“The reason I broke up the Fugs in early 1969,” said Ed Sanders, “was I just wanted to be a beatnik poet. Being a rock star involves a tremendous amount of effort.” The iconic, satiric, provocative, and activist band reunited in 1984 and have been playing together ever since, in various constellations of personnel and with decreasing frequency.
The Fugs will make a rare appearance at the Woodstock Guild’s Byrdcliffe Barn at 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 17, the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. Expect to hear old favorites like “Slum Goddess” and “CIA Man,” as well as new songs, including “Woodstock Nation,” in praise of “what was good about the festival,” said Sanders, a long-time Woodstock resident.
He recalled the stresses of rock stardom. “You have to get up every day and think up a press release. You have to make enough money to pay the band a salary, and we had to have an ACLU lawyer representing us at all times because we were in danger of being arrested.” Among their protests against the Vietnam War, the most prominent was the exorcism and levitation of the Pentagon in 1967. “We rented a flatbed truck and drove into the parking lot with a sound system,” Sanders recalled. “I get people coming to Woodstock from all over the world with film crews who want to talk about it. I always say we did raise the Pentagon, but we forgot to rotate it, so the Vietnam War went on another four years.”
The band also performed hundreds of benefits for good causes, including free concerts in Tompkins Square Park with the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. During the Fugs’ hiatus, Sanders went to Los Angeles to investigate the Manson killings, the subject of his meticulously researched book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (1971), and of his more recent Sharon Tate: A Life (2016). In the 70s, Sanders also wrote Tales of Beatnik Glory and the manifesto Investigative Poetry. More recent projects include America, A History in Verse (2001, 2004), his counterculture history Fug You (2011), and A Book of Glyphs (2014).
When Reagan brought Republican policies back to the White House in 1984, “it seemed like a propitious year to get the band back together,” Sanders recalled. “We started doing regular yearly reunions, and we’ve done them every so often since then.” In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, the Fugs performed at the Byrdcliffe Barn and again in 1994, for the 25th anniversary, the year of Michael Lang’s festival revival in Saugerties. The ‘94 Fugs concert was featured as double CD, The Real Woodstock, on Ace Records, along with Country Joe and Allen Ginsburg, with harmonies by local musicians Amy Fradon and Leslie Ritter.
This year, the Fugs will play on August 9 and 10 at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York before coming up to Byrdcliffe. The band will consist of the musicians who have been performing together over the past 30 years: Scott Petito on bass and keyboards, Steve Taylor on guitar and vocals, percussionist Coby Batty, and Sanders on vocals, plus, of course, “the spirit of Tuli Kupferberg,” whose inspired and often obscene lyrics set the tone of the early Fugs.
Sanders recalled Kupferberg’s funeral at Brooklyln’s Green-Wood Cemetery in 2010. “It was a sad day to say goodbye to him. When we buried him, there were parrots up in the trees,” the non-native Quaker parrots that live in some metropolitan area parks. “We sang Fugs songs as they lowered the casket, with the parrots overhead. Tuli was a genius as a poet and songwriter, magnificent. We’ll celebrate his life in our concert at Byrdcliffe.”
Expect to hear such Fugs classics as “Ah! Sunflower, Weary of Time,” with lyrics by William Blake; the rock-n-roll satire “Crystal Liaison” (“Enchanted forests of tomato juice / We ate the dope / I saw your ego float away”); and the gospel-inspired “Wide Wide River,” in which the audience is invited to sing along, solemnly intoning verses about a river of shit. The band will recreate the exorcism of the Pentagon, addressing it this time to the White House and giving the audience the chance to shout, “Out, demons, out!” at the current occupant.
Among the new songs are one inspired by a phone conversation between Sanders’ wife, Miriam, and Woodstock musician Tom Pacheco, about living in the end times, with a quote from Pacheco’s answering machine message. “Woodstock Festival” describes the point when the 1969 event “broke down, and Wavy Gravy spoke over the intercom one morning, saying, ‘What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000 people.’ “There was free food. A doctor friend ran a freakout tent, with free medical care, and there was free music ultimately, when the system opened up and they let anyone in who wanted to come. Free food, free medicine, free music — those goals are still valid.”
The Woodstock Guild presents the Fugs on Saturday, August 17, at 8 p.m. at the Byrdcliffe Barn, 485 Upper Byrdcliffe Road, Woodstock. Tickets are $25 to $30, available through http://www.woodstockguild.org.