Holy Modal Rounders, young but not innocent days: Stampfel (left), Weber (right)
by Peter Stampfel
Weber's last girlfriend, Judith Fredrick --or so she has alleged her name was--notified none of his friends when Steve Weber died February 7th, 2020. Almost a month later, some people started posting on social media that Weber might really be dead. A friend of mine found his death notice in a West Virginia newspaper. That's how I found out that Weber was dead.
Neither I, nor any of the West Coast Rounders, had seen or spoken to Weber since he moved in with Judith in 2002. We did have some email exchanges, but in 2003, he blew off our 40th anniversary reunion concert in Portland, Oregon. Judith, who had become his personal manager, advised Weber that attending the 40th anniversary of the band he and I founded in 1963, would "a bad career move."
Since his death, I've been thinking a lot about Weber. The basic theme has been, 'what was Weber, exactly?' One of my thoughts was that Weber was a basic human archetype, The Trickster. Weber, the low-key Loki. Weber the con man. A more exalted and accomplished example of the Trickster/Con Man was Harry Smith. My wife had a different take on Steve. She said he was a man with an excess of ego and id, but completely lacking a superego.
When I met Weber, one of the first things that happened was he asked to borrow $5. Sure! I handed it over. Then, a few days later, he asked to borrow $5 again, Um... OK! I handed it over. Soon he asked to borrow $5 again. I said 'you already owe me $10.' No handing over this time. I found that lend-me-$5 was his opening gambit for everyone he met, as were the subsequent requests that would follow. I never asked him the most $5 loans he managed to get from a single person. A Mystery Lost To The Ages. I know he eventually stopped doing it. Or stopped doing it to other people in front of me. Yet more mystery.
The Trickster is an ancient archetype, but one of its latter-day forms could be found in the earliest comic strips, like the Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, or Ignatz, the brick-throwing mouse. When Weber and I were kids in the '40's, there was a whole sub-genre of Tricksters, besides Batman's Joker, in the comic books, in which there was always a foil involved whose role was to be serially tricked. The Fox And The Crow, Fauntleroy and Crawford, were featured in animated films and comic books. The plot was always the same. Foil gets tricked, except once in a while the trick would backfire. The Dodo and The Frog was another example. The Frog, Fennimore, wore a black top hat, and nothing else except a cigarette holder with a bent, beat-up cigarette in it, which he never seemed to smoke. The Dodo, Dunbar, was pink and cockeyed, he wore a dorky hat with a girly little ribbon around the brim, a collar, and a really long necktie with big diagonal black and green stripes. Nothing else. The Dodo was dumber than The Fox, and the stories had a sort of heaven-protects-the-innocent theme, with The Frog's tricks almost always backfiring. There were numerous examples of this basic theme, like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.
But Weber most closely resembled Flim-Flam Flamingo, who took perpetual advantage of the hard-working Petunia Pelican. Like Weber, Flim-Flam was very tall, while Petunia was quite short, and cute in a dumpy sort of way. Petunia had a job, he didn't, except hustling her for money. This was the basic pattern of Weber's life, he almost always lived with a woman who did the cooking, cleaning, and usually payed the rent. He was massively irresponsible. He never learned to drive (but always insisted on riding shotgun), never filed taxes, never even helped set up or strike down the band. He even tried, and often succeeded, to get others to carry his guitar case. After his last marriage broke up, he came back East and lived with his mother until she had to go into a nursing home. He had a damaged shoulder from an Oregon car accident, and had fractured a femur from a car accident with Judith, so his need to be taken care of was absolute. Despite the fact that Judith isolated him from all his friends, she did take care of him, I'll give her that. But she also listened in to all his phone calls and watched what he did on computer. And accused me of stealing "the Rounder millions." What a concept! Clearly, she was delusional. Once, years ago, he managed to call a friend without her listening. "You've got to get me out of here!" he pleaded. Judith was Petunia Pelican's revenge.
But Weber was always lucky, which is a characteristic of Tricksters. He was said to have one of the luckiest horoscopes of the 20th century. I'm ignorant on the subject. All I remember is Venus in midheaven and all the houses in motion, and every night is Saturday night in the zodiac. Once he had his hat shot off by a husband who had returned home early to find Weber in bed with his wife. His hat had a bullet hole in it when he retrieved it. Another time, Jeffrey Fredrick saw a commotion on the street. A bunch of people had gathered round something, which proved to be Weber having convulsions. "I know what he just took", thought Jeffrey. "Good thing I have the antidote in my pocket", which he quickly administered. Weber lived. Another person might have died, but it was typical of Weber's luck that his savior was walking along at that very minute.
Weber, in his late teens, spent months walking barefoot in the Lower East Side with nary a step in dogshit or broken glass, much less a tetanus-tainted nail. He used to team up with a notorious Lower East Side character by the name of Ronnie Mau Mau, who sold pot and had a harem of five girls living with him. Ronnie was eventually busted. His girls made his bail by selling nickel bags, as $5 portions of pot were then called. Weber and Ronnie, both ripped on speed, used to march down the street together, Weber playing guitar while Ronnie did a crazy dance, incorporating back flips. Everyone would flee. I'd kill for a film.
Many were awed by the spectacle of Weber taking all these drugs and doing all this deeply wild shit with a style and grace few had ever witnessed, let alone imagined. It seemed to be so effortless, so amazingly fun and so exciting too! Many young men attempted to emulate him. Many young men consequently died, most sooner rather than later. That's when people started calling him the Fool Killer.
I have no idea how many men and women Weber introduced to the needle. My guess is easily over a hundred. One of them described how it went: We sat down across from each other. He took my hand and looked deeply into my eyes with an ecstatic expression of crazy joy. He didn't look at my arm to seek a virgin vein. Just gave me the crazy stare-down as he hit a vein without looking and jacked in the heroin. The rush was incredible. Weber, the Robin Hood of the needle. He would have made a great phlebotomist.
In 1972, before the rest of the Rounders split the East Coast for Portland, Oregon, we recorded Alleged In Their Own Time for the Rounder label, whose company name was partially inspired by our band. A nice album BTW. Anyway, Antonia and I had been taking fucktons of speed and doing music with Karen Dalton since late 1969, and she was going to do harmonies on two songs. Unlike Antonia and I, who drank speed mixed with fruit juice or soda pop, Karen insisted on shooting up, and "had" to do so before doing any music. So off she went to the bathroom to do so while the rest of us, all set up to record, waited in the studio. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, I went to see what was holding Karen up. She was having trouble hitting a vein. She asked me to bring Weber, the Miles Davis of the needle. "Karen can't find a vein and she needs you," I told Weber. Off he stomped, muttering loudly about that damned Karen... they had been an on again/off again item. True to form, he hit her first try. Then Karen had brief convolutions, grabbed the bathroom sink, and ripped it completely out of the wall. This seemed to settle her down. She marched back to the studio and laid down a perfect harmony. Rock 'n Roll.
Years later in Portland, Weber was married for a while to a sweet and lovely woman, Essie, who died just a few weeks after he did. Betsy and I once asked her how her folks felt about her being married to Weber. Essie said: "He's the nicest guy I've ever gone out with! And he's so handsome!" We were gobsmacked. Betsy asked her, "What were your other boyfriends like?" and she said: "The last one used to fuck me in a coffin, had me pierce my clit, and died of an overdose." Oh. Essie had the loveliest pale skin, and the tiniest little veins, which no doctor or nurse could ever hit. But Weber could, every time.
Sure, I loved him at the beginning, along with dozens of women who were constantly pounding on our door during the almost year and a half he lived with us. We eventually tossed him out after three months of not paying his monthly $20 share of our $60 rent. When he left, his room was packed with stuffed bags of garbage that covered every square foot of the floor except for the skinny path from the door to his bed. And he had stolen all the silver-pre 1965-half dollars we had saved in our piggy bank. Another of his talents -- Antonia and I always had special favorite glasses and cups. We never told anyone which they were, or that we even had favorites. One by one, Weber "accidently" broke them all. Never any others. Only our secret favorites. How can you miss when you've got dead aim?
But I was so deeply in love for that first year. I had found -- had been blessed with -- a musical dream partner that was beyond anything I had been capable of dreaming of. As I've often said before, Antonia was behind our union. She thought we had much to learn from each other, and besides, it would keep Weber off the streets. But she didn't tell us of her plan, she figured, correctly, that once we met and played together, we'd think it was our idea.
In 1963, I thought there was going to be a Next Big Music Thing that would Change Everything. I thought it was going to be the Holy Modal Rounders. Ha ha ha. Remember, this was during what Dave Van Ronk used to call the Great Folk Scare. I was half right, there WAS a Next Big Thing, but it turned out to be the Beatles. Now, before the Beatles, Weber avoided thinking of our union as being professional. Once, as we were leaving for our nightly basket-passing fun, I said, off to work we go! 'No no no, said Weber. Not work! We're just going to the Village 'cause it's evening! And as long as we're going, we might as well take out instruments...' But by early '64, the Beatles had Changed Everything, and Weber realized that we had a chance to achieve some level of success. I don't know how many of you have seen Bound To Lose, the Holy Modal Rounders documentary, but there's this part where the road manager explains that whenever success beckons, Weber points the nose of the airplane to the ground and goes into a power dive.
Up to this point, it had been all fun and joy. We even bought matching ponyskin shoes -- they had real fur on them, and all the girls wanted to pet them. Sorry, animal activists. But suddenly, Weber was bitching on stage about being sick and tired of all the old songs. And when I'd try to introduce a new one, he'd stomp off. Working out a new song for us never meant more work than to play it three times in a row.
Anyway, by 1965, he was doing crazy dangerous stuff. Giving hashish to a waitress in a Hot Shop in Baltimore when it was packed with a lunch crowd. Staying up for a week straight, talking nonstop in a stream of consciousness with no sentence having anything to do with the prior or subsequent sentence. Sure wish I had a recording of some of that.
But when he missed three gigs in a row, I had had enough. We broke up in July of 1965, after having played together for two years and two months. This happened in Boston. Antonia and I were staying with Lowell "Banana" Levinger, who would go on to play with the Youngbloods, among many others, and Rick Turner, who would go on to found Alembic Guitars, providing instruments to the Grateful Dead. At the time, Banana and Rick were just 21. Antonia said she had not wanted to make musical suggestions while the Rounders were together, because it wasn't proper feminine behavior, despite the fact that we were her idea. But now that we had broken up, she felt it was OK. She was already high on speed, and although I hadn't had any in over a year, I took a big hit. We talked about music, specifically, among other things, the song "What's The Use Of Wondering," from Oklahoma!, to which she had made up some great new chords, which she showed me. I was very impressed, I had no idea she had such good music construction ideas. Then I showed her "You Done Me Wrong," the B-side of the Ray Price mega-hit "Crazy Arms," which I first heard in a bar in 1956. She immediately wrote new words to it, and it was transformed into "If You Want To Be A Bird." I was even more impressed. I had lost an epic musical partner, but found an epic new one.
Weber's Stinky Feet
Once upon a time, in 1964, Weber left his cowboy boots on all summer long while serially staying up on meth for about five days in a row and crashing for three, which was his normal pattern for several years. Yes, he slept in them too. But one day, after three or four months, he took them off. Weber, Antonia, and I shared a four-room railroad flat on Houston Street in the Lower East Side, half a block from the Parkside Lounge, which is still there. We were on one end, with the kitchen and the other room between us. But when he took them off, Antonia and I started gagging. We went to his room to see what the fuck. We saw. We had already smelled. We told him to put his boots on the fire escape and close the window. It was still unbearable. Then we told him to wash his feet in the tub. On he stank. Finally, we brought him a can of Comet cleanser and told him to use it, which he did, scrubbing away for several minutes. Even that only worked a little bit. The bad smell lingered for two more days. Weber was a most singular human being. But he didn't treat his feet very well.
Weber The Human Hoop Snake
Back when Weber was living with me and Antonia, Weber would often brag that he could blow himself. He said he learned a little yoga in high school to facilitate this. We kept saying, "show us!" But he would just stomp off, growling. I drew a cartoon of a tent with a sign outside, "See Weber eat himself, 10 cents" (everything was cheaper back then), but he didn't think it was funny. But the years rolled by, as they did, and in the early '70's, there was a Rounder gig in Vermont. We weren't getting paid too much, and reedman Teddy Dean was trying to convince the owner to kick in some extra money after the gig.
"I mean, we're a real professional outfit! We deserve to be treated profess..." Teddy's voice trailed off as he saw the club manager's eyes shift to something behind him, his (the manager's) expression was very odd. Teddy turned around. There was Weber lying down on the stage, trying to do the hoop snake. Only he was too drunk to get a hardon. He was asking the women in the audience to join him on stage and assist him in this endeavor. No takers. 'Real professional outfit' was our middle name.
A Story About 16-Year-Old Weber He Told Me When He Was 20
Weber, Antonia, and I were listening to the radio. It played the 1960 Billy Vaughn instrumental hit, "Wheels." Weber said when that record came out, he had wanted to hitchhike to California. That would be from Buck's County, Pennsylvania. As luck would have it --he was always lucky -- another teenager picked him up immediately. A very pissed-off teenager. He had just spent all his savings on a used car, and his parents went through the roof, insisting he return the car and get his money back. "Why listen to them," Weber asked. "I'm going to California. Let's go to California, that'll show them!" Young Weber was killer handsome, and hugely charismatic. He had a genius for convincing people to do anything he asked. It didn't take much convincing. Off they went. The car radio played "Wheels." "See?" said Weber. "It's a sign!" Off they went in a fit of enthusiasm. As they wheeled away, the song kept them constant company. "It's our song!" said Weber. But by the time they hit the Western states, the driver was beginning to have misgivings. "Hey," said Weber, "you'll love California! A whole new life!" By the time they had crossed the Rockies, the car was starting to behave erratically. This increased as they wheeled on. I forget what part of California they ended up in, but by the time they got there, the car was dead and the kid was broke. "Thanks for the ride," said Weber, and off he went. We didn't ask him what he did out there. I still wonder what he did out there.
Public Muse Abuser Number One
It's very weird, but very inevitable that Weber seemed to have no muse. Mine was specific: I saw her as female. My feelings toward my muse are mainly awe, respect, gratitude, and fear--fear that she might abandon me. As far as I could tell, Weber was oblivious to his muse. Maybe he didn't believe in muses. I never asked him. If Weber had a muse, he basically abused her, as he did himself and everyone around him. Why should his muse be different?
In my opinion, Weber definitely practiced muse abuse: let me count the ways. One is claiming you wrote a song that someone else had written. When we first met, Weber claimed to have written "Euphoria," and was telling people this during our performances. But one evening, Michael Hurley's sister was in the audience, and she went back to Buck's County, Pennsylvania, home of Weber, Michael Hurley, and Robin Remaily, and told Robin that Weber was claiming to have written "Euphoria." Robin, who I hadn't met yet, headed for New York with blood in his eyes. As it happened, Weber and I had just ingested a large number of peyote buttons, folks we hung out with favoring larger doses of hallucinogens back then. The drugs had firmly taken hold when I heard a knock on the door. It was Robin. He was wearing a dark green wool shirt with lighter green pockets and cuffs that had obviously been worn for years. "Wow," I said, "what a beautiful shirt!" With a smooth motion, he stripped it off and handed it to me, saying, "Take it, it's yours!" I had just met him, and he had given me the shirt off his back. What a guy! Then he confronted Weber in his room, and as the saying goes, tore him a new asshole.
Weber was soon composing. He made up two amazing guitar instrumentals, to which I eventually added words, marking our first and only collaborations, "Song Of Courtship To Dame Fortune" and "My Mind Capsized." Which brings us to the next variation on Muse abuse. Weber had been working on some songs by himself, but after gigs when we would be hanging with the crowd, Weber would pretend to be struck by inspiration. "I've got a new song, somebody write it down!" Someone, usually a young woman, would find pen and paper, and take his dictation while Weber paced back and forth, hand to forehead, and repeated the words he had written days previously. His plan was to bask in the awe of the crowd watching him in the throes of inspiration. He never finished any of these early songs, except for one: "If You'll Be My Girl." No one ever handed him pen and paper and said, "write it down yourself."
Everybody always wanted to do things for Weber. He would never have spare strings, and when his broke (usually the G), he would beseech the crowd to get him a new string. Everyone would run around saying, "Weber needs strings!" While Weber would strike a number of poses I thought of as "boy damsel in distress." After this happened a few times, I started bringing spare guitar strings to every gig.
But after our break-up in 1965, he started writing songs. "One Will Do For Now" was a singular beauty with a structure like I've never seen to this day. There are five chords, and no chord repeats until all five had been used. He also wrote the only Rounder hit ever (charted in Los Angeles and Washington DC), "Boobs A Lot." The song was almost lost. Weber made it up on the spot when he was still with the Fugs, and would have forgotten it if Tuli Kupferberg hadn't written it down. During this time, he also wrote "Generalonely" and "Half A Mind." I thought the songs, "One Will Do For Now," and "Half A Mind" were (among other things) about how the two of us, which had been sort of an entity, weren't one anymore. The songs seemed to mourn our breakup. I told that to Weber once, and he said he hadn't thought of that. Weber wasn't very good about thinking of anyone but himself.
But his original songs became fewer and farther between. In the seventies and eighties, he didn't write any that I was aware of. In the '90's he wrote just two of them, the best one, "Who's Your Momma," he wrote while on crack. He would periodically throw out a beginning, never to finish it. Or act weird if something was finished. When we were working on our Too Much Fun album in Buck's County in 1999, he started making up this song about living on monkey island. I immediately joined him, and a whole amazing finished song got written. Jane Gilday was there recording us, and the song was saved! I was delighted, we had a new Weber song for the album! But he didn't want to record it, or even try to sing it again, and wouldn't give me a reason why. A couple years later, he was partying in San Francisco with a girlfriend on Halloween, and, as he told me later, made up these five great songs. I asked to hear them. He said they weren't finished yet. He just played me part of one. It was called, "Who's Knife?" In the song, the POV character had just been stabbed in a knife fight, and the knife was on the floor. "Who's knife is that?" the POV character keeps asking, while bleeding to death. That's all I remember, he only sang it that once. It was a real good start. A year later, he again started making up a song. I offered to write it down, but he was singing it and I couldn't write the words as fast as he sang them. I asked him to sing it again so I could get more of the lyrics transcribed. He was disgruntled, but did it again, a noticeably inferior version. I got a few more of the words, though. I asked him to do it again, and he wouldn't. That's when I gave up on giving a damn about his songs.
But then there was the art show he had at Ed Sanders' Peace Eye Book Store (And Scrounge Lounge). The only piece I remember was a radio he had rigged to play all the stations at once. He called it "Babylon." Oh, Weber! The things he could have done. The songs he could have written. The arms he could have spared the needle, the brain he could have left un-fried! He was as fun to watch as a herd of gazelles back in the sixties. Never was there anyone like him. Never will there be again. Once was enough! But if I had to choose having had a life with Weber in it to having had one without Weber, I'd have one with, please. Hands down. And Antonia's plan to keep Weber off the streets? It worked. That being said, he definitely peaked just before the Beatles hit, and the following decades of his life were a bumpy downhill slide of hard drugs, alcoholism, abuse of friends and fellow musicians combined with moments of true connection and inspiration that kept his friends and fellow musicians from leaving him. For the last several decades of his life, Weber needed a "handler" in order to function musically, or at all. On the flip side, there was always someone willing to be that person. He was so outside the norm that he was kind of like a one-man circus--endlessly entertaining for audiences, as long as they didn't have to shovel the elephant shit.
Holy Modal Rounders, for the final Too Much Fun album, 1999: Weber (left), Stampfel (right)
See the Steve Weber tribute intro/videos
Tributes by friends/writers/film-maker
Also see our interview with Stampfel
Stampfel's article on Freak Folk origins
Stampfel's tribute to Sam Shepard
Stampfel's article on 'go' songs
Stampfel's music on Bandcamp
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