NOTE: I HAVE ASKED PETER IF HE WANTS ME TO UPDATE HIS MAILING ADDRESS OR WEBSITE INFO (THIS INTERVIEW IS FROM THE DAYS OF MYSPACE!). READERS SHOULD NOTE THIS IS 10 YEARS OLD AND NOT UPDATED AS YET. I WILL LET YOU KNOW IF HE GETS BACK TO ME ON THIS - SO FAR HE HAS ONLY GIVEN ME A 'HELL YEAH!' ON MY REQUEST TO REPUBLISH IT!
I love the Holy Modal Rounders. They were my gateway drug into old-timey. I still listen to them. I had a chance to interview Peter Stampfel - also once a member of the Fugs - about his career ten years ago. It's one of my favourite pieces of writing EVER, and still relevant - I gather Peter is working on a memoir, and he's been recording with the likes of Jeffrey Lewis and others...
This all should be self-explanatory, however - as it appeared in Bixobal, with an Antonia Stampfel post-script (with one slight alteration, actually: where the original intro praised Captain Beefheart, I have replaced him with Howlin' Wolf, in respect of the debt Beefheart owed Howlin' Wolf (whose music I didn't know so well when I wrote this).
Peter Stampfel Sticks His Ass in the Air
By Allan MacInnis
Avant-garde composer Matt Rogalsky – then based in Vancouver - turned me on to the Holy Modal Rounders in the late 1980s, lending me the Fantasy twofer of their first two LPs. From the opening track – two loony-sounding hippies screeching the words “flop-eared mule” to an oldtimey reel – I was transfixed. The album also included a cover of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Mole in the Ground,” the song Greil Marcus so enthuses about in Lipstick Traces as a sort of proto-punk model of subversion, and the Robin Remaily-penned “Euphoria” – one of the band’s first great originals, and a priceless exemplar of the drug song.
Back then, circa 1963, the Holy Modal Rounders had two members – Peter Stampfel on fiddle and banjo and Steve Weber on guitar – and 75% of their repertoire seemed to be drawn from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, with occasional amphetamine-and-pot-fuelled lyrical elaborations by Stampfel (whose version of “Hesitation Blues” famously contains the first known use of the word “psychedelic” in popular music). Weber’s voice was rich and throaty; Stampfel’s sounded like that of a shrieking hillbilly from hell, and immediately became my favourite singing voice in contemporary music – as distinctive as Charley Patton’s or Howlin' Wolf’s, more historically evocative than Dylan’s, and more like a cartoon character’s than Eugene Chadbourne’s (which is saying something). After a brief internship with the Fugs, the Rounders’ late ‘60s output (Indian War Whoop, recorded for ESP-Disk, and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, recorded for Elektra and featuring playwright and actor Sam Shepard on drums) veered more towards chaotic psychedelic rock, the most famous moment of which was probably “If You Want to Be a Bird,” a song with lyrics by Stampfel’s then-girlfriend Antonia. Mistakenly retitled “Bird Song,” it appeared on the Easy Rider soundtrack, though Stampfel reports that he never made much money off it - or on anything else he recorded, for that matter: Stampfel has long been supported by his dayjob as an editor for DAW Books, where he works alongside his wife, Betsy Wollheim.
As the recent documentary (The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose) shows, from early on, the band was badly hampered by tensions between Stampfel and the drug-fond, unpredictable Weber, and when Weber and the rest of the band came west, to settle in Portland, Stampfel remained behind in New York. Their final album recorded when all the group lived on the same coast was Alleged in Their Own Time, released on Rounder in 1973; it remains my favourite Rounders recording. Over the next 30 years, there would be occasional reunions and spinoffs, like the Unholy Modal Rounders and the Clamtones; other Rounders affiliates included Remaily, Jeffrey Fredericks, Richard Tyler, Ted Deane, Dave Reisch, Luke Faust, Roger North, and Michael Hurley, many of whom appear on 1978’s Last Round alongside Stampfel and Weber. Stampfel’s final release with Weber would be 1999’s Too Much Fun. At the climax of the documentary – which shows Stampfel and Weber bickering like an old married couple at times – Weber disappears, failing to show up at a Holy Modal Rounders 40th anniversary reunion gig, and more than vindicating Stampfel’s occasional eye-rolling at his cohort’s perpetual irresponsibility.
Late-breaking news from Stampfel, not handled in our interview, is that, in addition to projects mentioned below, he’s recording a second Du-Tels album with Gary Lucas; the first, on Shimmy Disc, has some of that label’s patented psychedelic goo swirling in the background, and contains a great story in the liner notes about the time Stampfel met Joseph Spence (seek it out, really). Another (Weberless?) Holy Modal Rounders reunion is slated for September.
It was a great pleasure to actually talk to Peter Stampfel on the phone. Thanks too to Antonia, and to Vancouver’s late, lamented Nerve Magazine; portions of this interview appeared in a different form in their (final) December 2007-January 2008 issue. Oh: and you can find a clip of “Stick Your Ass in the Air” being performed live by the Rounders on Youtube.
Allan: Sorry for being late - you gave me the wrong phone number! It was for a real estate agent named Melinda. She’s never heard of you.
Peter: Oh, yikes! Oh, God...
Allan: Actually, it’s funny: Antonia just helped me out – I found her number and she gave me yours.
Peter: Oh, excellent!
Allan: Do you have time now?
Peter: Oh, yeah, yeah. (Speaking to his daughter, who can be overheard strumming a guitar): I have to do this phone call interview, okay, sweetie? I’ll go in the other room. Work on it there – that’ll be your key. I’ll write down the words for you later. (To me): Hi.
Allan: You’re teaching your daughter a song?
Peter: Yeah, I’ve been doing it in this very non-durational kind of way, but when she was 15, she decided she really wanted to learn to play guitar. She’s really picking it up great, and she’s written a couple of songs, and she’s just decided she wants to learn “Random Canyon.” I’m teaching her “Random Canyon!” Which is great, because it was written in ’65, and it has, like, everything I knew about chord progressions at that point. It’s all the chords she’s learned, so it’s basically starting her out with this really basic batch of musical chords. Anyway, she wants to sing “Random Canyon” like a female version of me. Naturally, I’m very touched.
Allan: Which of your daughters is this?
Peter: Lily, the young one.
Allan: How old is she?
Peter: Sixteen and a half.
Allan: She wants to be a musician, or she’s just having fun, or -?
Peter: Well – I personally think that everyone should be a musician, or, more realistically, more people should be musicians, along with everything else – like in old-timey Renaissance days, when playing an instrument was something that an educated person just did. They all did that! I think this is the way the world is sort of going... like, you know about jamming circles, are you familiar with that one?
Peter: Basically, the idea is that people get together with acoustic instruments and they play together like they’ve been doing in Washington Square since the 50’s. And that whole phenomenon has been expanding and expanding, and the basic format now is, the good players are in the middle, and they’re surrounded by the people who aren’t as good players, and they in turn are surrounded by the people who aren’t as good as them, and then finally you have the people who are absolute beginners. I’m not sure how many rings exactly there are – it’s a blur – but the point is, the songs are announced in advance, so the real musicians are having fun, and they are simultaneously teaching all levels of other musicians to become more accomplished. And there are even slow jam circles, where you do a song REALLL slow, because that’s the way you learn. So anyway, there’s all this runaway... like, teaching is a virus. It’s moving, and growing. At least that’s my interpretation here. I could be addled.
Allan: But you think it’s a good thing...
Peter: (laughs) Not really a good thing – an essential thing, I think, in these really amazingly tough, fascinating times that are going to be coming up in the next decade – not to mention after that. The thing about people playing music is, it’s sort of a society-forming institution. It’s a way of hooking up with like-minded friends, or even people who are not so like-minded, but, y’know, are like, fun to fool around with... Anyway, I think that it’s very powerful. Another thing that’s spreading is jamming. I find the jams of the Grateful Dead to be incredibly boring, incredibly incredibly, like, thumbsucking. Ditto with Phish. Although I will grant there are moments in which extraordinary things indeed have happened and will happen – I’m certainly not denying this, but I’m saying the amazing moments of musical grace are few and far between. However: the level of jamming is increasing. I find when I taught my daughter to play guitar, I was teaching her chords, and it was kind of hard, changing from one chord to another. The whole trick of learning to play a stringed instrument is learning to go from one chord to another; once you’ve knocked that one, you’re home free, you got it, you know? So anyway, I said, “Well, let’s just play on the bottom string; I’m going to play on the bottom string and fool around, and you just fool around with me. And instantaneously, she was jamming, and she was jamming really well. (The phone rings; overheard in the background, a family member shouts: “Could someone get that?”)
Peter: Hold on. (Into other phone): Hello? For Lily? Hold on. (To me): Let me just walk this phone to my daughter... Anyway, the point being, my other daughter’s ex-boyfriend is a Phish fan, and into jamming, and I’ve jammed with him, and Lily, the first time out, was better at it, in terms of her instinct for good notes to play in juxtaposition with other notes!
Allan: You’ve always said you’re a slow learner when it comes to music.
Peter: I’m one of the slowest learners ever. Yeah, absolutely, I mean, it took me until the 90’s to really be satisfied with my songwriting ability, and it took me forever to really learn how to play decently. But I persevered. There are all sorts of people who could play circles around me, like, 40 years ago, and one of those guys introduced me to folk music. He had this killer arthritis, and hasn’t been able to touch a guitar for ten years, and other people who could play so amazingly sort of got burnt out, or else didn’t think much of it – their musical gift came so easily that they did not value it very much; it’s sort of like it was handed to them. And if they lose it, or get bored with it, it’s no big loss – this is one way that people feel as they age. (Shouting off the phone): Hey, Stella! (To me): Hang on, the dog is fooling with the garbage can. Here, put it up on the table. There we go.
Allan: I’m curious about something. In terms of your daughters, there’s a clip of you on Youtube performing what sounds like a Baracuda (sic) techno song called “Ass Up,” which you’ve written rather interesting new lyrics for... did they turn you on to that?
Peter: Well, no – I had no idea. Is it similar to the one I wrote?
Allan: Oh! Did you write that song yourself entirely?
Peter: “Stick Your Ass in the Air?”
Peter: Yes, I did!
Allan: Oh, really! Because there’s a techno song where the lyrics are, “Put your ass in the air, put your ass up in the air...” And that’s basically it – I think they rhyme it with “Like you just don’t care.” It’s actually really similar to your song - I’d assumed it inspired you and you elaborated on it with new lyrics, as you’re wont to do.
Peter: No, no – what happened was that, I was listening to something really annoying on the radio, something really stupid. I think dance music can be absolutely fantastic, but whateverthefuck I was listening to on the radio, I found it deeply annoying – annoying, you know? So I thought of something stupider. “You want to play how-dumb-can-we-be, okay, I’ll play how-dumb-can-we-be.” And I just thought, “Stick your ass in the air, stick your ass in the air, people, everybody stick your ass in the air! If it gets too heavy, take a break and stare/ At all the other people with their ass in the air.” Something funny. And I was thinking of, actually, the beneficial results of shaking your ass. Like, basically – “Stick your ass in the air, shake it round and round/ til the lame can walk and the lost are found./ Stick your ass in the air, wave it wild and free,/ and you will bring confusion to the enemy!” (laughs).
Allan (laughing): See, I gotta tell you this. My editor at the Nerve Magazine, Adrian Mack, used to have this fake story he would tell his bandmates about his time as a boxer, and one of his moves, when he thought he was going to be defeated, would be to get down on his hands and knees and wave his ass at his opponent. This is not something he really did, but he would tell them he would do this because it would confuse the other person so much, they would admit defeat!
Peter (laughing uproariously): Fucking hilarious!
Allan: So I was telling him about your song, and he had this immediate association!
Peter: I know what he means!
Allan (laughing): So maybe it works, in theory!
Allan: So that’s entirely an original composition, then.
Peter: Yeah. That’s my most recent one! I started it a couple of years ago, and later, I needed a new song for a gig, and I thought of that one, and I found the parts of it I’d written already and I thought of some other ones in the meantime. I really like the way it works; I’m extremely happy with the words.
Allan: I really like it, too. Is there a plan to record that, or anything, in the near future?
Peter: Well, um – I played in Rotterdam – there was a screening of the Rounder documentary in Rotterdam, and some people wanted me to come over and play, and they wanted to know whether I wanted some people to play with, or I wanted to do it solo. This guy Lukas (Simonis), he plays guitar, and his girlfriend plays cello, and there’s a percussion guy I know. I’d much rather play with other people, there’s no question; it’s like fucking instead of jerking off, you know what I mean?
(At this point on the tape, one of the Stampfels’ many parrots starts to go ballistic. They own an African Grey, named Snapdragon, a Tymna Grey, named Io, and a cockatiel, Gus, all of whom squawk periodically. The dog barks, too).
Peter: So I went over there, and they were incredible – incredible! – to play with. It was such a fucking kick. The guitar player was into all this noise shit, but did pretty as well – had many effects, like, eight ten twelve little boxes and shit, and would play the guitar with tools, like do slides and all kinds of fucking around. His girlfriend (Nina Hitz) played classical cello, but she improvised – she played with a classical group, and she played with an improvising group as well. And played really neat. And the percussion guy was absolutely one of the most amazing percussion people I’ve ever fucking run into. He’s a Scotch guy named Alan Purves, and he, besides his drum kit, has all these squeak toys; and he has this little whistle that you exhale into, and it makes one note, and you inhale and it makes another note, like a one-note harmonica – this little wooden thing with a ball at the end, and you could stick the ball up your nose and it would stay there!
Peter: It’s like a buttplug for the nose. And it makes music!
Allan: And you performed live with these people when?
Peter: It was in September, and we rehearsed for a day, then we played the next day, and then we did another gig the next night, only the cello player couldn’t make that one, about 100 clicks out of Rotterdam. Anyway, something the percussion guy does sounds like rabid cartoon animals, like a mob of cartoon critters on crack or something, just astounding. I could go on, for like, ever so long, describing his other homemade things. Anyways, I thought Jesus, I’d love to record with these guys, and I said, “Could we do that?” And my friend Mark Bingham of Gallatin is setting up a digital internet music thing, where you pay ten bucks and get the equivalent of a CD. He’s gonna start releasing stuff on there. We did a solo record together in the 90’s that, with the record business being the way it is, has been sitting in the can for like ten years now, and he’s releasing that. And, um, I asked him about these guys here, and he said “Sure, sure.” Who knows if this is gonna happen – the whole music industry is completely up in the air right now. Anyways, so – I talked to the guys, and he’s got a studio in the Netherlands, and in the meantime, when I was there, we discovered Nina’s never been to the US. I was like, “She should come over and stay with us for a week; it’d be great!” So what’s happening, they’re coming over here – the three of them – in May, and then we’ll play together. I’ll have a gig in New York in the meantime, or maybe a couple of them, and then I’m going there and we’ll do some gigs there.
Peter: Also both of them have amazing, amazing voices, like – the guy would like, sing pop songs, and he would sing it in the accent and phrasing of the guy whose song he was covering, and nailing them all, doing them perfectly. We didn’t even start to sing together, but I saw the potential – here are two amazing voices, y’know? So... besides that, do you know about the Velocity Ramblers?
Allan: Tell me about it anyhow, so I can have it in your words.
Peter: Right. It’s me and John Cohen, of the New Lost City Ramblers, and Pat Conte, who’s a musical maven – he’s like, yesterday he was like fucking crowing at rehearsal because he knows these esoteric musical instruments; he can listen to this oldtimey record with a weird-ass 1900 musical instrument, and he can say, “Yeah, right,” and he’ll know how to tune it and what it looks like and how to play it, you know? Anyway, yesterday, he found this really wild-ass, weird instrument, and he took it to this wild-ass-weird-instrument expert guy, and the guy had never seen one. He chumped him, right? And also – I collect bottlecaps, right, and he gave me like six Mongolian bottlecaps. I don’t have any Mongolian bottlecaps, so he chumped me, too, so he was really really happy! He’s like, knowledgeable, and a multi-ass player. Then when Sam Shepard got back into town a couple of years ago, I called him and I said, “Do you want to play music?” “Yeah, can I bring my kid?” “Sure, bring your kid!” And his kid is Walker. Walker was 17, and he’d been playing banjo for seven months, and could do stuff that I can’t do after half a century. He played guitar as well, and he’s like this Platonic ideal of a person in his late teens; he’s completely agreeable and smart and if he meets up with any kind of musical critiques – “this doesn’t work, let’s try that.” He’s completely able to speak his mind without any pushiness or embarrassment, just totally straightforward, you know? He’s just amazing. Sam is generally not here, because he has all these movie gigs all over the place, but we’re playing this next weekend in Pittsburgh and Columbus, and we’ll all be together for those two gigs. They’re screening the Rounder documentary and then we’re playing afterwards at the Andy Warhol Center and the Wexner Center in Ohio State. The other member is Betty Berkin, and she’s a singer and she plays jug. That’s the Velocity Ramblers. We’re planning to record as soon as possible, like, when Sam has a week and a half window of opportunity, because we have way more than an album’s worth of material, and what I’d like to do now is just crank out shit, like it’s 1964, you know? When Dylan had no problem doing three albums a year, and the Beatles had no problem doing three albums a year. That’s what you did, you know? You went to the studio for two or three weeks and you made a fucking album. What’s the big deal, you know? That’s the paradigm I’m aspiring towards, just coming up with a constant spew of stuff, and given this release format that Mark’s doing, it’s totally doable.
Allan: And it’s all going to be just for download?
Peter: They can make CDs, too! People who want CDs, it’ll be a format option.
Allan: You have lots of material that’s unreleased and/or out of print, right?
Peter: I have a couple hundred copies...
Allan: Ooh. I’ll buy one of those off you.
Peter: Actually, anyone interested in buying stuff – it’s:
PO Box 223
New York NY
(Details of what’s available at http://www.myspace.com/peterstampfelmusic)
Allan: The t-shirt you’re selling, is it the same one that was advertised on the Holy Modal Rounders Live 1965 CD?
Peter: That’s a different one. In fact, my understanding is – I know people who sent their money away for those t-shirts, and no one has ever gotten their t-shirts. I’m extremely mad about that album, I am, like – like – at a having-a-fit level of distress.
Peter: Because... (breaks into dismayed laughter): the music it comes from, it’s the only extant tape of the Holy Modal Rounders prior to our breakup in 1965. It was made by this guy Larry Jordan, I think – I’d have to look it up; it’s on the box – in Detroit in 1965 about a month before we broke up, and I found it in my dead mother’s trunk. I’d forgotten it existed, and I’d forgotten that I’d sent a copy to my Mom, and I was eating my heart out about the fact that there were never any live Holy Modal Rounders recordings from that period, because towards the end we were really fucking great, compared to how we were playing in 1963 when we started out. It’s a long story, but we owed an album to Jean Rosenthal of Adelphi Records, for very good reasons, and he was up for releasing it. There was a party, and he was there, and Weber and his girlfriend were there, and we played the tape. After playing the tape, Weber and his girlfriend claimed that they didn’t hear it, and could they take it with them. This is just a very crummy, noiseful CD copy, without any kind of noise-freshening up things at all, and they proceeded to give the thing to Bernard Stollman of ESP records, who released it, and I was like, ‘I don’t want you to do this! You’re stealing my dead mother’s tape here!’ And he said, well, ‘There aren’t any original songs on it, and I went to a music lawyer, and he said, basically, it’s finders keepers – it can be released by anybody, and, um, I could spend like a shitload of money to do something about it, but it would probably be to no avail. Naturally neither Weber nor I have gotten a cent from him – Bernard Stollman is incredibly appropriately named.
Allan: I see...
Peter: And the deal where you’re supposed to send away for a t-shirt, at least the one person I knew who actually sent them money for a t-shirt, no t-shirt was forthcoming. And then when Stollman had Weber on the Oscar Brand program, when the record was released to promote it, and Oscar asked Weber, ‘Gee, where did this tape come from?’ he said, ‘Oh, somebody found it in their attic!’ My dead mother’s tape!
Allan: My God.
Peter: And my mother didn’t even have a goddamn attic! I mean, I’m not as angry as I was a couple of years ago, when all this was fresh, but I’m still...
Allan: Is it mostly the fact that was stolen that annoys you, or that it’s a bad presentation of the material?
Peter: Oh, both. The album looked like a piece of shit. It was awful. It was hideous. A really bad photograph -- I was like, ‘I don’t like the photograph, I don’t want you to use that photograph,’ but, uh...
Allan: I’m so sorry. Weber seems like he’s really beyond any control...
Peter: Well, he’s controlled by his girlfriend/manager. And the other thing is, he hurt his shoulder in a car accident in Oregon in the early 90’s or late 80’s, and he fractured his thigh in a car accident in Brooklyn with his girlfriend a couple of years ago, and didn’t get it re-set immediately, which is stupid. And it’s stupider of his girlfriend for not, like, forcing him to do it, because he’s the kind of guy who really needs to be taken care of. He’s usually been taken care of by a girl, you know? And I’m not value-judging that; it’s just, like, that’s the way things work out. He’s always been sort of taken care of. And he’s a really lucky guy. He’s supposed to have one of the luckiest horoscopes of the 20th century, and I’ve witnessed countless examples of his incredible good luck. But especially in his physical condition, his physical frailty, he absolutely needs to have a person taking care of him. It’s great that she’s doing it, because his Mom passed away, and it’s basically his only option for survival at this point, and bless her heart for taking care of him. She says he’s cut way down on his drinking, or almost stopped completely, which would be wonderful. And he was saying, from what I heard, that he didn’t think he could perform sober, and I sent him an email saying, “Well, that’s what I thought when I quit drinking, but it’s not true! I went to this AA meeting that’s all musicians and people in the music business, and I was surrounded by a hundred recovering alcoholics who had no problem performing and shit! So anybody could do it.” Anyway, we’ll see – maybe he’ll heal.
Allan: You quit the Fugs primarily because you were unhappy with Weber, right?
Peter: It was a big mistake in retrospect. I’d had it with Weber by July of ’65. He had missed three gigs by that point, and he would rant and rave onstage about how he was sick of these old songs, “Why can’t we do something new?” and whenever I would suggest, “Okay, here’s a song we can work on,” he’d storm away. And working on a song was playing it three times, and there it was. He was taking shitloads of speed - up for seven days, and crash for three - and he had this one period in which he was up for a week, and every sentence he said had nothing to do with the sentence before it or the sentence after it. He was really flipping out. So I didn’t want to play with him anymore, and so since we were both playing with the Fugs, I quit playing with the Fugs, which is one of the dumbest decisions I’d ever made. I mean, when I think about what kind of shit could have happened if we’d continued collaborating - wow.
Allan: Have you heard Weber’s Holy Modal Rounders BC album, that he put out on his own?
Peter: Well, actually, it was put out by Jeffrey Frederick’s widow. The Live in Vancouver one, right? It’s an album of songs that have all been recorded, every one, and I personally like the way I do my songs better than the way he does them, and the Rounders at that period were kind of spinning their wheels in terms of doing anything new. All the new stuff was happening with the Clamtones at that point, because Jeffrey was much more musically active, writing all those songs. Maybe it’s a little bit sour grapes, but I listened to it once and have no wish to hear it again. I’d rather listen to the original versions of the songs.
Allan: The last I heard was the film, where you hadn’t been in touch with Weber for some years –
Peter: He won’t talk to me!
Allan: Did you ever figure out why he didn’t make the 40th anniversary gig?
Peter: Well, he claims that he had no idea that I was going to be there too, and when he found out that I was going to be there, he decided he didn’t want to. He claimed that he had discussed the fact with Dave Reisch, ‘If Peter comes, I’m not coming!’ And Dave said that’s totally bullshit. He was about to come, he had taken the train into town, and gone to his girlfriend’s house, and my understanding is that his girlfriend, speaking as his manager here, said that going to the 40th anniversary reunion of the Holy Modal Rounders, to the very month – would be -- this is the line of the century -- ‘a bad career move.’
Peter, Allan: (laughter)
Peter: Yeah. And since that point, he refuses to talk to me. He insists that I was the director of the documentary and purposely made it that way so that Weber would look bad. And he said this on his website, which is kind of, like, annoying. The thing is that the guys who made that documentary did it on their own dime, and I didn’t tell them anything! There’s some things in there that I find really totally embarrassing, but I felt it was their money and their time and I had absolutely no word as to what they should do or shouldn’t do. I made some suggestions, none of which they took up, which made total sense after the fact.
Allan: What do you find embarrassing?
Peter: Oh, when Weber and I have that fight about songwriting –
Allan: About him claiming credit for your songs.
Peter: Someone told me... There’s this guy Bingo who basically replaced Weber and this guy Joshua Brody who will be replacing the passed-on Richard Tyler in the Holy Modal Rounders, and Joshua was in the car was doing a gig with Robin Williams – like him and another musician and Robin Williams, and they were driving around and a woman told this story about something really weird that happened to her, like, in her past, and about an hour later, Robin Williams tells the same story, only from the first person, like as if it had been his experience! And I thought, that’s like Weber – I can’t really say that he’s stealing songs; he just gets the idea that something he’s done is his song. That’s the way his brain works, and it’s kind of like a defective pattern, but it’s less malevolent than dysfunctional. But I find the way I lose it in that argument – people say they wiggle and can’t look at the screen, thinking, ‘Oh God,’ like being in a place watching their friends have this embarrassing fight. Everyone’s been in that position.
Allan: It’s cringe-inducing.
Peter: Yeah, cringe-inducing!
Allan: What had you wanted the filmmakers to include?
Peter: Well, two music videos were made of our 80’s band, [Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps], and I thought it would be cool to put them in to it. And actually one of them might possibly be in the extra material of the DVD, “Bridge and Tunnel Girls.”
Peter: Oh. That had “Bridge and Tunnel Girls.”
Allan: How much of a solo project were the Bottlecaps?
Peter: Well, it was one man, one vote, and if anyone didn’t like a song, we didn’t do it. And there were two other guys in the group who wrote songs, as well, which were more done in live performances. It was a democracy. All my bands have been a democracy, basically, as opposed to like, me paying the guys to do what I want. I’ve never had that luxury, nor have I wanted it. It’s much more fun – as is, with the Velocity Rounders, having one person in the group that’s older and knows more shit about a lot of stuff than me. John Cohen is so cool and so refreshing and so relaxing. The thing about how that band is going, there’s so many strong personalities that surprising things keep showing up, and everyone has really cool ideas which I hadn’t thought of. Anyhow, that’s my sort of ideal musical collaboration.
Allan: I’m looking forward to hearing it. Let me ask about something else, though. I’m really a fan of the more idiosyncratic and insane Rounders recordings, like The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders and Indian War Whoop... But I gather you don’t like them very much.
Peter: Did you read the liner notes for the CD version of Moray Eels?
Allan: Yeah. It sounds like recording that album was a bit insane...
Peter (laughs): It actually was really interesting. The details beyond those... Dave Levy, for instance – we’d be having a rehearsal, and every once and awhile he would start playing at five times the brilliance and amazingness... I knew he was capable of astounding shit, but it was never quite there – and then every once in awhile he would suddenly latch onto it and he’d play way less than a minute of amazing shit – suddenly he would be like, “Holy fucking crap!” This would happen three times, four times, and every single time the same thing happened: he would scream, drop his instrument, and leave by the nearest window. And not come back for days. (Laughs). That was one little detail... It was a very interesting historical period. It was totally off its fucking rocker. That year  was off the fucking rails.
Allan: It was the year I was born, which I’m very happy about.
Allan: In terms of songs, off that disc, I’ve always loved and never fully understood – let me get the full title here – “Mobile Line Gonna Carry Me Away from the Curse of the Bullfrog Blues.” What exactly is that about?
Peter: It’s actually a mash-up of two old traditional blues songs, one “Bullfrog Blues” and the other, “Mobile Line.” And it’s putting the two songs together and adding some new verses to better connect them. That was the basic thinking behind that song.
Allan: What does it mean to have the bullfrog blues?
Peter: Oh. What are the bullfrog blues - a good question. Let’s see. “Did you ever wake up with bullfrogs on your mind/ Tadpoles swimming up and down your spine.” Okay, well: it’s a bad thing. Let’s agree on that.
Peter/Allan: (laughter; a dog barks).
Peter: Having the bullfrog blues is an unsatisfactory condition, and there’s a verse about - I forget the phrasing - being happy to be relieved from the bullfrog curse.
Allan: And there’s a bullfrog town.
Peter: The bullfrog town, of course, is where one has the bullfrog blues, with the bullfrog curse as a built-in extra feature, at no cost.
Allan: And the Mobile Line is a train line.
Peter: It’s some kind of railroad, and you’ve got all your train metaphors there. The train to freedom, the train to glory, the train of escaping, the train of connecting with everything else, and Mobile of course - beside being a town in Alabama, is like, mobility, movement, motion. So it’s like, one of those built-in, chock-full-of-meaning song antecedents there. Can I just give a little aside here?
Peter: This is the latest cool, amazing musical shit that happened. I was in Berlin. They’re having a show about New York at this John Foster Dulles center there, and - do you know Jeffrey Lewis? Besides writing songs, he’s a brilliant cartoonist, and he does a whole bunch of songs that have full-page cartoons, and he’ll sing the songs while turning the pages. Some are funny, some are just whacked, and he has a four-part history of Communism set to music.
Allan: In cartoon form?
Peter: Yeah, in musical and cartoon form. He’s amazing. He’s in his 20’s, and he’s always travelling around Europe - where he’s gotten an audience - and he talked to the Berlin people about having me come over there representing the New York folkie 60’s deal. And I met Ed Ward there, who wrote the liner notes for the reissue of the first two albums on double vinyl, so he’s been an old friend, and I knew that he’d moved there fourteen years ago. I looked him up. And he said, “I’m going to play this amazing thing. You won’t believe it.” He puts it on. It sounds like a Jamaican name, and it sounds sort of lot like doo wop/ early reggae, plus weird rhythm and blues shit, and I said, “That’s like Jamaica 1960, but it doesn’t sound like early ska, and it should...” And it’s a Brooklyn group, and it was released in 1958! (Further discussion will establish that the song is “Shombolar” by Sheriff and the Ravels, on the Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection box set on Shout! Factory. It was written by Aki Aleong, a Chinese-Trinidadian who relocated to Brooklyn; he has acted in several movies and TV shows, and wrote various hit songs, including “Shombolar,” which was covered by the Cramps. A record producer and executive now in his 70’s, Aleong just directed his first feature film, Chinaman’s Chance, which, by amazing coincidence, has the actor Geoffrey Lewis in the cast, to whom I initially thought Peter was referring, above. Oh, and the song was apparently written in 1955 and not released until 1959, which kinda blows Peter’s theory below completely out of the water, but nevermind).
Peter: I have this theory - Elvis and Little Richard and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry became conscious, reached universal American consciousness in early 1956, simultaneously, you know, and by 1957 rock’n’roll was just really moving, and no one had a clue what the fuck was going on. It was like - what is this? It was being invented on the fly. And by 1958, most of the heroes of the period were destroyed or incapacitated, as if by a plot. It wasn’t - it was just part of the weird fucking 50’s zeitgeist. So anyways, 1957 was this glorious little free window between when it didn’t exist, and when it got shut down with extreme prejudice, as it were. So my thought was, if only that feeling could have persevered for three or four years - if only 1957 could have lasted, y’know, what amazing shit would have come out of it. I’ve thought and thought and finally this Brooklyn group was the first thing that appeared - there you go, it would have been like THAT, there’s the first one. It was the first example of this, 1957 in dreams... I’ve really been thinking of going back there and working in that perpetual 1957 format of songs and constructions. Anyways, so now I’ve got the Rosetta Stone, right, and I’ve just had a birthday, and my friend said, “What do you want for your birthday,” and I thought, “This Vee-Jay set.”
Allan: I’ve read that you really have a fondness for musical forms before they get codified - like, early blues, pre-1938, before people knew exactly what the blues were supposed to sound like. Do you think that recording is part of the problem - that the existence of recorded documents creates templates that end up “stiffening” things?
Peter: Well - yeah, absolutely. For instance, I really am not fond of vibrato in the human voice, and I really hate vibrato on certain instruments, as far as it being the way everything is always done - like, always playing guitar like WYAWR-yar-yar-yar. It’s a nice thing to use sometimes. Anyways, when classical instrumentalists started listening to their releases on cylinders and records, they all became aware that their intonation was a lot worse than they thought it was, and so everyone started doing that vibrato to compensate to that. They would only use it before that as an occasional flavouring technique, because it’s great for that, that’s its purpose. So that’s one example of a thing that recording caused. But given the trade-off - the music is played and it’s lost forever - it’s absolutely chump change to pay, as far as a price goes. The things you lose - I acknowledge them, but considering the balance...
Allan: In terms of influential recordings, let me ask you about Harry Smith, then. You actually met him, and by the time you did, he must have meant quite a bit to you, right?
Peter: I revered the man. I thought that Harry Smith was absolutely one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Hearing the Anthology and looking at that booklet, with the grand monochord of the fucking universe on it, y’know? - I mean, the guy really called to me, like, amazingly. And then when I finally met him in ’64 or ’65, it was like - “Who’s that creeped out guy dressed like a bum with dishevelled hair who is, like, drunk and obnoxious?” I was expecting this Godlike figure. But, y’know, appearances, and blah-blah...
Allan: How did you actually first meet him?
Peter: He produced the first Fugs album.
(Left to right: Tuli, Ed, Ken, Peter, Steve)
Allan: Yeah, I know, but... Ed Sanders talks about him about being a regular at the Peace Eye Bookstore, before that album came out. So what was the first occasion, for you?
Peter: I don’t remember. I’m not sure whether it was ’64 or ’65, but I remember that there were a bunch of people somewhere on the Lower East Side, I don’t remember where, and (adopts a voice): “Do you know that that’s Harry Smith over there?” “You mean him? Oh my God.” That’s all I remember.
Allan: Did you stay in touch, did you become friendly?
Peter: Not really. In retrospect, I wish I had. Besides my disillusionment, and the fact that he was kind of usually like (clears throat) drunk and loud... People would be worried about his collection of films and stuff like that, because he was careless with his smoking, so this one guy offered to take all his stuff and store it in this nice safe place, and a week later, it burned down. He was kind of like that - there’s a cartoon strip called Li’l Abner, and there’s a character called Joe Btfsplk, who always has a storm cloud above his head, and wherever he would go, catastrophe ensued, and Harry Smith was a bit like that. Although miracles ensued as well.
Allan: Were you interested in the occult when you met him? In the Indian War Whoop liner notes, you say you’re interested in magic, but I don’t know if you were interested in ritual magic or Cabalism in the way Smith was.
Peter: I was interested on a much more superficial level. Me and Antonia went to the House of Candles and Talismans, which was a botanic in the Lower East Side -
Allan (confused): The House of What?
Peter: Candles and Talismans.
Allan: Oh, sorry. I thought you said Cannibal Talismans.
Peter: No, that’s all right. And we would burn candles for various purposes, like, getting more amphetamine was one of the things we tried to do. So we’re out of speed, there’s no speed around, so we burn a “get some speed” candle, and then, like, a day later, there’s still no speed available. I went over to the candle, and not only had the flame gone out, but two flies had died in it and were encased in wax. I’m like, “The answer is no.” It was weird the way the magic seemed to interact.
Allan: I’d read that Antonia is interested in Santeria...
Peter: In fact, when we couldn’t get a record contract, in 1970, we went there and said, “We need a record contract right away.” “Well, Saint Expedito is your man. (Note: Antonia’s slightly different version of this is in the post-script). He’s the fast luck and gambling saint, and whenever you’re in a hurry... We got the Saint Expedito candle, and she explained you put little cards, a deck of cards, in front of him - he likes to gamble - and dice, one at five and one at two - he likes dice. You put a shot of whiskey in front of him, wipe some on his face, and you tell him what you want, and if you don’t get it in three days - you take away the cards, you take away the dice, you take away the whiskey, and you shove him upside-down in a jar of salt or soap powder, right? And he stays there until he fucking comes across. We hadn’t been able to get a record contract for months because of our drug-crazed reputation and shit, so we did this, and nothing happened, so we took the stuff away and we jammed him into the soapsuds, and within three days maximum - I don’t remember exactly, but almost immediately - our manager-guy said, “We got a record contract!” We took him out, brushed him off and gave him his cards back with two shots in front of him. An example of our successful magician period. That was probably our single biggest success.
Allan: Your single biggest venture into the occult, as well?
Peter: Well, I’m spiritual, and I’m wanting to connect with a glorious powerful force that’s more than me, that wants to help, you know? It’s a nice idea.
Allan: ...And if you can ply it with whiskey, all the better?
Peter (chuckles): Well, that particular one is beyond control... There’s prayer and proper action, those are the proper means to use, in that case.
Allan: Are you serious about any particular tradition?
Peter: Well, I was raised Catholic, but I quit that when I was 17. I started praying again when I started AA. I was told, “Whatever silly shit they tell you to do, do it, and no matter how corny the slogans are, like, live them.” And so I started praying, and that was in ’86. And you’re not supposed to ask for stuff. The theory - which is beautiful - is that there’s this God, okay, and he made us, okay, and he made us all individually, and each of us is built to fulfill a path of destiny in this ideal way in a perfect world. This is what God would really like, if all of us fulfilled ourselves - in a nice way, of course, being a nice God - and you’re supposed to ask for this path to be unveiled, and that’s the only thing you’re supposed to ask for. That’s one idea. But I don’t know that there is a God. I cannot say with full certainty that there is one. Occasionally things have happened to me, like, when I quit drinking, I was getting all these clear signs, like, “Stop drinking, stop drinking.” All within one month. I lost my fiddle because I left it in the car - this is, like, idiocy in New York. But I’d only had four beers, and that’s not enough to get you drunk. And then, beside that, after deciding for all these reasons that I was going to quit, my wife told me, “If you don’t quit drinking, I’m going to leave you.” It was as if some spiritual force was trying to hit me upside the head. So that felt like a possible contact with a greater force, although I cannot say for certain that God is real, or that if God is real, that God gives a shit.
Allan: But there seems to be a meaning and a pattern to events. (Dog barks).
Peter: And it seems like a good way to think. To focus on the idea that there’s a greater power behind the cosmos that personally gives a shit is a very endearing idea.
Allan: And probably productive.
Peter: Useful, productive, absolutely. Unless you’re going to be an attacking other people in the name of your religion. That’s the downside, there, of course. (Dog barks).
Allan: Yeah... In terms of weird stuff, let me ask, then, about you and Antonia’s musical hallucinations. Did you ever write about that?
Peter: No. I still intend to. I didn’t realize at the time but there’s actually a name for that, it’s called a folie à deux - a French phrase for when two people experience an identical hallucination. I haven’t researched it, but it was interesting to find out that it happened to other people as well. (Dog barks).
Allan: How did it work, exactly?
Peter: Well, the way it worked was - the phrase we use is (dog barks) “being fielded.” Hang on one second. (Shouts to family): What is that dog barking about? Oh, Jesus. (To me): Okay - give me about 30 seconds to slap some dog food on the dog, okay?
Allan: Okay! I’m waiting...
Peter (returns): There we go...! ...About the music thing, this first happened on Hiroshima Day in 1966, at about four in the morning. We’d both been taking speed all summer, and Antonia had this guitar with her. She’d had this money saved that she was going to run away to New Orleans with, if ever things went off the rails totally, right? And in 1966, she decided she was going to buy a guitar with that money. Oddly enough, the guitar is, like, a stone’s throw from me as we speak, this Burns guitar... I was learning to play bass on the bottom of a guitar, because I didn’t have a bass, and she was playing slide guitar with a lipstick holder over her little finger, and mostly the outside strings - she would just tune it, and then she would play with this bar. And we’d play along with radio and records, and we started hearing voices talking about a train - a train, the train, the train is coming. Who’s behind the train? The engineer is behind the train, obviously. So we had this idea, the train was coming, and the more speed we took, the closer the train got. And finally on Hiroshima Day in ’66, the train arrived! And what it was, was, all the music on the radio had Jeff Beck playing guitar on it, much stuff had Nicky Hopkins playing piano on it, all the voices would suddenly be singing with utter conviction, so even a wimpy voice like Ronnie Dove or Bobby Goldsborough would actually sound like they had fibre.
Peter: Substance. Like when Johnny Cash sings, “You’ve got a lot to live/ and Pepsi’s got a lot to give,” that meaningless phrase sounds like it actually means a whole lot, you know, because of the conviction that he sings with. So all the singers would be singing with this amazing conviction, whatever the words were, and the arrangements would be perfected, like the bass lines and the harmony parts would be improved, not to mention Jeff Beck behind everything on the guitar. And by 1967, he was joined by Jimi Hendrix. Anytime we were in this condition - which would take a bit of amphetamine and time to get to - we’d hear Hendrix and Beck playing double guitar over everything on the radio!
Allan: And these were songs you knew, by other people, but now Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck are added to them.
Peter: And the chords are improved, the harmonies are improved, the original musical lines would be idealized. And when the song was over, we’d remark - “Did you notice that part where, after the chorus -?” “Yeah, yeah!” We’d check out certain details, and we always seemed to have been hearing precisely the identical thing. And this lasted for about three years, and then Antonia quit playing guitar. She just couldn’t do it anymore, and when she quit, the train went away, basically.
Peter: But another weird thing is: we found out subsequently that on Hiroshima Day, in 1966, one of President Johnson’s daughters got married and everyone got it into their bonnets to ring church bells. There was something fucking weird in the air in 1966. There always is, but sometimes the fucking weirdness gets more intense. I read in a newspaper more church bells rang on that day in the United States than at any point before in history, or subsequent to that happening on an identical day. Which is like a weird-ass coincidence, to say the least.
Allan (laughing): Indeed. What was your introduction to the term, and to the use of, psychedelics? “Hesitation Blues” was the first time that word comes up in song, right?
Peter: Oh yeah, that was very intentional.
Allan: Had you dropped acid at that point?
Peter: Well - I first took peyote in 1959. I’d heard about peyote first off, and I’d heard about mushrooms, and when I got here in 1959 this guy named Baron was actually selling peyote in his coffee shop. It was legal at the time - he had a sign in his coffee shop, “Peyote for sale.” And he also used to have these two monkeys that used to fuck in the window. Between the monkeys fucking in the window and the peyote for sale, the cops went bananas. But apparently there weren’t any laws against having your monkeys in the store at the time, and nor were there laws against peyote. So he’d boil them down and put them in double-O caps -- large size gelatin caps, one button per cap -- and sell them for a dollar apiece. I took seven of them in 1959, and had an amazing experience. The thing about being on peyote, when I closed my eyes -- because I took it alone; my roommate went to bed -- I saw all this closed-eye stuff that looked more interesting and beautiful than any art I’d seen in my life, only it kept on moving, it kept on changing, like, constantly. I subsequently found out about one artist who said, “Kids, don’t take any hallucinogens! I took them, and when I saw this stuff with my eyes shut, it was so far beyond what I could ever hope to do in a million years that I couldn’t paint for five years!”
Peter: Anyway, so I was deeply impressed by the experience and discovered, like, insights into my true self: I tried to think about how I was deceiving myself and I decided that everything I ever believed was true. This was obviously not true! At which point, I realized that the possibility for self-deception on hallucinogens is, you know, like, pretty strong.
Allan: (laughs): Yes.
Peter: But I felt that, if everyone I knew took hallucinogens... like, I thought, if Kennedy and Khrushchev both took LSD, then together they would understand, and we would have world peace. This is a thing that seemed to make sense to me back then, and to a lot of people as well. It’s purely delusional... However - mushrooms and peyote - the closed-eye stuff you see is incredibly more, I find, aesthetically pleasing than your LSD hallucinations, which tend to look cheesy and creepy. I mean, they can look beautiful, but they don’t begin to reach, on the aesthetic level, for me personally, the hallucinations you get out of a natural substance.
Allan: LSD hallucinations tend to have a mechanical quality. I hallucinated multicoloured machinery with my eyes closed... It wasn’t organic at all...
Allan: Some of your songs, like, “August 1967” (aka, “The STP Song”) sound like you were becoming disillusioned with drugs and hippie culture quite early on, actually.
Peter: Well, I mean, like, did you read that book, White Bicycles by Joe Boyd?
Peter: Well, you gotta read it. He was right in the fucking middle of music in the 1960s, in so many ways it is beyond belief. He’s like that chameleon-like Woody Allen character - I forget his name.
Peter: He was like a Zelig, right, only he was really there. Anyway, his whole point was that the whole hippie thing went off the rails, not only in August 1967, but a specific weekend of August 1967. There were the good ‘60s and the bad ‘60s, and one changed into the other in 1967, clearly. And I wrote that song in August 1967. I was trying to capture as exactly as I could what that point in time was really really really really truly like. I’d taken some STP, and that was one thing I was determined to do on the drug, which was really long-lasting -- it lasted three fucking days. So in April of 1967 there was this paper - “The other day, there was this 16 year old girl. She’d come to the Haight to see what’s happening, and this guy proceeds to give her some speed, and then give her some hallucinogens, and then rent her to this line of sleaze to get gang-fucked. And it’s the most horrible thing that’s happened since the day before, when the exact identical thing happened.” So like, on one hand, the whole counterculture phenomenon had, like, a terrible loadstone effect on unhappy runaway girls and boys and criminal sleaze. Like - “Wow, here’s underage chicks who fuck, and drugs! Let’s go!” So all these 47th street sleaze started hanging around the bohemian scene as early as 1962, which is the first year the first 12 year old runaways appeared in the Village, which is the same year people started saying “spare change, spare change.” This whole phenomenon had been there for awhile, but by that time we’re like five years into it. And that was one of the reasons for the changing of the good ‘60’s to the bad ‘60’s. That was one of the asterices that made it run off the rails.
Allan: What about the “Nova Cop” reference - were you really into Burroughs at the time?
Peter: I was trying to write a William Burroughs-Marshall McLuhan song. That’s what I was trying to pull off, there.
Allan: With “August 1967?”
Peter: No, with “Nova.” The actual title is, “Don’t Just Stand There - Nova!”
Allan: Oh- hang on, no, I’m talking about the line in “August 1967” - “it’s too late to stop now --”
Peter: “You’re a Nova Cop now.” Yeah, that was like, the first line is like is the early, the pure (‘60s): “Once a friendly stranger said to me/ Hippies call it STP/ You’re a friendly stranger, I can see/ Take a whiff on me/ Have a revelation, the first one’s free/ Soon you’ll be addicted to eternity/ We’ll be pushers, cosmic-style/ It’s too late to stop now/ You’re a Nova Cop now/ hippies call it STP.” The Nova Police were, according to Burroughs, these people that suddenly became aware of some great wrong happening to humanity, which other people could not yet see, and having gained this vision, it was their duty to work against it, to fix it. The ideal was that we were all Nova Police: we’re suddenly aware of the big picture and we’re duty bound to work towards the salvation of the human race or some other fuckin’ shit like that. Sorta.
Allan: It’s not supposed to be negative, then.
Peter: Well, that’s the start, that’s just the first verse. And then there’s “Look at all the hippies do their thing... Trying to be the next big rip-off king/ Seems he was a flower child just last week/ Now he’s got the clap -- ”
Peter, Allan: “...And he’s a needle freak.”
Peter: “Good thing love’s all you need.” That’s what was going on, because of the confluence of criminal types, ex-cons, and hustlers... not to mention what happened to a lot of people when they started to take strong drugs a lot. Like, speedfreaks tend to behave badly, as a subset.
Allan: Uh-huh. Okay. The song “Nova,” then, let’s come to that. That’s actually my favourite Rounders song, in terms of the ones you actually wrote.
Peter: Thank you.
Allan: The line “I ride my time slide all the time...” Do I assume that “time slide” is a drug reference?
Peter: Well, actually, the song was written on amphetamine. I wasn’t referring to... What did I mean by time slide? Well... Um...
Allan: I was dropping a lot of acid back when I was first listening to that song, so I thought it must be acid, because of the time distortions.
Peter: I was taking hallucinogens as well as speed, and I got a lot of the same stuff from both of them, actually.
Allan: But riding your time slide was not a reference to drugs?
Peter: No, it’s about... let’s see. It’s about my growing rhythmic awareness, like - I didn’t used to have much rhythm, and I’ve been studying more and more to get “more rhythm, better” in a fairly diligent way, all my life. And at that point, I was just starting to get it, and of course, riding your timeslide - a slide being, like, uh, bending notes... Have you read a book called Stomp and Swerve?
Peter: Stomp is the beat, swerve is bending notes. The book’s called Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1838-1923. It’s about black influence on white music, and the time slide is basically stomp and swerve. Stomp and swerve equals hot, is another explanation of those terms. As well as the fact that I was having fantasies of trying to absorb older musical culture, like, first off rock’n’roll hit, then folk music, then bluegrass hit me, and then oldtimey hit me. It’s sort of looking back and back at the awesome history of music in the United States... I describe the Velocity Ramblers, like - “What kind of music do you do?” “We play 21st century 19th century music in a variety of 20th century styles.” I’ve always been like - “What kind of music do you play?” -- “I would have to give an essay.” I’ve been looking for soundbytes, and that’s one that’s kind of going in the right direction.
Allan: Okay. I’ve got a couple of quick questions... This first one is not from me, but from Nardwuar the Human Serviette. I don’t know if you know him.
Peter (intrigued): No!
Allan: He’s a Vancouver musician and journalist and a celebrity up here, he’s insane and beautiful. He really wants to know about the Primitives - early Lou Reed and John Cale stuff - did you have any interaction with those guys?
Peter: I never met Reed until the Rounders and the Velvets did a gig in Boston in 1969. That was the first time I ever met him, and he remarked that the Holy Modal Rounders and the Velvet Underground and the Fugs are the earliest Lower East Side bands, which is indeed true. Actually, I heard an early version of “I’m Waiting for My Man” which sounds almost oldtimey - have you heard that one?
Allan: I haven’t.
Peter: When they started playing some of their stuff, it really sounded like bad oldtimey, which they quickly moved into rock’n’roll. I was floored by the first Velvets album - I think their music is absolutely fucking incredible.
Allan: Agreed - the Velvets, the Fugs and the Rounders stand out as some of the most unique stuff of that whole time and space. One last thing I’m really curious about, in terms of the New York scene - did you have much of a friendship with Phil Ochs?
Peter: Well, actually - I met him in early ’63, when we were all working in the same coffee house, passing the hat! (Laughing) Me and Phil Ochs and Tiny Tim were the show!
Allan (laughing): Not playing together, please.
Peter: No! We were three separate acts, and I found a lot of Phil’s music kind of annoying, but when I met him - I’d just gotten gonorrhoea and he’d just gotten gonorrhoea and that was kind of like a bonding point, a little bit. I felt - “We both got the clap, he can’t be that bad!” He wrote this one song which this group called Jim and Jean used to do: “When the river of rebellion overflows, I’ll be there!/ When the seed of discontent plants and grows, I’ll be there!” I’m just - “Oh nooooo! Stop! Stop! Stop!” (Laughing). I really had a thing about the seriousness of folk music. It used to annoy the fuck out of me, y’know? And I mean, that’s one reason that the Rounders were goofy. I mean, with oldtimey - Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss-hair Pullers, these old ‘20’s groups --they were all fuckin’ goofy-ass, weird nutty shit, you know? I loved the weird nutty shit and I thought the weird nutty shit was more, like, the point of it than the serious meaningful People’s Rhetoric approach. So I kind of had a bad attitude towards Phil. However...
Allan: It makes sense, you were much more irreverent in your approach to things... However, you were going to say -
Peter: Well, I just, um - well. I’m really sorry about Phil, and like, if I had a do-over, I saw him on the street a couple of months before he died, and he said, “Oh, hi,” and he obviously wanted to talk, and I was like (adopts cranky self-righteous tone), “I don’t want to talk to this guy - I don’t respect him musically!” Which is a real asshole/jerk way to have been - I didn’t understand that the guy had been seriously depressed. And also, the last album that he made, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, where he started singing this country stuff... Another reason I didn’t like Phil Ochs was, he was always (adopts covetous resentful tone), “This year I’m going to be better than Dylan!”, and I was going, “Oh come on, man!” For one thing, “In your dreams, kid,” and for another thing, that wasn’t the point, the point was for Phil Ochs to be the best Phil Ochs he could be. And some of his stuff I liked, okay, but his last album where he does all this country music was fucking great!
Peter: If he’d have gone towards being a populist country singer, he would have, like, fulfilled his destiny, and achieved a wider success and been more on it artistically. If I could go back to that time when I last saw him, I would try to convince him of this. But... you can’t go home again.
Allan: No. Did you ever hear his live album, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, where he’s performing “Okie from Muskogee” and things like that?
Allan: That’s just come out on CD not too long ago, I think it’s still available. He does George Jones covers, he does - “Okie from Muskogee” is really the one -
Allan: But he’s wearing his gold lame suit, and he’s in New York, and the audience is booing him - they’re really pissed off at times that he’s singing “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” It’s not going over well. Eugene Chadbourne says he saw him play the same material in Boulder, Colorado, and the audience loved it, but in New York it rubbed people wrong.
Peter: It was politically incorrect.
Allan: Yeah. Speaking of Eugene Chadbourne, then - my final question, we have arrived. I wanted to ask you about one of your many side projects, playing on Bongwater’s The Power of Pussy (half of Bongwater was former Chadbourne collaborator Kramer, post-Shockabilly). How did you hook up with them?
Peter: Oh. I know Kramer from way back - and he has the Shimmy Disc label, and he’s asked me now and again to do things. In fact, this guy Jeffrey Lewis that I talked about, I met Lewis at Ed Sanders’ birthday party, and there’s two kids onstage, and one of them says, “We’re going to do a history of punk rock on the Lower East Side which is a history of punk rock, 1959 to 1975,” and I thought (skeptically), “Yeah, kid - yeah, right. This is gonna be good.” And he proceeded to do this twelve minute thing starting with Harry Smith, going to the Holy Modal Rounders, and then the Fugs, and basically namechecking every single punkish influence, and then in 1975 the Ramones get to England and people believe that punk rock is invented. And he would sing a little snippet of every single group he was going through, and he nailed it! I mean, he did a brilliant job of exposition - he remembers things that I’d forgotten, you know? And I went up to the guy - “Man, that was fucking great - you nailed it!” And subsequently he asked me to record on an album behind him called City and Eastern Music, that Kramer recorded.
Allan: Called what?
Peter: City and Eastern Music - as opposed to country and western!
Allan (laughing). Okay. I gotta check this guy out. Is there anything else you want to say? I’m spent.
Peter: Oh golly... well...
[Family member in background, impatiently: Who are you talking to?]
Peter (to family member): It’s an interview. (To me): Oh, just... jeez... I’ll give you Mark’s label name, G-a-l-l-a-t-i-n. Gallatin was a bad section of New Orleans where the Irish criminals were the dominating force. There’s all these other projects that hopefully will be able to find a home there, and be accessed.
Allan: Thank you very, very much, Mr. Stampfel!
Peter: You’re welcome!
Folie à Deux: a Post-Script
As previously related in the introduction, since I’d tracked down Antonia Stampfel in my search for Peter’s phone number, I couldn’t resist the impulse to try to interview her, too.
Allan: Is that Antonia?
Allan: It’s Allan MacInnis calling from Vancouver. I’m a music writer, I called you about a week ago about Peter Stampfel. He gave me the wrong phone number.
Antonia: I gave you the wrong phone number?
Allan: No, he gave me the wrong phone number. So you helped me.
Antonia: Oh, right! Okay, I remember.
Allan: Thank you for that. I was calling because I thought I might ask you a couple of questions. Do you have some time to talk?
Antonia: Yes, I do.
Allan: I wanted to ask - have you seen the film about the Holy Modal Rounders?
Antonia: Yes, I did!
Allan: What did you think of it?
Antonia: I thought it was good!
Allan: You weren’t involved in it, right?
Antonia: No, I wasn’t. They didn’t ask me.
Allan: You get talked about a bit in the film. Were you happy with how things were represented?
Antonia: Yes. When I watched it, I set my mind to not be a nitpicker. But if there was something seriously wrong, I’d have been heard.
Antonia: Also, when we saw it, Peter came up and played five songs by himself at the end of the picture, and then people were allowed to ask questions and things.
Allan: Where was that?
Antonia: That was near here, in Florida.
Allan: Oh, great.
Antonia: That would certainly make it.
Allan: Yes, it would! Are you still friends with Peter?
Antonia: Yes, I am - when I go to New York, I still spend a couple of days at his house. Thank God it’s mellowed out...
Allan: As in, no amphetamine-crazed three day binges?
Antonia: Just in general. No amphetamine-crazed anything!
Allan: Right! (laughing). I’d wanted to ask you about Santeria. I’d read that you were involved in it...
Antonia: A little bit. I wasn’t that involved, I wasn’t that knowledgeable about it. But I was interested in it, you know.
Allan: Peter told him a story about how the band wanted a recording contract, around 1970, and you told them who to pray to...
Antonia: Oh, that.
Allan: Do you remember that?
Antonia: More or less. The details escape me. I’m sorry to be so vague when you’re making this long call here.
Allan: It’s all right! Can you tell me anything about the deity he was supposed to be praying to?
Antonia: Possibly Saint Jude, who is the Patron Saint of the Lost Causes or the Impossible.
Allan: That would be appropriate, but I don’t think that’s who he said. He said you were supposed to put dice on the altar...
Antonia: That was him. Ruby dice, some whiskey to rub on his mouth which he can later lick off at his leisure. Something else...
Allan: Something about playing cards, I think.
Antonia: That’s it - some miniature playing cards, specially designed to put in front of him. And if he didn’t do his stuff in two weeks, he was put upside-down in a glass full of salt, and left there until he came across with something. Rather unpleasant, I would think, even for a small-level deity. But St. Jude is one who is generally addressed for, as I say, lost causes or hopeless dreams or things where you feel you didn’t get a fair shake.
Allan: And you introduced him to the band.
Antonia: No, I introduced Peter to Weber. (This was my favourite non-sequitur of 2007).
Allan: But - the idea of St. Jude, this is something you introduced to the band - it came from you?
Antonia: No, from me and Peter, and a well-known book called Voodoo in New Orleans, which has been in print since God knows when.
Allan: So are you still involved in voodoo at all?
Allan: Okay. Let me ask, then - what’s your favourite Holy Modal Rounders song?
Antonia: Oh, God.
Allan: (laughs) Or maybe I should ask - of the songs you were involved in, which are you proudest of? Because you wrote lyrics for quite a few songs...
Antonia: Yes, and sometimes I wrote the music, too, though it wasn’t easy.
Allan: Why not?
Antonia: Well, I don’t play an instrument, and I don’t read or write music.
Allan: But you came up with the tunes.
Antonia: Sometimes. I think I wrote more lyrics than I did tunes, but I did both... I’m starting to think, you know... As far as I’m concerned, the best thing I ever wrote does not appear on record anywhere.
Allan: Oh! What was it?
Antonia: I’d rather not go into it right now, ‘cause it’s a sore point to me that it hasn’t gotten on record. (With apologies to Antonia, I have elected to leave this sentence in, in the interest of spurring someone to amend the situation!).
Allan: Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. Let me ask you about the song “Synergy,” then. Did you write the lyrics for that, or did you and Peter collaborate?
Antonia: We collaborated.
Allan: “If You Want To Be a Bird” is all yours, right?
Antonia: All mine.
Allan: That’s a great song. I love that song.
Antonia: Thank you!
Allan: Okay, let me ask just one more questions - Peter was talking about these amphetamine hallucinations where the radio would sound really, really different.
Antonia: Oh yes, we got messages from I-don’t-know-where, but it wasn’t in Buffalo, where our station was. We’d tune in between the stations, you know, and find our messages there. Then we had to translate it, you know, because they were hard to figure out.
Allan: How did you have them translated?
Antonia: Well, we wrote down what we heard, then we’d get together and try to put it together into comprehensible English.
Allan: What sort of messages?
Antonia: Well, for a long time, we believed the engineer was coming. The engineer drives the train.
Allan: Right, yes - Peter told me.
Antonia: And we had a friend on the airwaves by the name of Gerard Gerard, who is instrumental in the whole business, and he was one of the voices that came over.
Allan: He was a real person?
Allan: Oh! Okay. And he would give the messages about the engineer coming.
Antonia: Yes, and things like that.
Allan: And both you and Peter heard these?
Antonia: It’s funny to think of being that close to another person.
Allan: Yes. I’ve dropped acid with friends. You really get intimately involved with the other person’s mind.
Antonia: Yes. And it’s sometimes surprising what you find there, in the other mind.
Allan: Do you have your own story, some moment that was really interesting?
Antonia: No. After a three day binge, we’d just settle down to wait for the train. Couldn’t hardly go any further, you know?
Allan: What did you think “the train is coming” meant?
Antonia: Well, it was a very good thing. It was a positive thing.
Allan: Did the train arrive?
Antonia: No. We weren’t that hallucinatory!
Allan (laughs uproariously).
Antonia: I mean, when you wait for the train, that’s one thing, you know? When you begin to see it -
Allan (still laughing): I thought maybe metaphorically.
Antonia: Well, the whole business was sort of metaphorical...
Allan: Okay. Thank you for taking the time. Later on, when the article is ready, I’ll mail you a copy.
Antonia: I’d appreciate that!
Allan: I really enjoy your songs!
Antonia: Thank you!