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Fug Right Off

Tuli Kupferberg, came into this world speaking Yiddish, and he’s apparently determined to leave it making wisecracks on YouTube. The 86-year-old poet and songwriter, best known as a member of the outrageous 1960s rock band The Fugs, is now blind and confined to his Manhattan loft. But that hasn’t stopped him from recording short humorous videos for the tulifuli Channel on YouTube.

“Today we have a selection from the Bible,” he deadpans in one of his “Daily Perverbs.” Then he quotes from the Book of Exodus: “The Lord is a man of war. The Lord is his name.” Long pause. “Oy vey.”

Kupferberg’s ability to croak lyrics and turn familiar melodies into satirical songs is in fine form on the just released Fugs album, “Be Free.” He transforms “Onward Christian Soldiers” into “Backward Jewish Soldiers” (“Hug your Gentile brothers”), rocks out in “This Is a Hit Song,” disses apolitical artists in “I am an Artist for Art’s Sake” and recites his autobiographical poem “Greenwich Village of My Dreams” over music. For a guy who is supposedly in the winter of his life, Kupferberg sounds like he still has the joie de vivre.

A longtime anarchist and pacifist, Kupferberg left his Jewish roots far behind, but Yiddishkeit permeates his work. His YouTube videos include a poem about a yeshiva bokher and a song that mentions the Baal Shem Tov. But many of the daily perverbs are one-liners.

“A fool and his money are soon… president!”

“Is it really possible to have a civil war?”

“He told me that he is turning everything to humor now. His whole life is focused on the humor of it all,” said Ed Sanders, co-founder of The Fugs and probably the only beatnik who can both yodel and sing in Ancient Greek.

When they started The Fugs in late 1964, Sanders was running the Peace Eye Bookstore in a storefront that once housed a kosher butcher on the Lower East Side and Kupferberg lived next door, above an egg market. The band sang raunchy but humorous songs about sex, drugs and the war in Vietnam. Kupferberg was in his early 40s when the group took off. The Fugs eventually landed a contract with a mainstream label, Reprise Records, where the deal received the blessing of the label’s CEO, Frank Sinatra.

One of the most famous songs in The Fugs’ repertoire is “Nothing,” written by Kupferberg. He borrowed the melody of “Bulbes,” the Yiddish folk song that complains about eating potatoes every day. Some versions of the tune featured a verse sung in Yiddish. Kupferberg sang about Franklin Roosevelt as a “fake nothing,” Harry Truman as a “bloody nothing” and Dwight Eisenhower as a “dopey nothing.” We won’t mention the figure of anatomy he used to characterize Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. A great number of literary and religious figures are also dismissed as nothing in some versions of the nihilistic anthem, including the Prophet Muhammad.

Kupferberg’s baritone was described as “a Depression-era New York catarrhal croak” in a New York Times review. Kupferberg is the first to admit that he is not a musician and that he can’t read music. But Kupferberg has a “memory of thousands of songs.” He has used other Yiddish melodies for his satirical numbers. On the new Fugs CD he uses the Yiddish theater standard “I Am a Boarder by My Wife” for “I am an Artist for Art’s Sake.”

“Ya can bet I’m a Poet only for Poetry’s sake,” he sings. “When other poets are in the street, I stay home and count my Feet. I am a Poet for Putz’s sake!”

Kupferberg is indeed a published poet who was on the scene when the Beats were charting a new course for American letters. After dropping out of a grad school program in sociology, he took up residence in the bohemian mecca of Greenwich Village. Kupferberg was too old to be drafted during the Vietnam War, and was not one of the 10 million Americans drafted for World War II because of his 4F medical disability deferment. He refused to discuss the specifics during a brief telephone chat to corroborate biographical details.

One close friend said that as a boy, Kupferberg was kicked out of Hebrew school before his bar mitzvah for disputing the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt. Apparently, that was enough for Kupferberg, who made an exodus of his own from religious observance. But Jewish culture clearly made its mark on him. Among the scores of videos on the tulifuli Channel on YouTube is one of Kupferberg telling a Sholom Aleichem story.

Steve Ben Israel, a veteran of The Living Theatre whose son attended school with Kupferberg’s daughter, thinks of the aging Fug as a hip rabbi.

“He’s really full of Yiddishkeit,” said Israel, who still uses a line in his one-man show that Kupferberg told him years ago: “If the rich could pay the poor to die for them, then the poor could really make a living.”

“When Tuli first told me that, he told it to me in Yiddish. And it was gorgeous. It rhymed,” Israel told the Forward. “I said, ‘Man, that’s deep.’ I said to myself, ‘Hip Jews have been around for a long time.’”

Friends and fans are hoping that Kupferberg will be around for a bit longer. A benefit for Kupferberg in late January in Brooklyn was well attended. Another is scheduled for early March at the Bowery Poetry Club.

“He’s going out in a blaze of verbs,” Sanders said.

Or as Kupferberg himself puts it in one of his daily perverbs, “Is there life after birth?”

Watch a video from Kupferberg’s tulifuli Channel on YouTube:

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer.

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