Peter Stampfel’s latest as-usual ingenious slap-dash collaboration, Hey Hey It’s the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band, proves that (at age 74) it’s never too late to go indie rock. As in, this record confused me after one listen but now has me spinning around the home office and wondering whether snubbing “Jersey Shore” was a mistake. And also, it has me digging through various Stampfel-associated arcana, always finding more Holy Modal Rounders records to go slack-jawed or wire-haired about, revisiting old friend Have Moicy!, nodding along with the boundless jukebox of American musical history that comprises Stampfel’s solo records. But one barely released CD from a few years past that came with an edition of the late lamented all-things-Rounders Irish fanzine Blue Navigator (which I’ll talk more about in a second) set me on a quest to find out about Herr Peter’s Antonia.
Stampfel’s “inamorata” is what Robert Christgau called Antonia (born 1939, let’s pretend she only has one name like Madonna, not her real one, Barbara Ann Goldblatt), which captures her allure but doesn’t indicate exactly why she sets off stars in the eyes of those who knew her. So I did my best with limited resources to find out. Pregnant at 16 and on her own not long after that, she became a scenestress of the lower Manhattan folkie scene at that crucial moment in the early 60’s when sulty guitar strummers started absorbing rock and roll attitudes. Stories and relationships abound: Antonia was best friends with the brutally gifted notorious wastrel Karen Dalton, she refused to sleep with Dylan because he had beer breath, etc etc. Peter Stampfel moved in with her (on the same day he helped move out her previous boyfriend) in 1962 and Antonia quickly and deliberately introduced Stampfel to Steve Weber, thus birthing the once-and-forever Holy Modal Rounders. (She and Stampfel would separate in the latter 1970’s, and Stampfel would clean himself up but Antonia would keep the upper East Side apartment they inherited from Dalton.)
Antonia’s proximity, her personal connections and her Mad magazine sexuality make her a signal character, if perhaps not quite the doyenne, of the Greenwich Village folkie dystopia, but her legacy is her writing. She wrote (often co-wrote) short stories that have surfaced through the years, some in conjunction with Rounders record releases and many frankly pornographic. Much more importantly, she wrote (often co-wrote) a crucial clutch of Rounder-related tunes: “Griselda”, “Bird Song” (as close as she ever came to a hit), “Livin Off the Land”, “God, What Am I Doing Here”. Read these lyrics separate from their music now and you appreciate an artist with a keen eye for stories about common, wacky folk and with the insight that carnal desire is often messy and wet.
I learned these and many more details of Antonia’s life mostly through John McFadden’s lovably low-budget Bear Suit Follies, which collects various essays, historical recollections, short stories, and song lyrics (she continued to write long after her separation from Stampfel, with whom it seems she remained amicable). McFadden is her long-time friend, dating back to an evening hosting the early Rounders when they were a full band playing a gig at McFadden’s alma mater, Bucknell University. He’s also a clergyman these days, and he holds back some of the most salacious of Antonia’s writings. They must be pretty salacious, because “Wicked Arabella”, the short story he prints (co-written with Stampfel and initially accompanying the Rounders’ Alleged In Their Own Time) is basically just a lurid description of an evening of statutory rape. McFadden wraps Bear Suite Follies up into an implied narrative that Antonia became everyone’s favorite hipster big sister.
And she must have been, but in between the lines there is more to it. Details of Antonia’s life remain enigmatic to a person like me who knows about her mostly through murky printed details. Sure, we might not deserve to know how Antonia and Stampfel fell out exactly. But Antonia doesn’t seem to have ever held a paying job and royalties from a few Rounders songs couldn’t cover the rent on a Manhattan apartment, even a rent-controlled one— how’d that work out? And Antonia is fondly remembered by all, but she was also on anti-psychotics for long stretches, and they don’t give those to you for good behavior.
And those anti-psychotics were probably necessary largely due to Antonia’s long-standing methamphetamine use, which evidently continued almost right up to the time that her family moved her to Florida and into an assisted-living facility in her mid-60’s, where I suppose she still is now. McFadden’s book goes up to 2007, and the last mention of her I can find is from 2012, when she was still to her good fortune alive and well. (Antonia deserves her own Wiki page, can somebody get to that?) To get a sense of what meth did to her, one has only to look at how it affected her physical appearance, as evidenced in Bear Suit Follies. Because pictures of Antonia from her early 20s reveal a woman of striking, almost unbearable beauty— straight blond, almost white hair, full, thick lips, big teeth, comely eyes. By her 60s, that young beauty is long lost, Antonia is unrecognizable: her teeth are gone, she’s got rotten hair sticking at angles, her face is a mess. She still has a lovely, life-engulfing smile though. Bear Suit Follies doesn’t shy away from Antonia’s drug issues, but you can’t emphasize the consequences they had on her too much: I mean, not many people these days end up in an assisted-living facility in their mid-60s.
And yet Antonia’s art is underappreciated, and you should pay attention when you play your Rounders records to which songs bear her authorship. Or skim through Bear Suit Follies, which contains lyrics she wrote from her teenage years onward—substantial stuff, and it’s a shame more of them haven’t found a way to be recorded.
Or better yet, find that Blue Navigator issue I was telling you about (Antonia Tribute, #9, from 2006) and, can it be, still available from Jeffrey Frederick’s website. Much of what is said about Antonia in this issue gets reprinted in Bear Suit Follies, but the accompanying CD, Antonia’s 11, is one of a kind: This is Peter Stampfel’s tribute to Antonia, his versions of her songs, a few you know, some you might have heard about (that one where they are doing something to sailors in Chinatown), and some that would be new to anyone. I’ve always figured that Stampfel has so many songs memorized because he truly understands how great the songs in his head really are—it’s impossible for them to fade like most memories do. And plenty of his head’s songs are Antonia’s. I wish there was more information included about why Stampfel chose these particular songs to represent Antonia’s gifts, but maybe he just wanted the collection to speak for itself—it’s a relatively relaxed (by Stampfel standards) set, many of the songs evidently freshly recorded for this release, and leans to the elegeic side (cf. “Going To See The King”). But rarely did the Rounders record songs as sadly beautiful as the lullaby “Laura the Horse” or the dreamy “Float Me Down Your Pipeline”. It’s a shame this CD hasn’t seen a wider release, just as it is a shame that we don’t have a fuller accounting of the story of the person who became Antonia. There is great tale here, and an important lesson as well.