All the Time in the World: The Living End in Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson

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


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 There’s other unpublished writing to draw on, too, including decades of live show notes I might tailor into something presentable as well as plenty of old pieces, often web-available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.

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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.

A Century in Four Hours and Forty Minutes

Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs


By my count, Peter Stampfel’s new album is his 13th of the 21st century, and although one of them was recorded live in 1970 and another unearths 1984 demos, the new one corrects for those asterisks by comprising not two or three discs but five, every one strictly studio. And though the Wisconsin-raised Stampfel has been a Manhattanite since he was 20, every one was produced by his Louisiana pal Mark Bingham. To be perfectly clear, when I say discs I mean discs—the compact kind, none of your heavy-ass vinyl for this been-there-done-that 82-year-old. And though all this music is streamable, it would be bad money after good to hear it more than once that way, because the physical package is as sumptuous as it is economical, designed to fit neatly onto the jammed shelves of the music obsessives who might conceivably buy one.

Slightly slimmer than the “expanded” version of Rod Stewart’s 1975 Atlantic Crossing that still clogs my A shelves and less than half the rigid polystyrene width of my 1991 remaster of Miles Davis’s Agharta double, Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs folds out into five CD-appropriate cardboard sections that accommodate 1) a track listing with each year’s song title rendered in its own period typeface, 2) nine well-curated 20th-century illos, and 3) an 88-page booklet where Bingham details impressively varied recording sessions that date as far back as 2002 even though many weren’t completed till 2019 and Stampfel fleshes out each song’s history with composer bios, personal reminiscences, explications des textes, and random arcana. For those daunted by this minitome, which I admit took me several days to read, the foldout summarizes the project’s basics: the songs had to be “catchy” (Stampfel’s forthrightly democratic term, though he does kvell about chords as well), historically redolent, neither obscure or obvious, and within Stampfel’s capabilities as a performer. This last was a conceptual concern when the project began—as far back as 1980 or so, Stampfel reports, he’d been feeling out of touch with the music of his younger peers, so he wasn’t sure how well he could handle the century’s final decades. But before the project was done it would prove a physical challenge as well.

Although conceived as the 21st century got rolling in the long wake of 9/11, the project had a predecessor: Stampfel’s 1995 You Must Remember This, produced by Bingham in various living rooms, kitchens, and lofts. It opens with a spirited banjo-and-tuba “Goldfinger,” a cover that had been wowing Stampfel crowds sans tuba for years. But after the Stampfel original “Take Me Away” and the New Christy Minstrels showpiece “Mighty Mississippi,” it embarks on a tour of old pop hits from his pre-rock childhood like Jack Leonard’s 1940 “Indian Summer” and Don Cornell's 1950 “It Isn’t Fair” before bidding farewell with Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Tit Willow,” a substantially revised Carter Family “New Matthew 24,” and—whoa!—Thomas Moore’s circa-1800 “Believe Me, if All These Endearing Young Charms.” Great album, I thought, and gave it a full A while the rest of Rockcritland waxed ignorant. Great performances, great material, great tone. Discogs classifies the few copies it has for sale as “Vocal, Parody,” which is so wrong: Stampfel sings these chestnuts like he loves them, which he does. And though he was approaching 60 by then, he's seldom been in better voice.

Say his enthusiasm is comic if you like; for sure there's some jollity in there, as there has been with Stampfel since he doubled as a Fug while recording Holy Model Rounders excavations like the jug-band standard “Hesitation Blues” and the 1890s smash “Bully of the Town.” But one reason I consider my pal Peter a great artist is that he doesn’t think love and laughs are mutually exclusive. So although there are funny ones on Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century for sure—1919’s “Stumblin’” and 1943’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” the 1953 find “Tennessee Wig Walk” and the 1993 sleeper “Loser”—the laughs tend gentle, as when Stampfel’s romantic indignation gets the better of him at the end of “It Isn’t Fair” or a sweet mixed-gender quartet takes over the burden of 1979’s “I Will Survive” only to be rejoined a minute later by the boss, whose sing-along turns gibberish by the end. Nonetheless, sincerity is a currency throughout this project. That’s one reason it’s launched by Wisconsinite Carrie Jacobs Bond’s solemn wedding-day praisesong “I Love You Truly,” which as Stampfel observes has a “mid-19th century feel”—Bond also wrote “Silver Threads Among the Gold” if you know what that is. Next comes 1902’s “Under the Bamboo Tree,” a marriage proposal devised by John Rosamond Johnson, younger brother of James Weldon Johnson if you know who he is, which after two instrumental iterations of its easygoing intro gets down to cases: “If you like-a me like I like-a you/And we like-a both the same/I like-a say this very day/I like-a change your name.” Then follow three songs whose refrains still stand as indelible fragments of a shared national culture: “Ida” (“Sweet as apple cider”), “Toyland” (“Little girl and boy land”), and “Whistler and His Dog” (an ineradicable tunelet devised by trombone-wielding pre-WW1 superstar Arthur Pryor).

I hope some of the tune-pods that follow remain familiar as well: “School Days” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for sure, “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey” and “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” at least as catchphrases. Many of Stampfel’s 1901-1950 picks, which occupy just two of the five discs, have a way of popping up in sitcoms, commercials, and period movies. Like Peter, I’m old enough to have internalized many of them well before that, not as a lifelong music critic but as someone whose family bought a seven-inch TV early, so that I had already spent six years consuming old popular culture as per Ed Sullivan and The Colgate Comedy Hour as well as chart-hawking WINS DJ Jack Lacy when Alan Freed and “Maybellene” changed my life forever in 1955. But Stampfel’s 1938 birthdate gives him a big three-and-a-half years on me—he was pushing 17 by “Maybellene” time, and though he says Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles were his “heroes” by 1956, Domino’s “I’m in Love Again” plus Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and the Charms’ uber-classic 1954 “Hearts of Stone” are the only rock and roll standards here. And by 1958 Peter was in Greenwich Village turning into the weirdest folkie on Macdougal Street not counting his junco partner Steve Weber.

Because Stampfel has always been an exceedingly intelligent working-class Wisconsin boy who came of age before rock and roll broke, the earlier history he carries with him has got to inflect this one-of-a-kind project. Having grown up with pre-rock pop, he feels it even deeper in his bones than I do because he’s a few years older. But by the same token, listeners born post-1960, who’ve come to the same music in dribs and drabs of secondary reference if at all, may well find it unredeemably corny or just alien, and for millennials and their successors it’s terra incognita—nobody under 25 can be expected to recognize a single one of these songs, with the best bets the Spice Girls’ 1996 “Wannabe” and maybe Coldplay’s 2000 “Yellow,” a gorgeous piece muffled into marginality for me back then by Chris Martin’s ingrained anonymity. I reserve hopes, however, for a few rock chestnuts—“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Tangled Up in Blue” for Pete’s sake, the football chant “Tubthumping” I assume, the magnificent “Waterloo Sunset” I pray, Springsteen’s “My Hometown” sure sounds undeniable, OK probably not the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” slowed way down though it sounds great that way (and hey, there’s a Chuck Cleaver number I didn't even recognize here too). But Stampfel’s purpose with this five-pack isn’t merely to complete an impossibly ambitious tribute to the ever-evolving art form he’s devoted his long and excitable life to. It’s to insist that the art form is all one thing despite its incomprehensible diversity. Also, he really wants to sell these songs. Not for money, which is no object here. For love.

And so he sings and sings. Because Stampfel’s voice has always had its peculiarities—a cartoonish quality he cultivated rather than repressed and a wobbly relationship with pitch—he hasn’t always gotten respect as a singer. But because I’m so big on fun, these supposed flaws have been ringing my bell ever since 1976, when he took the elevator to the fifth floor of the Village Voice and handed me a copy of my most played album of the past half century: Have Moicy!, opening track a rewrite of Con Conrad and Herb Magidson’s 1935 “Midnight in Paris” that took off with the lines “You wear my beret and I’ll use your bidet, cheri/I’ll be clean you’ll be free.” In point of fact, however, Stampfel’s peculiar voice got stronger as he got older, not to mention as he took lessons and got the better of assorted inebriants.

But as he turned out those 13 21st-century albums, it was possible to discern, if you checked, that as he passed 70 Stampfel’s boyish and peculiar voice was thinning out a bit and drying up a tad, albeit less than most 70-something voices. So as a friend and a journalist, I sometimes feared that Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century was stalling even as I was given samplers of completed tracks; logistics with Bingham were complicated, and Stampfel never stopped networking in his quest for new bandmates and live frontiers. (Peter says he doesn’t recall this, but I swear that one year he set himself the task of playing out somewhere every single night.) In 2019, for health reasons of my own, I only saw Peter and his wife Betsy Wollheim once or twice, although that spring I emailed back and forth with him about a lecture for April 2019’s death-themed MoPOP Pop Conference titled “All the Time in the World: The Living End in Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson.” But not too much later that year there was a calamity: a fast-progressing case of a many-faceted malady dubbed dysphonia that soon reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper when he could vocalize at all.

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As the session dates that accompany each of Bingham’s notes make clear, Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century bears the scars of Stampfel’s illness: after many recordings in 2002 or 2003, there are almost none until 2019. And as I played the five discs in order, my heart sank a little. By putting off the completion of this life project as he advanced toward 80, Stampfel had damaged it irreparably: as early as 1955’s r&b obscurity “Shambolar” and most of the time post-1971—the first three discs encompass 70 years, the last two only 30—he was whispering his precious selections rather than singing them. Not only was the “Goldfinger” voice I’d imagined would be on call to earmark this eccentric aural wonderland kaput, Stampfel’s trademark hyperenthusiasm was on hold, quite possibly never to be voiced again. But when I dug in on repeated listens, as is always my m.o.—especially with recalcitrant material I have reason to hope more from—something happened.

It began with two warhorses: Elton John’s 1973 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which I’d always ingested as a musical whole when compelled to hear it at all, and Bob Dylan’s 1975 “Tangled Up in Blue,” another musical whole, but one so familiar it’s hard to hear fresh. Since Stampfel recorded the first entirely in 2003 and the second entirely in 2019, their vocals are very different: Peter’s Elton almost boyish when he’s 64, his Dylan when he’s 80 marked by a gargle as liquid as Stampfel can manage until he whistles the outro. This last is a stroke in itself—as in “Whistler and His Dog” and other tracks too, Stampfel is an accomplished whistler. But a bigger stroke is that for the first time in years I was hearing the words of these chestnuts. And that was only the beginning. For the entire final quarter of this project, Stampfel strategizes around his limitations cannily, generously, and effectively. He’s an old man for sure, but he’s rejuvenating a lot of these songs.

Way back on the 1961 pick Bingham changed keys until he found “the right spot” for Stampfel’s “fragile” voice, thus midwifing “a Moon River unlike any other” into existence. Harmony vocals from Bingham and Michael Cerveris help bring 1967’s inevitable “Waterloo Sunset” home. Most of 1977’s “2-4-6-8 Motorway” was laid down in 2016, as was the “Midwestern weirdness” of the Ass Ponys’ 1994 “Earth to Grandma”—in a voice fuller than Chuck Cleaver’s, which says something remarkable about what it was and sad about what has befallen it. But voice shot or no voice shot, Stampfel delivers Elvis Costello’s 1980 “Girls Talk” safe and sound 3:44 later, and murmuring 1983’s “Swingin’” suits John Anderson fine, as does muttering Beck’s 1994 “Loser.” Just don’t try to outmurmur Michael Stipe on 1991’s “Texarkana” much less outcroak Leonard Cohen on 1988’s “Everybody Knows.” Instead, assign a gaggle of male backup singers to wrest 1996’s “Wannabe” from the Spice Girls or ask equal partner Lilli Lewis to render the 1999 Christgau nominee “In Spite of Ourselves” whole. As for the climactic “Yellow,” it was always about the guitars, here replicated masterfully by Bryan Webre and the invaluable Cerveris, clearly Bingham’s adjutant in pulling this project out of the fire and rolling it down the hill.

Since it might arguably be inappropriate to address a century of history without acknowledging the inevitability of physical decay, it might also be argued that there was a certain poetry to my pal Peter’s unanticipated vocal limitations. But fuck poetry, especially the sad kind—I’ll take lyrics any day, and so will Peter. How about the 1924-1928 sequence of George Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me,” Ted FioRito and Gus Kahn’s “I Never Knew,” Kern-Harbach-Hammerstein’s “Who (Stole My heart Away),” Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still”?

Or to put another way, I like New York in June, how about you?

Xgau Sez: April, 2021

Taste vs. judgment, the (somewhat) enduring appeal of Leon Thomas, the diminishing appeal of Green Day, reading about if not listening to Joanna Newsom, and the hymnals of Judee Sill and Todd Snider


In your Auriculum podcast you differentiated between taste which is subjective and judgment which involves, I gather, some objectivity. You also discuss your own preferences in music— e.g. fast over slow and happy over sad. How do you reconcile those preferences in the taste/judgment continuum? — David Wasser, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Taste, obviously. But within those tremendously broad characterizations inhere countless gradations, none of which will determine in themselves my or anyone’s aesthetic responses to an individual piece of music or portion of same. This means that even at the crudest levels they should generate questions like, “If I’m such a big fan of happy music how come I hate the Kars 4 Kids ad even more than you do?” or (to choose an example from this past March 17) “Shane MacGowan takes ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ so slow, why am I sitting there after the dishes are done doing nothing but listening six minutes in?” I go into this in some detail in the Sonic Youth piece “Rather Exhilarating” in Is It Still Good to Ya?, which includes the following slightly edited passage: “One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It’s fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That’s taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn’t mean it can’t be approximated in art. One technique is to replace response reports— ‘boring’ and all its self-involved pals, like ‘exhilarating’ or the less blatant ‘dull,’ with stimulus reports.” Which is to say, I’ll now go on, physical descriptions of the music, best accomplished for the lay reader with colloquial, non-musicological language.

Do you really think Leon Thomas’s Legend album is an A record? Listening back on it after many decades myself, Thomas’s admittedly unique voice seems more a novelty than anything else and the album itself more clunky than swinging. — Lee, Brooklyn

My records indicate that I Consumer-Guided just two albums by the man who sang Pharoah Sanders’s “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” neither of them Facets—The Legend of Leon Thomas. Both are from 1970: The Leon Thomas Album, an A, and Spirits Known and Unknown, a B plus. But by the time I did the ’70s Consumer Guide book I had hedged Thomas over into the Subjects for Further Research addendum, where I pointed out that his solo career had disappeared by 1975 and expressed reservations about his “muddle-headedness.” So I couldn’t tell exactly what you were talking about. But with my memory jogged I went to Spotify, so much faster than excavating my vinyl, and streamed Spirits Known and Unknown. Not clunky by me, a B plus at the very least—the yodeling rousing, the scatting spectacular. And while the rationalist I am remains well south of agnostic about the Guy, Gal, or Both with the Master Plan, he fervently believes Thomas’s “Disillusion Blues” should be brought out of retirement if there’s anybody out there with the chops and spiritual wisdom to shout and yodel it.

Hey Bob, I’m curious why you haven’t reviewed the last few Green Day albums. I know you didn’t like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown all that much, but I’m just wondering why we haven’t gotten reviews of UnoDosTre or Revolution Radio. Have you gotten bored of their shtick? — Aidan King, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Elementary, really. When I give two consecutive albums by an artist I once liked C’s, you can assume that I checked out the next one only briefly if at all, and chose not to find another way to hoist said artist on his or her own petard. In fact, said next one sounded like more of the self-important same, and I’m not sure I got all the way through the one after that, although I have a dim memory of trying briefly once. Nor has what little I’ve read about these albums given me any reason to believe I’ve missed anything. Punk is so tied up with the disillusions of growing up that punks do often age poorly.

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I’m curious as to whether you have any thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s last few albums; or did you merely file her under over-indulgence and logorrhea after Ys? — Cathal Atty, Donegal, Ireland

It seems to me that the answer to this and many similar questions is obvious: duh. (See Green Day directly above.) The reason I’m reprinting it here is to report that a year or two ago I received a letter that began: “Joanna Newsom is the greatest artist of the 21st century. Your misogyny is showing in your refusal to acknowledge her work.”  Such rhetoric is only to be expected when you’re a critic because most people don’t know what good criticism is, but though this correspondent was obviously only in her mid teens it was still disheartening—I am so not a misogynist. The second reason is to alert you to the superb and adulatory Erik Davis feature on Joanna Newsom in the 2007 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology (those were the days), which I edited. Immensely long. As I explain in the book’s intro, I read it in one 45-minute gulp, because I do know what good criticism is, and even though Newsom really ain’t for me however much I appreciate her debut, this was clearly it. Different strokes, you know how it goes.

Any thoughts on the Judee Sill revival? Your reviews were spot-on, the grades maybe a little low (given how grades have morphed since 1972, a moot point). My knowledge of non-gospel Christian music begins and mercifully ends at Amy Grant, so I was grateful for her gorgeously rendered, way-out-there perspectives in a genre I’ll never care enough to revisit. — Keith Shelton, San Diego

Having had no idea there was a Judee Sill revival, if there is, my first thought is how glad I am not to feel obliged to worry overmuch about such wavelets in music’s vast sea. Clearly this is a time when every moderately gifted female singer-songwriter in creation awaits rediscovery, and Sill was a distinctive one. But where I was curious about how Leon Thomas might sound today, I found I could do without hearing Sill again. An overstater, a militant if fundamentally humane Christian—life is too short, especially when you’re turning 79.

I’ve spent several Sunday afternoons enjoying Todd Snider’s livestreaming shows—even bought a shirt to chip in for the cause. During a recent performance in which he played Agnostic Hymns in full, he claimed it was his best record. That was news to me, given how few of those songs have been worked into his recent live sets— he didn’t play anything from it when I saw him in 2019. I even recall reading an interview where he seemed pretty ambivalent about it. It’s always been my favorite of his (got lucky on eBay once and found a promo copy on vinyl for pennies on the dollar), so it was neat to hear Snider agree with me. I was wondering if you felt the same. Best to you and Carola. — Jon LaFollette, Indianapolis

Expecting consistency from Todd Snider is like expecting pie in the sky when you die—this is a guy who probably changes his mind while he’s tying his shoes. We listen to his albums quite a bit around here given the wealth of alternatives, and the only one over the past coupla years I thought maybe wasn’t a full A was East Nashville Skyline, which I expect was because I wasn’t paying attention at the right times. Can’t swear we’ve played Agnostic Hymns, however. Did definitely play both discs of The Storyteller in recent memory, and got Nina to listen to the entirety of “KK Rider Story,” which as a comedy fan she loved. But since it came out our surprise fave has been 2019’s apparently ramshackle Cash Cabin Sessions—have enjoyed it so much that we entered it in our private Rolling Stone best-of-all-time sweepstakes. In that company, true, he did admittedly fall somewhat short.

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