Tuli Kupferberg: The Beat Goes On

Tuli Kupferberg passed away yesterday, July 12, at the ripe old age of 86. Before he teamed up with Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver to form the Fugs, Kupferberg was already, as described in my book All Hopped Up and Ready To Go,

a “beat hero” known for hawking his own magazine Yeah on the Village streets, and for reputedly being the character who, in Ginsberg’s Howl, “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away.”

As I then go on to describe of the Fugs’ formation,

Late 1964 found the “free-formist” Kupferberg forty years old already (he dismissed much of his twenties and thirties as a blur of “mystery and history”), living above a wholesale egg market on East Tenth Street between Avenues B and C, recording his poetry to tape in song form. When Sanders, newly graduated with a degree in Classics, rented the store next door to open a vegetarian coffee house and bookstore, the pair began collaborating on these poem songs: the Beatles and the Stones had opened up new avenues of creativity for a pair who were hardly restrained to begin with. “Ed was a wild, crazy, mid-Western young man,” said Kupferberg, “and I was a New York radical Jew. So together we had everything or, as some people would say, nothing.”

“Nothing” became the title of Kupferberg’s “minimalist dirge,” which closed out the Fugs debut album from 1965, The Village Fugs– Ballads and Songs of Contemporary Protest, Points of View and General Dissatisfaction. In an earlier draft of All Hopped Up, I described “Nothing” as follows:

“the bongo accompaniment … did not make clear whether it was poking fun at the group’s beatnik roots or just playing along, as it recited every icon of their New York lifestyle – the Village Voice, New Yorker, Sing Out!, Folkways, Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg all in one verse – and determined of the all that they were “Nothing.”

You can hear “Nothing” in its entirety here. It may help better understand the song, however, if you first listen or watch Kupferberg talk about the Fugs’ formative years in this video below.

Kupferberg can also be seen, in all his glory, in this 1968 Swedish TV footage of the Fugs:

The prototype Bez? No… Kupferberg was more like the archetypal first generation beat. In fact, he may have been the last of the first generation beats. Though he died in relative poverty, Kupferberg did not lack for friends: a benefit for his medical costs in January this year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn brought out a roll-call of A List New York City artists. Kupferberg was deeply loved by those who knew him personally, and will be sorely missed by all who knew of him via his myriad contributions to literature, music, art and all forms of popular culture. The beat goes on, even without the original beat.

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