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Recording Tuli Kupferberg songs

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 14, 2016 2:35 am    Post subject: Recording Tuli Kupferberg songs Reply with quote

I just did this little Q & A interview with a British journalist, regarding these recordings of Tuli Kupferberg songs that I've been trying to make... I'm not sure if the journalist will actually be using much of this interview (I gave long answers!), but here's a long version of it, just as an easy way to provide an update on the details of this project.

1. 1. Can you tell us about this recording of Tuli's songs with Peter S? Where, when, who, whyÖhow did the idea come about?

Tuli Kupferberg died in 2010, at the age of 86. Since then Iíve personally been organizing annual Tuli Kupferberg Celebration days here in NYC, I book an afternoon at Sidewalk Cafe, and a bunch of different performers and poets and friends and relatives each do a song or two, or read a poem or talk a little, anything by, about, or related to Tuli and his life and work and politics and aesthetic. Some years even the remaining Fugs members show up and perform some stuff, with Ed Sanders and Steve Taylor and Scott Petito and Coby Batty, as well as sometime appearances by neighborhood scene elders like David Amram (jazz guy who played on some of the 60s Fugs recordings), on stage or in the audience you might see folks like author Ratso Sloman, long-time radio DJ Bob Fass, Tuliís widow Sylvia, my rapping uncle Professor Louie, Tuliís long-time companion and archivist Thelma Blitz is always there filming for her TV show and doing presentations, thereís a guy called Sparrow who usually emcees the event and introduces each performer, folks like that. So itís a bit like assembling an annual Tuli-themed open mic, attended by a little crew of friends and family and remaining Lower East Side neighborhood weirdos, and we do it as a donation/benefit gig for some cause that I think Tuli would have been into, for organizations like Picture the Homeless or The War Resisters League. For each of these annual events Iíve assembled a band to play a full set of about ten Tuli songs, and we usually headline the event. I try to make it a different set of songs each year, and itís basically been different musicians each year in the band. Iíve been calling the band the Deposit Returners, named after Tuliís rare 60s solo album ďNo Deposit, No ReturnĒ and the core of the Deposit Returners band has always been myself on guitar and my fellow Fugs fanatic Steve Espinola on piano. Over the past six years it has involved a number of different bass players, different fiddle players (tho Peter Stampfel has often filled the fiddle role, weíve also had Jolie Holland as the fiddle player), different drummers, and usually some extra people involved too, adding mandolin or accordion or electric guitar or additional vocals and percussion and stuff. The thing is, each year it takes me some time to assemble a band and pick the songs and rehearse the songs and memorize the lyrics, then it always seems like a waste that we do all of that just to play them live once, then a whole year goes by and then we start from scratch again the next year. Each year I try to tell myself that weíll make time to get into a recording studio and properly document the way we play the songs, before we forget how to play them again, but itís taken six years to finally make that studio-recording idea happen.

2. 2. Repertoire? Well-known songs from the Fugs back catalogue? But also some that we donít know judging from the facebook post?

In my annual ďDeposit ReturnersĒ sets Iíve mostly tried to avoid playing the more well-known Tuli songs, so weíve never performed songs like Nothing or Kill For Peace or CIA Man, though on occasion weíve done some Tuli songs that are relatively well-known from being on Fugs albums, like Morning Morning, Supergirl, Carpe Diem, Bumís Song, Life is Strange, and others. Iíve got a pretty extensive collection of Fugs recordings throughout their 50-year existence, Iíve got all their original vinyl albums but Iíve also got fringe stuff like Tuli singing a capella onto tape in the 80s for un-released demos, and even unreleased early Fugs recordings that a secret-agent friend of mine smuggled out of a locked-up Washington DC archive, plus thereís the rare mimeographed Fugs Songbook that Ed Sanders first published in 1965, which includes lyrics to some 1965 Fugs songs that thereís no known recording of, and then thereís also the various ďMockingbirdĒ books that Tuli published in the 70s and beyond, of his own satirically re-written lyrics to well-known songs. The lyrics in Tuliís ďMockingbirdĒ books are easy to perform, because itís stuff like John Lennonís ďThe Luck of the IrishĒ re-written by Tuli as ďThe Luck of the JewishĒ, so even though thereís no recording of Tuli ever performing any of it live, you can easily perform it as intended, just by knowing the tune it was meant to be set to. So each year Iíve tried to cast a wide net to pick interesting Tuli songs and writings, and then Iíve tried to come up with band arrangements that serve the material. Sometimes weíre resurrecting lost lyrics that have not been uttered out loud on the streets of the Lower East Side for 50 years, and with Peter Stampfel involved itís extra cool because he would have been among the voices singing those songs the first time around! Tuli did a lot of different things in his life, from writing to political cartooning and publishing, dabbling in various things from time to time, so Iíve had to do some digging around and apply some imagination to coming up with some new song options each year for the Deposit Returners band, some of which have worked out better than others. The album, if Iím actually making an album out of it, would hopefully be a batch of the stuff that worked out the best for us in each yearís tribute gig. When we got into the studio last week we recorded about twelve songs, thereís maybe another ten that Iíd like to try to capture, some the stuff is super short, so even if I can record the whole pile of a couple dozen it might only end up being one normal-length album. Iím not sure yet.

3. 3. When is the record coming out? Does it have a title yet? I saw a suggestion that there may be enough songs for two albums?

From my own perspective I donít quite know if we have an album yet, we basically just hustled through a bunch of stuff in the studio in one day, with half the musicians hearing the stuff for the first time that day, and with no time to listen back to what we were recording. I have to go back to the studio when thereís time and see how listenable this stuff turned out. Iíd like to maybe record a few more songs, and maybe re-record some of the stuff we already did. Iíve certainly made albums in one day in a studio in the past, but considering the slightly more ďarchivalĒ goal of trying to get some decent documentation of some of this Tuli Kupferberg material, I feel a little more historical pressure to not mis-represent the material if our one-day takes didnít nail it. Iím not in a big hurry, itís taken six years of puttering this idea around, so it wonít bother me if I donít finish the album in one day; but on the other hand, Iím financing the whole thing myself, so the less time we spend on it the less out-of-pocket Iím going on it, plus itís truer to the original spirit of the initial 1965 Fugs recordings if we just spew out a spirited batch of in-the-moment lunatic tracks rather than over-think it all. 99.9 percent of all albums made today are grossly over-thought, it actually takes a lot of discipline to treat it like a classic be-bop record, hit it and quit it, get a good recording of what the live band actually sounds like playing a song, warts and all. Unfortunately you usually get some of the musicians, or the engineer, or your own insecurity, wanting to monkey around with some sort of edits or modern digital flim-flammery. You have to put your foot down and try not to fall into that rabbit hole. Especially when youíre the one paying the musicians and the studio by the hour!

4. 4. You knew Tuli well Ė how and when did you meet him? (the interview you did with him in 2006, which is on you tube, is fantastic, by the wayÖ)

I had been a fan since first hearing the first ďVillage FugsĒ LP in my parentsí collection in the 90s, and would sometimes see Tuli around NYC at various events of artistic or political or poetic interest, he was a very recognizable character, stuck out in any crowd, and was very humble and approachable. I didnít start getting to know him a little better till 2004, it was at an Ed Sanders birthday event at the Bowery Poetry Club in summer 2004, where I performed my then brand-new ďHistory of the Development of Punk on the Lower East Side, 1950-1975Ē, and in the audience at that event was Peter Stampfel, Bob Fass, Thelma Blitz, Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, Georgio Gomelski, without that one 10-minute performance I might not have gotten to know any of those people! My associations with all those folks really stemmed from me randomly being a part of that one little local event.

5. 5. Can you tell us aboutyour friendship (fair to call him a mentor?) , the inspiration he gave you, work you did together and your annual tribute shows to him?

When I started getting to know him he seemed like a lost member of my family, like he could have been an older uncle or grandparent, he shared so much of the same radical left-wing Lower East Side atheist Jew culture and politics and personality and sense of humor thatís in a lot of my own family. I think he really liked that I had read the WWI satire ďThe Good Soldier SchweikĒ, but it was just the sort of book that would be in my grandmotherís apartment, or on the shelves of any Lower East Side radical at a certain point in time. I think a lot of people felt that way about Tuli though, he was such a warm and magnetic elder figure, as well as a celebrity in his own right, I donít want to claim that I had any unique feeling for him that wasnít shared by many people who befriended and looked up to Tuli, he was like the local rabbi-figure for multiple generations. He was like an atheist patron saint of the neighborhood culture even when he first formed the Fugs with Ed and Ken Weaver in late 1964, Tuli was already twice as old as anybody else in the Fugs band, he was a historical link between generations even by the mid-60s. He was as much of a guiding aesthetic inspiration to me as my other inspirations like Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, but he was never as rich or famous, so you could just go over to his place and hang out with him.

6. 6. What made Tuli so special?

For one thing, he had a moral view that put everything in perspective, it runs through all his work, that the important things are peace, love, compassion, and anything else was only deserving of satirical derision.

7. 7. Looking back at the contribution of the Fugs in the 1960s, how would you sum up what they represented and what they achieved?

What a great band, one of the all-time great bands. They predate the Velvets for being the first Postmodern rock band. Richard Hell wrote this brilliant thing about the Velvet Underground, that they were the first rock band to treat rock & roll as a sub-set, to which they were a superior set, and I think the Fugs did this too, not just as a rock band, but as regards the concept of being in a musical band at all. The Fugs were maybe the first band who were intellectually self-aware enough that music was not necessarily the moral or creative priority, and thatís an idea that has so many possibilities that it remains a challenge to future generations, in all genres. Also, they were utterly regional, even more so than the Velvet Underground I think the Fugs were THE band that represented the culture of 1960s New York City, the way you could say Country Joe & The Fish or the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane represent 1960s San Francisco. Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver shouldnít be overlooked in their aesthetic contributions to what made the Fugs the Fugs, Tuli was crucial but it couldnít have happened without all three of them. They were also more radical and political than almost any other 60s band, as songwriters onstage and as activists offstage, which is strangely rare for American rock bands of the 60s. They walked it as they talked it, or maybe more accurately the other way around, which makes them more similar to later waves of punk or rap acts, where a socially-acceptable level of musicality was much less of a priority than the dissemination of ideas by any means necessary. Itís incorrect to even think of the Fugs as being important strictly for their lo-fi punky early recordings, because even the highly-produced studio albums with expensive full orchestration are also totally unique albums of the late 60s, uncomparable to any other band really. If you picked up "The Belle of Avenue A" you'd be like "what the heck IS this band?" Itís interesting that Thurston Moore has mentioned the Fugsí ďCrystal LiaisonĒ as one of his all-time favorite recordings; it really is a great track, itís probably better than Ed even intended it to be.

8. 8. And what about Peter Stampfel? Amazing guy, one of the great incorruptibles whoís been doing it for half a century and more Ė it must be a pleasure both to work with him and simply just to hear his stories etc?

Definitely. No one else like that around, anywhere, ever! Iím working on a book thatís a complete guide to the Holy Modal Rounders/Peter Stampfel discography, but every time I wait another six months to complete the book heís got even more albums out, so itís a hard project to wrap up.

9 9. Anything else you want to say about it all not covered in the above?!!?

I guess just to make clear that I donít really know if this Tuli Kupferberg project is an album quite yet, or what itís going to be. There's still mixing and recording that needs to be done. I just wanted to document our performances of these songs, before they slip away. I definitely want to talk to Tuliís family before figuring out what I might do with these recordings, whether Iíd self-release it, or just have it be something to give out to friends, or something that I might try to get a wider release for via a record label, or where the money for such a project would go, because itís not my own songs I donít feel as uninhibited about just recording it and putting it out there on public, thereís other factors to weigh. I wasnít even intending to make any kind of announcement, but I guess Stampfel and his irrepressible optimistic Facebook posts have let the cat out the bagÖ but thatís cool, at least it lets people know weíre not just sitting on our duffs at home when weíre not on tour! I havenít yet talked about the album with Rough Trade or Don Giovanni or PIAPTK or other labels that Iíve worked with, so I donít know whoís interested or what the best path would be. I just want to get good recordings of this stuff because I think itís really good stuff, and worth documenting, and beyond that process I donít have a real plan. I also want it to be known that Steve Espinola is like the musical backbone of this thing, every year when I put the songs together I rely on Steve to play piano and make it all actually sound like something. Steveís an old mainstay on the Sidewalk Cafe antifolk open mic scene, he was there even before I was, he was the first guy to ever write a nice article about my stuff, back in 1998, and later on he played piano with the Moldy Peaches a bit, and was the inspiration for a couple of their songs.

Also, in case anyone wants to know, here's the personnel for the session we just did:

guitar - Jeffrey Lewis

piano - Steve Espinola

bass - Mem Pahl (she's been in my own band Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts for a couple years)

drums - Brent Cole (he's also been the drummer in Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts for the past year)

fiddle - Peter Stampfel

mandolin - Spencer Chakedis

engineer - Brian Speaker (he recorded my most recent Rough Trade album "Manhattan")

If I do manage to get back into the studio there's a couple other folks I'd like to try to wrangle in on recording a bit more of this stuff.

Songs that might end up on this album:

Life Is Strange

What Are You Going To Do After the Orgy

No Deposit No Return

Not Enough Loving

Try to Be Joyful

This Train is Bound For Brooklyn

The And Song

I Wanna hold Your Foot

This is a Hit Song

Listen to the Mockingbird


Morning Morning

Hallucination Horrors (long version possible too, with additional "lost" lyrics)

I Was Much Mistaken

Love & Ashes

Carpe Diem

Bumís Song

The Garden Is Open

Caka Rocka


Greenwich Village of My Dreams

Q- Without wishing to impose too heavily on your time,please be as discursive as you like!

Heck, why didnít you say so? Ignore my taciturn responses above, I guess Iíll write the LONG answers some other time! : )
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 17, 2016 11:46 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for sharing, it was a very interesting reading, i hope we'll be abble to hear this project, what ever forms it'll turn in. I think it is a really great idea, especially digging out the rarest songs and stuff.
I'm also quite curious about the holy modal rounder book.
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 20, 2016 11:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great interview & post, Jeff. Your enthusiasm for Tuli & the Fugs is evident in your responses and I'm sure the new recordings will also capture your passion and excitement. I'm looking forward to hearing the tracks....

I notice there's a couple of archives of Tuli's work - one at at NYU and another here:

Have you ever visited them or heard any of the rare tapes they hold?
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