Tuli Kupferberg

Tuli Kupferberg, Bohemian and Fug, Dies at 86

By BEN SISARIO, New York Times, Published: July 12, 2010

Tuli Kupferberg, a poet and singer who went from being a noted Beat to becoming, in his words, "the world's oldest rock star" when he helped found the Fugs, the bawdy and politically pugnacious rock group, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 86 and lived in Manhattan.

He had been in poor health since suffering two strokes last year, said Ed Sanders, his friend and fellow Fug.

The Fugs were, in the view of the longtime Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, "the Lower East Side's first true underground band." They were also perhaps the most puerile and yet the most literary rock group of the 1960s, with songs suitable for the locker room as well as the graduate seminar ("Ah, Sunflower, Weary of Time," based on a poem by William Blake); all were played with a ramshackle glee that anticipated punk rock.

With songs like "Kill for Peace," the Fugs also established themselves as aggressively antiwar, with a touch of absurdist theater. The band became "the U.S.O. of the left," Mr. Kupferberg once said, and it played innumerable peace rallies, including the "exorcism" of the Pentagon in 1967 that Norman Mailer chronicled in his book "The Armies of the Night." (The band took its name from a usage in Mailer's "Naked and the Dead.")

The Fugs was formed in 1964 in Mr. Sanders's Peace Eye Bookstore, a former kosher meat store on East 10th Street in Manhattan. By then Mr. Kupferberg, already in his 40s, was something of a Beatnik celebrity. He was an anthologized poet and had published underground literary magazines with titles like Birth and Yeah.

He had also found notoriety as the inspiration for a character in Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl." As Ginsberg and Mr. Kupferberg acknowledged, he was the one who "jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten," a reference to a 1945 suicide attempt (off the Manhattan Bridge, not Brooklyn) that had been preciptated by what he called a nervous breakdown.

The fame that episode earned him caused Mr. Kupferberg a lifetime of chagrin and embarrassment. "Throughout the years," he later said, "I have been annoyed many times by, 'Oh, did you really jump off the Brooklyn Bridge?,' as if it was a great accomplishment."

The Fugs' first album, "The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Points of View and General Dissatisfaction," was released in 1965. The band became a staple of underground galleries and theaters, as well as antiwar rallies. In concert Mr. Kupferberg was often the group's mascot or harlequin, acting out satirical pantomimes -- an American soldier who turns into a Nazi, for example -- or sometimes not singing at all.

On subsequent albums the band changed its lineup many times and acquired a more professional sound, though its scatological themes got it kicked off at least one major record label.

With his bushy beard and wild hair, Mr. Kupferberg embodied the hippie aesthetic. But the term he preferred was bohemian, which to him signified a commitment to art as well as a rejection of restrictive bourgeois values, and as a scholar of the counterculture he traced the term back to an early use by students at the University of Paris. Among his books were "1,001 Ways to Live Without Working" -- and for decades he was a frequent sight in Lower Manhattan, selling his cartoons on the street and serving as a grandfather figure for generations of nonconformists.

Beneath Mr. Kupferberg's antics, however, was a keen poetic and musical intelligence that drew on his Jewish and Eastern European roots. He specialized in what he called "parasongs," which adapted and sometimes satirized old songs with new words. And some of his Fugs songs, like the gentle "Morning, Morning," had their origins in Jewish religious melodies.

Naphtali Kupferberg was born in New York on Sept. 28, 1923. He grew up on the Lower East Side and became a jazz fan and leftist activist while still a teenager. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1944 and got a job as a medical librarian.

"I had intended to be a doctor at one point, like any good Jewish boy," he recalled to Mr. Sanders in an audio interview in 2003. Instead he began to write topical poems and humor pieces, contributing to The Village Voice and other publications.

After the Fugs broke up, in 1969, Mr. Kupferberg performed with two groups, the Revolting Theater and the Fuxxons, and continued writing. The Fugs reunited periodically, first in 1984. Recently, Mr. Sanders said, Mr. Kupferberg had completed his parts for a new album, "Be Free: The Fugs Final CD (Part Two)," and had also been posting ribald "perverbs" -- brief videos punning on well-known aphorisms -- on YouTube.

Mr. Kupferberg is survived by his wife, Sylvia Topp; three children, Joseph Sacks, Noah Kupferberg and Samara Kupferberg; and three grandchildren.

A version of this article appeared in print on July 13, 2010, on page A23 of the New York edition.



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