Holy Modal Rounders in the late '60's: John Wesley Annis, Shepard, Stampfel, Steve Weber, Richard Tyler.
Tribute by Peter Stampfel, Part 1
One of the strangest things about life is the deeply unlikely way coincidences frequently trigger life-changing events. For example, I met Carol Hunter in the Village around 1961. She was one of the best banjo and guitar players on the set--that's the word everyone on the inside used to describe the whole bohemian scene.
She visited Antonia and me in 1966, and the three of us hung out on the bed. We had been hanging out with friends on the bed a lot since 1963, way before John and Yoko were doing it. No group sex was involved, just hanging out. Antonia and I were, as they said back then, speeding our tits off, and Carol was playing guitar and swaying gently back and forth, singing "The Minstrel Boy." I hallucinated a partially transparent tall ship superimposed on her body. It was under full sail, and the rigging was festooned with pennants. As Carol swayed back and forth, the pennants would blow one way, then the other. Nice touch, I thought.
I was a founding member of the Holy Modal Rounders, and Carol came to me with an offer from some college in Illinois who wanted the Holy Modal Rounders to play there for $500 + expenses. My half would pay four months rent. I had quit playing with the other founding member, Steve Weber, in July 1965, for a number of reasons. We hadn't played together since then, but we both needed the money, so we went for it.
I had hocked my fiddle to buy speed, so I had to un-hock it. While I was standing in the pawn shop, this guy comes up to me and asks, "Do you play bass?" Perfectly logical question to ask a guy holding a fiddle. The guy who asked was Sam Shepard. And as it happened, I had been learning to play bass over the summer. Sam explained he was playing drums with this guitar player called the Heavy Metal Kid, and they had been discussing the need for a bass player. He came home with me, and we hung out on the bed and talked for a few hours. He was one of those people I really liked right off the bat. The Heavy Metal Kid didn't work out, but our newer group, the Moray Eels ("more A" as in more amphetamine), really needed a drummer, and now we had one. Sam said he was twenty-four. Years later, I found he had actually been twenty-two. Sure looked twenty-four to me. We mentioned to a few people that we were playing with this neat guy Sam Shepard, and several asked, 'Sam Shepard the playwright?' Sam hadn't mentioned writing plays, or acting, for that matter.
'Hey Sam, do you write plays?' 'Yeah,' he said.
Decades later, he wrote a short story about the two of us called "Fear of The Fiddle." In it, the Peter character says that many people on the 19th-century frontier were somehow spooked by fiddle music. I don't remember telling him that, but I might have (it does sound like something I would have said or would have known, though). The story took place a couple years before we actually met, and it had me wearing a necklace of garlic to ward off evil spirits. I would never do that. But many aspects and details in that story are uncannily representative of who we both were.
As I said, I had been speed-learning bass. Antonia and I hallucinated a man somewhere upstairs who was also learning bass. At first, he was awful, but every time I made a breakthrough, his playing would improve. I felt a sense of menace from him. Speed will do that. We talked to Sam about the bass player upstairs. For a while, he was thinking about writing a play about it, but he never did. He sure was cranking out a lot of others, though.
The Moray Eels performed after one of Sam's plays called Forensic and the Navigators, at St. Mark's on the Bowery. That's where I first saw seventeen-year-old O-Lan Johnson, who Sam married in 1969, when she was nineteen. There was a part in the play where O-Lan's character explained her method to prevent cold cereal from overflowing the bowl when you poured the milk in.
'See,' she said, 'first put in the Rice Krispies, and I'll cover up the full bowl with both hands, and you pour the milk over my hands.' Miraculously, the Rice Krispies didn't overflow! That was actually her idea that Sam worked into the play. Wow, I thought. What a woman.
Besides Antonia, Sam, and I, the Moray Eels were Richard Tyler, a keyboard guy from Baltimore, then playing bass, and Dave Levi, who I'd met right after I first came to New York. Dave and I went back seven years.
On two occasions, as we were playing better than we ever had, Dave would scream, drop his guitar, and leave. The first time, he ran out into the streets of the Lower East Side; the other time was in California, where he screamed, dropped his guitar, and went out nearest window, which fortunately was at the ground level.
Sam was lucky as hell. Besides arriving in New York at the perfect time and the perfect age, to a brand new scene he was custom made for, he started getting grants to write. And when he went to the UK, the first person he met was Keith Richards. He went to Italy to discuss writing the script for Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, and when he got to Rome, he and his girlfriend Nancy kept going to a restaurant around the corner from their hotel. When they got together with Antonioni, he took them to what he praised as the Best Restaurant in Rome. It was the same one they had been going to, around the corner. Being 1967, it was the "Summer of Love," which annoyed the hell out of all of us. One July day, I walked into the Moray Eel practice space on East Fourth Street, and there was this nearly bald scary-looking guy pounding away at the drums, his back to me. I thought some local hood had stormed in, and was Sam gonna be mad. But then he turned around, and it was Sam. He had gotten a real short crew cut to protest the Summer of Love. I was calling it the Somber Blub Blub.
Sam and I made a record with Steve Weber (the other founding member of the Rounders), as the Holy Modal Rounders, which Bernard Stollman released later that year on his ESP label. He wouldn't allow Sam to be on the cover with Weber and I because he thought Sam's haircut was "really wrong." I still regret that there never was a picture of Sam in a crew cut on the cover, which would have been for the ages. Stollman was supposed to pay us $150 each, only he stiffed Sam. Insult to injury. The album is still in print, and has been released all over the world. We never got another penny from it. Years later, I asked Stollman about that, and he actually said, "Didn't you read the contract?" I've never got past the second line of any contract ever. They're written to do that to you. He explained that the contract said we are owed no royalties, and they own all the publishing and don't even have to give us the customary 50/50 split between the artist and the publisher. So the $150 each was all we ever got. And Sam didn't even get that.
Earlier that year, Stollman had approached me, wanting to do a Holy Modal Rounders album. I explained that one of the reasons I quit playing with Weber was that he refused to work out new songs, and then he'd bitch on stage how he was sick of the old ones. Nevertheless, I tried to show Weber a bunch of new songs for Stollman's album and also tried to run through the unrecorded songs we had been doing, but Weber wasn't having any. So we went into the studio with no rehearsal. A few days into the session, the 6-day war in Israel started. A few days after it ended, we finished the album. The album was kind of a war sandwich.
Besides Sam on drums, Lee Crabtree played keyboard on the album. Although many people have said he was a member of the Rounders, he just played with us that one time. One evening, Sam and I had to go outside to get something, I forget what. But when we got on the street, we both heard what sounded like very loud and angry wolves, howling from downtown. 'Did you hear wolves?' we asked each other. Yes, we answered. Weber and I were on speed for the whole album except for a few sleep breaks. Not Sam, though. I've heard a lot about all the drugs he took back than, but I hardly ever saw him take any. Maybe he did all that before we met.
I don't remember much of what we talked about during that session, it was fifty years ago this summer.
Once I let Antonia talk me into finding Sam and borrowing some money from him to buy speed with. I found him in bed with a girl I had had never seen, nor would ever see again. He was pissed off, but he lent us the money.
Dave Levi decided to take the Moray Eels over, and drafted Sam and Richard Tyler to join him. Unfortunately, I missed the show. Sam said he liked the way Dave kept spitting at the microphone--something that didn't really become common until punk. A day later, I heard a knock on the door of my apartment. It was Sam carrying his entire drum kit. "Home again, home again, jiggedy jig," he said.
He and Nancy remained together until 1969, when Sam started going with O-Lan. I don't remember much about Nancy, except that she was part of a music collective called the Group Image. She was on the quiet side.
Back in 1967, however, the Moray Eels signed a contract with Barry Friedman of Elektra Records, with the stipulation that Steve Weber would be included in the recording. I had not intended to join up with Weber again, and that's why the album was called, The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders. But after recording was over, we decided to merge the bands as The Holy Modal Rounders. In other words, The Holy Modal Rounders ate The Moray Eels.
Also see part 2 of the Sam Shepard tribute by Peter Stampfel. Coming soon... Part 3, the final chapter.
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