The Fugs finally return to Chicago on Saturday at the City Winery after a 44-year absence. The reception for the band is bound to be a bit warmer than it was when the counter-culture pioneers last performed here, on Dec. 28, 1968, at the Aragon Ballroom.
Back then, the emotions stirred by the violence and chaos of the Democratic National Convention four months earlier in Chicago were still fresh. As two of the leading voices of the protest era, Fugs cofounders Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg attended the convention and found themselves among the youthful anti-war protesters who were beaten and tear-gassed by Chicago police. The next day, Sanders and his wife took their 4-year-old daughter to Lincoln Park, and she began crying – the tear gas had still not dissipated.
"I was still angry about that in December," Sanders says. "We were booked to play the Aragon as opening act for Wilson Pickett, but he couldn't make it in because of a blizzard. We managed to make it in by train from Cleveland, and the promoter stuck us up there on stage in front of about 2,000 or 3,000 sort-of-upset people. I called Mayor Daley something too unfortunate for the crowd to bear, and a woman in the front unloaded on me. She threw a Coke in my face."
By then, the Fugs were used to confrontation. They used satire, beat poetry and rudimentary musical skills to cast a riotously provocative, frequently bawdy and darkly humorous imprint on '60s youth culture. Despite their dearth of "hits" – broadsides such as "CIA Man," "Kill for Peace" and "I Couldn't Get High" were far too scandalous for commercial radio -- they were signed to major label deals, toured extensively and released a half-dozen albums in the late '60s. Sanders was featured on the cover of Life magazine and jousted with William F. Buckley on the nationally televised public-affairs program "Firing Line."
He ended the band in 1969 to focus on his first love: writing and poetry. Sanders has published dozens of books over the last six decades; his first, "Poem from Jail," appeared in 1963, after he was arrested during a protest in which he tried to board a nuclear submarine. The Fugs finally re-formed in 1984 and have been performing off and on ever since. Kupferberg died in 2010, but Sanders, at 71, is going strong with a lineup that includes guitarist Steve Taylor, drummer Coby Batty and bassist Scott Petito. This new incarnation of the Fugs continues to write and record new music, their rebel spirit undiminished.
"I thought I'd have a quiet old age, but I have more CDs out there now than I did when I was a wild youth," Sanders says. "We put all our quote-unquote 'genius' into each song, but I had no illusions about longevity back then, and I still don't."
Sanders says the Fugs started out with an air of anything-goes possibility – what a show could be and how the band would progress were entirely up for grabs.
"We started out in Greenwich Village, on the Lower East Side, and we were in the middle of a lot of music: the jazz clubs, the civil-rights songs, the folk movement, rock 'n' roll," Sanders says. "Everyone had guitars in their apartments, and we'd put beat poetry to music. It was a time when you could rent a store front, rent a smoke machine, have someone dancing in a bathtub full of grapes, play some songs, and you could charge admission."
The ramshackle music on "The Fugs' First Album" was "produced" in part by Harry Smith, who compiled the famed "Anthology of American Folk Music" a few years earlier.
"Harry was a friend of mine, long before the Fugs were founded, and he came to many of our shows," Sanders says. "He got us a deal at Folkways Records, claiming we were a 'jug band.' When it came time to record, he was smart to have the engineer just roll tape and record the whole thing. We didn't know anything about doing 'takes' or recording, but we had songs. He yelled out at us, 'Just get going.' The only thing he wanted in payment was a bottle of rum. In the middle of the session, when he sensed our energy was flagging, he smashed the rum bottle against a wall and left. It had the desired effect. It was a three-hour recording session, but the best parts of it have been in release since 1965."
The Fugs honed their act by renting out old theaters in New York, playing to 150, 200 people a night. Whatever the music was that the group played, it didn't have a name yet. "It wasn't folk, wasn't rock, we were somewhere in between," Sanders says. "We were spectacle. We were young men with energy, confidence and writing ability. Within a few weeks we wrote 50 songs and started performing. People like Richard Burton, Tennessee Williams and Kim Novak would show up. We improved our act, and eventually got a contract with Atlantic and then Reprise. I found out later that Frank Sinatra had to approve our demo tape at Reprise, because it was his company, and he told (Reprise President) Mo Ostin, 'I guess you know what you're doing.' Had I known that, I would have put a sticker on our albums saying that we were 'Sinatra-approved.' It was a funny, heady set of years. We didn't sleep, we could carry on three, four careers at the same time, and stay sane."
Subsequent generations continue to draw inspiration from the Fugs' music.
"When I speak at colleges, I see students still putting out poetry and literary magazines," Sanders says. "It has to do with that old Latin phrase, 'While I breathe, I hope.' Hope is built into the human condition. People are always looking to make things better -- particularly young people who see how their forebears screwed up. They can see into the past and study what elements worked to improve things. The Fugs were one of those strands of the past that looked to create a better world."