The Tuli I Knew

Music

 

I grew up in the most far-flung neighborhood in Manhattan, roughly 10 1/2 miles north of where I now stand. The streets of Inwood—Vermilyea Avenue, Thayer Street, Seaman Avenue—are completely unknown to Downtowners. When I grew up there, Inwood was a quiet, largely Irish, working-class neighborhood. My best friend Bobby Marks and I would walk down to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 178th St. to browse the bookstore. (Yes, unbeknownest to everyone south of 161st Street, there is an entire bus terminal attached to the George Washington Bridge!) A 1967 countercultural intellectual must have ordered the books, because when you walked in the store, right at eye level, there was 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft. Thus was I introduced to the catapult-like wit of Tuli Kupferberg.

 

Last year, Thelma Blitz gave me a copy of this book—the exact same edition I first saw—so I may now open it at random and read to you Tuli's advice for young men summoned to a physical examination at their local draft board:

 

724. Bring a gun and a target and at an appropriate moment (say the eye exam) lean the target against the wall and start shooting at it, screaming: "Kill the Commies! Kill the fucken Commies!"

 

427. Tell them God is on your side; if they say God is on their side, answer OK, it's a draw, let's go home.

 

845. Secede from the U.S. Set up your own country and demand to be treated as a prisoner of war under the Geneva agreements.

 

Tuli wrote this book with Robert Bashlow in 1966, but five years earlier, with no co-author, he'd written 1001 Ways to Live Without Working, and published it on a mimeograph machine. Tuli was a prophet, who transformed his personal revolt into a massive societal uprising. In a sense, I am still revolting because of him. (Tuli used this same pun in the title of his TV show, Revolting News.)

 

Tuli single-handedly invented the genre of hipster self-help, perhaps best exemplified by his late work Teach Yourself Fucking. That phrase has been lodged in my mind recently, until I realized, "I am teaching myself fucking."

 

Two years after encountering 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft, I discovered The Fugs.

 

The music of the 1960s has not aged well. The same songs I adored as a mescaline-loving 17year-old now seem 3 minutes and 21 seconds too long. Yes, there is a pleasurable whiff of nostalgia, but it soon dissipates beneath the lugubrious music. The drummers sound like five-year-olds, the bass players are inconsequential, the lyrics are banal nursery rhymes like:

 

I don't know why you say goodbye

I say hello.

 

 

The finest music of the 1960s was ignored by white people: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin. One exception was The Fugs. Seven years ago, I found a cassette of The Fugs First Album and was shocked to discover that it is truly a work of art. The eccentric genius Harry Smith, who produced the album, captured an anarchic malarkey of poetic sanctity. It sounds like a tape recording of the French Revolution. On it, Tuli reshaped the Yiddish song "Bulbes":

 

Montik bulbes, dinstik bulbes,

mitvuk und donnershtick bulbes

 

into:

 

Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing,

Wednesday and Thursday nothing.

 

A song about eating potatoes became a lament for the nothingness of Western civilization:

 

Oh, Village Voice nothing, New Yorker nothing,

Sing Out  and Folkways nothing.

Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg,

nothing nothing nothing.  

Poetry nothing, music nothing,

painting and dancing nothing.

The world’s great books, a great set of nothing.

 

Tuli's prophecy came true, at least in the case of the Village Voice, which did ultimately became nothing.

 

Many of Tuli's greatest songs were tinged with melancholy. He had discovered, in 1964, the revolutionary potential of sadness.

 

Tuli was the Fuggiest of the Fugs. It's hard to believe that a group of pacifist anarchist, William Blake-quoting, Lower East Side poets had a contract with Warner Brothers records and opened shows for The Grateful Dead—but it happened. (They were almost called "The Fucks," until, at the last moment, they changed the "ck" to a "g" in emulation of Norman Mailer, who chose that strategy in The Naked and the Dead.) I remember seeing them on The David Susskind Show in 1968. Susskind was the Charlie Rose of his era, but with a solemn intellectuality that became extinct in America in early 1972. "If you do have a successful revolution, and you do destroy all of our existing institutions, what will you replace them with?" David Susskind probingly asked The Fugs. There was a short pause. "A giant bag of vaseline," one of the band members replied. Was it Tuli? After three hours of Internet research, I'm still unsure.

 

As a 16-year-old in 1969, I was in prime position to waste all the money I made as a delivery boy for Old Dutch Cleaners on new Fugs albums. I still remember the beauties of The Belle of Avenue A, with the great "Bum's Song":

 

I dreamed of a bum

7 feet tall

to crush the bourgeoisie

to the cross.

 

Spartacus, my tortured brother!

If I might find you

throwing crockery out of Bickford's

or slumped beneath the Sixth Avenue El...

 

Tuli revealed the ferocious side of peace and love.

 

Afteryears of playing pool on Nagle Avenue, and smoking worthless Bronx marijuana, I finally grew up and left Inwood. I moved to the East Village in 1988, and eventually met Tuli Kupferberg in my role as "awful young poet." Tuli was one of the few famous people who are nicer than you imagined. He radiated kindness the way a candle radiates radiance—though his main goal in life was to make thousands of dumb jokes. It is my good karma that instead of meeting Bob Dylan, I knew Tuli.

 

On the occasion of what would have been Tuli’s ninetieth birthday, I studied his real name: Naphtali. The Book of Genesis tells us that Naphtali was the sixth son of the patriarch Jacob, and founder of the Israelite Tribe of Naphtali. His name means "my struggle." So Tuli's name in German would be Mein Kampf.

 

In Jacob's blessing, given on his deathbed, he says:

 

Naphtali is a deer let loose;

He uses beautiful words.

 

Tuli did, in fact, have doe-like eyes, visible on the cover of Tenderness Junction. There was a brief historical moment when pacifism was sexy. The Fugs represent the electricity-fueled eroticism of kindness:

 

I want a girl that can

kiss like a cherry

squeeze like a berry

smell like an ocean

talk like a songbird

walk like a fountain

touch like a flower

sing like the Leaves of Grass...

   

       —lyrics from "Supergirl."

 

The Fugs filled in the ellipses of the Beatles, who constantly suggested revolution, then immediately retracted the offer, substituting phrases like: "We're all doing what we can." While the Fab Four sang the reactionary song "Taxman" (1966),  a protest against millionaires paying taxes, Tuli was penning "Kill for Peace," a protest against millionaires starting brutal racist wars.

 

Tuli was trained as a librarian at Brooklyn College, and in fact was a lifetime lover of research. I remember his hoax newspaper Good News, consisting entirely of tiny stories cut from newspapers and hastily collaged. I found it online, on a hip website called  Division Leap, connected to a bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Apparently the subtitle of Good News was "A Journal of Tacit Commentary." Tuli’s wife, Sylvia Topp, was one of the editors. I quote from the online citation:

 

8vo. [12] pp. Offset printed and saddle stapled in wraps. The entirety of magazine is given over to reproductions of heartwarming news clippings. A brilliant artists' periodical which we haven't encountered before. Wraps heavily foxed, especially at the rear panel, with some creasing and rippling, perhaps because of an early exposure to moisture; good only.

 

As I recall, Good News included stories about loyal dogs finding their masters after traveling 2,300 miles, and babies saved from speeding trains. The publication received a special commendation from Vice President Spiro Agnew, who heartily approved of an all-optimism newspaper, and could not recognize satire. The cover consists of the scrawled words "Good News" and the price: 35 cents. Today it's $45 on Division Leap. Thus what begins as an inchoate absurdist gesture eventually becomes a collectible for software designers.

 

If you search for "Tuli Kupferberg quotes" on Google, every website has only one sentence:

 

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.”

—Tuli Kupferberg

 

Did Tuli even say this? Goodreads, however, has one other quotation, which is a fable in poetic form:

 

There was once a big atomic bomb

That wanted to be a bullet.

His friends all asked why, when he was such a big atomic bomb, he would want to be a tiny bullet.

"I miss," he sighed, "the personal touch.”

 

And this encouraging quote is on the Wikipedia page of the Fugs:

 

Kupferberg died on July 12, 2010 in Manhattan, at the age of 86. In 2008, in one of his last interviews, he told MOJO Magazine, "Nobody who lived through the '50s thought the '60s could've existed. So there's always hope."

 

Why is it that the most spiritual people I meet are atheists? Tuli was a fine example. I would call him "a great rabbi," as others have, except for his immense contempt for the Jewish religion. If, like the satiric group Ladies Against Women, there were a group Jews Against Judaism, Tuli would have been on its Board of Directors. He was an ardent foe of circumcision, and all other God-generated surgery. Tuli was a rationalist, a skeptic, a secularist—yet he radiated a pacific and buoyant innocence. It's as if Tuli was so conscious of the divine blessing of life on Sixth Avenue that he required no supernatural apparatus.

 

The Los Angeles Times rather arbitrarily ended its Tuli obituary by quoting one of his last YouTube videos, "I Am an Artist For Art's Sake," which they claim "crystallized much of his approach through life":

 

"I am an artist for art's sake," he sang. "It was God who gave me my big break. I was born for a higher reason, and all his angels I am pleasing. I'm an artist for God's sake."

 

 

So, in certain precincts of the internet, Tuli Kupferberg, nonbeliever, will be forever remembered as a mystic.

 

 

Follow Sparrow on Twitter @Sparrow14

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anarchism, New York City, Poetry