Tuli Kupferberg – 1923-2010

Tuli Kupferberg died on July 12, 2010. Unlike many of our countercultural heroes, his death did not come at the hands of security forces, nor was it the result of a long history of substance abuse. Tuli lived to the ripe age of 86. His passing, while sad, was not unexpected.

Tuli had always been an elder in the scenes he was a part of. Ed Sanders was only 25 when he opened the Peace Eye bookstore in New York’s Lower East Side in 1964; Tuli, the bookstore’s weird upstairs neighbor, was 42. Together, Ed and Tuli formed the Fugs, one of the most outrageous and groundbreaking bands in history, whose music still has the power to shock and please after nearly half a century. They became lifelong collaborators and friends.

Tuli was legendary for his songs and poetry, but also for his irreverence. His disregard for sacred cows and social niceties landed him many admirers but also alienated many potential allies. “Goodbye to Tuli and the Fugs and all the boys in the front room,” wrote Robin Morgan in her breathtaking Feminist break-up note to the New Left, Goodbye to All That. To Morgan, Tuli was just another guy who hated the women he loved.

But what exactly had he done to piss her off? I rode down Robin’s street tonight to ask for details, but she was not out. Rent-stabilized apartments had kept her and Tuli a stone’s throw away from each other for forty long years after she’d trashed him in her essay. I wondered: was it awkward when they ran into each other at the laundromat or the Chinese restaurant — or did close proximity provide chances for reconciliation?

That and many other questions would now remain a mystery. Tuli’s meal of choice before facing a firing squad? His planned escape route in a disaster, or if implicated in a crime? Had anyone ever used him as a doppelganger — or as an alibi? I’d attempted to interview him several times, but always without success.

However, Tuli did come by my sidewalk book stall once, and stopped to chat. His long illness had already begun but not yet advanced. With his layers of dirty, multi-colored clothing hanging down in strips, he looked like a cross between a biblical prophet, a bag lady, and a clown. Imagine the town crier moonlighting as the village idiot. The wild gleam in his eyes burned like hot coals, though he was already well into his 80s. His playful, prankster nature was clearly in evidence, as well as his pride at being a lifelong rascal and full-on freak. When the M21 bus rolled up, he shuffled off to catch it with surprising speed.

Tuli will be missed. Now we the living must step up to fill his shoes, at least the parts that fit. His late start should be an inspiration for those still waiting to take a chance or to form a band.