Perfect Sound Forever

Peter Stampfel interview- part 1 of 3

Peter Stampfel

by Jason Gross (September 1996)

Peter Stampfel is the only person ever to play music with Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard, Mississippi John Hurt and Buckminster Fuller- I asked him about all of these except the Fuller story, which you can find on You Must Remember This (Peter said he was like a "80-year-old Lou Reed who hadn't sang in a while"). Peter is much more than just a guy who happened upon these people. He has a long legacy of folk and rock music done as a founding member of the Fugs and Holy Modal Rounders as well as years of solo work and intruiging new colloborations such as the Dysfunctionells and the Du-Tels.

Not only that- he's also played with They Might Be Giants, the Roches, Yo La Tengo, Bongwater and Loudon Wainwright III- how many people can say that? If that wasn't enough, with the Rounders, he's also found on the Easy Rider soundtrack, a Rutles tribute record and a Dr. Demento record (where I first heard him) and appeared on TV on Laugh-In. That isn't even mentioning the fact that big-time indie label Rounder Records is named after his band. Surely, this man deserves a place in music history.

He's easily one of the most good-natured people I've ever met and unbelievably enthuasistic about music. He also has an AMAZING memory- he remembered exact addresses of friends from thirty years ago and which drugs they were taking for each Rounders record. Most of all, he has a very lucid mind. Even though this interview may seem lengthy, his musings and answers are interesting and enlightening enough to be printed in full. If you think I'm being sentimental, tell me you don't want to hear about Connie Francis meeting Jeff Beck, making love to a gazelle in a zoo, trading a banjo for a car, The Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers and getting guitarists from Jeff Buckley and Lady Complainer.

PSF: What was the first time you got interested in music?

The first song I remember hearing is David Rose's "Holiday For Strings." I heard it about 1944, when I was five. I also remember singing commercials I heard then. It's one of those musical forms that's undocumented and un-noticed and really interesting. People denegrate jingles and commercials, as well they should, but I don't think it's totally reasonable to dismiss them as cultural artifacts.

Basically, I heard pre-rock'n'roll pop music on the radio. A lot of polka music too, which I hated. I thought polka music was really boring. The only classical music I heard were themes from soap operas, which were on the radio- they used classical music because they didn't have to pay royalties. They sort of gave a little cultural resonance to Ma Perkins, Mary Noble backstage wife, Just Plain Bill and Portia's life. One of them had Scheming Loretta and Plotting Frank as villians. I heard a little bit of country music on the polka station sporadically and in the late '40s and I liked a lot of the songs I heard like "Money, Marbles and Chalk."

I got money, marbles and chalk sweetheart
But I still feel like I was poor
And the money won't spend
And the marbles won't roll
And the chalk won't write anymore

A nice simple melody, that's one thing I liked about country music. I was nuts about the pre-rock pop stuff. Did you hear my latest record You Must Remember This?

PSF: Yeah, that's a great one. There's a lot of that kind of material there that you do.

That stuff is some of the most maginificent music ever produced by mankind. The more I reflect on it, listen to it and remember it, the more I'm impressed by what a monumental achievement that canon is. Anyway, when I started listening to rock'n'roll, it was music that the bad kids, the worst kids did these perverted dances to. The grind type dances. A lot of the songs themselves were dirty too like "Sixty Minute Man" and "Work With Me Annie." I didn't really get taken by it until I heard Little Richard and Fats Domino in early '56 at which point I became completely won over. I started listening to folk music when I started college in '56 at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

PSF: Where did you grow up?

It was the south side of Milwaukee. Our last house was surrounded by alfalfa fields and there'd be squashed pheasants and possoms on the road. The house next door was built in the 1850's. By the mid '50s, it was all sub-divisions for miles around. The houses were selling for nine thousand dollars- it was 2 years salary for an average person. Anyway, I got into folk music in college where I met some bohemian people and heard bluegrass music too.

PSF: Were there any particular artists that you were really fond of?

Pete Seeger, I revered him. I liked Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe, who I fetched coffee for in Indiana where he was working. He yelled for a cup of coffee and I ran out, burning and scalding my hand- what a thrill! Super Fan Boy. I still am. I think I enjoy being a fan boy. Fan boys can be completely awful but there's something about the fan-ish attitude which I enjoy having and which I think is basically good, despite how crazy fans can get.

Then I heard the Lost City Ramblers and I was very much impressed by the fact that there was stuff before bluegrass that was really interesting. When I got to New York in '59, I heard the Smith anthology. That was the first time that anyone got the 78 RPM records in LP form. Harry Smith was an alcoholic genius, multi-talented sort of a renaissance person who amassed a collection. He was in Seattle in 1943 and he was walking down the street and he heard an Uncle Dave Macon record. "What's this, I never heard... what is this?" He followed the music and found this guy using this wind-up victrola and he was playing these records which he was melting down for shellac. The shellac supply was cut off by the Japanese during the war and he was playing the records and melting them down.

So Smith started listening to this stuff and collecting the records. In '52 or '53, the same year rock'n'roll got started coincidentally, he talked Folkways records into releasing a six album set. 84 different cuts where I and hundreds of other people first heard country blues, shape note singing, the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Poole, etc.. The records were from 1927 when electronic record recording was developed which made for a quantam leap in fidelty and sound. The records went up until 1933, when the record industry went into total collapse because of the depression. So these records comprised all these genres from this time period. It devasted me, it totally wiped me out. Hearing all this amazing stuff, enthralled and captivated me and I decided that I had to recreate this music because all of the people who did it were dead or dying. Once there were gone, by God if I didn't grab that torch, the flame would be extinguised forever! I needn't have bothered because thousands of other kids had the same identical response. So instead of it dying, there was a huge resurgence.

I got very disillusioned with rock'n'roll in 1958 because Little Richard joined the church, Fats Domino started having this diddy white chorus behind him after having a string of unbroken hits from 1949. Why did he decide to have the Ray Conniff singers behind him? Presley, a brilliant singer but an uneven chooser of material, joined the army. Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. Chuck Berry got popped for bringing an under-aged girl across the border. (Jerry Lee) Lewis got disgraced for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. And then all these Italian controlled record business guys started having these cute Italian teenagers singing rock'n'roll because it was a smart business move. I remained disgusted until 1962 when I met Antonia and she turned me on to current pop music which was having a tremendous resurgence.

People think of the Beatles as turning it around but actually they had their first hit in '62. The Stones formed in '62 and the Beach Boys had their first hit. Take a lot of the top 100 records of that year and you'll find amazingly good stuff. So the whole idea that I developed by then was "what if all of my country and blues heros of the 1920's were in the their twenties and they were transported to the sixties and exposed to rock'n'roll?" Then what would they do? Before 1962, I was purist who didn't play anything before 1939, trying to recreate that sound.

I just had remarkable insight this morning. Bluegrass started around 1938. Old-timey is to bluegrass as New Orleans style is to dixieland. Old-timey and New Orleans style are everyone playing at once, making a piece of a whole sound whereas the bluegrass and dixieland era came when people chops developed to the point when they really had these solo breaks and "everyone shut and let me play... listen to me!" That's when solos started.

I was thinking how bored I got with the blues at one point and how I liked the pre-1938 stuff better. In '38, with Robert Johnson and most of everyone's selections were codified as far as their shape goes. Blues songs tend to be very similar to each other in the way they're built. Whereas before that, there were really eccentric constructions. So basically the blues form became stratified very similar to (what happened to) bluegrass. This very rigid skeleton sort of superimposed itself on the format and turned into a straight-jacket to a degree which maintained it's basic shape for a half-century now. It's curious how blues and country got rigid at the same time. Coincidence? I don't think so!

PSF: So after school, what led you out to New York?

A girl. I went to San Franciso to investigate the Beat Generation in 1958 in May. I didn't want to stay because I thought it was a cliched thing to do. My background was lower-middle class and I was real defensive, low self-esteem type person. I wanted to be a real individual. And I thought that going to San Franciso in '58 and staying there was like going to Paris in 1920s, just too cliched to possibly consider. So "I'll go back a year later when all this stuff has blown over" So I did and went back to see if it'd blown over, which it hadn't and I met this girl from New York. She went back to New York and I followed her there. By that time, she was back with her old boyfriend.

She and him put me up for a couple of weeks and found me a place on 63 Clinton Street between Houston and Delancy for $42 a month with this guy Tom Condit who introducted me to science fiction fandom. We had four rooms, it was great. Of course, the competition was who had the cheapest place. This one guy had a place on 5th Street between B and C in a basement for $15 a week.

In '59, I was aware that the East Village was hip and the West Village was square. The East Village had the coolest people. The people living in the Village proper were more likely to be phonies. It was ridiculous stuff! Young people are always preoccupied with being "hipper than thou," t'was ever thus.

I was concerned about the fact that this was a New York slum. I asked everybody if it was dangerous. "Does anybody have any trouble around here?" From the dozens of people that I questioned, two people told me the same story. A couple years back, a guy got stabbed in the arm with a knife but it was his own fault and he started it. And that was it. The Lower East Side was a really safe neighborhood, besides being cheap. I appreciated the hell out of it but on the other hand, I didn't go to Coney Island. I could have ridden on the Steeplechase, which closed down. I didn't do it because I was stupid. There was a paddlewheel excursion boat going up the New York river. I missed that too.

So I got here and I started playing fiddle because my banjo playing was very mediocre. There was hundreds of banjo players and only two fiddle players.

PSF: Did you take any lessons?

I did some banjo lessons in Los Angeles. In '58, I stayed in North Beach for a couple of weeks and then I moved in with my grandmother in Compton, of all places. I went to explore the Beat Generation and wound up in Compton. I went down to this music store in downtown L.A.. The guy working there was the guy who the repair/fixer for Spike Jones. I was like "Oh, can I touch the hem of your garment, sir?" I was deeply impressed. They had a bulletin board and I looked for a banjo teacher. I bought a banjo but I didn't play it at the time. I tried to learn from Pete Seeger's book.

I found a teacher. He took me to see this guy named Herman the Hermit to get a banjo. You know about Cliffy Stone? Cliffy Stone is a Western Swing guy- one of the guys inspired by Bob Wills. Spade Cooley and Cliffy Stone were two Los Angeles based Western Swing guys. Herman the Hermit was Cliffy Stone's father and he learned to play from his father who learned from his father who learned from the slaves on his plantation. He had about 50 or 70 banjos and he had long hair and a big beard. I bought this Paramount Model C from him for $150. He had a drum kit attached to it. You heard him play the banjo and in the middle of it, he would whip out these drum sticks from his hip pocket and do a drum solo with all these different things like cow bells.

Banjo contests were part of Vaudeville. Banjo players' performerances became gymnastic exhibitions, playing it back and forth and behind their back and jumping over fences as opposed who could play the best music. It sort of turned into a visual kind of thing. Herman once won a banjo contest- he had a banjo with three drone string, one coming up the middle of the neck, one further up and one further up so it had 12 strings. He won by opening the banjo case, putting one hand on his hip and reaching down with his other hand and playing this piece of music with one hand. Then they disqualified him because they said he had a music box in there. Then he picked up the banjo with one hand at arm's length and played it as he gave this dirty look at the judges. They changed their mind again and gave him the prize. Cool guy. He had a heart attack so he was selling all his banjos.

I had a '48 Ford, customized Coupe, blue, decked and shaved with duals and I sold it to get my first banjo. I paid $150 for it and it sold it for 150 though I could have gotten more but I was stupid. But I figured I paid 150 for it and sold it for 150 so it made sense. So it was all even.

PSF: After you go to New York and started playing, how did start up with the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs?

Antonia told me about this guy Weber who seemed to be this very-evil Amphetimine freak. She kept going on about how all the terrible things he did and he was her boyfriend for awhile. She broke his guitar over his head once. So I heard all these Weber stories. In May of '63, we were living on Houston Street. The place cost $60 a month. One day, Weber came down from Pennsylvannia. I wasn't expecting a 19-year-old kid who was 6' 4" and looked like an idealized L'il Abner. I had no idea that he was a brilliant country-blues guitar player. I thought he just played stuff like "Kumbaya." I wasn't aware that he would play Blind Willie McTell.

We played something and that first time we did, it was absolutely perfect. It was like "Gee, it's like the long lost brother than I never had and never knew." The whole idea of us playing together was stage managed by Antonia. The idea was a plot to get Weber off the streets. Before he want back to Pennsylvannia, he was living on the streets mostly. But she didn't want it to seem like it was her idea. She wanted it to seem like it was our idea. She didn't want to be a pushy girl. I got the idea "What a cool idea- me and Weber playing together."

So we started doing it. We're actually have a reunion on the 12th of July at the Bottom Line (New York City). We played together last weekend. Last time we played together was at a fiddlers' convention about five years ago. It should be fun.

PSF: So you and Weber started the Rounders?

Yeah. We kept changing the name. First it was the Total Quintessence Stomach Pumpers. Then the Temporal Worth High Steppers. Then The Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers. That was just a joke name. He was Rinky-Dink Steve the Tin Horn and I was Fast Lightning Cumquat. He was Teddy Boy Forever and I was Wild Blue Yonder. It kept changing names. Then it was the Total Modal Rounders. Then when we were stoned on pot and someone else, Steve Close maybe, said Holy Modal Rounders by mistake. We kept putting out different names and wait until someone starts calling us that then. When we got to Holy Modal Rounders, everyone decided by acculumation that we were the Holy Modal Rounders. That's the practical way to get named.

PSF: So this happened before you started working with Ed Sanders and the Fugs?

Weber and Antonia knew Sanders before they knew me. One of the reasons I felt so weird about him (Weber) before I met him was because he wrote this piece of filthy doggrel for a mimeographed zine called Fuck You, a magazine of the arts which Sanders was doing. It was a very daring name back in 1962. He has these notes on the contributors in the back and he described Weber as having written this poem after an all-night sexual romp in the Central Park Zoo. I believed it! Sanders would make up things like that and people like me would say "Wow, what a free spirit." To fuck a gazelle all night long in the zoo. I'm sure he would have if the gazelle had been friendly.

In late 1964, Weber came over one day and said "Sanders and these guys are doing this thing as a dirty band with these songs like "Bull Tongue Clit and Coca-Cola Douche."" I thought "cool." So I went over there and they'd written about 60 songs and they didn't play anything. Sanders played a toy organ and Tuli (Kupferburg) didn't play anything and (Ed) Weaver played these various drums which kept being stolen from him. "These Puerto Ricans with a hammer stole it from me!" So they didn't play anything but they sat down and wrote 60 songs and I thought that was so cool. So I volunteered us to be their backup band. They were extremely grateful and I thought it was one of the niftiest things I'd ever seen. It was the punk thing. "We don't know anything about it but we have this really rude idea and we're just going to do it despite the fact that we don't have any skills whatsoever." So it predated the punk approach by ten years.

I quit playing with them in '65. Weber got REALLY out of control. He had been out of control. We were playing in Baltimore in the spring of '65 and he got to a Hot Shoppe, like a Howard Johnsons, and proceeded to give the waitress hashish in a crowded place. The guy was really out to self-destruct. He was also missing gigs. He missed two gigs in a row and that was the final straw.

Part 2 of the Interview

Also see Stampfel's article on 'go' songs
his article on Freak Folk origins
his tribute to Sam Shepard
our tribute to Steve Weber

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER