Tuli Kupferberg, 86, iconic poet and singer of the Fugs


By Albert Amateau

Tuli Kupferberg, poet, singer and rambunctious jester, who was a co-founder of the Fugs, the anarchic band of the 1960s, died Mon., July 12, in Manhattan at the age of 86.

In poor health for more than two years, he suffered two strokes last year, according to Ed Sanders, his friend and fellow Fugs founder.

By the time Kupferberg was singing such songs as “Kill for Peace” with the Fugs, he was an anthologized poet and a bohemian icon much loved by the current inheritors of the Beats. He was a familiar figure at counterculture events and peace rallies, offering his poetry and drawings for sale.

“I’ve been truly blessed to have known Tuli,” said Clayton Patterson, an artist and art organizer on the Lower East Side. “He’s one of the few who had the ability and the strength to swim down, touch the bottom of the ocean, resurface and tell us what treasures lay hidden in the darkness where only the 1 percenters and the forgotten ones could see… . I loved and respected Tuli,” Patterson said.

Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), also paid tribute to Kupferberg.

“Tuli was a longtime member of A.R.T.I.S.T. who in recent years sold his art in Soho. He was a truly unique character with a biting sense of humor,” Lederman said.

In an interview with him conducted in 2007, three of his friends, Steve Dalachinsky, Jim Feast and Yuko Otomo, call Kupferberg “a provocative humorist of the left… . At one moment he may be puncturing an inflated windbag of media propaganda and at another slicing through the fatuous rhetoric of a labor faker.”

In the interview, which is to appear in 2011 as part of a larger book — “Jews: The People’s History of the Lower East Side,” edited by Dr. Mareleyn Schneider and Patterson — Kupferberg spoke about his roots, his childhood and life.

Naphtali Kupferberg was born in 1923 on the Lower East Side on Cannon St. near the Williamsburg Bridge to immigrant parents who were part of an extended Jewish family. The family moved to Yorkville and Kupferberg went to Townsend Harris High School, an elite school located on E. 23rd St. where Baruch College is now. At one point, he said to himself, “I’m in the wrong place,” so he transferred to New Utrecht High School when the family moved to Brooklyn. He went on to Brooklyn College in the depth of the Depression where he was astounded to find Communists, anarchists and Trotskyites.

Kupferberg was declared 4F and exempt from the draft during World War II.

Although attracted to the militant left, he knew he would not abide party discipline.

He graduated from college and moved to Broome St. on the Lower East Side where rents were cheap.

“I was paying $17 for a steam-heated apartment — a lot of money at the time,” he recalled in the 2007 interview.

He talked of his membership in the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World), joining the War Resisters League and meeting Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre and Paul Goodman, a radical educator and writer.

Kupferberg was involved in Birth, a magazine that published LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg and Diane DiPalma. He joined his friend Sanders, who published Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.

Kupferberg himself published Yaah: “It was a poetry magazine but it published anything odd and strange,” he said.

Kupferberg’s last apartment was on the western edge of Soho, at Sixth Ave. and Spring St., where he lived for many years.

“The place was just filled with books,” said Patterson. “It was like a library. There was very little living space because there were so many books.”

Kupferberg is survived by his wife, Sylvia Topp; three children, Joseph Sacks, Noah Kupferberg and Samara Kupferberg; and three grandchildren.