Sunday, October 19, 2008

Songs of Excess

Last night I watched the new Holy Modal Rounders documentary, Bound to Lose. Talk about cautionary tales. Acid, booze and ass, for sure, and speed and heroin thrown in to the mix as well. Beat folkie proto-punk wiseguys thumbing their nose at the Sing Out crowd, transmuting the songs of the people into prurient nut-job lullabies and sing-alongs. It’s as much Beefheart, Ween and the Butthole Surfers as it is Bob Dylan and The New Lost City Ramblers, though it’s that too. The fact that Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber are, more or less, still alive is some kind of testament to the transformative powers of substance abuse; the fact that they can still sort of rehearse and get up on stage together is a triumph of dumb flesh over self-destructive energies, time, gravity and fate. Oddly, since he’s likely the more erratic and ultimately impenetrable of the two, the film tends to delve more into the life of Weber, leaving the genius of Stampfel largely unexplained. Christgau makes a funny appearance and delivers a juicy one in championing the Rounders as the next greatest folk geniuses after Dylan: “Joan Baez …. P.U.,” he says. Another choice moment comes when the surviving members of the band get back together for a reunion tour on the West Coast. The bass player, who appears to basically be living in a bus in the foothills surrounding Portland, Oregon, stands outside of a crappy club, after a crappy soundcheck. “After the utter humiliation of it all, there are some fun times to be had,” he deadpans. Other than the tune on the Easy Rider soundtrack, the Rounders had always existed as more of a legend than actual music. I had a friend who spoke about “The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders” as the sacred text of the music we listened to. The foundational document of freak music. But I had never heard it. I guess I heard them playing along with the Fugs on one of those classic records, but I never knew it was them. It’s nice to know that they were as much of a mystery to themselves as they were to everyone else. Stampfel doesn’t quite know why they never got any cash from the royalties. Footage of the band playing on Laugh In – with Ruth Bussy goofing around, getting up in the band’s faces – is hard to believe, too. In fact, drummer Sam Shepard (yes, that Sam Shepard) doesn’t even remember the appearance.

The film announces interviews with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Loudon Wainwright III, Wavy Gravy and others, but the last two only show up at shows, and listen with smiles on their faces while the lunatic Weber entertains/scares them. Weber and Stampfel engage in some Dinosaur Jr. style onstage bickering, none of which is much fun to witness. But the music is so compellingly bonkers.

“Half a Mind” conveys the general spirit of the Rounders pretty well. I wanted to save it for the next Drift-a-tron battle royal, but I couldn’t hold off.

“Half a Mind” – the Holy Modal Rounders

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