Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Part 2: New York City, the Lower East Side, and Have Moicy!

Q: Let’s jump to 1959, when you moved to New York. I read another interview where you said that when you moved here, everyone advised you to stay away from the Lower East Side because it was so dirty and dangerous and scary. And you discovered that it really wasn’t…

Peter: Well, not really. I came to New York with some friends from Chicago in May of ’59. And that’s when I found that the Lower East Side was cool, and the West Village wasn’t really cool anymore. I had met a New York girl in San Francisco and followed her here, and by the time I got to New York, she had a new boyfriend. But she hooked me up with one of her old boyfriends as a roommate in an apartment on Clinton Street for $44 a month. And I was concerned about living in a New York slum. I know the neighborhood was cool. It wasn’t really called the East Village yet, realtors didn’t come up with that until ’64 or so. It was just a slum, and I was leery, so I asked a bunch of people if it was safe to live there. And a couple of people told me, well, a couple of years ago, this guy got stabbed in the arm with a knife, but it was his fault. He was drunk and started a fight. And that was it, that was the troubles! It was actually incredibly safe.

Q: By the time I started coming to the Lower East Side in the late Seventies though, the neighborhood had changed quite a bit, I assume.

Peter: In 1962, 42nd Street sleaze types started hanging around the Bohemian scene for the first time, and the first 12-year old runaways hit the scene for the first time and started panhandling, and you started to hear “spare change, spare change” every time you walked down the street. Before that, in that neighborhood, people would say, “what do you do?,” with the assumption that you did something artistic if you lived in that neighborhood. If you didn’t “do” something, you were a phony. Hippies, or hippy-dippy, originally meant wannabe. They were people who wanted to be artistic but didn’t really make any art. Faux proto-hipsters. But the early Sixties was also when drug use really became a problem. More and more straight people started using drugs, and in the summer of ’62 there suddenly wasn’t enough pot around to satisfy the double, triple, quadruple number of people who were interested. Heroin was always around. When I got here, people would say, you shouldn’t sell pot, you should share. Selling pot isn’t righteous. There’s a documentary of that era that’s got Dennis Hopper, the guy in “Easy Rider,” saying, you shouldn’t sell pot, pot is a love thing, you should just share it. By 1968, it was a fucking nightmare. You couldn’t find pot anywhere. People talk about the hippie era and they say, oh, 1968 and 1969, New York was so cool in those days. It was nightmare central by that time. The whole thing went off the wheels by 1968, big-time. There was just massive numbers of people coming to the Lower East Side like they were joining the set on a movie shoot. The whole scene looks so idyllic from the outside world, the flower children with their peace and love. And actually what happened is that it attracted every sleazeball criminal ex-con scumbag in the country. Wow, teenage girls who fuck for drugs, let’s get in on that! Lemme at it! By ’68, it was really, really dangerous. I don’t know what the peak dangerous year for the Lower East Side was, but between ’68 and the mid-90s, it was very sketchy.

Q: I don’t want to talk too much about the Holy Modal Rounders because you’ve done that in other interviews, so let’s jump to the ‘70’s. Like a lot of people, I religiously read Robert Christgau in the early 70’s and when “Have Moicy!” came out, he made a big fuss out of it and I think a lot of younger people went back and discovered the Rounders and Fugs from that. Does”Have Moicy!” feel like some sort turning point or milestone, looking back at it today?

Peter: When everything comes together, with the right people at the right time with the right ingredients, it’s like serendipitous. We had talked about having the East Coast and the West Coast people from our scene playing together on a record for years. The Rounders had moved to Portland in 1972 and had been on indefinite hiatus. And then they hooked up with Jeffrey Frederick and it was basically two bands with the same people, the Rounders and the Clamtones. Michael Hurley was around, and I basically formed the Unholy Modal Rounders but the only Unholy guy I brought in was Paul Presti.
My take on Michael Hurley – besides the fact that he’s amazing and singular – is that he’s truly a one of a kind, sui generis performer since the fucking ‘50’s. He was an underground cartoonist before there was a fucking underground. But there’s his Alpha songs, and there’s his non-Alpha songs, and most of them are non-Alpha songs. Because most of his songs aren’t as good as “Eyes Eyes” or “Slurf Song” or “Oh My Stars” or his really best material. However, with “Have Moicy!,” he just happened to have a bunch of all Alpha songs. And Antonia and I had a couple of Alpha songs as well. I happen to think that Jeff’s stuff is a little weaker, although I adore “Weep Weep Weep.” My wife doesn’t like that one, but I love it. But basically, everybody had great songs, and we recorded it in three days flat. We just tag-teamed each other in the studio. Today, three days in the studio to make a record is a luxury, but back in the Seventies, bands would take months and months. But we went in fast and sloppy and just got it done. It was on the one hand, the whole counter-culture was pretty strongly in the ditch by the point. That car had been driven off the road and into a tree, at least by ’72. So by ’75, the idea of an underground was really past its prime. But that record epitomizes, resonates with the original, unspoiled countercultural spirit as it was in its heyday. The feeling that people had about this wonderful emerging thing back in ’63 and ’64, it was the feeling that his awesome thing that took everyone by total surprise was going to very soon fix everything, in the most wonderful way possible. It really felt that way. And it became clear by the summer of 1967 that noooooooo, we weren’t going to change the world. The army of Manson types, among a lot of other things, had ruined it.

Did you read White Bicycles by Joe Boyd, by any chance? One of the best books about music in the ‘60’s ever. One of his points is that the counterculture specifically went over the edge in 1967, in this one particular week, in fact. There was this place called the Roundhouse in London, it was where all the coolest bands played and all the coolest people hung out. And suddenly on this one weekend in August of 1967, it was nothing but tourists. The army of scene discoverers had suddenly hit critical mass, and the Summer of Love was over.

Peter Stampfel Part 3 - The 80's and the Bottle Caps

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