DURING THE EARLY STAGES OF A HALLUCINOGENIC DRUG trip, the voyager experiences giddiness and a vision of existence as a zany, absurdist cartoon. Eccentricity in the mannerisms of others is accentuated. Laughter is maniacal and uncontrollable. Life is shorn of its somber cast, and all appears as it truly is: one big, hilarious joke.
Too Much Fun, the Holy Modal Rounders' new release and ninth in 35 years, is on Rounder Records, which, incidentally, was named after the band. And much like the psychoactivated ha-ha described above, the album causes instant flashback into the realm where the cackling never ceases. Recently, an old friend of Peter Stampfel (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar), the childlike 60-year-old co-founder of the Rounders with Steve Weber (vocals, guitar), was suffering through a bad bout of depression. Stampfel gave him a copy of the new album and a reissue. “They brought him out of his depression, and he wanted me to know how happy they made him feel,” Stampfel recounts in his trademark high-pitched squeak, which sounds like his voice is going to shatter into pieces any second. “I was so touched and moved. One reason I'm so into doing it is because it really makes me happy when I do music.”
The story of the Rounders is one of the grand secret histories of 20th-century American music. If music history is often a game of Who Came First?, then the Rounders can be said to be the first psychedelic hippie freak band and the first aggressively anti-purist folkies, making them a crucial missing link between early- and late-20th-century pop. “I've thought often of how extremely unlikely the Rounders were and are,” says Stampfel. It all began with “this incredibly sexy girl in my anthropology class at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee in October of 1956,” whom Stampfel hit on and who subsequently introduced him to the subterranean world of bohemia. The aural bible for these proto-hippies was Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The utterly eccentric music contained in Smith's six-record set proved that traditional American genres had always heralded the unconventional, proving a perfect match for countercultural oddballs.
Stampfel picked up the banjo and moved to New York in 1959, and performed his first paying gig with MacGrundy's Old-Timey Wool Thumpers in “a Brooklyn home for bad girls who'd just been released from a mental institution.” After a bit of choreographed showmanship went awry, the guitarist's corncob pipe went flying and hit a matron “smack in the forehead, like a line drive. Babe Ruth couldn't've done it on purpose. We had a big fight over the $20 pay.”
In 1963, Stampfel hooked up with Weber, a “Li'l Abner look-alike,” legendary speed freak and country-blues guitar whiz, and the duo cut their first album as the Holy Modal Rounders for Prestige the day before JFK was shot. It's a classic of demented archaic country with rhythmic hints of rock, Stampfel's helium vocals and his skewed lyrics (“Hesitation Blues” contains the first use of the word “psychedelic” in a song). After releasing a second album (to be reissued with the first as a single CD by Fantasy later this month), Stampfel and Weber joined the Fugs, the politics-peyote-porn rock group led by poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg.
While the Holy and Unholy Modal Rounders, the Bottlecaps and various solo projects have yielded consistently endorphin-encouraging recordings over the last four decades, the album that's received the most scrutiny is 1968's The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders (with playwright Sam Shepard on drums). This surreal sound collage kicked off with “If You Want To Be a Bird,” the band's “hit” that was featured in Easy Rider while Jack Nicholson clowned on the back of a motorcycle. Some (including yours truly) claim it's a psychedelic masterpiece; others say it's masturbatory excess typical of the era. Stampfel alternated between hating it and tolerating it. Finally he realized he liked it, but “I never wanted to hear it again as long as I lived.”
PRESENTLY AN EDITOR AT HIS WIFE BETSY WOLLHEIM'S DAW Books, publisher of renowned science fiction and fantasy, Stampfel quit booze and hard drugs a long time ago. Which is not to say that Too Much Fun doesn't have extremely mind-bending qualities. It's full of ecstatic scatting, over-the-top vocal phrasing and comical lyrics (“He'll sell your heart on St. Mark's Place/In glassine envelopes/ He'll cut it with a pig's heart/And burn the chumps and dopes/He's a bad boy/But I don't care”) and will appeal to work-shirted traditionalists, tie-dyed Deadheads and black-clad Ramones clones alike. Technique-niks will appreciate the virtuoso picking, flailing and bowmanship.
In abundance throughout is Stampfel's singular joie de vivre. To say he's animated is an understatement; “I've always wanted to be a cartoon,” he says in the liner notes. Asked if he's conscious of his persona, the only known musician to have played with Buckminster Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt and Bob Dylan turns to his wife and without guile or trace of irony asks, “How long have I had a conscious persona, Betsy?”