Tuli Has Left the Planet
Prologue: Ah, the songs . . . “Boobs a Lot” . . . “Nothing” . . . “Morning, Morning” . . .
I first met Tuli Kupferberg in the early ’60s at the Paperback Gallery in Greenwich Village. I was delivering my magazine, The Realist, and he was delivering his booklet, Birth. Sharing a concept that tragedy and absurdity were two sides of the same coin, we bonded immediately.
In 1966, I published an article by John Wilcock, “Who the Fugs Think They Are.” Tuli talked about the importance of sexual liberation. “Americans like to kill or be killed,” he said. “Aggression is reaction to frustration. Sexual frustration is still the major problem to be solved and in my opinion the appearance of sexual humor is a healthy sign. And if we can put some joy, some real sexy warmth into the revolution, we’ll have really achieved something.”
When Norman Mailer wrote his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, he used the euphemism “fug” for “fuck,” which was then a literary taboo. At our first encounter, I asked him if it was true that when he met actress Tallulah Bankhead she said, “So you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell fuck.” With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that he replied, “Yes, and you're the young woman who doesn't know how to.” Anyway, that’s where the Fugs got their name. In “Doin’ All Right,” they sang, “I’m not ever goin’ to Vietnam/ I’d rather stay right here and screw your mom.” Tuli told me, “That was enough to get us beaten up if we did it in the right place.”
In 1968, at the counter-convention in Chicago, hash oil in honey was the drug of choice. The Fugs co-founders, Ed Sanders and Tuli, sampled it. This was strong stuff, and they got completely fugged up. Sanders described the grass he was walking on as “a giant frothing trough of mutant spinach egg noodles.” Tuli’s friends had to carry him by the armpits back to the apartment where he was staying. “They're delivering me,” he explained.
There was a rumor that Philip Roth had lifted the masturbatory obsessed theme of his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, from a Fugs song, but that notion was disavowed by Sanders, who assured me, “Philip Roth did not plagiarize a Fugs song. He came to a Fugs show in 1966, and I think he was inspired by Tuli, in top hat and cane, singing ‘Jack-Off Blues.’ Many times in reunion concerts, introducing Tuli singing that song, I have suggested that Roth got some of the impetus for Portnoy’s Complaint from that time he was inspired by the Tuli tune.”
Another rumor was triggered by Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, Howl. Tuli acknowledged that he had been the inspiration for this passage: “…jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks, not even one free beer…” Actually, it was the Manhattan Bridge. Tuli was just out of college and in the throes of the break-up of his first major love relationship, which contributed to a nervous breakdown that precipitated his suicide attempt. He was rescued by a passing tugboat and taken to Governor’s Island Hospital with a broken transverse process that put him in a body cast.
“Throughout the years,” Tuli complained, “I have been annoyed many times by, ‘Oh, did you really jump off the Brooklyn Bridge?’—as if it was a great accomplishment.” At first he had refused to talk about it, but as Ginsberg’s myth spread that he had simply “walked away” after jumping off a bridge, Tuli became concerned about wrongly influencing young people. He didn’t want anyone else to take a similar chance of being severely injured if they survived.
Tuli was the first Poet-in-Residence at the Bowery Poetry Club. Proprietor Bob Holman sent an e-mail two days before Tuli’s death on a gloomy Sunday: “I am in Medellin at the amazing International Poets Festival here—100 poets! Ten days of it!--and Tuli’s spirit is everywhere. Tell that bum to get up and out and over here.” Norman Savitt, producer of Tuli’s TV show, Revolting News, reported from the hospital bedside that Tuli reminded him “what a shame it was that I had my son circumcised, how I should be putting lyrics to all my instrumental music, and the importance of raw garlic in my diet.” And Larkworthy Antfarm adapted a Fugs song, applying the original lyrics to the BP catastrophe, singing about “a river of shit.”
Epilogue: Ah, the condolences: “Tuli, may you see Boobs a Lot in Heaven” . . . “This Monday will be just a little more Nothing” . . . “Mourning, Mourning” . . .
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