In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Armies of The Night,” Norman Mailer writes about a satirical band from the East Village called the Fugs that performed an exorcism at the Pentagon in October 1967, right before attempting to levitate it. These were the same protestors who stuck blooms into the rifle barrels of soldiers, stamping an indelible flower-power image into history books the world over.
Sitting at his retro kitchen table, glancing over sheets of new lyrics, Richmond musician and actor Coby Batty, 52, still seems a bit surprised that he's a Fug himself — and has been for nearly 25 years.
“In Europe we're studied in textbooks. The Beat Generation is considered much more important there,” Batty says. “In fact, we once got flashed in Denmark by three different topless generations — a teenage girl, her mom and her grandmother.”
Born in Richmond to a musical family, Batty moved to New York to be an actor in the late '70s. Turned off by the theater scene, he auditioned for musician John Zorn and became an early vocalist for his experimental compositions, opening doors to the avant-garde world of New York during a fertile period. Today Batty is known as a skilled multi-instrumentalist: He's legit on French horn, piano, bass and percussion — but not violin or reeds, he points out.
“In New York, there was a whole mess of musicians I played with in various bands — it was a great time to be there,” Batty recalls. “Now I think young people need a trust fund just to live in Manhattan.”
Batty also performed with jazzmen Don Cherry and Ralph Carney; alternative group Bongwater, and the Fred MacMurrays, the last two featuring producer and bassist Mark Kramer, who helped arrange Fugs reunion shows in 1984. Batty joined the Fugs then, and the reconstituted group has been sporadically recording and performing its poetry-inspired, socio-political tunes ever since.
“I was a little bit in awe of those guys in the beginning, so I didn't read up on them until later,” Batty says. “But the education of this whole experience has been really spiritual. I got to know Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, other old Beats.”
Batty recently returned from six days of Fugs recording sessions in Catskill, N.Y., at a small studio, NRS, where the Band and James Taylor have recorded. Alongside elderly founding members Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg (who appears in Ginsberg's “Howl” poem), he recorded 14 songs with titles such as “Backward Jewish Soldiers” and “Ghost Chickens in the Sky,” a revenge song for vegetarians in which chickens dive from the sky.
Batty describes the music as “all over the place,” from folk rock and country to psychedelic and “Greek modal things.” One song that stood out was “My Darling Magnolia Tree” (written by Sanders), about an old New Orleans man whose favorite magnolia tree was destroyed by Katrina, then chopped up and kept in his living room.
Since moving back to Richmond in 1984, Batty has played with many local bands, and his current groups include the jazz-pop country of Sara Arthur and the Instant Band; the soulful Goodfellas (led by disabled frontmen Larry “Chip” Young and Solomon “Sol” Miles); and the funk-rock cover band performing live mash-ups, NRG Krysys, which featured the late Bryan Harvey.
Batty says the tragedy of the Harvey family murders inspired a lot of songwriting that was too difficult to play at first. But that's slowly changing.
“Themes that were so blue and black are now coming back as a pop project that I'm working on with Stephen McCarthy [of NRG Krysys],” he says. “It's nice to see that stuff can come back in a sweet way. It feels really good.”
McCarthy politely declines to discuss the Harvey-inspired material, but admits that he has admired Batty's singing and acting since high school, remembering him then as “beyond his years and somehow [having] a Swedish girlfriend.”
Another upcoming project that Batty played on and is particularly excited about is the solo record, “The Last Saturday of the Year,” by former Richmonder Tom Peloso, of the Hackensaw Boys and King Sour, now a member of major label rock band Modest Mouse. The album includes playing from local guitarist and painter Austin Fitch as well as members of Beck, She and Him, and the Statler Brothers.
“Tom probably got some good money and connections from Modest Mouse, and so what does he do? He calls his old friends,” Batty says. “What a cool thing to do. And it's a beautiful record. I'm really proud of him.”
For his day job, Batty tries to stay busy as a working actor and voice-over performer. He appeared as a prison guard in the HBO movie “Iron Jawed Angels” and more recently had a bit scene with Paul Giamatti in the miniseries, “John Adams.”
He isn't sure yet, but a new Fugs release could mean more touring. The band's also still working on a feature-length documentary about its storied history.
Batty acknowledges that some fans can only associate the Fugs with the '60s and may refuse to partake in any kind of nostalgia, but others have grown with them.
“The music was never the most important thing,” he says. “It was the action, the freedom, and that continues. That will never go away. There's always something to rail against, but even more important, something to work for.” S
Among the upcoming shows by Coby Batty bands: Sara Arthur and the Instant Band plays at Ashland Coffee and Tea on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. The Goodfellas play at Alley Katz on Nov. 30 at 6 p.m.