When you see me on the street you yell "Jesus Christ!": Ted Berrigan and The Fugs

Daniel Kane's new book, "Do You Have a Band?": Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City (Columbia University Press, 2017), investigates a lineage of punk icons like Richard Hell and Patti Smith who inherited, appropriated, and furiously (dis)assembled their aesthetics out of and in unison with the poets and poetic lineages associated with New York City's Lower East Side. At the same time, Kane suggests, writers like Eileen Myles and Dennis Cooper were modeling their divergent styles, personas, and little magazines on their punk peers and predecessors. Kane's portrait of the reciprocity and defiance between innovative poetries and genre-bending musicians comes out of a deep, generous archival dive that includes the author's own interviews with many of the artists that populate the book's narratives. For example, I was totally delighted to get this story from Bill Berkson about going to shows at the Filmore, the iconic short-lived venue on Second Avenue (see Ada Calhoun's St. Marks is Dead for more Fillmore tales), which arranges surprising trinities like Ted Berrigan, Miles Davis, and Neil Young in one irreducible space:

I went to many shows at the Fillmore with Ted Berrigan, Michael Brownstein, Jim Carroll and others. The most amazing was a double bill featuring Neil Young and Miles Davis -- more properly, Miles Davis with his Bitches Brew contingent opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse! [Rock 'n' roll music...] was in the room, the turntable, everywhere all the time. Lines from songs got into the poems, and the poems, like our conversations, learned to ride on this stream of continuous music.

In the play and energy of all this "continuous music," I love seeing Kane point to connections between specific bands and poets, noting how lines from the Velvet Underground's "I'm Beginning to See the Light" made their way into Berrigan's and Anne Waldman's poem "Memorial Day," "a text that owed as much to Charles Olson's characterization of the manuscript page as a field on which words could dance wildly as it did to Lou Reed and his friends." Rather than discuss a poetics of sociability in terms of "coterie" poetics, Kane describes the patterns of devotion between New York School poets and their various sources as wayward, flexible, and inclusive. The book questions our romanticized associations betweens poetry and music, and between musicians and poets, while recognizing how a sound or a lyric can float into a poem as a way to explode what language (or noise) is available. I appreciate Kane's thinking about "bad" writing and "minor art," too. Kane's description of work that is easily dismissed, and his explanation of why he's drawn to supposedly easily reducible work, resonates with the relationship I have with some of Berrigan's poems. Here's Kane in an interview with Andy Fitch about "Do You Have a Band?":

 from  The Fugs  album cover, with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg that reference a lineage of counterculture figures for the author of "Howl": Burroughs, Whitman, Dylan, and others.

from The Fugs album cover, with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg that reference a lineage of counterculture figures for the author of "Howl": Burroughs, Whitman, Dylan, and others.

I’m really drawn to work that many people would understandably dismiss as fairly inconsequential. A text that always comes up for me when thinking about my love for “fun” poetry is a little Ted Berrigan one-liner titled “Kinks.” The entire poem is as follows: “I am kinks.” I also think back to work like Aram Saroyan’s one-word blasts, or even maybe his relatively epic works, such as an untitled poem which reads in its entirety “Ron Padgett / would approve / this idea.” These texts seem to me to represent an attitude towards poetry in which loose conversation or even a simple happy grunt is an idealized primary response. I’m not saying here that reading such works through a rigorous intellectual framework is somehow “bad,” by the way. I’m all for both/and.

One of the bands that appears throughout Kane's book is The Fugs, the notoriously noisy, unevenly "bad" proto-punk band led by poet Ed Sanders, the editor of the infamous mimeo magazine Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Kane's narratives on Sanders's band reminded me that last year I bought a vinyl reprint of the second Fugs album, The Fugs, released in 1966, which includes the B-side track "Doin' All Right" written by Ted Berrigan with Lee Crabtree and Vinny Leary. I went looking for the album because of the song by Berrigan and, miraculously, a local record store had a copy for sale. The live version of the song, which you can listen to in the video below, begins with Sanders announcing "Ladies and gentleman, it gives The Fugs great pleasure, when the author himself is in the audience, to present tonight for almost its world premiere, the new Fug hit at the [inaudible], by the honorable Ted Berrigan..."Doin' All Right"!" At the end of the song Sanders yells "Author, author, author!" cajoling the audience into recognizing Berrigan who, surrounded by a clapping, hooting crowd announces, "That's the greatest song I've ever heard." Laughter fills the room. It's an incredible moment to have on tape.

The Fugs sound like a Captain Beefheart-Rolling Stones-DEVO mash-up, or Tom Waits giving an SDS speech to The Muppets, or Donovan yelling through wet noodles. The sonic dissonance between tracks, like the sound effects heavy, circus-y anti-war anthem "Kill for Peace" followed by the warm lullaby-like "Morning Morning," is smoothed over by both songs' parodic lyrics and raucous performative buffoonery. "Morning Morning" might sound like a sunny, introspective love song but Tuli Kupferberg's lyrics carry all the Fuck You-style sarcasm and absurdity of Sanders's "Total Assault on the Culture"-approach to music: "Moon shine moon shine / Moon shine drugs the hills with grace / And the secret of the shining / Seeks to break my simple face." It's like a cartoon Cat Stevens. 

Berrigan picks up the Total Assault in "Doin' All Right," an upbeat bearded-hipster-about-town narrative where "I'm not ever gonna go to Vietnam / I'd prefer to stay right here and screw your mom." Rather than the heavy existential-political crisis in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Almost Cut My Hair," released six years later in 1970, where the narrator feels "like letting my freak flag fly / And I feel like I owe it, to someone," the narrator's beard in "Doin' All Right" is a sign of silly apathy and masculine sexual freedom, just "the hairs grownin' around my nose and throat" that make everyone else cry out in anger and disgust: "When you see me on the street you yell "Jesus Christ!" / But I'm getting mine / I'm doin' all right." The joke continues with a reference to a well-known but oddly worded Gillette razor slogan, "How are you fixed for blades?" which was traditionally sung by a cartoon parrot in Gillette commercials throughout the 1950s:

When I walk down the street
The people that I meet
Hold their noses and say
"How are you fixed for blades?"
But I just walk on by
I don't even hear 'em
Because I'm high

Even though these songs are thoroughly parodic and tongue-in-cheek, lyrics like "The only gook an / American can trust / Is a gook that's got / His yellow head bust" in "Kill for Peace" and "And I'm getting almost as much pussy as the spades" in "Doin' All Right" can and should be read as examples of the willingness of mid-1960s white counterculture to perpetuate racist stereotypes and employ racist language. Even if these satirical lyrics are being used to critique traditional American mores and the racist otherings that prop up those values, The Fugs are tossing out these derogatory terms to a mostly white youth audience that sees itself in opposition to a mostly white conventional audience. While Kane's book expertly explores how protest, literature, an expanding feminist ethos, and the intergenerational, interdisciplinary aesthetics of poets and musicians fostered the birth of punk culture on the Lower East Side, the book does not chart how race or racism influenced or underlined the discourses and aesthetic transformations that defined punk.

David Berrigan, Ted's son with Sandy Berrigan, once wrote a short, memorable piece called "Ted's Music" that mentions "Doin' All Right" and gives an amazing portrait of Berrigan's relationship with the music of his generation. I'll close this post by quoting the last half of David Berrigan's piece, from 2012:

This year I was in Stockholm, which has a lot of vintage vinyl shops, I had a mission to find a copy of the Fugs eponymous album because it includes the track “Doin Allright” [sic] that Ted wrote [...]. I already had a copy, but I wanted two so both my sons could have one. Maybe they will have record players someday. Jim Carroll also based a song “People who Died” on one of dad’s poem of the same name. You can find both versions online. I remember, briefly, wishing he could write a few popular songs and make a lot of money.
In 1977 I played him “Hey There Little Insect" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. I don’t think he was impressed, but it presaged my entomological career. I think dad loved Dylan the most, our penultimate visit was at my graduation from Reed College in Portland OR in 1983, I lived with friends in a big old house. They had a good stereo and a lot of records. I remember dad lying on the floor in front of the records singing along to "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and scoping out the collection.
He used to say that poets had to lift their voices up in song.