by Nicole Wolverton
In the search for late-blooming rock stars, the pickings are slim. Certainly, Mick Jagger at age 70 is still strutting across the stage; but he was a fresh-faced baby when the The Rolling Stones hit it big. Where are the rock gods and goddesses that got their start after the age of 40? They’re around; you just have to look. Hard.
Tuli Kupferberg once proclaimed himself the world’s oldest rock star. He was 42 when he and poet Ed Sanders founded The Fugs in 1964, after hearing The Beatles and deciding they could write songs at least as well. Neither were musicians (to the day he died, Kupferberg couldn’t read a note of music). True, The Fugs are perhaps not as famous as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, but the band holds a special place in 1960s counterculture and the peace movement of the time. The band, fronted by Kupferberg, embraced political satire mixed with literary allusions.
In a 2010 article about the band, NPR quoted Danny Goldberg, a music-industry executive, as saying, “The Fugs were right on the barricades of what was possible. There was a fearlessness, an intensity, an unwillingness to pander to any commercial norms that was very exciting.”
The article also notes that Kupferberg had a reputation for taking old Jewish songs and giving them new lyrics. Not surprising, given that he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in New York City. While still living in the city, The Fugs—named for Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead and the publisher-forced replacement of “fug” for “fuck” in the novel—released their first album through Folkways Records and later signed with ESP Disk for an album. They recorded an album for Atlantic Records, although it was eventually released through Reprise Records (Frank Sinatra’s label). The band was involved in many famous hippie events, including the exorcism of the Pentagon in 1967. They folded in 1969, but then re-formed 15 years later with Kupferberg still in the mix despite other personnel changes within the band. He embraced YouTube in his 80s, establishing his own channel where he posted videos of the band and poetry readings.
He performed up until his death, from several strokes, in 2010.
Kupferberg was something of a celebrity, at least in bohemian circles, prior to his success as a musician, so perhaps it isn’t fair to call him a true late bloomer. He found that notoriety as a poet and publisher of counterculture literary magazines, including Birth and Yeah. Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs, George Plimpton, and James Michener were all on hand for the first appearance of The Fugs because of his work in the literary scene.
But The Fugs outlasted the Sixties—even after Kupferberg’s death, the band continues on. The Fugs also preceded the New York City punk scene. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth, Philip Glass, and Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group all cited The Fugs as inspiration.
Next time you hear “Sweet Jane” on the radio, thank Tuli Kupferberg.