Wednesday, November 12, 2008
DVD review: "Bound to Lose"
The Holy Modal Rounders are probably one of the greatest bands there ever were, if you're using the term "band" as loosely as possible. Sure, I admire plenty of "bands" that have rotating lineups around a single leader, but with the Rounders it becomes clear that at times no one has really led the band. Quote from fiddler Robin Remaily: "For a while, I thought they were my band. Then I realized they were nobody's band." But general conception holds that Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber, the founding members, are the important Rounders, despite the band's existence in many more permutations, including a seven-piece Oregon-based jam rock band minus Stampfel, the "Unholy Modal Rounders" augmented by Michael Hurley and minus Weber, or "The Moray Eels," Stampfel's attempt at having a non-Rounders psychedelic rock band that only got his former group a one-off deal with Elektra instead. Add to that the fact that Stampfel and Weber have often gone decades without contact and you've got a very shambolic organization indeed.
I've loved them since I was in high school listening to The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders, an album I still hold up as one of the greatest ever made despite the fact that most coherent Rounder Stampfel calls it garbage. The band is able to take folk, country and blues and transport it from coffeehouse nostalgia, hokeyness or limp Americana into something captivating, irreverent, funny and halfway modern. How? A preternatural gift and lots and lots of speed. Or so the legend would have it.
Bound to Lose then, attempts a retrospective at the mercurial Rounders as they reform for what might be the last go-round. Present day Peter Stampfel comes off like a cross between Kermit the Frog and Jimmy Stewart, but live performances find him full of fire regardless. Steve Weber, on the other hand, is in a category of his own, some bizarre emaciated burnt-out cartoon character, complete with unwieldy long grey hair and a pointy long beard, who's always on stage. Stampfel, now happily married with kids, is easily set up as the straight man to Weber's self-proclaimed hedonism, (despite the former's fifteen-year long methadrine abuse) but the relationship is far less Martin-Lewis and far more Herzog-Kinski. They're both fucked up. Add to the mix long-suffering yet easygoing bass player Dave Reitsch (who I will always rate due to his absolutely beautiful bass line on Have Moicy's "Slurf Song") and Remaily, who's constantly concerned with the members' physical longevity, and you know it's not going to be the smoothest of tours.
When the band can get it together to really deliver this or that tune, they're captivating. The band's years and personal conflicts really melt away in the midst of "Dook of the Beatniks" (an unreleased Stampfel song), "Same Old Man," etc. When not able to do so, Reitsch furrows his brow, Stampfel and Weber bicker like an old married couple and another kind of film emerges. It becomes evident that Stampfel has made an almost impossible transition from speed freak to responsible working husband and dad almost overnight some time ago, while Weber, often drunk and missing an indeterminable number of teeth, chooses to act out a persistent rock-and-roll fantasy. In his most affected moments, he comes off as a delusional, cantankerous but nevertheless charming old man. At his most lucid, however, he seems perfectly aware of his standing in life, and blissfully unaffected by it. "My father was apparently a bit of a philanderer and a bit of a tippler," he says in one of his more private moments. "My grandmother said I'd turn out just like him, and to a large extent" - he cracks a smile and nods slightly - "I have." Luckily, he appears to have found out a way to gain sufficient nutrients from copius amounts of beer and cigarettes, although the last shot in the film does find him eating (gumming?) a sandwich made, presumably, by his 80-year old mother.
In the midst of Weber's web of chaos, Stampfel manages to hold the group together with a bit of neuroses and self-deprecating humor. His love for his partner, at times seeming one-sided, seems to have kept the project going, through Weber's lack of enthusiasm for new material, practices or most anything involving effort. It is good, then, the film constant intersperses some of the band's best work - "Half a Mind," "Bound to Lose," "Griselda" - to remind us why it's all worth it for him.
Bound To Lose is not too radically different from other (good) band documentaries - rounding up contemporaries (Dave Van Ronk, Peter Tork of the Monkees (?!)), critics (Byron Coley, Christgau), old band members (e.g. playwright Sam Shepherd) and Dennis Hopper (née Hooper) to sort of halfway tell the band's history and lend them legitmacy within whatever niche they carved out for themselves over 40 years of music. Its narrative arc is only really defined at the end when Weber, rather than show up to the band's 40th anniversary show, disappears, never to be heard from again. The film then ends with a collective sad shrug from the x number of other band members (there are suddenly a lot more of them at the anniversary concert) as they admit that they don't see Weber living long enough to come to his senses again (although, to date, five years after the failed concert, he perseveres, God bless). Stampfel insists it's no great loss if he and Weber never play together again, but the laundry list of masochistic punishment he says he WON'T engage in as a result of the loss seems to speak otherwise.
Like the best documentaries/DVDs, Bound to Lose will attract both the neophyte and the fan and satisfy both. Biggest complaints: Michael Hurley is not even MENTIONED once in the couse of the film, despite the fact that his songs appear on several Rounders albums and Stampfel made one of his best albums (Have Moicy!) alongside him. And I would have appreciated a full "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown" in the extras - is there a recorded version of this song anywhere??
I would have complained that Antonia was not included in the proceedings - despite the fact that she was quite possibly the group's best songwriter ("Bird Song," "Griselda," "Low Down Dog") - but she is in the extras, where it is clear why she was left out of the film. Battered from years of methamphetamine abuse, she appears to have accrued some type of early-onset dementia and disturbing nervous tics, in addition to looking 30 years older than she is. Her inclusion would have weighed down the proceedings with a swift reminder of how not all long-term drug addicts live charmed lives.