Parent With Parrots

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 an 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.

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

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 and great passion, 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."

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