Tobi Vail

Hello from Olympia, WA – 1: Spider And The Webs band practice, Peter Stampfel live

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Peter Stampfel

By Ms Tobi Vail

Hello from Olympia, WA the birthplace of Beat Happening, love rock, riot grrl, nature punk, Ladyfest, Bands Against Bush, New Direction Fest, Homo a Go-Go, Joey Casio, The Need, Jigsaw, Son Skull, HPP, Sex Vid, Weird TV and current home to K Records, Wolves In The Throne Room, Broken Water, Milk Music, The Maxines, Hysterics, Outlook, Perennial Records, Morgan And The Organ Donors, Hive Dwellers, Zargent, Nudity, Christian Mistress, Bicycle Records, Gardencore, The Helsing Junction Sleepover, Sham Pants, Nuts!, Gun Outfit, Crude Thought, Polly Darton, The Family Stoned, Dead Head, etc!

I’m reporting on our hyperactive small city/big town music scene and reviewing records for Collapse Board. I’ve been going to shows in Olympia since 1983 and started playing in bands a few years after that. The first issue of my fanzine Jigsaw came out in 1989 and lives on as a blog. I spent much of the past 20 years working at Kill Rock Stars, making records and going on tour with The Go Team, Bikini Kill, Frumpies, Spider And The Webs, The Old Haunts and more. I still do that stuff and write about it, except I don’t work for KRS anymore. I actually spend a lot of time these days filling out job applications and hanging out at the unemployment office. See Denim Job Center for more on what this is like. I’m sure it’s not too hard to imagine for many of you, due to the global economic downturn. The good side is that I get to hang out at more shows, write regularly and play music a lot, so lets focus on the positive.

How was your weekend? Mine was excellent.

Friday night was ruled by Spider And The Webs band practice. Our drummer, Chris Sutton, moved to Portland a few years ago and plays in 10 million other bands (Hornet Leg, Chain And The Gang, Dirtbombs, The Gossip, to name a few) and was in town to play a show with The Hooded Hags. James got off work at the record store and we met at Ben Moore’s, our favorite old timey diner/watering hole. I told The Webs that local country/art-rock ensemble Lazer Zeppelin was playing a show across town with Brooklyn based comic-artist-turned-indie-folkster Jeffrey Lewis AND 60s legend Peter Stampfel (!!!) so we should try and at least catch the end of it.

Peter Stampfel is legendary for his work with Lower East Side hippy band The Holy Modal Rounders and was also in The Fugs, briefly. My enthusiasm about the show was met with skepticism, apparently some people think The Holy Modal Rounders are one of the “worst bands ever”. I couldn’t argue, I had never heard them, but The Fugs were undeniably great, right, like Flipper meets The Velvet Underground?!

To this James remarked “But you think beatniks are cool!” in a provocative, antagonistic tone.

Of course my reply was, “Wait, we’re in a band together and you don’t think beatniks are cool?!!???!!!” He answered that he didn’t know but he knew FOR SURE that his girlfriend didn’t think beatniks were cool.

Understanding he was honoring her perspective in favor of asserting his own, I was like, “OK, but what about Beatsploitation? Like, Maynard G. Krebbs or that movie, Bell, Book And Candle?”

“Bob Denver IS cool”, he conceded, quickly adding that he thought that Fred Cole from Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows was very much into Bob’s work in Gilligan’s Island.

“Fred Cole & Gilligan???? Whoa,” I replied, and left it at that.

Everyone was hungry and Ben Moore’s wasn’t serving food for some unknown reason but the clock was ticking so we headed off to a pre-Friday night practice without eating dinner to kick out the jams. This ended up working to my advantage as The Webs got super starving-to-death hungry right as my boyfriend was getting off work. They headed off to a “burger party” and I got a ride to the westbay to catch Peter Stampfel’s set.

Walking up the driveway I had a flashback to another show 27 years earlier in what seemed like the same house and remembered this time when I was just 15 and had snuck out to go to a show only to discover that my parents were at the same party my friends and I were supposedly NOT going to, whoops! Fortunately my friends and I figured out we were in the wrong place – the punk show was a little further into the woods – and made our escape before getting busted. Realizing I am now at least 10 years older than my parents were back then I looked around to see if I saw any 15-year-olds, then I thought, “Wait, the age difference between me and the 25-year-olds in the room is the same as the age difference between me and my parents, wtf???” But then I saw Calvin Johnson and I was like, “Well, at least we aren’t the oldest people here, cool”.

When Peter Stampfel started playing he instantly put to rest my unease about maybe being too old to hang out at a college party. His hair was as white as a can of glow-in-the-dark spray paint but his singing was crystal clear and his mischievous spirit illuminated the room via the sheer sonic power of his voice. It was fragile and expressive but tonally clairvoyant, cutting through all the pot smoke and drunk talk and seemed to put all the years of my life into some new kind of order.

If you want to get technical, the first shows I went to were early 70s hippy parties in Olympia when my parents were young students at Evergreen and I was a toddler. I remember playing bongos for hours and crying when the adults tried to take them away. Instead of feeling nostalgic, by providing a connection from then-to-now, Peter Stampfel’s performance made me feel that today’s era is vital and alive by demonstrating how American folk music is the common trajectory that runs through all the different eras of underground music. Perhaps the 60s were just a stop along the way and not the defining moment of his life but just his media-designated “15 minutes”.

Thinking about it now, with their use of washboard, fiddle, acoustic instruments and traditional arrangements, Peter Stampfel’s band even took things back to the 30s, connecting the dots between the hillbilly music of my grandparent’s generation in Oklahoma to today’s Olympia music scene. This makes me conceptualize folk as more of a cultural practice than a genre. For some, like Peter Seeger or Calvin Johson, maybe it’s a stance that challenges the notion that professional musicians are more valid than so-called amateurs. American garage punk from the 60s was very similar to 80s hardcore in that these were both times when teenagers played music together to entertain each other and participate in their own culture. ‘Making it big’ outside of your own scene wasn’t really even thought about by most people. In that sense maybe all of it can be considered folk music.

Between songs Peter Stampfel giggled like a wide eyed four-year-old. This and the exuberant joy displayed through his pottymouth, smart-ass lyrics and hopeful, kind, between-song banter made him seem much, much younger than most of the kids in the room. Suffice to say I went home and discovered The Holy Modal Rounders via YouTube, who, contrary to what I was told, are totally awesome.

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