The late 1960s produced numerous collisions between folk music and spaced-out psychedelia that would have been absolutely unimaginable not just during the early-1960s folk boom, but even in the early days of the folk-rock boom. Skip Spence's Oar, Dino Valenti's famously misspelled Dino Valente, Jake Holmes's original version of "Dazed and Confused"--all were done with instrumentation not much different from what might have been used in an early 1960s Greenwich folk club. Yet none of them would have been welcomed by hardcore folk listeners, featuring as they did fragmented song structures, odd dabblings in weird reverb and electric instrumentation, and a hallucinogenic aura of heightened fear and ecstasy. Often the songs reflected states of mind that were not just altered, but on the verge of disintegration. And no acid folk album mixed inspiration and lunacy in as downright deranged a fashion as The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, the Holy Modal Rounders' sole LP for Elektra Records.
Here was the Rounders' chance to mix all of the roots folk that had informed their work since their formation into a blender, topped off with some seriously wacko drugged-out strangeness and hard rock. Jug band, country, blues, ragtime, folk-rock--everything segued in and out of each other, figuratively and literally. The stringing together of uninterrupted song fragments into side-long suites was much in keeping with the approach used by the Mothers of Invention on We're Only in It for the Money, and less famously on side two of the Fugs' It Crawled into My Hand, Honest. As strokes of mad genius go, it was a winner, managing to just about walk the tightrope between art and chaos. Given just how chaotic the production of the record was, though, it's something of a miracle that the album was made in the first place, let alone eventually enshrined as a cult classic.
Prior to The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, the Rounders were known more as a folk group than as a rock one. When they first formed around 1963, the Rounders were just the duo of Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber. Their first pair of albums for Prestige, issued in the mid-1960s, were wholly acoustic. Even then, however, they boasted an irreverence that immediately distinguished them from acoustic folk traditionalists. They twisted weathered folk standards with wobbly vocals, exuberantly strange arrangements, and interpretations that were liberal, to say the least. "The purist attitude at the time was that this golden age was gone, and the right way to do it was to try to re-create it down to the pop and scratch on the old 78 rpm record," Stampfel told me in 1997. "That's certainly a valid viewpoint, but it wasn't mine." He even wrote in one of his liner notes that he'd made up new words to a song "because it was easier than listening to the tape and writing words down." Amplifies Peter, "Actually, I had found that when I couldn't make out the lyrics and had to approximate them, when I finally found out what the real words were, the ones I made up were always better. I would use the 'real' words if I could understand them."
The Rounders' transition to rockers would be a slower, more gradual process than that navigated by hundreds of other musicians from folk to rock in the 1960s. Both Stampfel and Weber played on the Fugs' first album in 1965, a groundbreaking jug band-cum-rock effort that contained some of the first explicit references to sex, drugs, and subversion in rock music. Weber himself wrote one of the Fugs' most popular and notorious early numbers, "Boobs a Lot." But by mid-1965, the Stampfel-Weber partnership had ended (not for the last time), Stampfel attributing this to Weber's refusal to learn new songs. The first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide postulated that Stampfel "has a working knowledge of almost every song ever written, and Weber...only sometimes has a working knowledge of his own compositions." Stampfel calls the first part of that claim "one of the greatest exaggerations I have ever seen," and verifies that its assessment of Weber is "sad, but true."
Stampfel and Weber were back on temporary working terms by the Holy Modal Rounders' first rock album--a sort-of rock album, anyway--Indian War Whoop. Recorded for ESP (the avant-jazz label that had recently moved into wild underground rock with the Fugs), the 1967 LP also featured playwright Sam Shepard on drums and keyboard contributions by one-time Fug Lee Crabtree. The result, though, bled over from freaky folk-rock to an almost unlistenable racket, not helped by the shortage of solid songs and arrangements. Without ducking responsibility for the outcome, Stampfel again attributes this, at least in part, to Weber's obstreperous refusal to rehearse.
"Bernard Stollman of ESP Disk approached us to make an album," explains Stampfel. "Steve, Sam, and I were supposed to get $150 each for this. Weber and I got it, but he stiffed Sam. Sam just got a crew cut because he was fed up with the 'summer of love' bullshit, this being August of 1967. So Stollman wouldn't allow him to be on the cover shot. Wrong haircut. This album and two gigs were all Weber and I did together between July '65 and the Elektra album."
So, in 1968, you had a group that had just three low-selling albums to its credit, and one that seemed like it might not ever to cross over from esoteric folk to readily accessible rock. A group, for that matter, that wasn't really in existence anymore, as Stampfel was again working separately from Weber. It seemed unlikely, to say the least, that the next step for such a band would be to record for the most respected independent popular music label in America. That's exactly what happened, because if anything could be said of Elektra Records, it's that it didn't shy away from bold risks.
Stampfel at this point was trying to form a rock group, the Moray Eels, after breaking up with Weber. The main instigator of the Holy Modal Rounders' Elektra association was Frazier Mohawk, who was just as interesting a character in his own right as either Stampfel or Weber. Known until the conclusion of The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders as Barry Friedman (many who knew him in the 1960s still refer to him by that name), Mohawk had recently begun working for Elektra as a producer. And he wanted the Holy Modal Rounders for Elektra, with Weber in tow as part of the package.
It might seem surprising that The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders was not produced by Paul Rothchild, the most renowned Elektra producer. He had, after all, signed the Rounders to Prestige, just before quitting to join Elektra. By the time the Rounders found their way to Elektra, Rothchild was hotter-than-hot with the Doors, and well-schooled in folk-rock via work on records by Love, Fred Neil, Tim Buckley, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Stampfel has no regrets that this didn't take place: "Rothchild was a self-aggrandizing egomaniacal jerk who at this point had screwed us over twice."
And Barry Friedman had been building some impressive credentials of his own. He'd roadied for the Byrds, and then managed Buffalo Springfield in their very early days, before that band got spirited away by Charlie Greene and Brian Stone; Friedman had tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Springfield to sign with Elektra, though they ended up going with Atlantic. He'd done some production for Elektra already with Paul Butterfield, and on Epic had produced the first Kaleidoscope album, Side Trips.
Kaleidoscope, like the Rounders, were folkie multi-instrumentalists gone psychedelic, albeit with far greater discipline. In his autobiography Follow the Music (co-written with Gavan Daws), Elektra president-founder Jac Holzman refers to Side Trips as "one of my all-time favorite albums." It was thus natural for Friedman, aka Mohawk, to start working for Elektra. "I was the company freak," he says today. "So I got all the freak groups."
The Holy Modal Rounders were at the top of his list as he scouted for fresh additions to the Elektra roster. "The first music I'd ever heard in my life that I liked was the Holy Modal Rounders," he explains. "They were probably one of the leading influences in my musical tastes. So when I went to work for Elektra, the first thing I wanted to do was sign the Holy Modal Rounders."
Mohawk knew that coaxing an album out of the group wouldn't be easy. Stampfel recalls emphasizing to Frazier the necessity of taking brutal measures to motivate Weber to rehearse, going as far as to tell Mohawk, "You want a record to sound good, ya gotta stand there with a gun pointed at his crotch, cock the trigger, and say practice, motherfucker!"
Plus, Stampfel goes on, "Then when it was time to actually rehearse, when we all got to California, [Mohawk] said, 'Okay, everything's fine, I talked to Weber, he'll be great. I'm gonna get some coffee--go practice.' Of course, Weber didn't want to do that. So again, we went into the studio absolutely cold."
And, according to Mohawk, not cold sober. "The problem was, everybody was so stoned in the making of that, that they're no completed tunes," he says. "There isn't one tune that has an ending, or that is complete. Nothing ever got finished in the recording of that. On that 'Bullfrogs' song [i.e. 'Mobile Line'], I was so stoned I played guitar on it when we were mixing it, and I'd never played guitar in my life!"
Rejoins Stampfel, "This is wrong. The only song that is missing words is 'The STP Song,' and that's because Mohawk insisted the song was sufficiently done as to require no more lyrics when we had done only two verses. See the Last Round Adelphi CD reissue for the whole song. There are no missing words in any other song." As for the drug ingestion, Stampfel notes it was "no problem on the first two Prestige albums, on which Weber and I were ripped on speed and pot."
For all that, the record was a triumph, a melange of mind-melting acid folk that might have hung together by a thread, but was usually exhilarating, with a cracked, brain-damaged mystique all its own. Side one resolutely refuses to settle in a groove, from the inchoate refractions of "I can fly!" acid trip sensations that kick off the proceedings on "Bird Song." Its underwater-sounding barroom backup dissolves into the wispy downer minor-keyed acoustic folk of "One Will Do For Now"; back to an incomprehensible shit-kicking good-time music romp on "Take-Off Artist Song"; the demented field holler ode in celebration of the "Werewolf"; more walls-are-crawling takes on the saloon sound with the shimmering yet horror-filled instrumental "Interlude"; and more wistful, melodic stream-of-consciousness melancholic folk balladry in "Dame Fortune." The jarring funhouse of mood alterations doesn't let you sit still for a minute, particularly as there's no space whatsoever separating the tracks.
And that's just side one. Side two opens with the most disheveled, discordant, over-reverbed white-boy blues imaginable, "Mobile Line," the cacophony enhanced by the off-the-wall introduction of a fiddle into the battle some ways into the tune. (According to Stampfel, incidentally, the proper title for "Mobile Line" is "Mobile Line Gonna Carry Me Away from the Curse of the Bullfrog Blues.") The baton gets handed off to "The Duji Song," a blink-or-you'll-miss-it snippet of munchkin vocals that almost immediately gives way to the croaking bullfrog-blues vocals of "My Mind Capsized," decorated by incongruous yet eerily enchanting fiddle. Sneering, mocking vocals take the front seat again on "The STP Song," which could almost pass for a good-time busk if not for the distinctly un-traditional subject matter.
It's into John Fahey territory for the acoustic miniature "Interlude 2," and then all-out, balls-to-the-wall, laryngitic screaming blues-rock on "Half a Mind," which rivals some of Syd Barrett's solo work as a too-accurate descriptive self-psychoanalysis. The proceedings grind to a halt with a desecration of the Pledge of Allegiance--in 1968, as in 2002, about as inflammatory an action as you could take in the views of many Middle Americans. Yet The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders was, in its own way, just as steeped in Americana as any of the ancient Appalachian folk records from which Stampfel and Weber had learned much of their early repertoire, just five long years before.
The entire records, for all its variety, clocks in at less than half an hour combined. The short play time, and the jamming together of all the tracks so that they flowed as two continuous suites, were not so much matters of choice as necessities, contends Mohawk. "I took all of the pieces and thought it would be interesting to put them all together," he remembers. "Peter told me years later that he was going to kill me for having done that, because there was no way you could play one tune [off of the album, for radio airplay]. They [the Rounders] didn't like it at all, making a record that way."
Elaborates Stampfel, "Both of the engineers decided it would be a cool thing to make the records without any grooves between the songs, 'cause it would be more psychedelic or something. Also, I stupidly didn't go to the mixing session. I didn't realize, at the time, going to mixing sessions was key when you're making an album. I'm a very slow learner, and often have to do things the wrong way many times before I get the hint. But even after there were grooves, it wouldn't have altered the really sloppy material that was involved. So I can't really fault anybody, except for us, as far as the quality of those records was."
As can be gathered by the preceding comments, Stampfel does not regard The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders as one of the group's finest hours. Mohawk, on the other hand, enthuses, "I love it. Goddamn, there's some funny stuff on there. 'Half a Mind' I think is a wonderful song."
The fun was not quite confined to the studio, he adds. "Peter was the most stoned person I'd ever met in my life, he and his wife. I'd never seen anything like it. We went to take album cover pictures that never saw the light of day at this cheap Hollywood motel where they were staying. His wife got up out of bed, walked to the middle of the room where there was a chair, pulled her pants down, sat down, and took a piss. Thought it was the bathroom, thought she'd gone to the toilet. These were really stoned people."
"Now what happened here was we had finally finished the recording, and were having a speed crash. We had been up for a number of days, we were about as exhausted as we could be," counters Stampfel. "We assumed nothing was going to happen at this point as far as pictures went, because Sam and his girlfriend went to Death Valley after the session, and, of course, in order to photograph a band, the whole band needs to be there. So we had just fallen asleep and clueless Mohawk, fully aware that Sam is gone and that we are beyond wiped out, shows up with some photo people. Being at the time less assertive than I now am, I neglected to do the proper thing, which would have been to kick his idiot ass around the block a few times. Instead, I tried to get Antonia up. Although I got her out of bed, she was still asleep. When I sat her down on a chair, she unconsciously thought it was the toilet and peed."
"The first time I'd ever been over to Peter's house, he offered me a cookie, and a roach carried it across the counter and took it away before I could get to it," adds Mohawk. "Two roaches. The reason he invited me over was because he said he could change the songs on the radio. They would just sit there, decide what songs were gonna play, and then [the songs] would play. That was all new to me. When it came to that drug thing, I learned a lot from those guys."
Elektra, however, didn't get much of a return from its investment. The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders would be the group's only album for the label. "I don't think Elektra fired me for that, but I think that might have been just the last straw of a number of things," speculates Mohawk, who around the same time had tried to organize a communal band of sorts (including Jackson Browne) at Paxton Lodge, an isolated abode in the Northern California mountains. That band didn't even put out a record, and even a label as adventurous as Elektra had its limits. "They were very untogether," is Jac Holzman's diplomatic description of the Rounders during their Elektra stint. As to why they never did another album for the company, he responds, " I don't know. It just never seemed to come up again."
However, as Stampfel remembers, "There was a follow-up recording, authorized by Holzman. This time I stayed away from speed. However, Mohawk brought a bunch of heroin to the session, which was used by Weber, Tyler, Levy, and himself. This left the three former too comatose to record, and caused Mohawk to freak out and shut himself in a closet. When I found him there he looked like he was hiding from the Nazis. Naturally, he blamed the session's failure on us to David Anderle, the man in charge under Holzman. When I explained what happened to David, he said my version made more sense than Mohawk's had.
"The upshot was that the other guy, John Haeny, was put in charge of us. He said the only way he would record us was if Sam Shepard wrote some sort of comedy musical piece which would comprise an entire album. I said I wanted to record twelve songs, with spaces between them. He said his way or nothing. Nothing it was, although in retrospect, it would have been interesting and worthwhile to have had Sam write a whatever-he-would-have-written for us all to do."
Oddly enough, one of the tracks from The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders would eventually sell tons of copies, but only as a cut from a famous soundtrack album. "Bird Song" was featured on both the soundtrack LP for Easy Rider and the film itself. The song accompanies the splendid scene where a young Jack Nicholson, proudly wearing his high school football helmet, sets off on the highway with his new motorcycling hippie pals Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Stampfel, in keeping with his general mixed feelings for the album, exclaimed "God, what an awful cut!" during our 1997 interview. "I just heard it about a year ago, and I was incredibly embarrassed." As to how it somehow ended up in Easy Rider, Stampfel notes, "Peter Fonda heard it on the radio, one of the few times the record was played on the radio, and thought that would be perfect for the movie. It was good luck that it got used."
The Holy Modal
continued to work, off and on and sometimes without all of their
members, in the three decades or so since The Moray Eels Eat the
Modal Rounders briefly flitted across the underground rock radar.
Stampfel might not hold the record in the highest esteem, thirty years
later Mohawk worked with the Rounders again, producing their 1999 album
Much Fun. "While recording Too Much Fun, I told Mohawk it
so great to work with him again, and do it right this time," exclaims
Out for print for too long, this CD reissue finally restores the rare The
Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders to wide availability,
the band at its weirdest and most wonderful.
-- Richie Unterberger
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