missing will be Sanders' partner-in-rhyme Tuli Kupferberg, the beloved singer, poet, and performance artist who passed away last year at age 86. The band will perform a homage Sanders wrote for this occasion called In Honor Of Tuli. With songs like "Group Grope," "CIA Man," "Slum Goddess," and "Coming Down," as well as the aching ballad "Morning Morning" and "collaborations" with William Blake like "Ah, Sunflower Weary Of Time," the Fugs embody the history of bohemia in one outrageous rock 'n' roll band. MOJO spoke to Chief Fug Ed Sanders from his home in Woodstock, New York.

MOJO: How did you hear about the Meltdown Festival invitation?

Ed Sanders: They called a couple of years ago to ask me to give a statement about Patti Smith for one of the Meltdowns. [Then] I got an email message early this year inquiring about the availability of the Fugs for the Meltdown Festival. They said Ray Davies, who was curating this version of the Meltdown Festival, wanted the Fugs.

Are you a Ray Davies or Kinks fan?

Ya know, everybody listened to the early Kinks tunes. I knew of him as a fan of the working-class, of the people — a Labour background. I always liked those Kinks tunes. "You Really Got Me," "Tired Of Waiting For You" — that progression upward. They put out really good songs.

When was the last time the Fugs played Europe?

We haven't been there since 1968 [when] we played the Roundhouse [in London]. We did a couple of shows there in the fall of '68 after the Essen Festival. We rented a red double-decker bus and took a bunch of friends and packed it with hippies and poets such as Michael Horowitz and others and drove out through the English countryside to Stonehenge which at that point was not covered with wire. We were able to frolic all over Stonehenge. That was the trip where we tried to sneak into Czechoslovakia from Essen. We rented a BMW, it was potato harvesting season on the Czech/German border right after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague and after the Chicago riots too. We wanted to go Prague and lie down in front of a Russian tank for an album cover. It was that kind of era. Then we got caught at an obscure border crossing where potato trucks would go back and forth. A guy jumped out from behind a kiosk with a machine gun and yelled "halten-ze!"

This edition of the Fugs is not only the longest-running but the most musically accomplished.

Yeah, they're very good. [Steven] Taylor did a lot of work for Allen Ginsberg but also set music for Judy Collins and set [Ginsberg's] "Footnote To Howl" to a chorus that's so beautiful. Scott runs a recording studio [NRS Recording Studio in Catskill, New York] and has done a lot of work with the Band and Jack DeJohnette and a lot of jazz acts and is a graduate of the Berklee school in Boston. And Coby Batty from Richmond [Virginia] is a musical hero down that way, in several bands and a local cultural icon down there. He brings to the Fugs big, beautiful drumming but also songwriting and singing skills.

The latter-day Fugs have lush three-part harmonies. You sound like you're having a great time singing but you also sound like you've put a lot of work into it.

Once you get your mouths aligned… Ya know, you used to look at Simon & Garfunkel and they'd be looking down each other's throat. Maybe not now but in the early days. The idea is to get the lips in sync and get your voices so that you can predict the vowels and consonants of your singing partner. After 26 years we've developed a way to sing and work up tunes quickly. You look at the way the Beatles recorded, they'd have these two and three-hour sessions and lay down these brilliant vocals. It's not like that with the Fugs — it's a lot longer than the Beatles — but it is an ability that us three singers have to sing together. It's quite a lot of fun to sing with those guys.

The other thing about the latter-day Fugs is that the arrangements and compositions are more complex. Was Zappa an influence?

I always listened to his records. During the first incarnation of the Fugs we'd hang out together and visit him at the log cabin in Los Angeles. He played the Garrick Theatre on Bleecker [in Greenwich Village] while the Fugs were playing at the Players Theater on MacDougal so we used to go out after our shows and hang out together a little bit. His musical strengths were to be emulated back then. I guess he borrowed his fascination with dolls from Tuli Kupferberg who used to have a whole apartment on East 10th Street that he rented just for his dolls and props for Fugs shows. It was like a museum for dolls with Mounds Bars smeared across their faces.

The earlier Fugs performed songs that dealt with scatology, like "Caca Rocka." Is that the kind of stuff that young men do and that you grow out of?

That's a Tuli song. I think we recorded that at our first Folkways recording session in 1965. This guy that came along and hung out at my bookstore, the Peace Eye Bookstore — Lionel Goldbart, he recently passed away — he had this song called "River Of S**t" which we adopted as a kind of anthem 'cause it's a good sing-along. Well I guess they say young men have scatology… look, tapes don't lie and we have these songs on tapes. They're there: "River Of S**t," "Caca Rocka," "Feel Like Homemade S**t." That's our scheisse trilogy.

On your last album Be Free! — The Fugs Final CD (Part 2), you do a song called "Goofitude." It's a concept you've written about before. In your introduction to Tales Of Beatnik Glory [Sanders' epic novel] you talk about "Goof City." What is goofitude and Goof City? What is the concept?

It's a modern version of the Puritan shining city on the hill, when they were landing in Massachusetts in 1630 they talked about the shining city on the hill. There needs to be these big cities in order to protect the open space and the farmland and the forest. Marx said that the cities would spread out and touch and the ultimate thing would be suburbs. I've never really thought that was optimum. Anyway Goof City is a place where there's free food and free medical care and a lot of personal freedom, organic food coming in from the vast farmlands that surround the city and where the people have six or eight weeks of paid vacation and are encouraged to be artistic if they want or goof around with cars or goof around with music or goof around with their families or goof around with local government. Politics keeps things goofily good. It was a hipster/beatnik/jazz concept of goof. In the Midwest where I grew up, when my father accused somebody of being a goof-off it was like a real put-down. But without goofing and having a goofitudeness time-frame, what is there about life that's really worth it? I don't know, it's a confusing thing but I just lumped all my social and political concerns under the rubric of Goof City.

You've also talked about cheap rents as crucial to a strong counterculture.

The whole post-war Jackson Pollock/Franz Kline/bebop era was made possible by rent controls which were put into place by Roosevelt in the '40s but they grew out of really concerted rent committees in New York City in the '30s in the Bronx particularly but also in Manhattan [who] called upon movers not to move out people who were being foreclosed on or tossed out of their pad. It stayed in place after World War II thanks to Governor Dewey and the mayors of New York. It was kept in place and voted on by the New York State legislature every three years up until, I think, the early '70s. It was a miracle. Two doors up from my Peace Eye Bookstore on Avenue A, Charlie Parker lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the '50s. Others, all around New York City, lived in rent control. It was kept very affordable. Cheap housing is the sine qua non for a viable left-liberal or libertarian or bountiful civilization. 266 E. 4th Street where I lived in 1960 and paid $48 a month for, now I think the pad's sold on the market for $400,000. So you have to have grandparents who run a dry goods store in Pennsylvania and store up a lot of money and then when they die, give it to ya, then you can buy your slum apartment for a half-million dollars.

You've released two final Fugs CDs, Part One and Be Free! — Part Two. Will there be a "Part Three," final Fugs CD?

Probably. I don't know if we have the energy and strength. It's quite expensive. Part Two cost like $20,000 by the time we finished it. We have five or six Tuli songs completed which he finished before he had his stroke in the Spring of '09. So we have enough Tuli songs to make it a Tuli-Sanders-and-three-others CD. We'll probably do it. Plus Tuli did a bunch of Yiddish radio commercials that he heard when he was a kid so we might set those to music too.

What other Ed Sanders plans are there?

When you called I was going through the editing Da Capo has done on my book of memoirs: Fug You: An Informal History Of The Peace Eye Bookstore, The F**k You Press, The Fugs And Counterculture In The Lower East Side [to be published this November]. That's a pretty large book, I didn't realize it was that big. I have like 200 images in this book, so it's gonna be 600 pages long. It goes from when I founded my magazine [F**k You/A Magazine Of The Arts] in February of '62 through early '70 when I closed down my bookstore and headed off to Los Angeles to write about the Manson family [Sanders' heralded true-crime tome The Family]. It's an eight-year swath of counterculture and my own experiences. We're going through the editing now. When you write in my lingo, you run into a lot of editor's queries. But you know about stuff like that yourself.

I certainly do.

I decided not to settle scores. Just like I did when I wrote The Poetry And Life Of Allen Ginsberg which was my book-length poem tracing his life. Allen was very intimate with me and he told me things that I could have really put in there, but I didn't. And the same way with my memoirs… Look, ya know, let others fill the bucket with the daiquiris of derision. Not me.

You and Tuli worked very closely for most of your life. How are you dealing with his loss?

A big chunk of my reality wall was torn away. [sighs] He called a bunch of times as he weakened and his love for me and [Ed's wife] Miriam really shone through in these telephone calls. I went down to visit him when it was clear that he was going to pass away. Coby and I sang "The Garden Is Open" to him and then I leaned down close to his ear — he was unconscious — and sang "Morning Morning" to him and then when I pulled up there was a tear in his left eye. I said he was a great American, a great singer, a great songwriter and said goodbye. When we buried him in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, there was this sentinel line of beautiful Quaker Parrots in a big tree up above. It's been tough, it's been difficult, it's been obdurate, it's been a lot of sadness. It's like Phil Ochs — I still grieve for Phil from 1976. So I don't know, I'll probably grieve for Tuli for the rest of my time on Gaia.

For many of us who lived through the dream of the Woodstock Nation and thought we were legitimately changing the world, it's been a rough 40 years beginning with Reagan's election. Having said that, your song "Refuse To Be Burnt-Out" is of great comfort.

I've always thought that it's important for an activist to go out in a blaze of leaflets. That's a subtext for "Refuse To Be Burnt-Out." I have seen a lot of my friends appearing to burn-out, but as I point out in "Refuse To Be Burnt-Out," there's a kind of fake burn-out: "cursing fate/when lunch is late" — a couplet from the song. Like people who are rushed and overworked and their eyes look like bruised apples. They always got something to do and their clipboards are teeming with lists of stuff they haven't been able to do. They feel corroded and corrupt and their hearts have been broken over and over again and they voted for somebody who turned out to be a creep or they didn't vote and the person turned out not to be a creep but a really good guy or they hesitated. A lot of people kicking themselves in the shins for stuff they didn't do or people they put down or people that put them down. Anyway, they get all jumbled up, so it's important to keep a vision of what kind of life you want people and yourself to live and try to peel away all the extraneous mire from your eyes and stare ahead for your personal shining city on the hill. Your own Goof City or your own vision. Part of "Refuse To Be Burnt-Out" is "time tithe" — that is, always set aside a portion of your time like the playwright George Bernard Shaw who was always writing socialist pamphlets or going to meetings of obscure socialist clubs and groups, having in mind to tithe his time for a better world. That's part of "Refuse To Be Burnt-Out." It's difficult because all of us have a lot of baggage. We're like a character in a Samuel Beckett novel who drags along a train of valises by tattered ropes, pulling them across a vast stage without any clear goal. It's important to polish your eyes and storm ahead.

The Fugs play London's South Bank Centre this Saturday, June 11.

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