He sang of ‘Nothing,’ but Tuli was really something
By Bob Hirschfeld
Naphtali Kupferberg, who died July 12 at 86, was celebrated on July 17 at St. Mark’s Church. Tuli, as he was better known, co-founded the Fugs rock group with Ed Sanders in 1964 and was well known in Downtown New York as a bohemian, poet and singer. He called himself the “world’s oldest rock star” and until recently could be found at the corner of West Broadway and Spring St. selling books like “Teach Yourself F—-ing.”
Ed Sanders, Tuli’s friend and fellow Fug, gave the eulogy. Sanders, white-maned and wearing a white-collared blue shirt that perhaps reflected a sideswipe at I-Bank attire, came before the packed church looking something like a Greek scholar facing a challenging class. It was close to 80 degrees in the church.
I sat next to a longhaired guy working hard to get the Fugs accepted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“It’s a complete injustice,” he told me. “F—-ing Abba is in there!” Celebrity hound that I am, I first mistook this guy for the songwriter Paul Simon and then picked up on his Hush Puppies. You can always tell by the shoes.
The Fugs had a great impact during the Sixties. Songs like “Kill for Peace” took an absurdist scalpel to rationales for fighting in Vietnam. “Boobs a Lot” expressed what a lot of guys spent an awful lot of time thinking about, and still do. “Carpe Diem” was the “Just Do It” of 1965, without the brand name of a sneaker attached. No other group mixed locker room, pacifism and Yiddishkeit like the Fugs. Tuli picked the name, taking the euphemism from Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.”
Tuli Kupferberg was a Jew. He grew up on Cannon St. on the far Lower East Side in a Yiddish-speaking family. It was not common to see Jews in rock bands during the Sixties — and I apologize if I have overlooked any Rabinowitzes who were playing lead somewhere. Sanders praised Tuli’s anarcho-Hassidism, and one mourner recalled how cool it was seeing such an “obvious Jew” on stage, before bellowing, “What a cat!”
Sanders spoke of meeting Tuli in 1962 outside the Charles Theater on Avenue B, where both were watching avant-garde films. He published Tuli’s poems in F—- You, the arts magazine he ran off on mimeograph and sold at Peace Eye, his bookstore on E. 10th St. Sanders called Tuli “an American treasure in the footsteps of Stephen Foster and Woody Guthrie.”
At the memorial, the reconstituted Fugs performed “Morning, Morning,” written by Tuli in 1966. It is a diurnal song, addressing not just mornings, but evenings, sunshine and starshine. It contains the lines:
Feel so lonesome in the morning/
Morning brings me grief
Feel so lonely in the starshine/
Darling, kiss me as I weep
Critics find idealism and melancholy in the lyrics, to which I would add self-pity, which binds with the other sentiments in an emotional trifecta long recognized by your flawed reporter.
The Fugs also played “Nothing,” a nihilist ode to joy. “Monday,” the song declares, is nothing, and so are the other days of the week, all of them. So are recent American presidents, all of them. (This stanza contains the line “President Nixon, humongous Prixon, one more nothing.”)
“Nothing” handles the period-shaping dispute between communism and capitalism with hippie justice by declaring both systems worthless. There is a nice rhyme of Kropotsky and Trotsky, two more “nothings,” and a mention of Stalin, who is “less than nothing.” Liberalism also gets the middle finger: “John Stuart Mill, nil, nil, Franklin Delano nothing.” Maybe nihilism never gained much traction in America, but here at St. Mark’s the song brought the house down. The steaming house, I should say.
Many voiced memories of Tuli. (Unfortunately, I didn’t catch every name.) Larry “Ratso” Sloman from Queens spoke of visiting Tuli’s loft and remembered when taking some sugar from the cupboard, he was surprised to find Tuli had written a note to the cockroaches telling them to stay away because sugar was bad for them. That was Tuli’s pacifist approach to pest control!
Sixties types are often thought of as revolutionaries, but Tuli was a teacher, not a bomb thrower. One mourner recalled that 45 years ago, when he told Tuli that “The Battle of Algiers” was a great film — implying that Algeria’s war of independence from France had been worth it — Tuli told him: “Any revolution in which 1 million civilians are killed is not worth it.”
Tuli was generally mute about his failed suicide leap from the Manhattan Bridge, at least in part because he didn’t want to inspire copycats. Sanders told us that Tuli swam to shore and walked home alone through Chinatown in his wet clothes, a bit dismayed that no one had noticed.
Rosebud, a woman who some time ago crashed on Tuli’s floor, said, “I once asked him about the jump and he said it felt great, it felt like flying. And I’m sure wherever he is, he’s flying.”
Unlike many funerals, death was actually talked about. Tuli’s wife, Sylvia, noted that Tuli had recently updated his famous song “Why Must I Be a Septuagenarian in Love?” by reading us these lines: “Each night I ask the birds and the rocks, why must I be an octogenarian in a box?” Sylvia banged on Tuli’s wood coffin while reading these lines.
One mourner reported Tuli wanted his epitaph to read, “What the Hell Was That?”
Did Tuli think of his life as a bit like a small town seen through a rearview mirror? Or as a streak across the sky? Whatever it was, it was something. Not nothing. After listening to “Morning, Morning” and “Nothing,” I would say whatever Tuli thought of himself, there were days when he hit the ball so far out of the park that, no matter how hard we try, the ball will never be found.