Up against the wall, mother-fugger

As much as the youthful Norman Mailer may have enjoyed inflating his self-image by inundating friend and foe with a superheated geyser of “fucks,” his favorite word wasn’t acceptable for the printed page in 1948. The disgruntled (read “pissed-off”) Mailer was forced to substitute the word “fug” for “fuck” in his gritty war novel The Naked and the Dead. The story goes that this prompted the waggish starlet Tallulah Bankhead to say upon first meeting Mailer, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck.” If Mailer never wanted to see—or say—another “fug” in his life, there was a counter-culture rock group that thought the euphemism was the ideal name to have to “stick it to” the establishment of the 1960s.

Enter The Fugs.

Who? some of you may ask. During the summer of 1966, when Jimi Hendrix was playing in a little club in the basement Players Theater on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, and the Mothers of Invention were just starting out a few blocks away on Bleecker Street, The Fugs had already released two albums. Moreover, the likes of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Tennessee Williams and Leonard Bernstein were making backstage visits upstairs at the same Players Theater to meet them. The band was formed three years earlier in New York City in mid-1963 by poets Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders, along with musician Ken Weaver. Other musicians joined later. Kupferberg, the group’s founding member, had already published his poetry in the literary journal, Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts, and he thought that he could get his anti-war, anti-establishment message across all the better through something where you could tap your toes to the music while you were pounding your fists against injustice.

A satirical and self-satirizing rock band with a political slant, the Fugs not only protested against the Vietnam War, they also filled their songs with humorous lyrics about sex and drugs. Their witty, and sometimes scatological tunes included such songs as “Coca Cola Douche,” “Boobs A Lot,” and “Caca Rocka,” from albums Virgin Fugs and It Crawled into My Hand, Honest. Lyrics rollicked along to extol the virtues of smoking grass and eating pussy. It wasn’t all fun and games, though. The Fugs were environmentalists and social activists, sharply critical of the Vietnam War and authority in general. They were a voice—albeit mostly unheard by the general public—of the discontented anti-establishment of the time, as can be seen in these lyrics from “C I A Man”: Who can kill a general in his bed? Overthrow dictators if they’re Red?/ Fucking-a man! (Fucking-A! C-I-A!)”

The band’s often frank take on politics caused a hostile reaction in some quarters, most notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the late 1960s the group was referenced several times in an F.B.I. report that mentions eleven songs from The Fugs First Album that are “vulgar and repulsive and are most suggestive.” It should not come as a surprise to learn that The Fugs were not only familiar with Norman Mailer. According to Guggenheim Fellow Sanders, they drew inspiration from such diverse sources as Aristotle’s Poetics, the poèmes simultanés of the Dadaists in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, right up to the jazz-poetry of the Beats and the music of Charlie Parker and John Cage.

If The Fugs were flipping the bird at the status quo, another Greenwich Village band of miscreants, David Peel & the Lower East Side, were sitting back “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.” The title of their first album Have a Marijuana (1968) says it all. Actually, it doesn’t. The lyrics do. Founding member Peel (born David Michael Rosario) was a New York-based musician whose raw, acoustic, proto-punk “street rock” was peppered with salty lyrics about sex and drugs, and sex and drugs. That the spelling of the title of his song “I Do My Bawling in the Bathroom” may lead one to infer that it is about crying, listening to the words tells otherwise. When Peel sings that it is also his bedroom, you clearly get the idea that he is not crooning about that kind of bawling.

Like The Fugs, Peel had his beef with authority too, but don’t look for any pithiness here. Take his song “up Against the Wall.” Add the word “motherfucker,” and—voila—you have all the lyrics to the song (almost). The entire lyrics are: “Up against the wall Motherfuckers! Up against the wall Motherfuckers!” Well, there are also a couple of “La, la, la, la, la, las” thrown in to flesh it out, and it does conclude with a jaunty, “Cha-cha-cha!” Its lilting tone doesn’t even hint at the incendiary source for the phrase. It seems that it may have been initially appeared in print in the poem, “Black People!” by LeRoi Jones (since changed to Amiri Baraka): “The magic words are: Up against the wall, mother fucker, this is a stick up!” This, in turn, was a reference to a phrase supposedly barked by Newark cops to blacks under custody. Cha-cha-cha.

Peel may have been destined for oblivion, but fate took over. With the youth revolution in full swing, he was rediscovered by John Lennon in 1971. Lennon heard Peel when the latter was playing for spare change in New York’s Washington Square Park. Lennon went on to produce The Pope Smokes Dope for Peel. This album was banned in many countries and has since been sought after by collectors worldwide. Peel has gone on to record more than twenty albums. In Jack Milton’s 1972 film Please Stand By, Peel portrayed and starred as a media hippie revolutionary, who hijacked a network television van and jammed the airwaves with unauthorized radical broadcasts to the nation. Naturally. Peel was still at it in 1995 with his mostly live album of Up Against the Wall. And, in 2013 with his group The Protesters, he joined the fray of the Occupy Wall Street Movement with his protest album Up Against the Wall Street.

While we’re on the subject of being up against the wall, the influence of the phrase and the song was so pervasive that it inspired a group of New York City anarchists, artists, and other sundry counter-culture curmudgeons to call themselves The Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers (often referred to as simply “The Motherfuckers.” Yippie (Youth International Party) cofounder and self-proclaimed anarchist Abbie Hoffman characterized his crew of radicals as “the middle-class nightmare… an anti-media media phenomenon simply because their name could not be printed.”

This “street gang with analysis” was famous for its Lower East Side direct action and is said to have inspired members of the Weather Underground and the Yippies. Most of the lyrics for the 1969 song “We Can Be Together,” by the San Francisco rock band Jefferson Airplane, were taken virtually word-for-word from a leaflet written by Motherfucker John Sundstrom, and published as “The Outlaw Page” in the avant-garde weekly East Village Other. The lyrics read in part, “We are all outlaws in the eyes of America. In order to survive we steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal… Everything you say we are, we are… Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!” Little did the Airplane know that their tune would become a first for American television. It was on The Dick Cavett Show, on August 19, 1969, right after Joni Mitchell sang her lovely “Chelsea Morning,” that Grace Slick belted out the lyrics to “We Can Be Together.” The song marked the first use of the word “fuck” on U.S. television, when the group played it uncensored. Don’t expect me to tell you how many times it has been echoed since.

9 thoughts on “Up against the wall, mother-fugger

  1. Antony Shugaar April 28, 2016 / 7:55 pm

    Loved the Fugs. At the beginning of Ed Sander’s The Iliad, he reads the first line of the Iliad, in ancient Greek, with a hillbilly accent. Ending the string of incomprehensible Greek with a sharply enunciated “buddy.” As in: Menin aeide thea Peleiadeo Achileos oulomenen, he muri’ Achaiois alge’ etheke (buddy). Listen to it and enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtVBrXvmmJw

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Andre Mayer April 29, 2016 / 1:59 pm

    Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951


  3. bob April 29, 2016 / 5:22 pm

    Also of linguistic note is Ken Weaver’s later book, Texas Crude, “The How-To on Talkin’ Texan”, which contains at least some material that would be relevant to this blog. Illustrated by R. Crumb, which only adds to its charm.


  4. blackdragon1976 April 30, 2016 / 7:57 pm

    This was a very interesting read. I never knew how over time words of the language through whether a song or the simple fact someone just didn’t like the word, soo hey lets change it. And now it’s somewhat acceptable for certain people of course.


  5. Jamie May 17, 2016 / 11:41 pm

    Fuck You A Magazine of the Arts was published by Ed Sanders, not Tuli K.


  6. the next Prescott Niles June 17, 2016 / 10:16 pm

    Tallulah Bankhead was 46 years old when The Naked and the Dead was first published, so “starlet” may not be the word you want there


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