Graded on a Curve:
The Fugs,
Live from the 60s

I love counterculture poet and icon Ed Sanders for the same reason so many other people like Ed–he wrote a poem about fucking a tree. It starts “into the oily crotch/place dick.” And just to prove he was not some kind of tree pervert, he wrote a poem about fucking a sheep too. This is just one of many possible reasons his first published poem was written in jail.

Another great reason to love Ed Sanders, America’s true heir to the mantle of Allen Ginsberg, was he co-founded the very subversive and sarcastic freak folk band The Fugs with fellow poet Tuli Kupferberg. Just as there are many reasons to love Sanders, there are many reasons to love the Fugs. For example, they had a great sense of humor. It’s hard to beat their description of being totally defeated in “My Baby Done Left Me.” To wit, “I feel like homemade shit.”

They were a highly literate bunch, the Fugs. When they weren’t writing songs called “Boobs a Lot,” they were penning a hilarious ode to the obscure 19th Century English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne—about whom I once wrote a grad school paper, figuring my prof would be too lazy and uninformed to do the research necessary to realize I was full of shit—called “The Swinburne Stomp,” which opens with the wonderful words, “In the key of metaphysical distress.” Finally, the Fugs were true gonzo primitivists, the most incompetent and lo-fi outfit this side of New York City contemporaries The Godz. If you like your weirdness cooked raw, and by that I mean sushi raw, the Fugs are the band for you.

The great Lester Bangs once recalled buying their first album, then returning to the record store to ask what their second LP sounded like, to which the woman behind the counter replied that it was pretty much like their debut, “except more primitive.” “More primitive?” wrote Bangs. “Much more primitive than that and they’d have loincloths and bones in their noses.” And he’s right. These guys had more important things to do than learn how to play their instruments. They were fighting a Comedic Underground War against the American Rabble, for Christ’s sake!

Which is why they’ve included, on Live from the 60s, an 11-plus minute “Exorcism of the Grave of Sen. Joseph McCarthy,” the paranoid senator who saw a Commie behind every tree, including the one Ed Sanders was busy fucking. It’s a great piece of audio verite, which took place at McCarthy’s grave and featured a wonderful contribution by Allen Ginsberg, who does some great Buddhist chanting, and whom I once had a long and friendly chat at the end of which he basically cautioned me to lighten up on the drugs. Right-o, Allen! Maybe in 10 years!

But the real hits on Live from the 60s are “I Couldn’t Get High,” on which the vocalist laments his inability to get stoned. “But I couldn’t get hiiiiiigh!” he screams, “SHIT! Don’t know why why why why!” It demonstrates how these guys were just punks ahead of their time, what with the frustration and the freaked-out guitar solo and all. Another great number is “My Baby Done Left Me,” a hillbilly howl of a tune of which I have already spoken, and on which they rhyme “Sears Catalogue” and “hot dog,” and cry “Poon, poon, poon!” to boot. I’m also partial to “The Garden Is Open,” because it demonstrates how, despite the dislike between the Fugs and the folks at Warhol’s Factory, the Fugs had it in ‘em to establish a drone every bit as menacing and mesmerizing as the ones by the Velvet Underground. That’s Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders on violin—take a bow and go crazy with it, Peter!

“Yodeling Yippie” is another piece of audio verite, opening as it does with a news report about the nefarious Yippie assault on the Justice Department. Why, the dirty hippies even lowered the American flag and raised a small North Vietnamese flag! The unmitigated gall! Chaos ensued. But the simple cowboy song that follows is hilarious, and features some top-notch yodeling for you to emulate should you wish to improve your own yodeling skills. The singer also calls Mayor Daley of Chicago a “porko-morph,” which is worth the price of the whole album in my opinion. Meanwhile, “The Swedish Nada” is another slab of electrified fuzz, and includes embedded within it their great tune “Nothing,” which sounds like a Yiddish folk song and writes off both the Beatles and the Stones as “nothing, nothing,” before ending with someone crying, “I want a titty!”

I could go on to describe the wonderful “J.O.B.”, a primal rocker about jerking off, which opens with the words, “Woke up this morning with my sweetheart in my hand/Guess I got an overactive gland/I got the jack-off blues.” And to rhapsodize about “Johnny Pissoff and the Red Angel,” a tune about a total redneck asshole who gets his just desserts. But I think you get the point. The Fugs may have been funny but they weren’t apolitical; to them scatology and obscenity were every bit as important as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, occult attempts to levitate the Pentagon, the pig the Yippies chose to run for President in 1968, and the radical Weather Underground, which unfortunately didn’t succeed in doing much but blowing itself up.

The Fugs’ absurdist sense of humor is remarkably timeless, given their dedication to addressing the issues of the day. Much of this has to do with their adamant refusal to be serious; unlike many of their contemporaries in the counterculture, they could look at themselves and laugh. In “Doin’ All Right” they mock their own status as long-haired freaks before tossing off the great lines, “I’m not ever gonna go to Vietnam/I prefer to stay right here and screw your mom.” The first line expresses the prevailing feelings of their contemporaries, but that second line is sheer comedic genius. And that’s what makes the Fugs so great. Nobody reads Mao’s Little Red Book anymore, but people continue to love the Fugs. Because they gave the middle finger to the establishment, but they never forgot to laugh.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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