Fugs at the Meltdown

A Review

By Michael Kemp

Review of The Fugs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, .

Supping a pint of chilled Guinness in the cool darkness of “Grand Central” before boarding the 17:19 from Brighton to Waterloo, shades and a small cognac (w/ ice) en route from the wandering refreshment trolley; then waited for John Jones in the slightly-less-Brendan-Behan-than-before “Hole In The Wall”.

Jones duly arrived from being lost in Kensington, and we ambled over to the South Bank — past crowds, Tracey Emin posters for the Hayward Gallery, giant artificial foxes perched high on rooftops, ethnic food stalls, spices, Festival of Britain 1951…

Located the Queen Elizabeth Hall and collected reserved Fugs tickets from the box office…

They came for Johnny Pissoff, but they got William Blake.

What do you do when you’ve been known for onstage masturbatory antics, inviting young ladies up to join in the latest dance craze sweeping the nation (The Gobble), and dumping several tons of steaming spaghetti into the front row of your audience?

If you’re Ed Sanders, and you’re about to turn 72, you just amble up to the Queen Elizabeth Hall microphone in an unassuming manner and say “Hi, we’re The Fugs.”

Looking like a friendly if dissolute history teacher, he informs the small but wildly enthusiastic audience of this fact and then launches straight into “Slum Goddess from the Lower East Side” from the Fugs’ first album circa 1965. It sounds GREAT…

Missing their co-founder Tuli Kupferberg who sadly passed away in 2010, Sanders & his younger Fug cohorts nevertheless deliver a spirited and unapologetic trawl through their formidable back catalogue, much to the delight of the assembled faithful here at the Meltdown tonight.

They follow “Slum Goddess from the Lower East Side” with the engaging nihilism of “Nothing” (also from their first album), a steadily smouldering “CIA Man” laced with menace, and a rousing singalong version of that old Fugs favourite “Wide Wide River” (aka “River of Shit”).

A reflective “You Can’t Go Into the Same River Twice” follows, an ambitious yet joyful “When the Mode of the Music Changes”, and two William Blake sonnets set to music: “Ah, Sunflower Weary of Time” and “How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field”.

This current version of The Fugs have been together for 26 years now, and it shows in the empathy, and tonight’s rendition of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, with stunning instrumental coda, easily outshines the original studio version on the 1968 “Tenderness Junction” album.

We were also treated to “Carpe Diem” (“you can’t outrun the angel of death”), “In Honor of Tuli” (with assorted b&w film clips edited together into a moving tribute, homage to the late great man) — and a hysterical performance of one of Kupferberg’s last ever songs: “Backwards Jewish Soldiers”.

The Fugs show climaxed with a full-on guitar-howling “Crystal Liaison” (from “It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest”) that rocked and reverberated the Queen Elizabeth Hall to its very foundations and left the faithful shaken and yelling for more. A standing ovation for the bards of bohemia…

Amid calls for “Johnny Pissoff meets the Red Angel”, Sanders & co. returned with a restrained but effective encore of “Morning Morning” before thanking festival curator Ray Davies for inviting them to the Meltdown 2011, and then bidding farewell to London (Sanders loved the Naked Bike Ride earlier that day in the capital and sent pictures to his wife in Woodstock) with blown kisses and promises to return…

A great night—classic, in fact—drinking abandoned wine at alfresco tables overlooking the Thames at dusk—a toast to Tuli—blue lights on the sacred river.