Catching Up with Tuli Kupferberg, Copernicus and Others from the Old School

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Old School

a cool movie–which, at two hours, still only scratches the surface of Smith’s
enigmatic life. Igliori included generous clips from his tragically fragmentary
film legacy. Smith painstakingly built his avant-garde fancies a frame at a
time, hand-painting, collaging, drawing gorgeous celluloid worlds that ranged
from flights of bebop to multimedia synesthetic psychedelia to a ravishingly
mysterious take on The Wizard of Oz.

Sadly, much
of this work was lost during his tumultuous life–often enough by his own
hand. (Smith had a destructive streak and a temper, which expressed itself especially
when he was drinking. There’s a story of a night of avant-garde film screenings
in the mid-60s when he decided to play some rough takes from the recording of
the Fugs’ first LP between movies. Cops were in attendance–they often
infiltrated "underground" film screenings, looking for smut to bust–and
when they heard the Fugs they demanded that Smith stop the tape. He did. Then
he lifted the whole reel-to-reel tape player, which were big mofos, and hurled
it off the balcony at them.)

was with Smith when he died and became, thankfully, a Harry Smith fanatic–also
shows some of his great, psychedelic mandala-paintings and jazzy proto-graffiti
murals. There are interviews with his widow Rosebud, who was at the screening,
and friends like Robert Frank, Jonas Mekas, Harvey Bialy and Lionel Ziprin.
It was great seeing Lionel, an underappreciated poet and seminal if publicly
obscure figure from New York’s Beat and hippie years, up on the screen,
seated in a thronelike chair in his Lower East Side apartment, his rabbinical
white beard flopping on his chest, an enormous pair of sunglasses obscuring
half his elfin face.

Lionel was
not at the screening: he’d been taken to Beth Israel after suffering an
attack of emphysema, not surprising after decades of breathing more cigarettes
than air. He’s a great man and an underground treasure and I wish him a
speedy recovery.

•Speaking of the Fugs,
Tuli Kupferberg sent me a wonderful Christmas present last week: a copy of Electromagnetic
, one of those limited-edition Rhino Handmade collector’s
editions you can only get through Steamboat compiles on three
CDs all four LPs the Fugs put out in their Reprise years, ’68-’69:
Tenderness Junction, It Crawled into My Hand, Honest, the live
LP Golden Filth and The Belle of Avenue A. Belle was the
recording swan song of the original Fugs; Ed Sanders broke up the quasi-band
in 1969, a move that Kupferberg would always regret. Older if not wiser versions
of the Fugs would periodically reform from 1984 on.

In terms
of production values, Reprise was a big step up from the indeed "handmade"
sound the Fugs and Harry Smith had thrown together–sometimes literally–for
their earliest recordings on the small Broadside/Folkways and ESP labels. (Tuli
tells another story of Smith’s rage bouts from the recording of the first
Fugs LP. "I think we spent about six hours altogether doing that first
record. Supposedly [Smith] passed us off as a jugband to [Folkways’] Moe
Asch. I don’t know. Harry liked to drink a lot. He had a bottle of whiskey
with him, and when he didn’t like something the engineers were doing–they
were pretty straight, they didn’t understand what we were doing, maybe
we didn’t either–he threw the bottle against the wall.") After
ESP, Atlantic signed the Fugs in ’66 and then dropped them in ’67
without releasing a single record. Reprise gave them the budget for hiring professional
rock musicians and backup singers to make the music much slicker than their
early sound, as well as for some aural-theater production numbers that sound
like bad-genes relatives of Firesign Theatre or Hair.

I tend to
prefer the early and more fugged-up recordings, but there are gems scattered
all across these discs, which also include some previously unavailable material
from the band’s aborted sojourn at Atlantic. For that matter, all this
material has been pretty hard to find for decades. On the first CD alone we
find "Wet Dream," the 50s-style teen ballad in which somebody, I guess
it’s Sanders, croons, "I held you in my arms and kissed your–"
and somebody, I guess Kupferberg, cuts in with a basso "–titties!"
The chorus goes, "You’re my wet dream teenage angel baby/sittin’
on my face." There’s a Kupferberg Gregorian chant on the theme of
marijuana, the goofy cowboy swing of "Johnny Pissoff Meets the Mad Angel,"
the "Burial Waltz" ("Bury me in an apple orchard that I may touch
your lips again…") and a documentary taping of their famous attempt to
levitate the Pentagon, with tribal drums and invocations of various pagan deities
from Zeus to "the Tyrone Power Poundcake Society in the sky…"

As with
all of Rhino’s multiple-CD retrospectives, there’s some filler by
the time you get to the third CD. But with almost four hours in the package,
Steamboat’s worth the attention of any Fugs completist–if there
are in fact any out there. It’s a hobbyhorse of mine that the Fugs were
a crucial and yet now oddly undernoted avatar of 60s protest-joke-folk-rock,
in some ways more important to and influential on the tenor of their time than
a lot of better-remembered contemporaries. Steamboat is a small but welcome

been feeling under the weather, too, lately. I called last week to ask how he’s
doing. He replied in a minstrely singsong, "Sometimes I’m high, sometimes
I’m looow, oh yes Lord." I hope he’s out and about again
soon too. The most recent collection of his collages of political and social
commentary, Teach Yourself Fucking (Autonomedia), is still available.

Remember Copernicus? Not
the early 16th-century astronomer in Poland. The late 20th-century rock ranter
in New York. AKA Joe Smalkowski of Brooklyn. Another kind of old-school New
York figure. This Copernicus is the big guy with the deep voice and the leonine
hair who self-produced albums like Nothing Exists and Victim of the
, on which large gaggles of musicians would improvise while he roared
and ranted his on-the-spot poetics and philosophy about how nothing we think
is real is real. When the song ended, it was history; no song was ever repeated.
At its worst this would just come off like jam band noodlings, only with this
raving lunatic fronting the band. At its best it was like chaos theory set to
words and music, the band frothing up a maelstrom of impromptu noise, Copernicus
writhing on the stage or the recording studio floor, getting all tangled up
in his hair and his mic chord, bellowing, sobbing, whispering his idiosyncratic
message that you don’t exist, I don’t exist, nothing exists but the
atoms and the spaces between atoms.

been a few years but he’s back, with a new CD (his sixth) and an accompanying
book (his first), both called Immediate Eternity (Nevermore, 200 pages,
$12). For this CD his lyrics are prepared texts–excerpts from the book–and
the music is provided by what I suspect is the only prog-rock band in Guayaquil,
Ecuador, called the Nomadas. He met them while on a trip to Ecuador to buy "the
top of a mountain that overlooked a bay of the Pacific Ocean." They speak
no English and his Spanish is rudimentary, but then I don’t think many
of Copernicus’ New York bands knew what the hell he was shouting about
most of the time and it never seemed to foil the collaboration. Splitting the
difference, they recorded both an English and a Spanish-language version of
Immediate Eternity (la eternidad immediata). The book was published
in a Spanish edition as well.

Asked why
Ecuador, Copernicus tells me, "I don’t know. There’s this little
magazine called International Living, and they said Ecuador was cheap.
And I always wanted to own something by the sea. So I just got on a plane, didn’t
know what I was doing, fell down in Guayaquil, got some guy in a truck and after
five days along the coast of Ecuador I found this incredible mountain above
the ocean. He never had been up there. I pointed like Moses and said, ‘Clear
that up there and I’ll come back.’" He did, and bought the land,
on which he says he has no grand plans to build a vacation house. He has "a
bodega up there, with electricity and water."

The first
thing one notices about the CD is that while Copernicus still does some of his
trademark bellowing, the general tone is less stormy, almost gentle. And the
book is certainly more meditative than anything he’s done in song before.
Has Copernicus the ranter mellowed in the few years since we last heard him?

mellower Copernicus?" he muses, chuckling. "Well, I had a hyperactive
thyroid–" (Which explains some of those earlier recordings, I’m
thinking.) "–and I was taking two little pills to bring me down a
bit. Maybe that affected it. I don’t know. When you have a hyperactive
thyroid it’s like driving a car with the accelerator down. Plus, I’m
not into craziness. I’m into intelligence."

The book’s
a plain-language philosophical treatise in the grand tradition of the solitary
thinker putting down his case for why the whole world should be stood on its
head–or in this case, acknowledged not to exist in the first place–and
then nailing said document to the church door (or in this case, publishing it
himself; Nevermore is Copernicus’ trading-as). The basic theme is familiar,
but elaborated at lengths he could never do in his songs. The philosophy is
a sort of Western Buddhism ramped up by particle physics. All human error stems
from the erroneous notion that we exist as separate individuals inhabiting a
world we perceive through our "bare senses." Only when we delve into
the subatomic level and realize that nothing exists can we attain "Absolute

did the book because I knew it was the only way I could go farther with these
ideas," he says. "See, it got to a point where all I was saying was–"
He adopts a whiny voice. "–nothing exists! Nothing exists!
I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve said that before.’ I had
to take it further. I had to drop out and go into a room with a computer for
three years and go at it…

tried to make it as simple as possible," he goes on. "My mother’s
up to page 80. She says it’s very well put together," he laughs.

My favorite
passage may be where a friend, Mary, happily tells him she’s going off
to "find herself," and he tells her don’t bother. "There
is no self to find. The moment you think you’ve found Mary, Mary has slipped
from your grasp and changed into something else. In fact, Mary was never born.
Mary has never graced the nonexistent planet Earth. Mary will never grace the
nonexistent planet Earth. Leave the mirage of Mary alone. Mary is an illusionary
creation of poor eyesight and ignorance of the atomic world. Be free of Mary!"
And so on.

has been performing with the Nomadas in Ecuador, including shows at what he
calls "the Lincoln Center of Guayaquil." It’s been three, four
years since he performed in New York, but he may reappear. If he exists.

Inc., POB 170150, Brooklyn 11217.