In the inaugural edition of The Big Lookback: A lecture from the 2019 Museum of Pop Culture Conference, which was themed around music, death, and afterlife
|Robert Christgau||May 5|
Herewith we inaugurate a new And It Don’t Stop feature dubbed The Big Lookback: old writing revisited, most if not all of it by moi and only occasionally for reasons as thematic as this inaugural edition, which I’ve meant to publish for years: a 2019 lecture I delivered in Seattle at what I still think of as the EMP Pop Conference and still associate with Seattle’s Experience Music Project, redubbed the Museum of Pop Culture a/k/a MoPop in 2016, with 2021’s virtual version branded the (a?) Pop Convergence. Having presented every year but the last two and co-keynoted the inaugural edition with Simon Frith, I incorporated PopCon talks on Dionysus, the Coasters, Lil Wayne, Charlie Gillett, and Henry Pleasants into my Duke collections and expect several others I’m proud of will fit in nicely here. There’s other unpublished writing to draw on, too, including decades of live show notes I might tailor into something presentable as well as plenty of old pieces, often web-available but sometimes not, to highlight or ponder. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile here’s “All the Time in the World: The Living End in Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson,” written for a 2019 PopCon dubbed “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death, and Afterlife.” This is the only PopCon lecture I’ve ever gone seriously over my 20 minutes on. The culprit was the four-minute duration of Peter Stampfel’s unreleased “In the Graveyard,” which I chose to close with in its spare entirety on the grounds that the ominous feel of the repeated chorus might make the audience nervous, which when you’re toying with death is salutary. And so it now may be with you as well, since with Stampfel’s permission And It Don’t Stoppers can become the only non-PopCon peeps to hear this recording (although I’m well aware that walking out on the end of a lecture is a lot harder than closing a browser tab). Other song links are also provided, to whole Willie Nelson recordings greatly abbreviated in my MoPOP presentation and, crucially, the lecture’s Peter Stampfel-Jeffrey Lewis title song “All the Time in the World.” Because my presentation focuses on this little-known ditty, I very much hope you play it in full—the two italicized bunches of lyric in the text should help you follow along.
I’ll remind regular readers and inform looky-loos that my friend Stampfel was the focus of the And It Don’t Stop that went up less than a week ago, thus rendering this the perfect time to post “All the Time in the World.” But I’ve always wanted people to read it anyway. I’m proud of it not just because it covers a lot of musical ground with exemplary brevity, my brand and bread and butter, but because it achieves an aptly mixed tone about the only philosophical theme that if you’ll pardon the expression trumps love—a theme that’ll kill ya if taken too seriously and also kill ya if it isn’t. In addition, I do sneak some love in there, even some ecology.
Welcome to the Big Lookback.
The lecture title “All the Time in the World” began as a song title on 2013’s Hey Hey It’s . . . the Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band, an A album by me that got a rave from Jersey Beat stalwart Jim Testa and zero additional reviews—it’s never been on Amazon or Spotify, although Lewis will sell you one on Bandcamp. But as I learned from Spotify, this wasn’t the only “All the Time in the World” in the world. There are songs of that title by Junkyard, Whitesnake, Dr. Hook, the Subdudes, a notch up John Fullbright, and someplace else entirely the Santa Monica band Lazlo Bane, who back in 2000 generated an inspired, catchy, supremely sarcastic beach blanket climate change song: “We’ve got all the time in the world/Until California sinks into the sea/I know you’re waiting for your real life to begin/Well that’s the problem with people like you and me.” But sticking it to all these is the John Barry-Hal David marshmallow that topped off the 1969 James Bond concoction On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which Barry asked Louis Armstrong to sing on the optimistic theory that he’d deliver an irony David’s stupefyingly banal wedding-song lyric never gets near. It’s been covered by, among others, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, the Specials, the stupefyingly pristine West End tenor Alfie Boe, and, wait for it, My Bloody Valentine.
Our “All the Time in the World” was workshopped from a Stampfel idea by Peter Stampfel, born 1938, and Jeffrey Lewis, born 1975, and in 2013 just half Stampfel’s age at 37. The two lead verses including the Keynes bit are all Stampfel, the rest including the dinner date and funeral verses mostly Lewis, the persona all Stampfel.
Here comes October there goes June / There goes the sun here comes the moon / The longer they spin the faster they go / I got all the time in the world / Live a century live a day / You’ve lived a lifetime either way / I don’t care what people say / I got all the time in the world
The clock can tick and tock and shout / The clock don’t tick what its talking about / Can you 1-2-3 goin’ X-I-V? / It’s great but its all Greek to me / John Maynard Keynes what he said / In the long run we’re all dead / Screw that jive were still alive / We got all the time in the world / Gather ye rosebuds kick the gong / Let’s all sing another song / They say we’re finished but they’re all wrong / We got all the time in the world / Albert might have been Einstein / Maybe time is money maybe space is time / MC round or MC square / I don’t know and I don’t care
Stampfel was a seriously bespectacled Macdougal Street irregular, Holy Modal Rounder, acid explorer, amphetamine fan, Unholy Modal Rounder, and Bottle Cap who in 2006 broke his back hitting bottom in an elevator shaft and on the third night of the Lewis-Stampfel band’s 2013 Hey Hey support tour fell down some stairs in Ireland, where he remained until the QE2 could transport him and his broken leg home. Since then he has released albums with the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron, the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Squad, and the Atomic Meta Pagans as well as the first volume of his long-projected The American 20th Century in 100 Songs, which begins with “Nobody” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and goes out on “Let’s Work Together” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” None of these rise to the level of Hey Hey, much less Stampfel’s 1976 Michael Hurley-Jeffrey Frederick collab Have Moicy!, which also isn’t matched by 2015’s Hurley-and-Frederick-lacking, Stampfel-and-Lewis-featuring Have Moicy 2: The Hoodoo Bash.
Stampfel, who turned 80 on October 30, is the only professional musician I’d call an old friend, and though the medical misadventures just outlined aren’t secret, I checked with him before detailing this nine-lives instance of a demographic anomaly that maybe isn’t so anomalous: rock and roll after 70 and then 80. The main reason it isn’t so anomalous is actuarial—people are living longer. But in addition I’m defining rock and roll loosely, as I have since before I was half my age, which is 76. Certainly neither Peter Stampfel or my other principal Willie Nelson was rock and roll from the git—Stampfel is a primal folkie, Nelson a country icon, although both branched rockwise early, Stampfel as an original Fug and Nelson with the career-making 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger. Nor were jug band queen turned one-hit wonder turned blues-etc. dynamo Maria Muldaur, who sings not just smarter but juicier and meatier on Social Security than she did as a very smart kid, or old-left protest strummer Barbara Dane, who at 88 released an album that led with Memphis Minnie’s “Sellin’ My Porkchops” before rousting Pacific Gas & Electric, or samba diva Elza Soares, reborn at 79 as a female avant-tropicalia counterpart of Tom Zé, who has himself self-released four albums and an EP since turning 76 in 2012. And of course there’s Leonard Cohen, whose prolific final decade ended on election eve of 2016, assuring that he’d leave this coil the way W.B. Yeats had advised around when Cohen was born: “Proud, open-eyed, and laughing to the tomb.”
Except Cohen wasn’t laughing. The never-ending 2007-2013 tour where he rebuilt his fortune had its comic bits, but his undaunted run of studio albums at 77, 79, and 82 indulged his signature gravity—You Want It Darker, released just weeks before he died, bequeaths such wisdom as “Steer your heart past the Truth that you believed in yesterday/Such as Fundamental Goodness and the Wisdom of the Way.” And from the beginning, Cohen’s initially courtly, eventually hoarse whisper embodied his gravity as much as his spiritual insatiability fed it. Stampfel never had this option. He was always a joker, the prisoner and exploiter of a cartoon voice that crossed Snuffy Smith with Charlie Poole. But he was also always an enthusiast, and as his voice aged he emerged as an improbably soulful singer as well—the sincerity he projects onto Bing Crosby’s “Gotta Get Me Somebody to Love” and Ray Charles’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” subsumes the comedy built into his need to perform them, the chuckled irrepressibility of “Wisconsin Honeymoon” intensifies its affection for his lifemate Betsy Wollheim, and I once heard him top a whispered Dylan “I want you” with a high-breaking Dylan “so bad” so affecting that I still can’t believe it wasn’t pre-planned. Stampfel doesn’t remember it at all.
Almost every line of the Hey Hey album is a duet in which Lewis’s guitar-strumming sprechgesang never enunciates and yet never swallows a word as Stampfel yelps and yells and yodels and yippees and quavers and croaks and cackles and hee-haws and expostulates without losing a word either. Stampfel lays on so much personality that most of the songs redound to him in the mind’s ear, which since he’s the senior partner would seem to apply in spades to “All the Time in the World.” That isn’t the song’s stated intention—in principle, “Live a century, live a day/You’ve lived a lifetime either way” applies equally to all the lifespans in between. Yet we have a right to guess that the idea came to Stampfel as someone pondering his fate the way my peers do as they pass 70, not least because when we were kids, 70 was more ancient than it’s come to be objectively in 2019, so that in some primordial part of ourselves we feel death coming even as our cerebrum reminds us that we probably have a ways to go.
“All the Time in the World” aims to bridge the caesura between our night fears and the morning light. It’s telling us: “There’s no point worrying about death because once you’re dead there’s no you there to miss being alive.” All the time in the world equals all the time in your world for the irrefutable reason that your world is the only one you can truly know. This isn’t eat drink and be merry, because it’s neither hedonistic nor fatalistic. It’s a metaphysical palm branch, an image to recall as you wait out your biopsy result, especially given the comic dimension Stampfel’s living voice adds. But it has its limitations. Most decisively, although not therefore fatally for atheists like me, it rules out any notion or hope of an afterlife, at least one in which we retain a semblance of consciousness rather than disappearing into some incomprehensible oversoul. More troubling is that it doesn’t account for love, which as eros, agape, and everything in between affords human beings obviously limited and arguably illusory glimpses into and knowledge of other subjectivities. You may have all the time in the world, but you still know that your death will cause those you care for pain, just as theirs would you. So as I close-read the lyric, I was struck by the two quatrains that follow a mandolin interlude midway through the song, both of them Lewis’s.
People ask me why I procrastinate / Why I show up late to a dinner date / But what the hell let the people yell / I got all the time in the world / And some fine day at my funeral service / They can stutter they can sweat they can all get nervous / Saying where is he but can’t they see / I’ve got all the time in the world / It’s the end of days in a couple of weeks / Say the Mayans and Sufis and the Jesus freaks / They want to give me tips on how to cash my chips / But I’m chillin’ in the face of the apocalypse
‘Cause here comes December there goes June / There goes the sun here comes the moon / The longer they spin the faster they go / I got all the time in the world / I got all the time in the world / I got all the time in the world
The earlier lyrics are philosophical and polemical, aiming Stampfel’s “screw that jive” at John Maynard Keynes and Lewis’s “I don’t know and I don’t care” at Einstein as if to say, among other things, that intellection pales before matters of life and death. But the dinner date and funeral service scenes imagine not just mourners sweating through a pal’s last ride but, on a much pettier level, friends put out when a live one is late for dinner. I’m not faulting Lewis, who in need of verses to fill out a song idea that’s comic and deep simultaneously came up with two that are a mite mean, as happens with laugh lines. Still, the tone does shift perceptibly here—metaphysical consolation with a twist comes down to earth. Moreover, the tone is about to shift again, and although the Mayans and the Sufis and the Jesus freaks replacing Keynes and Einstein in the hot seat may seem a natural progression, the leap from an individual death to “the end of days” is rendered even more alarming by the fact that you don’t notice it at first, just as you may not notice that “Here comes October there goes June” has morphed into “Here comes December there goes June.” In 2019, when the end of days feels so much closer than it did a mere six years ago, that’s a problem for people like you and me.
But if Stampfel and Lewis are like you and me, more or less, Willie Nelson is not. However boilerplate it may be to call him an icon, he’s earned it and we can’t truly comprehend it. Yet he’s also a living human who’s both as indefatigable as anyone in music and also, Cohen excepted, as publicly mortal. To quote from 2017’s God’s Problem Child: “I woke up still not dead again today/The internet said I had passed away/If I died I wasn’t dead to stay/And I woke up still not dead again today.” Nelson is so not dead that since since turning 80 in 2013 he has released, by my count, 10 full-length albums. Several of these mine songbooks—Ray Price, Jimmie Rodgers, Django Reinhardt, George Gershwin, even Frank Sinatra—but only a few loot vault recordings to any extent my ear can discern. For the nasal Nelson, the way voices deepen and roughen as they age has been a boon—not only has he sung more cannily in this century, he’s added extra resonance and grain to his unduplicable phrasing, about which he told David Ritz: “I’m always doing something funny with time because, to me, time is a flexible thing. I believe in taking my time. When it comes to singing a song, I’ve got all the time in the world.”
So in 2018 Willie teamed up with his producer, 71-year-old Nashville pro Buddy Cannon, for the custom-composed Last Man Standing, which kicks off with a jaunty “I don’t want to be the last man standing/Or wait a minute maybe I do/If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line/And decide after thinking it through.” That new line turns out to be “It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out/Cuts like a wore out knife.” But having briefly remembered Waylon and Merle, Harlan Howard and Ray Price, the rest of the album comes down squarely on maybe-I-do by pointing out that “Bad breath is better than no breath at all” and addressing closer questions: reincarnation, the fungibility of heaven and hell, changing the government yes sirree, and, in “Something to Get Through,” the death of others: “Life goes on and on/And when it’s gone it lives in someone new.”
Although Nelson records more than anyone half his age who isn’t a mixtape rapper, Last Man Standing was his first album of this decade to truly get noticed—the songbook samplers merely beef up his catalog rather than reconfiguring legacies like 75-year-old Maria Muldaur’s Blue Lu Barker tribute or 73-year-old Bettye LaVette’s Bob Dylan recanonization. But I believe Nelson’s eighties have yielded one truly major album even if none of its few reviewers noticed how strange and provocative it is. Credited to Willie Nelson and—underlined—Sister Bobbie, a Nelson who was born New Year’s Day 1931 and held the piano chair in his phenomenally durable road band for over 40 years, Willie’s Stash Vol. 1: December Day has some vault in it. Completed in 2014, it was mostly recorded at odd interludes in 2010 and 2011 to document the music Willie and Bobbie Nelson made on the bus. It starts with an “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” so casual and buoyant that its “Feels so natural that you want to go to war” comes as a shock and then runs through the likes of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” and Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” before announcing the strange part.
Because then comes one called “I Don’t Know Where I Am Today” that begins: “I don’t know where I am today/I don’t know where I was yesterday/This song has so many notes to play/I just hope that I hit them today.” After which follows, boom, a second original called, and about, “Amnesia”: “Well I guess I can’t write anymore/I guess I got no more to say/Or else I’d be puttin’ it down/Instead of just throwin’ it away,” it begins, only to subvert this plaint with a second verse: “I worked like a slave for the future and gave/Everything that I love to the past/There’s a string of Septembers that I can’t remember/And I hope my amnesia will last.” Which means . . . what? That his supposed amnesia will compel him to focus on the future by impairing his ties to his past? Only here comes the desolate “I can’t write anymore” stanza again, twice, and it’s on to his third recording at least of his 1972 copyright “Who’ll Buy My Memories” and Jolson-Chaplin’s “Anniversary Song” and a string of Nelson chestnuts, some now half a century old, whose titles alone evoke a fatalistic mood that might have begun when he caught himself forgetting his niece’s name or typing “alone” when he meant “along” or taking a shower with his socks on: “Is the Better Part Over,” “My Own Peculiar Way,” “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” and the ageless “I Let My Mind Wander,” which described his own mind several years before its Lennon-McCartney obverse “There’s a Place”: “Can’t trust it a minute/It’s worse than a child/Disobeys without conscience/And it’s driving me wild.”
Between “Anniversary Song” and this protracted fadeout, however, comes one of those new songs he can’t write anymore. The title seems fatalistic: “Laws of Nature.” But when the six-minute track states the lyric beginning to end and then repeats it in full, you figure maybe this is less Willie Nelson’s ecology song than his ecology will and testament or manifesto: first “I get my energy from the sun/And I’m not the only one,” then “I get my oxygen from the air/There’s plenty for me and plenty to spare,” then “I plant my seeds in the howling gale,” and then the climactic “I get my water from the rain/And if it don’t rain I’ll die/Stormy weather saves my life/Sometimes I laugh and wonder why.” Rather than just lamenting a pathetic decline, this principled humanist is implying a tragic outcome in which life may not live on in someone new after all. Nelson’s not making a federal case out of it—he’s never preached or protested much. But I do believe, and feel, that by sticking an abstract of life on earth amid recollections of past beauties and intimations of encroaching senescence, Nelson means to remind anyone who’s listening that, actually, we don’t have all the time in the world.
Peter Stampfel inspired this talk at his 80th birthday party, when he and some much younger pals performed a new death song he'd written called “In the Graveyard.” I requested a recording and they said hell yeah, only then their budget studio lost its lease and then Peter surfaced on Facebook reporting that his afib meds had stopped working and his chest itched from its pre-ablation shave. “Cross dem fingers,” suggested the all-the-time-in-the-world guy, and we did, and the procedure worked as it has with others I know. That’s a relief—my time in the world would be poorer without Peter Stampfel, who informs me that he's also recently undergone two eye surgeries he’d thought he could put off till he was 90. But sans pals he did record “In the Graveyard” for us. I suggest we all ask ourselves how much its sexualized, even pervy approach to death applies to this symposium.