Parent With Parrots
Peter Stampfel and Betsy Wollheim got their corner loft in Soho because Betsy's dad needed a place to store his books. It was 1978, they'd fallen in love after a many-tiered courtship in which Betsy, as of 1965 a 14-year-old fan of the folk music krazy, abandoned all hope for her amblyopic beau ideal and became fast friends with his inamorata Antonia, author of such works as "So You Want To Be a Bird," "That Belly I Idolize," the never-to-be-recorded "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown," and "Bad Boy," unveiled July 13 on Too Much Fun, which Stampfel boasts makes the Holy Modal Rounders the longest-running singing group on the planet, and though skeptics might point out that it's easy to keep your original members when there's only two of 'em, the same skeptics would have bet heroin to methamphetamine that one of 'em would be dead by now. Anyhow, as I was saying. If the excitable Stampfel wasn't the likeliest candidate for a stable relationship, he had nothing on Antonia, never mind that they'd been a couple since 1962. But breakups are agony even in marginally orgiastic bohemian sets, and this one was ugly, although in the end they all stayed friends. Antonia still lives in the rent-controlled West 55th Street apartment she and Peter inherited from folksinger Karen Dalton in 1969.
Peter and Betsy, meanwhile, have this loft, now a coop but originally a bargain rental. Its $10,000 key money was advanced by Wollheim père with an eye to his science fiction library, the third largest in the world, as well as the cartons of discontinued titles that constituted his backlist. Donald A. Wollheim was the first person to edit a collection designated "Science-Fiction"--the hyphenated cover is framed on their wall. He conceived Ace Books, home of Burroughs's Junkie and Philip K. Dick and mountains of crap, including the gothics that preceded romances--he is credited with discovering that a light in one window of the house on the cover gooses sales. Eventually he founded his own company, DAW, which his daughter took over in 1985. A division of Penguin these days, DAW puts out 40 new fantasy and science fiction titles and 40 reissues a year. Peter works there full-time as an associate editor, doing first readings and correspondence. Betsy, the president, goes to the office three days; often she edits manuscripts at home till five in the morning.
The loft is a big one, a comfortably cluttered anvil-shaped living-dining-kitchen area bordered by rooms for their daughters Zoë, 12, and Lily, 7, as well as a large master bedroom and a storage room piled with marked Hammermill paper cartons: "mags to sort 8-93," "Zoe school stuff '93-'94," "paper plates cups." It is here that Stampfel has boxed his 11,000 bottle caps ("B.C."), now catalogued on color xeroxes, as well as his famous fakebook collection, from which he's xeroxed 2000 songs he might want to try sometime. Extra musical equipment is here too: a bass, an amp, a keyboard he can't really play (he's been taking piano lessons from Zoë's teacher for three years). In a family that favors oldies or show tunes when it listens at all, music hardly dominates the decor; Peter keeps his records in the bedroom, his fiddle, banjo, guitars, and mandolin wherever. Instead there are toys all over, and not primarily the girls'--Peter and Betsy are both collectors, with hundreds if not thousands of dolls and action figures shelved on the walls or stuffed into antique hutches and armoires. Then there are the six parrots, a lifework Betsy took up while caring for her dying mother in 1993. Parrots live many years and require much physical affection--bird care when the Stampfels are away visiting Peter's mother in California runs $40 a day. "I often wonder what our life would be like if we didn't have parrots," Stampfel told me after recaging his beloved gray, Snapdragon. "We'd have more time. And more money."
Unlike co-Rounder Steve Weber, who at 57 lives with his mother in horsey Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Stampfel never had much money. His father was a skilled laborer who left Milwaukee shortly after his oldest son quit college to subsist on music and "scut jobs." Subsistence it was--Stampfel wasn't exactly a natural on the coffeehouse circuit. He was a folkie insofar as he played old-timey instruments and knew his Harry Smith backwards and forwards. But unlike most folksingers, he preferred backwards. For him, the old weird America looked like something R. Crumb hadn't yet imagined, and he was equally well-suited to the new weird America--of pop songs, comic books, bottle caps, the science fiction he'd loved since the year his future wife was born, psychedelics, speed. Although intimate with the nooks and crannies of the self that drugs illumine for the young, he made light of spirituality and existential hoo-hah. He spoke with a stammer, sang like Barney Google, and joined the Fugs. He was a weirdo before there was a market for weirdos. Since next to Bob Dylan he was also the nearest thing to a genius folkiedom had thrown up, he had his cult, and with the devilishly handsome Weber and many other partners in hijinx recorded for Prestige, ESP-Disk, Elektra, Metromedia, and eventually Rounder, which was named for his band. But money? Well, once he got a $3000 check from the Lovin' Spoonful, who had copped the Rounders' rewrite of "Blues in the Bottle." He celebrated by buying a pair of leather pants.
At 60, Stampfel has some money. Raised lower-middle-class, a poster boy for voluntary poverty through his thirties, he's now upper-middle-class. Concomitantly, his music seems more and more avocational, grossing just enough to make expenses deductible. He plays out a dozen times a year, usually in Manhattan--hasn't hit Boston since 1990, D.C. since 1981--and in the '90s his always spotty catalogue added only the 1995 Gert Town cover album You Must Remember This . . . . Late parenthood can do that to you, especially when compounded by parrots; Stampfel blames his girls, rather than his publishing job, for bringing his hundred-book-a-year intake down to 10, and dads who love their kids avoid the road. In addition, skeptics might figure he's gotten too straight--off psychedelics in 1976 and speed in 1977, he joined AA in 1988 after various cosmic indicators that included an occult reading of William Kennedy's Ironweed and Betsy's threat to throw him out of the house.
As it happens, however, the Gert Town album, produced in New Orleans by Stampfel's friend Mark Bingham, is the best-realized recording of his career except Have Moicy!, his 1976 day at the commune with Jeffrey Frederick and Michael Hurley. Nor does Too Much Fun, first fruit of four days on a Ontario studio-farm in May 1998, pale against Holy Modal Rounders, the slightly revised CD version of the two startling 1964 Prestige albums that Fantasy will release in September. If the voices have lowered and lost definition, if the eccentricity value has worn off over 35 years, the spirit is no less enthusiastic, iconoclastic, ludic, loving, or nutty--or collaborative. Stampfel loves to collaborate, and from Paul Presti to Jeffrey Frederick to Gary Lucas, he's made the most of some notoriously problematic partners, although several of the Rounders albums as well as the second with his '80s band, the Bottle Caps, wander off into an excess of democracy. But Weber--who Wollheim aptly sums up as having infinite id, plenty of ego, and no superego whatsoever--is his brother from another planet.
Always on-again off-again, their professional relationship achieved total hiatus between 1981 and 1996, during which time Stampfel made Weber the dedicatee of a caustic little something called "Lonely Junkie"; since they started gigging again, he's kept up a running account of Weber's drinking. In fact, Stampfel likes to attribute the success of the Too Much Fun sessions to the unavailability of hard liquor where it was recorded, which leapfrogs over what put them in the same province--an affable appetite for American song that's never sententious and never cute. Stampfel's the intense seeker, Weber the mellow layabout; where Stampfel is all comic focus, whether comic ha-ha or comic-as-opposed-to-tragic, Weber is someone who can just not give a fuck while remaining both charming and musical. A lifetime of dissolution has not been kind to his chops--literally, since he has no teeth left--and that's too bad. But it's truer to the Holy Modal idea to risk near incompetence than to approximate mere folk music, as happens a few times with the Prestige material. The magic of Too Much Fun isn't eternal youth--these guys are as much old codgers as John Hurt and Clarence Ashley in 1963. It's the celebration of play as the fundamental life-principle. Stampfel's triumph is that he's integrated this principle into an existence in which he goes to a day job and loves so many people and parrots. Should his music turn avocational in the bargain, well, not even music precedes play itself.
But if Peter Stampfel is too straight, neither his life nor his music shows it. He's had his doubts about kids and drugs since two seventh-grade hitchhikers gave him a detailed rundown of the local pot market before an Avalon Ballroom gig in 1968--"We now know that drugs and alcohol have a bad effect on the child and teenage mind and its development"--and included in this latest recording of Robin Remailly's psychedelic praise song "Euphoria" a verse about junkie mothers boosting Simulac. But he likes himself too much to turn revisionist. "Amphetamine I actually learned a whole bunch of stuff from. It was a teaching tool, it mentored me in a way. Only I learned the lesson that it was teaching me by about 1969 and that was time to graduate. You've got your riding-the-tiger allegory--it's easy to ride on the tiger's back, it's very difficult to dismount. That's the way drugs tend to be. I can appreciate people in their twenties drinking a lot and getting into--" he paused. "Being in your twenties and not at least trying alcohol and marijuana seems kind of unnatural." As for his vocation, Too Much Fun is the first in a series--the great lost third Bottle Caps album is due from Rounder in January, a second Rounders album six months later. Still seeking labels are a Du-Tels album with Gary Lucas and a second Bingham-produced solo project, 14 originals and three covers: "This is the one that's really gonna be a serious pisser--well, he said, he alleged."
Stampfel will keep on alleging. Rounder wants the Rounders to tour, which given Weber's unreliability--I've seen him unable to hold on to his capo--makes Stampfel nervous. But a trial gig in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, sold out, and next morning there was a message on my answering machine: "I just wanted to say we met Weber's new girlfriend and she was great. He was a new man. He only had two beers! All he needed was the love of a good woman."
Village Voice, Aug. 3, 1999