It's hard to say what seems more remarkable -- that the Fugs have somehow survived well into the 21st century, or that they've finally threatened to throw in the towel in the year 2010, 46 years after a handful of poets, beats, and activists became America's first great underground rock band. Be Free! is subtitled Final CD, Pt. 2, and given Tuli Kupferberg's health problems (he had two strokes in 2009), this may well be the group's final recorded gesture. If it is, it finds the band bowing out in a matter that befits them. The Fugs that recorded this album between 2005 and 2009 are a different kettle of fish from the gleefully rude troublemakers who emerged in the '60s, but if guitarist Steve Taylor, bassist Scott Petito, and percussionist Coby Batty make this music sound almost professional (something they periodically managed in their heyday, truth be told), Kupferberg and Ed Sanders thankfully seem to have scarcely changed a bit. Sanders is a man who knows how to celebrate joy and isn't afraid to deliver his songs with the brio they deserve, and his celebrations of laughter ("The Laughing Song"), purposeful sloth ("Goofitude"), and throwing off the burden of white collar culture (a song adapted from Herman Melville's Bartelby the Scrivener) ring clear and true, as does a witty but forceful attack on the CIA. Taylor's "Hungry Blues" isn't as ambitiously poetic as the other tunes here, but it's impassioned and all too timely. And if Kupferberg mostly sounds like a cranky old man on Be Free, he's a hilarious, inspired, and eloquent cranky old man, and the playful snark of "This Is a Hit Song" and "I Am an Artist for Art's Sake" is vital, beautiful stuff. But Kupferberg saves his best moments for the album's closing track, "Greenwich Village of My Dreams," a reverie in which many of the great bohemian heroes of the 20th century come together in a string of fantastic moments both real and imagined; it's also a tribute to the time and place that brought the Fugs together in the first place, and it's an ideal way to bring this group's story to a close, if need be. Be Free isn't a masterpiece, but it finds these artists honoring their muses on their own terms just as they have from the start, and it ends with the implicit implication that as long as Sanders and Kupferberg draw breath, they will find art in this life. There's no greater lesson the Fugs can teach.
Be Free! Final CD, Pt. 2 Review
by Mark Deming