Lunatic folk-poet pranksters The Holy Modal Rounders get their own documentary
Bound to Lose…The Holy Modal Rounders dvd
directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul C. Lovelace
Reviewed by John Adamian
originally published in Arthur No. 32 (Dec 2008)
It’s hard to imagine a music scene more in a need of subversive humor, half-crazed irreverence, and a swift attitudinal kick in the ass than New York’s folk scene in the early 1960s. The folkies in the Lower East Side circa 1963 called out desperately for jesters to deflate their over-serious pieties and do-good earnestness. But when Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber, a pair of hard-partying absurdist folk poet-pranksters, gave the scene just what it needed in the form of the first Holy Modal Rounders record, the effort was met with puzzlement or offended condescension by the established order. As music critic Robert Christgau says early on in Bound to Lose—a loving, engaging and sometimes painful documentary about the group —the Holy Modal Rounders were folk geniuses on the order of Bob Dylan, because they had internalized the founding documents of the movement, most notably Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and they’d approached the business of making folk music with the zeal and experimentation of the abstract expressionist painters and beat poets who partied at the same bars.
If you’ve ever stayed awake for all of Easy Rider you’ve heard the Holy Modal Rounders. Even among contributions from such zonked contemporaries as The Electric Prunes and Jimi Hendrix, the song, “If You Wanna Be a Bird,” stands out as a piece of acid-casualty weirdness, like something made by a pack of lunatic muppets playing a drunken waltz on a saloon piano. But the band never made a penny off it, according to Stampfel. It’s a long story, they probably signed a release: that’s the best answer that can be provided for that business fuck up. And that’s about the level of specificity that the Rounders can provide on their career. It’s been over 40 years, and these guys took a lot of drugs; don’t expect them to have much recall. In one scene, playwright, actor and former Rounders drummer Sam Shepherd is shocked to learn that he played with the band on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
In some ways the film is a cautionary tale of substance abuse and wild living. After all, these guys are in their 50s and 60s and both Weber, and Stampfel to a lesser degree, seem incapable of providing for themselves without the kindness and generosity of women (an elderly artistic mother living in the Pennsylvania countryside in Weber’s case, and a photographer and publisher wife in Stampfel’s case).
As stoic bassist Dave Reisch says “once you get past the humiliation, there is some fun to be had.” It’s a deadpan moment at a grim nightclub, part of an evening fraught with the interpersonal tensions and recurring substance abuse problems that threaten to sink the West Coast leg of theband’s reunion tour. He goes on to try and convince the charismatic wild-eyed Manson-looking Weber to stop drinking before showtime, and to see if Stampfel can be persuaded to stop berating Weber for his failing memory of the song lyrics and chord changes. The two seem to spend a fair bit of their time on stage engaging in cringe-inducing squabbles about whose song they’ll play next or why one of them can’t act right.
The Rounders definitely evoke comparisons to Captain Beefheart, Dead Kennedys and Ween, artists not known for having much to do with mental stability. In an era when loco folkies from 40 years ago are always getting rediscovered and championed to a new generation by artists like Devendra Banhart, you’d think the Holy Modal Rounders would be experiencing a renaissance, with their manic parodic sensibilities and comic streak— maybe you’ve heard their loopy prurient anthem “Boobsalot” or another favorite, “Fucking Sailors in Chinatown”? — but even now, for some, the music is perhaps a little too unhinged, too close to madness.