Nothing: a benefit for Tuli Kupferberg - St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, produced by Hal Willner
This isn't going to ramble, but meander as, in the decades since ending any critical assessments, it is no longer second nature to scribble furiously, processing events in real time, to bear witness, but more scattered and fragmented, unfortunately, resorting to sentiments recollected in tranquility, which is now.
That sentence was falling apart from the giddyup...and that's alright too. There's something anarchic about too much punctuation, like the way it breaks up a smooth thought into a bunch of jaggies, as if blowing up j-peg beyond its pixellation limit. Which is how memory works too--no seamless flashbacks, only flashes, and that which remains lights up a broad sketch with few recognizable details.
For instance, the opening loop of the March on Washington in 1967, when Allen Ginsburg and the Fugs were part of the attempt to levitate the Pentagon is just an audio excerpt of a huge watershed event, like one big wave in a tsunami. Still, it is worth repeating, as it did, an overture over and over, this insane, irrational act, and just what the times demanded. If didn't remind you that this night was coming from another world, you might as well have been home with reruns of American Idle.
The lights go down and the noise comes up and it is the celebrity jam session. Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, and a guy on beatpads or turntables (hard to tell amid the wash of f/x)--that's skronk, screech and squawk to say the least. The headliners come on first? And no songs? Depends. It could be anybody up there trying to rip the stirrups off your anvil and puncture your drum, but was them. They brought a celebrity cache to the mix--alright, yet it wasn't any of their sets (excerpt Zorn, who can always wail in a maelstrom, still pumping a knee under his sax the add extra wobble warble). What they delivered was the brain eraser, the preconception purger. Couldn't have been more than 15-20 minutes, but it burned about that long after as well.
Some may wonder why this free jazz is set among the crazy lyrico-rhetorists, and those probably have forgotten how much the scenes bled into each other back in those days before we split up to follow our labels. This is the part where the real memory play comes in--part personal reference, part social history. In the 1960s, you could have a band like the Mothers of Invention doing a two-year residency at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village and incorporate post-bop blurt, doo-wop and stuff approximating encounter therapy with an audience, without anybody worrying about appealing to a demographic. Which is exactly what comes on the stage here. Even as excellent an organizer as Hal can't overcome some last minute snags, and so the guy who intro's them and the next and a couple others is not Richard Belzer, who bowed out with the flu. The guy makes a mention that their may be a surprise visit via videophone from the man himself, but that's for later.
For now is The Fugs, in the band's longest line-up since the first days: Ed Sanders, Steve Taylor on guitar and vocals, Coby Batty on drums and vocals, and co-producer Scott Petito on bass and keyboards. Ed looks pretty good, all things considered, as does Taylor, a regular at St. Marks Poetry Marathon (see previous post), and Coby you'd swear was Iggy, from distance. They do one of Tuli's finest ballads "Morning Morning," and one of their famous poem-to-song adaptations, "When the Mode of the Music Changes." Which is not exactly a poem, per se, as much as an excerpt from Plato, referring to the observation that the entire order of the State is affected by such things and should be carefully monitored. When Fugs (the poet's band) became The Fugs (a rock band with a definite article added on by their record label) it was not only a transition from a downtown bunch of scruffy folkie malcontents into a (semi-) professional electric group it was at a time when people actually believed "rock" could change the world. (Let us allow this discussion to slide with the proviso that, perhaps, hip hop may prove to be a greater threat, if only for its overt anti-establishment appeal...masking a more conformist approach than envisioned in the blandest beatitudes of Pat Boone.)
The mention of St. Marks and the Poetry Project wasn't casual. That's where I'd seen Tuli the most over the previous decade, but not since 2003 or 2004, leading me to wonder if he'd been boycotting it for getting too bourgeois, or something. Now I know it was health. This is one of the main reasons for coming there; I'd given a couple bucks to S. Clay Wilson, Obama's campaign, Haitian relief and now it was time to pony up for someone who I knew, if only slightly, and admired, but quite a lot more. Small price to pay.
Now there might've been Elliott Sharp playing with Jeffrey Lewis in here, or something else. But about then Philip Glass was playing piano to the abstract films of Harry Smith, another Fugs contempo. He's the same guy who came out with the "Anthology of American Folk Music" back in the day, influencing generations with his choices. The movies are that etched-frame animation of colors and textures and stuttering and shaking shapes that signal a hand-made product. This is another Willner touch--add in an element that some may see as tangential to the subject, and others as key. And it you can employ a new sense as well, that doesn't hurt either.
Peter Stampfel comes up next with his daughter and someone else to do his new number off a new CD, telling of his own influence on another generation, "The Duke of the Beatniks". He and Steven Weber were in the original Fugs, 1965 edition, and shortly thereafter both formed the Holy Modal Rounders (with Sam Shepard on drums) though they remained in Fugs off and on for a few more years. It is lovable coots (for that is what he is) like Peter and Tuli that give you hope for your future, if you manage to make it past post-menopausal depression. This is not growing old gracefully, but screeching and howling--Tuli would snarl out anti-war rants then song parodies and Peter still jitters like an R. Crumb cartoon with a sugar rush.
More or less at some point around here John Kruth and his All Star Band slouched on. This rag-tag gaggle consists of John S. Hall and Dogbowl and some other guys that made me think of members of the Great Small Works puppet theater that has been throwing leftist/anarchist spaghetti dinners around town on scattered Tuesdays for the last 20 years. So, am I certain they did "CIA Man"? No, I am not. I heard it, and it could've been Lenny Kaye, but... It was the 'list poem'-sort-of workout of "The Ten Commandments" that I'm sure of, especially enjoyable for the ex-red-diaper-baby Hall getting around the text and under the mike to torque the tablets into heresies.
It was about this time, or earlier or later, when Peter Stampfel comes back with Tuli's pal the author Larry "Ratso" Sloman to do a bit of commercial theater. Ratso makes sure that the memorabilia table and t-shirt concessionaire are noted straight away, all proceeds going to Tuli, natch. And then to up the ante, gives it over to Peter to auction off a classic original poster of The Fugs from 1967 (maybe) with the faces of Tuli, Ed and, Peter notes, "my old rotten partner Steve" (although that may not be the exact term used, and only half in jest--lotta water under the bridge with those two). With the promise that they will get signatures from both Ed and Tuli, the awkward and comic bidding by Peter gets up to a $1,010...or not. (It was a little confused at the end as to who had the last bid and what it was.)
I met Tuli through a long-time buddy of his Lanny, who produced a show on Manhattan Neighbohood Network public access called "The Coco Crystal Show". When I was working at the "bump shop" (making photo repro line-screens for print) for Lanny, he got me and my friend Dean to work camera. Tuli and Lanny would often appear on the show as well. That's when he showed me what was in those FedEx envelopes he was always carrying around: these funny-looking line drawings. These were his early political cartoons that would appear in Downtown magazine, late '80s, as I recall. When I asked him why he wore shorts in late November he said it was something he picked up from the Long Range Desert Patrols of the British Army--helped to acclimatize him to the cold. I liked that he always seemed to have a good reason for behavior that would otherwise seem a little crazy. But this is beginning to sound too much like an obit. Back to the jams.
Now, whether or not she was exactly next, Shilpa Ray and her band (name escapes) came on to do "Supergirl", offering apologies in advance for only having learned the song that morning. In case you hadn't noticed the previous rave for this little lady, she was one of the showstoppers at the Sly Stone Tribute at Castle Clinton last year, and her throaty chuckle at some of the sexual attributes assigned to the heroine of the title managed to be both self-mocking and sexy. For that alone, she deserves a red S on her chest.
We'll add the other headliners here. Sonic Youth played the longest set, maybe 30 minutes, with one shredder at least by Thurston. The odd thing was the other guitar was not Lee but Kim. I have already said I was out of touch, but when did the line-up change? Maybe not--I saw them at the 4th of July show at Battery Park only two years ago and they were the same band I remember since Richard Edson left. Their place is secured as some of the last standard-bearers of what was the real downtown scene; the last of the experimentalists who made it big. This is why they're here; having made gigs with Sun Ra and other ancient luminaries, they've continually demonstrated their hearts are in the L.E.S. place. They may rock harder than any Fugs tune ever, yet the torch they carry is the same.
Ok. You can't call this the producer's moment, but yeah, Hal Willner comes on with Lenny Kaye, telling us that, instead of doing a live hook-up to the house (as Tuli had already gone to bed), and he couldn't find anyone else who'd do this and Tuli specifically requested it and so, another of his parody songs, a tribute backatcha to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers: "A Septugenarian in Love".
Along about then, Jolie Holland did a song and I think she was pretty good. Then Gary Lucas--the guitarist of a 1000 ideas--one of his multi-layer, self-accompaniment, live-double-tracking time-flanging whammy-wah-wah numbers. And the All-Star Band did another turn, leading the audience in a good-old-fashioned sing-along to "River of Shit", before launching into my friend Ed's favorite parody number: "I've Been Working For The Landlord".
The final segment was given over to the Fugs. At the penultimate moment, Ed began to introduce a beautiful slow number to end the show, but gave in to peer (and crowd) pressure that wanted just one taste of the band that could, when necessary, knock it around the stage. So they searched through their sheets and came up with what Ed called "our psychedelic parody song". "Crystal Liason" did not disappoint at all, giving Taylor a chance to pull a few wails from the paisley ether, and--with no explanation I can fathom--Ed goes to the back of the stage and puts on this long, fire-engine red cloak and starts shimmying around like a dervish with disc problems...which detracts in no way from making you think something almost like: Oh, So this is what it was like! That he chooses to end according to his original plan, "Dover Beach" only underscores the loveliness of that tune.
But yeah, where would we be without a coda, huh? And it is a pre-recorded message from Tuli, thanking everyone for their support, wishing all a good night and "Enjoy yourself...It's later than you think..."