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Southbank Centre presents
Ray Davies’ Meltdown
& Lewis Floyd Henry
Over the years, during various discussions of music history on Resonance Radio, 104.4 FM (London’s only independent station) I’ve intermittently heard US cult band the Fugs cited as being influential on countless other bands from 1965 to the here and now. Their canon’s been referred to as folk, rock, psychedelic, experimental, protest and poetry to name but a few of the terms being bandied around on this side of the Atlantic. But now, having had the privilege of seeing them perform live myself, sadly, sans legendary co-founder/self-professed ‘world’s oldest rock star’ Tuli Kupferberg, who passed away on July 11, 2010 at 86, I can assure you that they, and their music are all of the aforementioned, and more.
The house was typically empty when opening act Lewis Floyd Henry took to the stage, his shock of semi-Afro hair reminiscent of the 1960’s. Picking up his guitar, positioning himself behind his harmonica and poising one foot over a pedal connected to a tiny drum kit bearing his name, Henry went into furious, one man band mode. ‘Rev it up, rev it up, he cried to the sound men, and rev it up they did, so much so that his lyrics and the nuances of his music were largely lost in the mix for the duration of his set. But Henry cared not, as he bashed and strummed his way through one blues/rock inflected number after another, singing in a Hendrixised growl for maximum effect. At one point two children, presumably his own, came on stage, one a shy toddler who half hid behind her older brother, a boy of about five who already seemed used to spotlights. They cried ‘Magic Carpet’ on cue a couple of times, before leaving the stage. Until two or three years ago, Henry was a busker. It’s a long way from busker to Meltdown!
When white-haired, youngish faced Ed Saunders came onstage during the interval to access things prior to The Fugs set, he was greeted by cheers and waves from ardent fans in the audience who eagerly snapped photos of him. Sanders, like late Fugs co-founder and Beat poet Kupferberg, is a legend, who, in addition to consistently setting examples of constructive anarchy through music spanning the eras, once ran a poetry bookshop in NYC, and also published a newsletter called, ‘F*** You’ featuring poetry by Alan Ginsberg among others, which he mimeographed and handed out at readings. Inevitably, the bite of truth makes its’ marks, and at the same time as the Fugs were enlightening young listeners by reminding them that they do actually have rights, record companies like Atlantic were dumping them for their refusal to tow the line – integrity vs. the almighty buck. Too often in the context of popular music these days, the best scam wins. But as any real artist will tell you, it’s always better to become a cult figure, (with a loyal following) than to court industry.
In the true spirit of pre proto punk anarchic thinking, The Fugs name, chosen by Kupferberg, is a euphemism for f***, famously used in Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead (1948). Which, is especially fitting, as the band’s attempted exorcism of the US Pentagon at an anti-Vietnam War protest in the late ‘60’s was detailed in Mailer’s 1968 novel, Armies of the Night.
The original ‘65 Fugs lineup included poets Kupferberg (42 at the time) and Sanders, with drummer Ken Weaver. Following the group’s 1984 reunion, and for the past 25 years, until Kupferberg’s 2010 passing, the band consisted of him and Ed Sanders, Steven Taylor - guitarist and long-time Allen Ginsberg collaborator, Coby Batty - singer/songwriter and percussionist and Scott Petito - musician/music producer. In the wake of Kupferberg’s loss, Sanders and his fellow Fugs carry on with their inspired, inspiring performances aka much needed wake up calls.
The Fug’s Meltdown set was delightful, but not in the typical sense of the word. Their music is perpetually refreshing because it is always unique and often focuses on truths we’d all like to voice if we weren’t so busy being polite to the point of kidding ourselves into, inadvertently, perhaps, maintaining the status quo...But artists are always free to address such issues through their art, if they’ve got the courage. And the Fugs were and are a very courageous band. They’re also a very influential band, as noted through their repertoire, whether from their beginnings in the 60’s or their more recent politically motivated compositions, such as Kupferberg’s ‘Backward Jewish Soldiers’ (marching back from war) sung to the tune of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ a number performed here utilizing the group’s harmonic vocals to great effect. There are actually some very fine singers in The Fugs, so harmonies abound, often where you’d least expect them to. Some of the most beautiful and bittersweet Fugs songs borrow their words from poems by William Blake, such as ‘Ah! Sunflower’ from Songs of Innocence and Experience and ‘How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field’ the later, country inflected, much in the manner that later songs by iconic group The Birds (also Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes, Young) would be. Matthew Arnold’s idealistic poem ‘Dover Beach,’ which the poet wrote on his wedding night in 1898, asking his bride to always be true to him and their ideals as he would be to she and them, was also, very movingly performed here. Melodies for such visceral song poems and other songs were, more often than not, composed by Kupferberg.
During the course of the concert, especially in earlier songs, inklings of many bands to come could be detected, The Doors and Devo among them, and also reflections on what had gone before, most notably, Buddy Holly, a musician some feel didn’t receive enough credit for the true artistry and influence of his music. Guitarist/singer Steven Taylor’s animated performances of Fugs songs sometimes put me in mind of Holly. Though the lyrics to ‘Wet Dream’ that sweetly sung, tell it like it is ‘50’s prom send up definitely weren’t in Holly’s typically romantic style! The set’s opening song, ‘Slum Goddess’ must have been an instant classic to those who heard it back in ‘67, when it was on the group’s self-titled debut album. It’s now clear that the song was an influence on mid to late 70’s songs of The Ramones’ such as, ‘Judy is a Punk’ (when ‘punk’ meant someone of no use to society) and the whole NY garage band, proto-punk (if you see it as a movement, rather than an attitude) scene. But what makes The Fugs’ music so essential is that it is delusion busting, and we need our delusions shattered in order to re-establish reality and be able to laugh at ourselves in the process. ‘Nothing’ is hilarious, true and deep at the same time, like a simplistic mantra of sorts, especially in the way it brings all the ideologies and religions of the world down from their plinths. ‘CIA Man?’ What can I say? The lyrics about taking the sugar off the shelf and replacing it with LSD say it all. Hearing it reactivated some of the angst I’d felt when I was a kid in the ‘60’s reading about US government corruption without really understanding it, yet always wishing I was older, so I could participate in the mass protests against it. But it’s still senseless now, as is the ‘war, war, war, war, war’ Sanders spoke of, following on from a sing along of that seminal classic, ‘River of S**’. There’s really no place to hide at a Fugs concert, even though the musicians look unassuming enough, so we all had to admit to ourselves that the real reason we don’t rise up against war is because as things stand, it’s too far away to affect us personally, unless we’ve someone fighting it. Speaking of which, whatever happened to that ‘60’s fight? There are often references relating to the fragility and fleeting nature of youth in Fugs songs too, almost always in the form of poetry with especially composed melodies, some of them truly beautiful, others just substantial enough to enable the words to make their point, ever addressing the truth behind the veils of so-called propriety and illusion. Intermittent shouts from the audience signifying song recognition and/or agreement with ethics added to the atmosphere, which was an, understandably, I know where’s it at scenario. It’s applying those beliefs outside the concert hall that’s challenging for we who’re champs at talking the talk….
Possibly the ultimate anti-war song of all time, ‘Kill for Peace’ was one of the more iconic highlights of this seminal set, with its’ satorising of hypocrisy and sounds of no holds barred war and hatred. I can only imagine the impact it had during the travesty commonly known as the Vietnam War. Though, I couldn’t see the sense in taking it out on returning veterans (if any) as most were only 19 when drafted.
There were lots of interesting anecdotes offered by Sanders in the course of the performance too, such as one in which he spoke of his surprise at the phone call from the people in charge of Meltdown at his home in Woodstock, New York, informing him Ray Davies of the Kinks wanted The Fugs to perform in London in their first show here for 42 years. He also spoke of the one and only time a Fugs single made the charts and how proud he’d felt that it was ‘above Martha and the Vandellas’ on the list at the time. But the Kinks beat them to it!
In one of his last interviews in 2008, Tuli Kupferberg wisely observed, "Nobody who lived through the '50s thought the '60s could've existed. So there's always hope." In our era of senseless, community threatening public service cuts, including shameless cuts to winter fuel allowances and other necessities for UK OAPs (the poorest paid in Europe) we’ve got to ‘rise up’, as Sanders and company advised from the stage. We’ve all got a choice - to stand up and be counted, or be counted out. As Sanders said at the first Fugs recording session, ‘From now on, nothing holds us back. Cacaphony forever. No stopping.’
Seemingly amazed by the enthusiastic response of the audience, even after two encores, despite the odd trendy young thing or two fiddling with mobiles or walking out, Sanders said, ‘I guess we’ll have to come back.’ Forty-two years is far too long for The Fugs to have been away in the first place...This was my first encounter with them, yet, I found myself missing them, and Tuli Kupferberg too, even more so when they dedicated a song to him near the end of this legendary gig. R.I.P. Tuli…. Long live The Fugs!
The Fugs ‘in the day’ with Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg on the right
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