In 1961 Tuli Kupferberg, a raconteur based on the Lower East Side, self-published a text called Beatniks, or, The War Against the Beats. Conceived as the howl to end all Howls, The War Against the Beats was a diatribe about the scene’s growing weariness with itself. But by 1961, the Beats were beat and Kupferberg’s rant was ignored by the broader poetry scene then colonizing the Greenwich Village.
Nevertheless, the Beats ignored The War Against the Beats at their own great peril. Tuli Kupferberg, a fortysomething Jewish bohemian and 1944 summa cum laude graduate of Brooklyn College had been a Beat before it was cool, and he continued ahead of the curve: he became a hippie before Kennedy was assassinated and invented New York punk in 1964 — three years before the Velvet Underground scored their major-label debut.
The physical incarnation of a ferocious imagination, Kupferberg can legitimately say that he, uniquely among American pop-culture figures, has been there for it all. But if you ask your average beat, hippie, or punk, most of them don’t know Kupferberg from Adam. For those who did know him in 1961, The War Against the Beats was another in a long string of small-run Allen Ginsberg–lite flops, barely noticed by anyone at all.
This is not to say that Kupferberg was cheated out of an audience. As a showman and Beat badass, the Kupferberg of the fifties and sixties had no equal, but by his own admission, he left much to be desired as a poet and musician. A wily coyote as usual, Kupferberg found a way around that obstacle when he and collaborator Ed Sanders assembled the seminal folk-punk group The Fugs. The Fugs were post-ironic prophets of dope and doom. The music wasn’t very good, but the words were always great. It was 1964 when The Fugs got their start. Kupferberg was forty-two years of age, and he’d finally gotten his license to ill.
Kupferberg took DIY seriously, and so should we. The sheer force of his literary, musical, and critical output forged the philosophical groundwork for hippie and later punk sensibilities; his engagement with the scene began when Roosevelt was in the saddle and continued through Reagan. Still more, Kupferberg — as of this writing — is with us even now, dropping a Beat on the scene during the dread reign of George W. Bush. Eighty-plus years into life, Kupferberg’s continued existence proves once and for all that hip has but one maxim: if it’s too loud, you’re too old. YouTube him: in a smoking jacket, waxing prophetic in what could well be the library of a nursing home, but isn’t, because Tuli Kupferberg cannot be contained. He’s even on MySpace.
It’s difficult to overemphasize just how out of time The Fugs were in the pop-cultural galaxy of the mid-sixties. Here’s what 1964 looked like: Lyndon Johnson riding the last crest of liberal triumphalism; Vietnam known to few Americans as anything other than a troubled but exotic vacation destination on the flip side of the globe; the civil rights movement still at high tide. Marches, not marijuana, was still the dominant influence among bohemian, radical, or otherwise left-wing American Yids.
While The Beatles were descending on Shea Stadium like a plague of mop-topped locusts and singing chaste little ditties like “Help,” Tuli Kupferberg was refusing to be constrained by the horizon of the pop-culture “possible.” On The Fugs’ first album — cheekily entitled The Village Fugs (Broadside 1965) — Kupferberg and crew openly ripped off an Ashkenazi folk melody, added new words, and raised the golem we now call punk.
Originally a haunting Old World dirge about the monotony of potato consumption entitled “Bulbes,” The Fugs’ “Nothing” was prophetic and profound. The down-tempo minor key wail was transubstantiated by bongos and throat-singing into the most credibly religious song of the sixties. A verse in Yiddish. A verse in Spanish. Onomatopoeia. A metric ton of cursing, at least for 1965. Kupferberg adapted “Bulbes” to the “folk-freak” exigencies of the day — both his and ours.
Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing, Friday for a change, a little more nothing, Saturday once more nothing.
Sunday nothing, Monday nothing, Tuesday and Wednesday, nothing, Thursday for a change, a little more nothing, Friday once more nothing.
Montik gornisht, dinstik gornisht, mitvokh un donershtik gornisht, fraytik for a novehneh, gornisht gigeleh, Shabbos vider gornisht.
Lunes nada, martes nada, miercoles y jueves nada, viernes por cambio un poco mas nada, sabado otra vez nada.
Na na nana, na na nana ...
Oh, Village Voice nothing, New Yorker nothing, sing out in folk ways nothing. Harry Smith [the goyishe kabalist/folk wonk who produced the record] and Allen Ginsberg [Tuli’s only fan], nothing nothing nothing.
Poetry nothing, music nothing, thinking and dancing nothing. The world’s great books, a great set of nothing. Haughty and foddy, nothing.
Fucking nothing, sucking nothing, flesh and sex nothing. Church and Times Square, all a lot of nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing!
Stevenson nothing, Humphrey nothing, Averell Harriman nothing. John Stuart Mill nill-nill, Franklin Delano Nothing.
Carlos Marx nothing, Engels nothing, Bakunin Kropotkin — nyuthing! Leon Trotsky, lots of nothing. Stalin less than nothing!
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, a whole lot of, a whole lot of nothing. Nothing, lots and lots of nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Not a goddamn thing.
With a smirk and a shtick, Tuli Kupferberg told everyone that everything was nothing —gornisht — creating, in the process, a whole new world.
Click here to listen to The Fugs rock out with their iconic song, "Nothing"