Top Fifty 16: The Fugs – it crawled into my hand, honest, 1968

[Originally posted April 2012]


Apocalyptic Intro

This album was my apocalyptic, first introduction to The Fugs and it was only afterwards, some years in fact, that I heard their earlier, rawer material. This record still contains their incipient, trademark preoccupations, essentially from the puerile to poetry and the surreal, but it is overall a much more polished affair, the ‘band’ [with core members Ed Sanders, Ken Weaver and Tuli Kupferberg] having succumbed to and/or exploited a larger budget and the production values going with this.


It was a supply English teacher who introduced my 5th year class to The Fugs, using a study of poetry as an excuse to play Ah Sunflower, Weary of Time taken from their first album. He must have shown pictures of them as well and I was hooked immediately with the obvious appeal of hippies and poetry and music and, though not with this track, irreverence and rebellion. I won’t write in detail about him now, but this lanky, informal, eccentric, seemingly worldly-wise and charismatic teacher had a colossal impact on me at the time and opened up new and exciting horizons, musical and poetic, for which I will always be grateful.

The album has two distinct sides. Side 1 is very ‘musical’ – surprising and maybe even unwelcome for those preferring their earlier iconoclastic style – and Side 2 which is a whole side amalgam of songs, chants, poetry recitals, subliminal oddities, and spoken extracts. Crystal Liaison is the beautiful opener on side 1, written by Sanders and Weaver, and it echoes the psychedelic sound-swathes of The Electric Prunes’ Kyrie Eleison, no doubt intentionally, adding blaring horns, pumping bass and a rock lead guitar. It delivers both pastiche and poignancy. Ramses II Is Dead, My Love follows immediately with yodelling and an expansive choral accompaniment. Burial Waltz is even more mocking in its sweeping strings and light operatic additions, but for all this jesting with genres there is an underlying beauty to The Fugs’ production and performance on this album. The humour one would more readily expect comes with fourth track Wide Wide River, beginning River of Shit, River of Shit, Roll On, River of Shit, Right from my toes right up to my nose….I’ve been swimming in this river of shit more than twenty years and I’m getting tired of it which then moves on to the spoken narrative Who dealt this mess anyway – that’s an old card player’s term… and the song mixes its scatology and straight comedy with possible elements of political satire – it isn’t wholly easy to work out. Side 1 finishes with the plaintive Life Is Strange, by Tuli Kupferberg, with its eclectic mix of oriental tones, folk harmonies and jazz piano. The whole side is a rich concoction of musical motifs and lyrical adventure.

Side 2 is so much more wild and wicked. Opener Johnny Pissoff Meets The Red Angel begins with the redneck tirade of Johnny, his racist and homophobic rant as manic and real as it still is today: it is a dangerous parody because of this realism and I won’t actually repeat the words here. But it isn’t left unanswered. In another musically beautiful twist, Johnny’s angry persona is answered by the graceful Country Rock harmonies of the Red Angel who seeks to change Johnny’s ways with its wisdom and urgings for peace,

When The Red Angel comes and the TV is cold,
Will you pray in the dawn for the rest of your soul?
When you lie in the dour death coma,
Do you think you’re gonna go to heaven, oh Johnny,
With a violent heart? With a violent heart?
Are you ready Johnny? I’m the Red Angel.

Ahimsa, oh Johnny, ahimsa!
In the spinning confusion, ahimsa!
In the blood of life, death, and torture,
Ahimsa! Ahimsa! Ahimsa!
Ahimsa, is the seashell of Buddha.
Ahimsa, is the rose and the lamb.

When The Red Angel comes and the TV is cold
Will you pray in the dawn for the rest of your soul?
When you lie in the dour death coma,
Do you think you’re gonna go to heaven, oh Johnny,
With a violent heart? With a violent heart?
With a violent heart? With a violent heart?

Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘peace’ and literally translates as ‘no violence’, or ‘no himsa’. For a teenager full of fear about this redneck mentality and also full of idealism for achieving world peace and love, this song’s double narrative spoke volumes. So much of the album’s themes and my attraction to these are wrapped up in the cultural concerns we shared – theirs real and mine at this time vicarious – and whilst this is in many ways obviously dated, it still resounds. Another example of this cultural context is the gorgeous and surely satirical second track, a Gregorian chant of synonyms for Marijuana, its title. As satire and protest it is beautiful. There are sixteen snippets and fuller songs on this side, and one of the more multi-faceted numbers is When The Mode of the Music Changes, again by Kupferberg, which is complex in its array of musical styles, ranging from beautifully sung balladry to militaristic beats, and back again to lush harmonies and orchestration, then into a funked-up groove, back to a military anthem, and finishing on the peace and calm of its pretty central melody. The songcraft is superb. The snippets and oddities that follow are primarily vaudeville and circus acts, performed as puerile titillations, what Frank Zappa labelled ‘smut rock’, and again as a teenager I thought it was hilarious – and still do. I learnt most of these by heart and sang them when drunk. It seemed cool at the time. Lines like whenever I see the moon on the shore….or see a piano leg touching the floor…..I get horny! [then sung as a rousing chorus]: horny horny horny horny! It is a recurring theme. Another favourite learnt ditty is the song Life Is Funny, sung in the most morose of tones, life is funny, life is free, got all of them goodies coming to me, it’s so funny I could cry, it’s so funny you could die,  it’s so funny….. and I felt then and still do today that the elliptical existentialism of that ending has great meaning……


There are other jokes, for example The National Haiku Contest, the winning entry coming from a William Chain, a senior at South West High School in Kansas City, Missouri,

do not tell me I am source of you knock-up
the mud elephant wading through the sea
leaves no tracks

and it is juvenile certainly, but it is this mix of the absurd and silly and at times musically sublime that teases and delights and fulfils. It made the late 60s/early 70s cultural revolution seem like a lot of fun. The album finishes on a simple ‘peace’ chant with crashing cymbals, and we are reminded that within the smut and comedy there has been social observation and commentary. And above all there has been the unbridled joy of The Fugs’ creativity.




Sonnet Dancing


Levitating? Come on – strictly, it’s dancing,
not necessarily well, without much energy,
yet it takes two to get anywhere these days,
nail it as they say, and there is a sharing
with that delicate apilado which will possibly
please judges who are simply standing around

and do not object to oxymoron in a style.
Should this pair lose, there is an escape route
through the archway at the back, a corridor to
other tangos in the snow where whiteouts will
be complete as a natural part of the scenery.

Like here, these three steps out of the expected
sync, self-aware, but gliding to the bitter end
in a flourish of another kind of arch and bend.

[picture by artist and photographer Nick Dormand]