Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Slack-Wire Act

At 47, Peter Stampfel is on a career track to nowhere--he's in music for the fun, and love, of it. Forever older than Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Ed Sanders, Tina Turner, and Phil Niekro (if younger than Dave Van Ronk, Bill Wyman, Tuli Kupferberg, Ike Turner, and Satchel Paige), he became a "professional" musician in the early '60s, cutting his eyeteeth with such legendary aggregations as the Temporal Worth High Steppers and the Strict Temperance String Band of Lower Delancey Street and his first album as half of the Holy Modal Rounders. In the intervening decades he's managed to put his stampfel on about a dozen long-playing phonograph records, and then only if you count the Fugs. This is unfortunate because, as Billy Altman once observed, Stampfel "has a working knowledge of almost every song ever written." Among the tragically unrecorded staples and one-shot wonders of his repertoire are "Goldfinger," "You Must Unload," "Cajun Polka," "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown," "South Street," "Heigh Ho," and "Kingdom Coming," written by the pioneering American pop composer Henry Clay Work to celebrate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Over the past few years Stampfel has been working with a youngish band called the Bottle Caps, and if you're diligent you may be able to locate the album they've just released on Rounder (named in part after Stampfel's longest-running band). Springing eternal, Stampfel swears it's his best record ever, and while I'd pick the collaborative Have Moicy! (still in catalogue on Rounder) and then maybe the early Rounders twofer (ditto on Fantasy), he ain't just whistling "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground." There's something, well, well-made about this album; it never gibbers or passes out or busts a gut laughing. In fact, it's so stylistically consistent that you might think the inventor of such genres as "progressive old-timey" and "acid folk" has gone folk-rock 20 years too late. The tipoff is drummer Peter Moser--though he rocks harder than, say, Jeff Berman (the onetime Unholy Modal Rounder who's backed more New Yorkers with acoustic guitars than the pawn shop), he nevertheless tends to prop the songs up instead of kicking them in the ass. This isn't to insult Moser, but to iterate a supposition of almost every song ever written--namely, that meaning shouldn't be subsumed by any of its constituent elements, for instance rhythm. If you can live with that, then Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps is a very good record indeed. In the throes of early infatuation, I touted it over Psychocandy as debut album of the year, and it's still up there.

As one might hope, the album showcases several mind-expanding covers, including a protectionist drinking song and an obscure Lloyd Price ditty featuring a spoken coda in which a smitten, pimply sounding Stampfel explains the orbit of the moon to his date ("Hey, you wanna talk about something else?"). Previously unrecorded material predominates, however--some from cronies in and out of the band, most written by Stampfel with help from lead guitarist John Scherman or longtime collaborator Antonia. Though Stampfel has always composed, never before has he taken up anywhere near half an album with his own creations, which is no doubt another reason he's so high on the new record--finally, this is him. Only at 47, he's changed a little. At his folkadelic best, Stampfel did a kind of slack-wire act, striking his own crazy folkie balance between soul and satire and his own crazy rock and roll balance between hell-bent enthusiasm and musicianly effect. With the Bottle Caps he plays it closer to solid ground, falling less often but relying a hair-and-a-half too much on satire and effect.

Stampfel proved he can still take a flier late in March, when he devoted an astonishing solo appearance at the Speak Easy to songs he'd never performed publicly. Clutching in near panic at a pile of notes, he did sometimes forget lyrics and chord changes, yet he animated every selection with a concentration compounded of love and terror. Opening for himself May 10 at the same venue, he was a lot more together. But not until the solo set was almost over did it take off, just in time for him to come bounding back with the Bottle Caps, who opened with "Be True to Your School" before zipping into the first three songs from the album, which Stampfel identified as such. He's clearly put a lot of thought into this sequence, and live or on record it's pretty neat. "Drink American" is a genuine patriotic novelty from Nashville, a call to aid "the farmer and the trucker and the brewers across the land" by imbibing only U.S. brands ("made from amber waves of grain"); "Surfer Angel" crushes "Wipe Out" and "Endless Sleep" (roughly speaking) down into a subgenre I'm amazed no one got to in the '60s, the surf death song; and "Random Violence" ("You may call me Randy!") shows "Sympathy for the Devil" where to get off: "You are a stranger/But I'm even stranger/And I'm gonna blow you away." Tone shifts here. "Drink American" is a classic piece of found weirdness, albeit not as deadpan as Stampfel usually prefers; "Surfer Angel" is a joke, albeit a joke with more layers (and laugh lines) than I have space to indicate; and "Random Violence" is a sick joke, albeit a serious one. But satire does prevail.

As must be tempting, for a musicologist like Stampfel, the arrangements quote a lot, often to overly overt satiric effect: meaning rools, you bet. While the breaks from "Born Free" and "Telstar" that festooned the live "Mindless Boogie" made no explicit comment on the lyric, they were played more for laughs than for musical satisfaction, and in a sarcastic piece like "Surfer Angel," which features bits of "Wipe Out," "I Only Want to Be With You," and (live) "Ride the Wild Surf," the comedy verged on the sophomoric. When Stampfel used to set his mock hippie-occult futurism to mutant electric prebluegrass, the humor was subtler, stoneder, kinder, more cosmic, but now he lives in the infernal present of the '80s instead of the eternal future of the '60s. It's the difference between believing "a worldwide popular music" is just around the corner, as Stampfel did way back in 1964 without foreseeing either Julio Iglesias or Michael Jackson, and the tuckered-out antireincarnation kicker of the new album's "Funny the First Time": "This big joke is coming to an end." A few songs--notably the factory workers' "Screaming Industrial Breakdown" and the diehard bohos' "Impossible Groove," with Luke Faust's theoretically climactic "Press On" given credit only for trying--do undercut this mood. But only when the band rocks out--on the live "Paraphernalia" and "Mindless Boogie"--does the big joke seem like big fun.

Of course, I'm leaving out one thing: Stampfel's singing. Time was his quavery Charlie Poole tenor all but forced him into comedy, but over the years it's gotten bigger and deeper, resonating from the diaphragm instead of the nose, until now he can be an exceptionally intense interpreter. I mean the man can project. So something strange happens to the black-comic "Random Violence" and the actively uncompassionate "Lonely Junkie" ("My bowels are in stasis/My atrophied ass/Is heavy and leaded/And loaded with gas"), especially live--the nasty protagonists get to do their own talking, an effect rendered no less vivid by Stampfel's propensity to sing as if barely containing a fit of gleeful laughter, evil or euphoric as the case may be. And because Stampfel is still fundamentally a singer, one with at least a working interest in every song ever written, euphoria remains a possibility. Two decades after he joined in the Robin Remailly song on that theme--"I pinched Eve on the bottom patted Adam on the back/Smiled at the serpent and it smiled back/I took a bite from the apple with two bites gone/And shouted euphoria"--he springs eternal, still in music for the love, and fun, or it.

Village Voice, May 27, 1986