MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Now, a band some of you may remember even if you haven't heard them in a while: The Fugs. The group was an important part of the American counterculture in the 1960s. They emerged out of the grime of New York's Lower East Side in 1964, disbanded five years later, then reformed in the mid-'80s.
The Fugs have been performing and recording ever since, though Jon Kalish reports now that they've just released what may be their last album.
JON KALISH: The Fugs took their name from a euphemism in a Norman Mailer novel. Like the word's source, much of their music can't be heard on the radio. They sang funny, raunchy songs about sex and drugs. One Fugs tune that did get FM radio play was about the war in Vietnam.
(Soundbite of song, "Kill for Peace")
THE FUGS (Band): (Singing) If you don't like the people or the way that they talk, if you don't like their manners or the way that they walk, kill, kill, kill for peace, kill, kill, kill for peace...
Mr. ED SANDERS (Co-founder, The Fugs): We're not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We were not The Beach Boys. We were The Fugs.
KALISH: Ed Sanders co-founded the group.
Mr. SANDERS: And we had our own pizzazz and energy and elan, especially early on. Those old records just scream and steam with abundance and fun and joy, you know, and raising our fists to the sky to demand a new type of American reality.
KALISH: That new reality grew out of the anarchy of the beats at a time when The Beatles were singing "Yesterday." Author Larry Ratso Sloman was a straightlaced college student when he caught The Fugs playing at a small Greenwich Village theater in 1965.
Mr. LARRY RATSO SLOMAN (Author): To hear these proscribed topics being talked about so freely and to, you know, hear that kind of vulgarity was mind-boggling. I mean, just a great, liberating experience to be able to hear drugs discussed. And it was really just kind of putting up a mirror to the emerging counterculture.
Mr. DANNY GOLDBERG (Music Industry Executive, Author): The Fugs were right on the barricades of what was possible.
KALISH: Danny Goldberg is a longtime music industry executive and author of two books about popular culture.
Mr. GOLDBERG: There was a fearlessness, an intensity, a unwillingness to pander to any commercial norms that was very exciting.
KALISH: And sometimes, downright silly. One of the band's co-founders, Tuli Kupferberg, was known for putting new lyrics to old Jewish melodies.
(Soundbite of song, "Nothing")
THE FUGS: (Singing) Sunday, nothing; Monday, nothing; Tuesday and Wednesday, nothing; Thursday, for a change, a little more nothing; Friday, once more, nothing.
KALISH: Somehow, The Fugs were embraced by a big commercial label, and not just any label, but Reprise Records, founded and run by Frank Sinatra.
Mr. HAL WILLNER (Music Producer): Sinatra had to approve all the signings.
KALISH: Music producer Hal Willner says two of Sinatra's top executives played him a Fugs recording.
Mr. WILLNER: So Joe Smith and Mo Ostin put the tape on. I'm not sure what song. And Sinatra listened to The Fugs and went, well, I guess you guys know what you're doing. Go ahead. Man, I wish someone would do a scene of that.
(Soundbite of song, "Nothing")
THE FUGS: (Singing) 1965, a whole lot of nothing; 1966, nothing.
KALISH: Willner produced a benefit concert for Fugs co-founder Tuli Kupferberg. The poet is 86, blind and confined to his Manhattan loft after suffering a stroke last year.
Mr. TULI KUPFERBERG (Co-founder, The Fugs; Poet): Hi, folks. It's time for your daily proverb.
KALISH: Yet, Kupferberg still records short videos that can be seen on YouTube.
Mr. KUPFERBERG: Beware a man who is not moved by sound. He'll drag you to the ground. He'll drag you to the ground.
KALISH: Kupferberg doesn't perform with The Fugs anymore, but he did record tracks for the band's new album in his apartment.
(Soundbite of song, "I Am an Artist for Art's Sake")
Mr. KUPFERBERG: (Singing) I am an artist for art's sake. It was God who gave me my big break. I was born for a higher reason, and all his angels I am pleasing. I'm an artist for God's sake.
KALISH: While Kupferberg is known for putting new words to old music, Ed Sanders has a penchant for setting old verse to new melodies, as in this adaptation of the "The Laughing Song" by English poet and painter William Blake.
(Soundbite of song, "The Laughing Song")
Mr. SANDERS: (Singing) When the painted birds laughed in the shade where our table with cherries and nuts is spread, come live and be merry and join with me to sing the sweet chorus of ha ha hee.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KALISH: Both Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are published poets, and Sanders is the author of a best-selling account of the Manson family. Yet, he's still proud of his life as a Fug.
Mr. SANDERS: It was the '60s, and it was like there was a big ribbon around what was acceptable and that ribbon was cut, so we found a niche inside that. We fit in in our own strange way for a few years.
KALISH: The new Fugs CD is called "Be Free."
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
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