Peter Stampfel's Latest Miracle
A story of a voice lost and found
With Covid more or less under control, I seldom wear a mask on the bus or think twice about eating out anymore. But like most seniors and many sprier adults, I've become an after-dinner stay-at-home. After playing albums nonstop during the day as I have for half a century, I spend evenings with the TV and my wife as we absorb the news, crime series, Criterion picks, and likely-looking music docs (try the rock-solid 2004 The Howlin' Wolf Story or the mind-blowing 2019 Dolly Parton Here I Am). Hence I am a rock critic who witnesses even less live music than he used to, especially if you don't count Adam Weiner's Low Cut Connie tours. But I've made an exception for another friend, Peter Stampfel, having visited the Soho loft he shares with his wife, sci-fi editor-publisher Betsy Wollheim, for many years now. I last wrote about Peter early in 2021, when I tried to give his decades-in-the-making five-CD magnum opus Peter Stampfel's 20th Century in 100 Songs its due. Too many decades in the making, as it turned out, because sometime in the last years of that span Peter literally lost his voice to a horrible malady called dysphonia.
Stampfel has never had what is called a good voice. Always penetrating and when appropriate loud, it's too comic and insufficiently lovely or strong to evoke any kind of pop heartthrob or rock powerhouse for even a single song. But with dysphonia, tragically, its musical virtues disappear altogether. At its worst, dysphonia reduces a conventional singing voice to a croak and puts serious limits on more modest or specialized options. It's to the credit of Stampfel and his henchmen that they managed to get all the way to 100 songs without messing up more than a few. Not only is Stampfel an accomplished whistler, he's an inspired whisperer, his time so astute or just organic that he can on occasion whisper a lyric all the way home. When the song is of quality, that can do the trick--the trick of somehow getting through all 100 of your chronologically arranged picks so that your life project retains the integrity and historical significance it had when you dreamed it up a quarter century ago.
Having just replayed the two final discs of said project, I'm pleased to report that I continue to believe Stampfel delivers all but two or three of his century's worth of picks dysphonia or no dysphonia. But the news from the Stampfel-Wollheim residence itself hasn't always been so positive. Peter being Peter, he never gave up. He'd located several speech therapists whose vocal exercises he performed faithfully, and once when I visited joined several younger pals in exploring the aural byways of devices that thwonged like Jew's harps. I was delighted and impressed that at a disabled 82 he had every intention of continuing his musical explorations and career. But as I kept to myself, that didn't mean I thought the results sounded too good.
Nonetheless, when Peter secured a gig at Bowery Electric in January 2022 I descended into the basement and found seating next to a Norwegian rock critic who had no idea who Stampfel was but was impressed anyway. As I recall the clincher was Joseph Spence's "Out on the Rolling Sea," a song my impressed seatmate was hearing for the first time and Peter nailed dysphonia or no dysphonia. This isn't to claim that his voice had gained significant juice. But it did remind me that a performer as canny as Peter Stampfel is unlikely to blow a piece of music as undeniably sui generis as "Out on the Rolling Sea." And to a lesser extent that was true of his whole set--limited, yes, barely sung at all you could even say, yet engaging throughout.
So when Peter emailed a few weeks ago to announce a few shows, I made it my business to attend the only one that fit my schedule--at the tiki bar Otto's Shrunken Head on 14th Street east of Avenue A. The invite specified that that the music, scheduled for 7, would absolutely end before 8--which it did, though it was underway a few minutes before 7 in a back room where the casually peripatetic audience never topped 20 but usually maintained in the high teens--among them old Voicer Alyssa Katz, who I hadn't seen in years. Also on hand were lap steel man Sam Werbalowsky, keyboard player Steve Espinola, bassist Eli Hetko, drummer Heather Wagner, and Peter's longtime partner and daughter Zoe Stampfel on vocals and tambourine. Two thirds into the set a hat was passed, and pretty much everyone seemed to chip in a bill or two.
To a certain extent that was just mannerly, I suppose. But in fact the music was terrific, a substantial improvement over what I'd heard at Bowery Electric. The setlist consisted almost entirely of that old Rounders staple short catchy songs--a setlist especially notable for a bunch of '50s rock and roll hits, an increasingly neglected vein Stampfel had been re-exploring during lockdown. Good idea--if short catchy songs are both your meat and your bread and butter, which for the Holy Modal Rounders they always have been, the '50s are worth mining when the environment is doing whatever bad thing it is outdoors. The Hollywood Argyles' 1960 "Alley Oop," the Hollywood Flames' 1958 "Buzz-Buzz-Buzz," and the Charms' pre-Chuck-and-Fats "Hearts of Stone" all livened up the show--as did Robin Remaily's Holy Modal Rounders standard "Euphoria."
Just in playlist terms this was dandy. But within just a few minutes I realized it was much more than that--that in fact it was from what I could hear a miracle, because Peter Stampfel's dysphonia seemed to have all but vanished. Was this voice precisely identical to the one I remembered from all too long ago? Probably not--Stampfel is, after all, 84 years old, by now his dysphonia stretches back well over half a decade. Anyway, his cartoonishly high and slightly distorted voice had been changing ever since I fell in love with the Stampfel-Hurley-Fredericks-helmed Have Moicy! in 1976 and in fact since a decade earlier than that. But was it any kind of croak? It most certainly was not. Instead, Stampfel's singing once again achieved a recognizable version of the flexible warmth and chuckling verve he'd exploited and exerted going back to his early-'60s Macdougal Street days.
This miracle Stampfel attributed not to one of the NYC vocal therapists he'd consulted but to the now Manhattan-based singer Jeanne Gies, a Friday night regular at Frankie and Johnny's on 37th Street who earned her vocal studies degree at Marquette in Wisconsin, which as it happens is where the author of "Wisconsin Honeymoon" is proud to have grown up. Gies taught him new microphone techniques and, even more decisively, had him generate prolonged vowel sounds while lying on his back, thus relaxing his entire musculature. It would be a morbid overstatement to say it was as if he's risen from the dead. Never in my presence did Peter's vitality abandon him. But it was exhilarating the way only live music can be. Maybe I should be getting out more.