For the Love of Tuli
For the Love of Tuli: Samara, Thelma & Sylvia
By Benito Vila
Tuli Kupferberg needs no introduction. Pacifist, anarchist, artist, poet, parent, absurdist, contrarian, street hawk, talking head, husband, cartoonist, bohemian, beat, hippie, punk, historian, rock star––he is the present tense personified. To call him a creative force is to call a hurricane a wind. To suggest he is a bit player in counter-culture expression is to overlook the people who appreciate him most––those attuned to his social commentary and its cadence––fans that include “big” names, like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Hal Willner, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and the Coen Brothers. To point out that what he has to say is still relevant today is right on target.
When Lisa Marie asked me to create a piece on Tuli for Love Love 3, I was thrilled. When she offered to connect me to his daughter, Samara, I felt like I was going right into the middle of it all. When Samara connected me to her mom, Sylvia Topp, and her dad’s girlfriend, Thelma Blitz, I realized how much I had to learn. I’ll let those three describe Tuli. They knew him best and they’re the ones keeping his work alive today.
Benito: How do I pronounce your name correctly?
Samara: It’s Sa-ma-ra [sah-mah-ra].
Benito: How do you pronounce your last name?
Benito: Long oo. I’ve always pronounced it with a short u.
Samara: Yes, a lot of people do. Even Ed Sanders pronounces it short u Kupferberg instead of Kupferberg.
Benito: When did you realize that your dad was not like the other dads?
Samara: That was obvious very early on. [Chuckles] He used to wait at the bus stop with me. He was always dressed crazy. He definitely looked “different”. He had a cool mismatched style I was a little bit embarrassed about when I was younger. He would get on the school bus and tell everyone they had to sit down. He was definitely embarrassing. He would sing in public a lot. I knew he had been in a band, but they weren’t performing, at least I didn’t see that until, I think, it was 1984, maybe, when The Fugs had a revival and started performing again.
Benito: Where did you grow up?
Samara: In Soho [New York City]. My parents bought a loft there in 1975. They had been living on East 10th Street for a long time and it was getting too dangerous over there. I have an older brother who’s four years older than me. They got broken into a couple of times when he was little and they decided to switch neighborhoods. They found a building for sale on Sixth Avenue and Spring Street and gathered some people together to buy that. We moved there when I was a year and a half old, my brother was almost six, and my mom still owns it. That’s where I grew up. That’s where the bus stopped right in front of our house and took me to PS3, the hippie public school in the village.
Benito: As a kid, what did you do for fun?
Samara: As a young kid, my dad stayed home with us. My mom worked at different newspapers. My dad would hang out with us and take us on different adventures. He would take us to Staten Island a lot. We’d take the ferry out there and then take the bus to the Staten Island Zoo and a couple of other weird places, or we’d go to Central Park or Washington Square Park.
Benito: What else do you remember doing with your dad?
Samara: We would go up to Canada every summer. My mom is Canadian and she still has property up there. It’s an island on a lake. We would spend the whole summer there when I was a kid. We’d all go up together and when my mom would come back to the city, to work, we’d go and stay in Toronto and explore the museum and the parks there. My dad liked city nature. He liked to see squirrels and ducks, but he always got a little bored when we were up on the island. He was definitely a city person and he loved parks. Even when he was older, he would like to go sit in all of the different little parks in the neighborhood and bring breadcrumbs and things to feed the birds.
Benito: What are your favorite stories about your dad?
Samara: The main story people know about him is about his jumping off the bridge––in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl––but the true story is that he got really depressed and was having a kind of mental breakdown, over a breakup and some guilt about not going to the war, and he jumped off of the Manhattan Bridge. It wasn’t the Brooklyn Bridge like it says in the poem. He was picked out of the water by people on a passing boat. He’d broken his back and he ended up in the hospital for about six months. He was always complaining that Ginsberg glamorized that incident. He didn’t want young people to think it was a cool thing to do.
And then there’s a story Larry Sloman––”Ratso”––tells about my dad, that Ratso came over to visit and went to get a glass out of our cupboard and found a handwritten note, saying, “Please stay away from the sugar”. Ratso asked him who the note was for and my dad grinned and explained he was trying to negotiate with the cockroaches. He was a long-time vegetarian, which he said he decided one day while eating a hot dog at Nathan’s in Coney Island––he realized what he was eating used to walk around. He continued to love Nathan’s and Coney Island and we would go there a lot, to eat fries and go to the beach. He was against killing any living creature, even cockroaches. I remember he would rescue them out of the toilet. We lived in Manhattan above a restaurant in the ‘70s and ‘80s and our apartment was pretty much always roach infested. I also realized at some point that he was purposefully throwing scraps of food on the ground to feed the mice.
Benito: Eek! What stories did your dad like telling?
Samara: He had a lot of stories. He liked to say how he decided not to be bar mitzvah’d because his grandmother told him that Jewish boys don’t whistle, or can’t whistle. His story went that he was supposed to have a bar mitzvah, but a month after she told him about the “no whistling” he decided that that was not okay and he wasn’t going to do it. That was his break from being religiously Jewish. Culturally, I know he felt connected but he didn’t like to go along with “the rules”.
He liked to talk about going to the Catskills to a “Kochalain”––that’s Yiddish for “cook for yourself”––to a summer house where his family and their friends met. The mothers and children would go up for the week and the husbands would arrive on the train on Fridays. He had lots of cousins and he had a lot of happy memories there. One summer a friend of his sister’s gave him a copy of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which he read while lying in the hammock. He said he was immediately transfixed. It solidified for him that he did not need to believe in God. He often referred to himself as a “militant agnostic”, and as an “anarcho-pacifist”.
He also talked about how he got out of the draft in World War II after he’d avoided enlisting while he was in college. He had some opportunities to go into training for a specialized field to avoid being drafted but he missed out on those and was called in to get a physical/mental exam. When he arrived there was an insurance form to fill out asking who his life insurance money would go to. He listed ten of his friends he wanted to split the money between. When he got to the psychiatric evaluation the doctor looked at the form and asked why he didn’t put his parents down. He said, “I hate my parents”. The doctor then asked what my dad thought of the war. He didn’t want to say that he outright opposed it, in case that would make the doctor want to send him more, so he said he had mixed feelings about it. The doctor ended up giving him a “4F”, not acceptable for military service, for having “abstruse” feelings on the war.
Benito: What do you remember him working on?
Samara: In the ’80s he was doing political cartoons that he submitted to a lot of newspapers, those and little newsprint booklets that he would put out. He would collect all kinds of clippings from newspapers. He had a bunch of file cabinets filled with them. He would get inspiration from that stuff and do these little cartoons. He also had something called “news poems” where he would clip articles and make little poems from different articles that he thought were ridiculous or interesting.
Benito: What were you doing while he was doing that?
Samara: He would give my brother and I a tape recorder and leave the room and let us make these elaborate tapes while he was working. That’s something I think about a lot because I still have the tapes somewhere.
Benito: Who was your dad always excited to see?
Samara: Lots of people. Tim and Lynn McCarthy. They were fans and two of his best friends, even though he met them later in life. Larry Sloman––Ratso. And Steve Taylor, Coby Batty and Scott Petito, the younger guys from the new Fugs. My dad loved all three of them. And Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo. They were neighbors down the street. And Jeffrey Lewis, who my dad worked on art and music with. And his older son, Joey [Sacks], who was 25 years older than me––he passed away a few years ago. Joey was always someone that my dad was always excited to hang out with. Those were his favorite people. And Thelma Blitz, who was his long-term girlfriend.
Benito: Is that someone your mom knew about?
Samara: Yes, he and Thelma were in a relationship for as long as I can remember, from sometime in the early ’90s. He and Thelma were pretty inseparable. He only saw her a couple of times a week, but they would sell things on the street in Soho, on Spring Street. He would make photocopies of his cartoons and mount them on cardstock. That was something he spent a lot of time doing later in his life.
Benito: Who did your dad avoid?
Samara: He had a few people who called him on the phone. There was one particular guy who would come and ring the buzzer and who would call him a lot. I’m blanking on his name, he was in and out of mental institutions, but my dad would talk to him even though he dreaded it and complained before and after the guy came around. I don’t even now how they met.
Benito: You mentioned your dad’s aversion to structured Judaism. Is there any other thing that your dad would rail against?
Samara: Yes, a lot of things. The political systems. He had a song “Nobody for President”. He did not like the Democrats or the Republicans. He felt they were both the same. My mom would get excited about Obama and he was not having it. He thought our system needed to be totally different. He considered himself an “anarcho-pacifist”. He was upset with all politicians.
Benito: What are your favorite works of his?
Samara: I really like his early poems, drawings and songs. I’ve been going through a lot of his old work that hasn’t gotten as much recognition because it was pre-Fugs. There are some beautiful drawings in there as well as the ink drawings with captions that people came to know as being his.
Benito: What do you see your dad being remembered for?
Samara: Probably for the Fugs. That’s his most visible, most accessible stuff that people can relate to. I know a lot of people have been affected and inspired by it. When you asked before about when I noticed my dad was different, I knew early on but it wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that people had heard of The Fugs and liked them, and were impressed and thought that it was cool that that was my dad. That was when I realized that he wasn’t a weirdo and that people actually thought he was cool, that he’d done exciting things and was more well known than I realized.
Benito: What do you think he should be remembered for?
Samara: How prolific he was throughout his life. There are a lot of things that people haven’t seen and don’t know about. As I mentioned, I particularly love his older poetry and his ink drawings with captions from the ‘40s and ‘50s. But I also would love for him to be remembered for his being a mentor to younger artists. He was always willing to talk. He’d write back to young fans who would get in touch with him, and he’d invite them over if they were in town. He made a lot of lifelong friends this way. He had a vast knowledge of many subjects and a great sense of humor and was an amazing storyteller. People were drawn to him and he was generous with his time and energy.
Benito: What are you doing now to keep your father’s work alive?
Samara: My mom and I have started to gather materials for a “Tuli Reader”, which we hope to find someone to publish. Some of his early poems are coming out in late August in Ragged Lion Press’ journal, that’s run by Edwin Sellors in London. We’re also working with Edwin on getting a small run of prints made of his drawings. Ultimately, Thelma is the one who works hardest at keeping his spirit alive. She runs his Facebook page and a YouTube channel, and is continuing to produce his, now her, cable access show, Revolting News, which he started with his friend, Lanny Kenfield.
A quick call to Thelma:
Benito: What are you doing to keep Tuli’s work out there?
Thelma: I inherited his cable television show, Revolting News. As he became more disabled, I became more instrumental in producing it. I learned how to film. In fact, he put the camera in my hands one day and said, “Learn to use it,” and went back to bed. I started fiddling with the camera and learned videography. I now produce Revolting News, which is on alternate Mondays, mnn.org, channel two, 10 PM, New York time. I am showing new things I’ve filmed, and reruns of Revolting News shows he produced. I fell in love with Tuli on the television. He was on a public access show called The Coca Crystal Show: If I Can’t Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution. Tuli used to appear every week, he had a spot where he would sing a song or read a poem or make a political statement. I loved him on that show. When I saw him in person, it was like a knock out.
Benito: How did you finally meet Tuli?
Thelma: I was selling my handicrafts on Spring Street where he lived and he used to walk by. One day, I got up the nerve to talk to him. Surprisingly, he answered back. He invited me to one of his poetry readings. I showed up at his gig and I was pretty much the only one there. We went home together. That’s how our relationship started. At that time, Sylvia had another relationship, someone she cared a lot about in Washington. She used to go and spend weekends with him.
Benito: The Tuli you knew, what excited him, what inspired him?
Thelma: He was past the rock and roll stage. He was already 60 years old. He was mostly into lefty politics. He was into anti-war and anti-capitalism––a pacifist-anarchist, he called himself. If you go to the Tulifuli channel on YouTube you can see him then. Have you seen the Tulifuli channel?
Benito: Yes, last night. I kept clicking on Tuli doing his version of She Belongs to Me.
Thelma: He Belongs to No One. Right. He did a lot of Dylan parodies. I remember that one. There are hundreds of them. We started the Tulifuli channel together. I used to post his videos on my own YouTube channel, but the channel was deleted for copyright infringement because I was doing translations of French chansons. I told Tuli, “You have to have your own channel.” He thought of the name Tulifuli and we started posting on that, and Tuli kept performing up until the time of his death. He did what he called “daily perverbs”––satirical versions of famous proverbs. If you check out our Daily Perverb series, it’s one of the last things that he did. Even after he had his stroke, and was quite disabled, he would put on some clothes, get up there and do his one-liners, which are quite funny.
Benito: What influence did Tuli have on your life?
Thelma: He turned me into a videographer. He politicized me a bit. He introduced me to a lot of interesting people. At the time that I knew him, his heroes were Howard Zinn, Alex Cockburn and Noam Chomsky. He was a far left, pacifist anarchist. He was always buying me books. He loved to frequent stands selling used books, dollar books. Many times he went and came back with arms full of books. He lived in a room full of books. Look for his apartment on the Tulifuli channel. You can see the loft he lived in, and all its books.
Benito: What books do you remember him giving you?
Thelma: What books did he give me? I have all his books. I have a whole big plastic tub, an archive, in fact, of all his books. Are you acquainted with his large cartoon book called Teach Yourself Fucking? It’s a riot and it’s very, very good. He did cartoons for the last part of his life, and he would send them to newspapers. Some made the The Village Voice. He drew a lot. At one point, when his eyes were failing, he stopped drawing, but he would do collages, just cutting things out and pasting them together. They were all political, and anti-war, and anti-capitalist, and satirical. He never wanted anything for his work. He often submitted it without signing it, especially the more radical cartoons that he could be held responsible for. He would submit them to publications, mailing them, all unsigned. They were copyleft. You know what copyleft is?
Benito: The opposite of copyright?
Thelma: Yes, right, the opposite of copyright. He wanted people to be able to reproduce his work.
To which Sylvia added:
Sylvia: Tuli didn’t believe artistic work should be copyright. Using “copyleft” was a play on words, but the use of “left” would of course emphasize his political outlook. It could also imply that the copyright had been “left” off his work on purpose.
Benito: How did you and Tuli meet and come together?
Sylvia: Oh, god. Let’s see. How did we meet? I lived in Greenwich Village and he lived inthat general area––everybody who was an artist or writer or whatever lived in or around Greenwich Village then. It was a cheap place to live. I was living with a boyfriend and I had an argument with him so I went out to Washington Square Park to let off steam. I was probably half crying or something. When Tuli saw me, he came over and asked me what was wrong, how I was doing. I said I was fine, that I just had an argument, and we talked a while. Seeing that we didn’t have phones or anything then, we just said “goodbye” but we kept running into each other on MacDougal Street. That was right around the time he changed his name to Tuli. We saw each other from time to time, and, eventually, we became a couple. 
Benito: What was he known as before?
Sylvia: His name is Norman.
Sylvia: Norman was the Anglicized version of his Jewish name, which is Naphtali. Naphtali is a Biblical name. Tuli didn’t really speak English well until he was about five because his parents were not English-speaking. They were immigrants and spoke Yiddish. His nickname as a kid was something like Tulia, Tulie. But he grew up known as Norman. When he got to a certain age, he decided for his writing, he would have a different name other than Norman Kupferberg. He went with something exotic, which was Tuli. That was his new name.
Benito: What motivated Tuli? Artistically. In both writing and art.
Sylvia: He was political. All of his works, all of his writings were to try to change the politics of the world––to get rid of the over-wealthy capitalists and the inequality of the system that sustains them. Tuli wanted to get rid of capitalism really, but that seemed almost impossible. What he thought we could do was to share things more equally, rather than living the way the political system is set up with the ultimate control of everything being held by the wealthy––with some people being billionaires and some people dying of starvation––which is still true.
Benito: What do you remember from your Birth Press days?
Sylvia: When we met, Tuli was working in the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital. It was a full-time ordinary job. He wrote poetry in his spare time, and he got it published here and there. That was sort of the life that he saw for himself. He was 34. I had studied typing and office management at university in Canada and, at the university, I had put out a newsletter with friends that I had typed. Somehow, together, we decided that we could maybe put out what were then called “little magazines”. There were lots and lots of little magazines then in the late ’50s and ’60s. We decided that we would put down a little magazine together and he would, for the most part, pick what would be in it and then I would type it and design it. Then, we would collate it together and sell it on the street corners. That’s what we did.
Benito: How did he get submissions to the magazine?
Sylvia: There were three issues of Birth. The first one was on bohemianism and it was really a collection, a selection of writing by different artists that Tuli respected. It wasn’t a case of having to ask people to submit. We just took it out of other books. It had a number of his original things maybe––I haven’t looked at that first issue for many years––and maybe a few original things from other people, too, but mostly it was a compilation.
Benito: What do you still have from that era?
Sylvia: We have everything. Samara has copies of them all. Tuli and I put out about 35 or 40 little books and things.
Benito: Do you have all the 1001 books?
Sylvia: Yes.Have you seen those?
Benito: No, I haven’t seen them. Yet.
Sylvia: There are literally 1001 entries in each one. 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft and 1001 Ways to Make Love were reprinted by Grove Press in the ‘60s. We did 1001 Ways to Live Without Working in 1959 or something. I typed the entries on a typewriter and then we had it printed. We collated it and then we stood on the street corner and started selling that, too. It sold very well. It was one of our best sellers.
Benito: Were you able to make a living selling books on the street corner in the Village?
Sylvia: No. We were still working. He was still working at the hospital and I had a job at Rockefeller Institute. I was in charge of one of their journals, proofreading and copyediting.
Benito: Is the excerpt Samara provided from that era?
Sylvia: No. Tuli probably wrote that a lot later in the ’60s, but it’s basically him saying that he was in a very staid job that he might have stayed in if he hadn’t met me. After he met me, I talked him into growing a beard, saving our money, quitting the boring job and buying a ticket on a ship to Europe.
Benito: What year was that?
Sylvia: 1959. We spent about six or eight months in Europe, hitchhiking to fifteen different countries or so, staying in youth hostels and living in London for about four months.
Benito: Is that when you wrote 1001 Ways to Live Without Working?
Sylvia: No, we wrote that first, before we went.
Benito: So you put the writing into practice?
Sylvia: I guess so. [Laughs] And in Europe we were writing 1001 Ways to Make Love. I remember that. You could call that trip “research”.
Benito: How did the Fugs come to be and what did Tuli like most about the Fugs?
Sylvia: Tuli and I would sell our little magazines outside a movie theater on Avenue C, and that’s where we met Ed Sanders, who was also selling his magazine there. Tuli and Ed were both poets and they discussed how they thought their own poetry would make better songs than some of the popular ones of the day. So soon after they met, they formed the first version of the Fugs.
Their first performances were always cheered with wild enthusiasm. No one had really done such songs before, a mix of left-wing politics and poetry, with two wild performers in Tuli and Ed, and, at first, a band of just three or four musicians. The words were always more important to both Tuli and Ed than the music, and they made sure the words could be heard clearly. They played at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street for a year, every night, and two shows on the weekend. I went to every performance. It was quite thrilling for us all. For Tuli, it was another way to broadcast his political views more widely.
Benito: Samara and Thelma both mentioned Lanny Kenfield and the Revolting Theater.
Sylvia: Lanny was a good friend of ours. He had been in the Air Force with Ken Weaver, the drummer in the Fugs. Lanny came to New York and he became a very good friend of both mine and Tuli’s. Lanny was not musical particularly. He had nothing to do with the Fugs, but when the Fugs broke up in ’69, or whenever that was, Tuli created the Revolting Theater and Lanny was part of that.
Benito: What was the mission there?
Sylvia: It was Tuli’s way of being able to keep on with his songwriting and satires, his political criticism of the whole Nixon crap and the Vietnamese war. That’s what the Revolving Theater was. He took advertisements for different things and re-staged them. Tuli loved being on the stage. He loved having an audience. He was a great performer with The Fugs and he wanted to keep on performing. In doing the Revolting Theater, he had complete control over what the program would be and he enjoyed that. We did a lot of traveling with the Revolting Theater, even after our son, Noah, was born. When Noah was a baby, we went to Montreal and played in Toronto, too, and around Woodstock, as well.
Benito: What came out of the Revolting Theater for Tuli?
Sylvia: He went on after that to the Coca Crystal Show. It was hosted by the political activist Coca Crystal and was subtitled “If I Can’t Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution”. There’s a lot of Tuli online on the Coca Crystal Show. It was one of a whole series of places he could read his writings and talk about his politics. Whenever and wherever anyone would invite him to perform, he would go. That was a huge part of our life.
Benito: You were together 50-plus years. Relationships can keep going, even after people pass on. Is there still an aspect of your life that still overlaps with Tuli’s.
Sylvia: Yes, that’s why we’re talking and why we’re putting together what we call a “Tuli Reader”, a whole collection of things that we like of Tuli’s writings. Jeffrey Lewis is carrying on his songs, which is wonderful. He has recorded some of Tuli’s unknown songs that weren’t on any Fugs album. And some of those are the ones I liked best.
Benito: When I first read Howl in high school, I wanted to know who the guy who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge was, the guy who “walked away unknown and forgotten” [into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer].
Sylvia: You know Tuli’s take on that. Samara must have told you. People read that in a way that made it a heroic thing to do. It wasn’t that. The bridge was wrong, too, but that’s minor. It was the Manhattan Bridge. Tuli told people, “Please don’t write about it. That’s not something I was proud of.” He described it as the worst time in his life, a horrible time that led to him doing that and he didn’t want anyone to ever think of him that way. He didn’t want that story to be an action people copied in any way.
Benito Vila is a journalist and poet living on the East End of Long Island, New York. He contributes to pleasekillme.com and can be found on the water when he’s not reading, researching and typing. He loves learning about modern tribes and the traditions that inspire them, and he struggles with the past, the future and the obvious.