The CIA, Tuli Kupferberg and Me
CIA Man, written by the late, great Tuli Kupferberg, is one of the Fugs‘ oldest songs. I first heard it live at the Harry Smith Memorial Concert in DC produced by the Smithsonian Institution about ten years ago (I think that’s the version I’ve linked to here.) To my delight, I recently discovered that “CIA Man” plays at the end of the Coen Brothers’ movie Burn After Reading. It’s worth it to see the movie just to hear the song.
It’s brilliant. This is the CIA of old – and probably now. Tuli helps us remember just how much damage was inflicted on other countries and our own national psyche by CIA covert ops during the Cold War – overthrowing democratic governments in Guatemala and Iran, collaborating with the Mob, paying off right-wing political parties from Chile to Italy to Japan, testing LSD on innocents – all the things that caused blowback that’s still with us. Tuli got it just right. I love his rhymes:
Who can mine the harbors Nicarag-You-A?
Out-hit all the hit-men of Chicag-You-A?
Fuckin’ A Man!
I was very happy to meet Tuli at a seminar on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music held the day after the concert above (the Fugs played because they were old pals of Harry Smith, who produced their first album). He was there with Ed Sanders and the other members of the Fugs, and I told him how I first heard the band back in high school in Japan, where me and my bohemian friends in Tokyo somehow managed to get hold of the most obscure music and magazines despite being thousands of miles away from the action. He was totally open and friendly. Just after Tuli’s death last month, his musical comrades paid wonderful tribute to him and his songs at a concert in New York.
After our convesation at the Harry Smith tribute, Tuli and I struck up a short correspondence. One day I opened an envelope from him to find his lyrics sheet for “CIA Man” – along with a collection of cartoons and poems about anarchism, American imperialism and other stuff Tuli and the Fugs used to sing about with such verve and irreverence. Below is a scan of his song, with his corrections and changes in his handwriting.
The night they closed the Harry Smith concert (at Wolf Trap in northern Virginia) the Fugs also performed one of my favorites, “Nothing” (“Clinton a friendly nothing”). Listen carefully to this cut, from the CD from that great night of American music, and you can hear me screaming along in the background: “Nothing!” “Nothing!” The audience was typical Washington – staid, well-dressed, quiet as mice – and the Fugs’ raucous music, straight out of the East Village scene of the late 196os, didn’t seem to move many who were there. But, ah well, I had fun. I miss Tuli and thank our lucky stars that America can claim musicians like him. RIP.