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."

Peter and Betsy in their loft, with birds
photo: Michael Sofronski
Peter and Betsy in their loft, with birds

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.

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