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A Sweaty Send-Off

The old East Village gathers for Kupferberg

Marc Tracy
July 19, 2010
Tuli Kupferberg, 1923-2010.(Steve Ben Israel; additional photos by the author)
Tuli Kupferberg, 1923-2010.(Steve Ben Israel; additional photos by the author)

One speaker at Tuli Kupferberg’s memorial service, which was Saturday at St. Mark’s Church, observes that the ‘60s radical bohemian par excellence and co-founder of underground rock band The Fugs had been a living testament to the principle that, in the end, “It’s not about the aspiration to great heights, but the perspiration.” The 150 or so folks packed in—yes, a funeral for a Jew on Shabbat at a church (Tuli died last Monday)—should have patted themselves on the back for fully living up to this tenet: It was well over 90 degrees outside, well over 80 inside, and perspiration came, to everyone except Tuli, as easily as breathing.

It was the kind of event that could make an upper-middle-class twenty-something who lives in a market-rate apartment nearby—for example, me—feel that maybe, even now, there still is something to the idea of the East Village. The previous happening that had so comprehensively attracted this group, according to one guy I overhear, was the auction of Allen Ginsberg’s possessions. This man says that he had bid on a tape recorder that Dylan had given Ginsberg; he then casually mentions that he had been there the night Dylan had made the gift; or, rather, he corrects himself after a pause, he had been there the morning after, and had heard about it then. Responds his friend, a woman named Judith Cohn: “Oy, it’s hot.”

The crowd skews old and, surely, Jewish and lefty: The sorts of people you imagine listening to NPR religiously, or producing NPR programs. Judith Malina, founder of The Living Theatre, is pointed out to me like she is a major star (which, in this orbit, she is). One guy is literally carrying around his own hair: Light gray and hard-stringy, like a metal sponge, it flows down, almost to the floor, but only because its bottom nine inches have been doubled back up onto the prior nine inches and held in place with a cafeteria-server-style netting; at times, this man would hold this big hunk of hair in the crook of his arm while chatting with people. The median age cannot be below 50, although one small boy—I find out that he is there because his babysitter is Tuli’s daughter, Samara—is there to drag down the mean. I am one of no more than seven people wearing a tie.

Ed Sanders, milling about in the front in suspenders and a blue-striped oxford shirt with big white collars, is today proving that frumpy and dignified can indeed go together. He co-founded The Fugs with Kupferberg in 1964 (he will tell the fuller story soon, and so will I). He puts on a tan sport jacket before performing.

“He kept coming back from his health problems, and we thought he would spring back once more,” Sanders tells me of Tuli (whom Tablet Magazine profiled last February). He continues: “The family asked The Fugs to coordinate the service, and St. Mark’s Church graciously donated the space.” Why here? The place hosts an annual New Year’s Eve reading to benefit the Poetry Project, and Kupferberg was a frequent participant. “It really was the sanctuary,” Sanders says, “for freedom and creativity and poetry.”

A big rotating fan and bottles of Poland Spring greet guests as they file in a little before noon. Roughly two dozen rows of chairs, in two columns five- or six-seats wide, face the pew; people also lay out on the bleacher-like benches that line the church’s walls. At first, if you want, you can go in the back and view Tuli, which I do, and now regret doing (I had never seen a dead body before).

In the meantime, behind me, a woman named Alfa-Betty Olson and her friends are discussing their favorite Fugs songs. Hers is “CIA Man.”

Who can get a budget that’s so great?
Who will be the 51st state?
Who has got the secret-est Service?
The one that makes the other Service nervous?
Fucking-a man!
CIA Man!

I meet Howard Mandel, of Jazz Beyond Jazz (thanks for the pen, Howard!). What’s his take on Tuli? “He was … ” he pauses a long time here, and in my mind, I’m waiting for him to use the word “relic.” Finally, he picks up again. “ … I don’t want to say a relic. He’s the kind of person I came to New York to hang out with. An artist, politically engaged.”

The casket, now closed, is wheeled in and allowed to rest in the front. It is a little after noon, and time for the performance to begin.

Sanders briefly tells the tale of The Fugs’ genesis: Sanders had been editing a journal called Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts (laughter from the audience), and published the poetry of Tuli—who was already in his forties, and a good deal older than Sanders’s cohort. They began practicing at Sanders’s bookstore, which had been a kosher butcher, on East 10th Street near Avenue A (in other words, two blocks from where we all were).

Compellingly, Sanders locates Kupferberg “in the tradition of Stephen Foster, Woody Guthrie, and other American tunesmiths.”

“Ah, how I miss him,” is how he closes his brief remarks.

The Fugs—which contain Sanders singing, a percussionist, a bassist, and an acoustic guitarist—do five songs. “Try To Be Joyful” is a more recent number. As they begin playing, I swear to God I smell someone smoking pot. Someone has already uploaded The Fugs’ performance:

Next comes “Nothing,” a fan favorite from their first album:

Karlos Marx nothing
Engels nothing
Bakunin and Kropotkin nothing
Leon Trotsky lots of nothing
Stalin less than nothing

nothing nothing nothing nothing
lots and lots of nothing
nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing
lots of it
Not a God damn thing

When they sing “John Cage,” they pause for several seconds, before singing “nothing.” It was very funny; perhaps you had to be there. The third song they perform is “Carpe Diem,” with its central intonation of “Death is coming” (sensing a theme?). The fourth is Tuli’s musical adaptation of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Musically, this is the most dirge-like of the songs, and the one that, by far, most resembles a Jewish prayer; of course—and I cannot imagine this was lost on Tuli—“Dover Beach” is one of the most eloquent articulations of atheism that we have. They close on the hopeful note of “Morning”. For this, I’m going to send you to the Richie Havens version:

No doubt The Fugs could never quite approach Richie Havens’s beauty. But all the songs were significantly prettier—and catchier—than I expected based on The Fugs’ reputation as a lyrics-emphasizing radical proto-punk outfit.

The open-mike section of the service is roughly as hit-and-miss as you would expect. One man tells the story about how Kupferberg was upset when a Wisconsin paper reported that The Fugs had pissed on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s grave while performing an exorcism there. “He had not pissed on his grave, he insisted,” the speaker reports. “They were there to elevate his spirit.”

“I didn’t know Tuli,” says another man, who speaks the most briefly, “but any man who can write a song called ‘Kill, kill, kill for peace’ is great in my book” (the song is actually called “Kill for Peace,” but it does contain that lyric).

One of the youngest speakers, who describes Tuli as a mentor, has my favorite line of the day: “He was a great role model for getting older,” this man says.

“Can you imagine if Tuli owned the Yankees?” one speaker asks, presumably in reference to George Steinbrenner’s recent passing.

“Dodgers!” shouts someone from the crowd.

“Fuck the Dodgers,” the speaker responds. “They split. I’m from Brooklyn, and I hate the Dodgers. Except draft dodgers.”

A one-time editor at the one-time New York Free Press fondly recalls The Fugs’ playing a benefit for them at the Fillmore East, which had been located a few blocks down Second Avenue from the church.

As the open-mike runs down and the heat begins to border the unbearable, I remove myself to the bleachers, and finally leave a little before 3. Outside, I run into Steve Ben Israel, who is looking for a light. An elder statesman of radical poetry who spoke briefly earlier—“Hi, I’m Steve Ben Israel. That’s my Christian name”—he is wearing a faded red blazer with an IWW pin; with a swept-over mane of blonde-gray hair, he looks like a benevolent Phil Spector. I had indirectly learned of Tuli’s death from him: He had called Jon Kalish, the reporter who did our Tuli podcast; Kalish had called me. With that story, I introduce myself. “I wish it had been 80 degrees, instead of 95,” he tells me. “There would’ve been another 200 people there.” While it would ordinarily be difficult to agree, there were a ton of people inside, and it is insanely hot, and it almost seems true. Sweat, a few tears here and there, and, according to Ben Israel, something else as well: “There was so much love in the room.”

Related: Fugging Around [Tablet Magazine]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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