Before I had heard even one note from them, I was always a little afraid of the Stooges. But once I came to know and fiercely love the music of these Ann Arbor, MI. misfits — comprised of singer Iggy Stooge (nee James Osterberg), guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer Scott Asheton, and bass player Dave Alexander — I realized that this was exactly, precisely, the response they reveled in.
I came a few years late to the punk party of 1977, discovering all of that exotic, life-altering music in college. But even loud, confrontational, establishment-antagonizing bands like the Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Voidoids et. al didn’t prepare me for what the Stooges had brought to lurid life out of their basements nearly ten years earlier. The four sullen young thugs with leathers and long hair staring back at me on the front and back cover of their 1969 self-titled debut wore glowering expressions that suggested they’d just as soon kick a hippie to the curb as hold hands with him in a patchouli-scented celebration of flower power.
The Stooges were into a different kind of power. Raw power — much like the chrome, steel, and hemi-hopped engines of muscle cars roaring out of the factories and roaming the streets of Detroit — were what these Michigan miscreants were after. It was raw but dynamic too, wrought not just from decibels (though there was that) and amplified by Iggy’s banshee screech and gonzo approach to rock theater, but a power that sprang from a true, messy purity of heart and purpose. The Stooges signified a sound and vision that was at once ruthlessly primal and self-probing; something that peeled away the layers of protection and artifice (theirs and ours); picked at the scabs and scars of all those bad thoughts and deeds (again, theirs and ours); and purged them through any available means.
Their first record, issued on onetime folk label Elektra (which a couple of years earlier had hit big with a debut by another band that featured a brooding, misanthropic lead singer named Jim Morrison), was produced, presumably with similarly high hopes, by Velvet Underground founding member John Cale. Like the Velvets, the Stooges made a virtue of a blunt, feedback-in-your-face message that conveyed, with brutal simplicity, the ups, downs, and dark daydreams of outsiders looking in (or looking beyond): “No Fun.” “Not Right.” “Real Cool Time.” “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” “We Will Fall.”
The titles were as straightforward as the sentiment behind them was not. “1969” was the opening salvo, set to a jousting rumble of guitars and drums: “Well it’s 1969 okay,” singer Iggy Pop (then credited as “Iggy Stooge”) sang in a half-deadpanned sneer. “War across the U.S.A. Well, it’s another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do.” So, out of boredom, ennui and the need for excitement — or at least a cheap thrill — what was a poor boy to do? Why, wear a dog collar, smear himself in peanut butter, and hurl himself on broken glass, of course.
At the time, Rolling Stone magazine — one of the few taste-making music publications of the era — dismissed the album as “loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative, and childish.” The Stooges debut stiffed.
Then came 1970’s “Fun House,” which deepened and expanded the band’s palette from monochrome to color. The music still hit hard with a bare-knuckle punch (“Down On The Street”) and crunch (“Loose”), but now the sonic assault also came at you from strangely disturbing, skewed angles befitting the LP’s title.
It was a house of blue lights bathed in crimson red, an enveloping atmosphere of trick mirrors and fractured perspectives, winding hallways and strangely lit detours to doors you didn’t necessarily dare look behind. But when you did (of course you did), you discovered “Dirt,” a molasses-thick, self-loathing slow-burn. “T.V. Eye” was a roiling exorcism of lust, ego, claustrophobia, and paranoia. Alas, that album too, like its predecessor, stiffed.
Fast forward through three years, a cracked-up band, and a down-on-his-luck, Iggy Pop. Well, not entirely out of luck. Pop had by this time become close friends with a rising (and increasingly powerful) star named David Bowie, who offered to co-produce (with Pop) and mix a new Stooges album. In 1972-1973, the reunited group (now credited as Iggy and The Stooges) recorded and released “Raw Power,” the album that would ultimately designate them (in hindsight) as THE progenitors and pioneers of punk rock. The album featured a re-tooled Stooges lineup with Iggy’s pal James Williamson on guitar this time, and guitarist Ron Asheton reluctantly switching over to bass.
Unlike some punks who came after (there was no one who came “before”), “Raw Power” didn’t sound like a contrived pose struck by play-acting boys with expensive haircuts fashioned by stylists and hatched by a team of publicists. This was lean, mean, high-energy rock & roll played for keeps; a blitzkrieg bop through Iggy’s fired and fried psyche, and mapped by autobiographical odes to soul-searing self-immolation: “Search and Destroy,” “Death Trip”; “Your Pretty Face Is Going Hell”; “Gimme Danger.” (Listen to this latter acoustic-driven track and tell me that Guns ‘N Roses doesn’t owe a good chunk of their oeuvre to this one song).
The album was as critically essential as it was a commercially disappointing. So once and for all (or so we thought), in a haze of drugs, depression, dysfunction, and debauchery, the Stooges finally broke up, shattered like that mirror on the back cover photo on “Raw Power.”
But, much like cockroaches and Keith Richards, Iggy Pop is too destined to survive the apocalypse. After several years of silence, drug dependency, and even a psychiatric hospital stay, Iggy (with the substantial aid of his comrade and early champion David Bowie), returned to the public eye with a pair of critically acclaimed albums, “Lust For Life” and “The Idiot,” both released in 1977. Iggy, of course, has gone on to a prolific, if critically and commercially spotty, solo career in the ensuing decades, where he’s explored a remarkably diverse range of styles and sounds, and shown off his smart, funny, even poignant songwriting chops (Bowie’s worldwide smash single, “China Girl,” was co-written by Pop and pre-dated Bowie’s version by several years, first appearing on Iggy’s “The Idiot”).
The Asheton brothers, meanwhile, retreated to their Ann Arbor home, where Ron and Scott Asheton went on to play with several Michigan-based bands, among them Destroy All Monsters (Ron) and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band (Scott) led by former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith (years earlier, the MC5 were signed by Elektra’s Danny Fields the same weekend he signed the Stooges). Bassist Dave Alexander, who had battled chronic alcoholism that led to a fatal bout of pancreatitis, died in 1975. He was only 27.
In the mid-2000’s, a funny thing happened on the way to the dustbin of history. The Stooges, perhaps taking a page out of the nostalgic playbook that many ’70s and ’80s rock groups had begun adopting with varying degrees of success, reconnected. They played reunion shows together in 2003, and even regrouped to make another album (their fourth), 2007’s “The Weirdness.” Like its predecessors, this album, too, contained few concessions to the fleeting pop/rock flavors of the moment. It was good, not great, but nobody cared about that. The important thing — the only thing that mattered — was that the Stooges were going to tour behind it. For at least a couple of generations of fans who never had the chance to see them in the flesh, their unlikely, incredible return to the here and now was cause for celebration.
I was one of those people. I had seen Iggy Pop and one of his very good touring bands (which included Iggy’s grown son as his rock god dad’s roadie and stage-dive spotter) at City Gardens, a seedy roadhouse in Trenton, New Jersey. But I honestly never thought I would see Iggy play those beloved, bad-ass Stooges songs with his spiritual brothers in arms the Asheton boys again, plus Steve Mackay (who played saxophone on “Fun House”) and longtime punk bassist Mike Watt (taking the place of the deceased Alexander).
When I got the green light to cover their concert at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre for The Boston Globe, I felt, for one brief moment, as if I had been a rock critic transported back in time to 1973. I half-expected to see Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh covering the show for “Creem.” It was that surreal, and exciting.
The Stooges were everything I hoped for and dreamed they would be (as you’ll read below in my review that ran in the Globe). They were no longer a young, Clockwork Orange-worthy gang of hoodlum droogs anymore, of course. But they were still mercilessly loud, a blunt force trauma to be survived. Wildly unpredictable, musically unhinged but ferociously tight, Iggy was a marvelously efficient lunatic, doing what he loved doing best, still mercurial and dangerous as a switch blade slicing through the air. Watching and listening in awe, I realized that after all those years, I was maybe still even a little afraid of them, and what they just might do next up there. There’s a name for that combination of danger, excitement, and risk: It’s called Rock & Roll.
I wish I could end the narrative (mine and theirs) here. But the truth of the matter is, the event that impelled me to write this retrospective tribute (not that I really ever need a reason to write or talk about the Stooges) was the sad news that Stooges drummer Scott Asheton had died last week, on March 15, of a heart attack at age 64. Scott had first been sidelined from performing after suffering a severe stroke three years ago. His older brother, guitarist Ron Asheton, also had died of a heart attack, at age 60 back in 2009. In recalling his late friend and band mate this week, Iggy said he never met anyone who hit the drums with such fearsome purpose.
“Scott played drums with a boxer’s authority,” Pop told Rolling Stonemagazine. “When he wanted to, he had a heavy hand on the drums. He hit the drum very hard, but there were never a lot of elbows flying. He wasn’t showy. He didn’t have to make a physical demonstration to get the job done. When he played with you, it was always swinging. He brought a swinging truth to the music he played and extreme musical honesty.” In listening to the Stooges all these years, I can honestly say the same goes for his band.
The Raw, Staying Power and Forever Funhouse of Iggy & The Stooges
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent | April 9, 2007
BOSTON — In the three decades that have passed since they imploded, a few things have changed about the Stooges — or Iggy & the Stooges, as they were billed on the Orpheum Theatre marquee for Saturday’s sold-out blitzkrieg of power-punk and proto-metal. At the merch table for instance, you could buy hat wear such as “The Weirdness Beanie,” named after the band’s first new album in 34 years, “The Weirdness,” or a hoodie with the group’s moniker emblazoned across the front.
We’re also guessing that travel accommodations for this reunion tour are comfier than they were in 1970, when too many people were mellowing out to Bread and too few had picked up on the four-headed hydra of sound and fury from Ann Arbor, Mich., whose noise and nihilism signified everything about the punk it presaged by nearly a decade.
But what was truly astonishing Saturday was what had not changed: the Stooges themselves. True, founding bassist Dave Alexander is no longer with the group, but he died in 1975, so there’s not much one can do about that (ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt inherited his spot). Perhaps most improbably, the Asheton brothers Ron (guitar) and Scott (drums), long presumed missing in action, are back. Both played their parts to primordial classics such as “T.V. Eye” and “Down on the Street” with such thuggish gusto and demented conviction that it was as if they never left. Even Steve Mackay , who contributed saxophone on the band’s epochal, epically deranged “Fun House” album, was on stage to deliver the old brass kicks to the solar plexus.
The focal point, of course, was the perpetually shirtless, baboon-limbed lead singer Iggy Pop, born James Osterberg. When Pop bounded on stage for the opener “Loose,” one of a slew of songs on gaudy display from “Fun House” and the Stooges’ self-titled 1969 debut, the singer’s convulsive vitality — the spasmodic leaps, carnival of shrieks, caged-animal prowl (not to mention that freakish sinew-and-gristle physique) — was ridiculously unchanged. How ridiculous? Iggy turns 60 this week.
Though the new numbers rang similar themes as the sleazy classics — alienation, lust, being broke, and bored — rote rave-ups from “The Weirdness” such as “Trollin’,” “My Idea of Fun,” and “I’m Fried” paled inevitably alongside the seedy old anthems — not that anybody realistically expected another “I Wanna Be Your Dog” at this stage of the game.
The band’s only other concession to mortality seemed to be the visible limp Pop has earned from decades of stage dives and other novel forms of self-abuse inflicted during a cockroach-tough solo career that’s seen him weather everything from commercial and critical indifference to his own drug demons.
There were no antics involving razor blades or peanut butter this time. Pop did, however, smack himself and violently hurl his body to the floor during the savagely maladjusted “Dirt,” and then almost risked limb if not life on “Real Cool Time” by exhorting the crowd to storm the stage and “dance with the Stooges!” Iggy was immediately besieged, swallowed up and spit out by his adoring public. “Now,” he said happily amid the crazed chaos, “we’re getting somewhere!”
Listen to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” from their eponymous 1969 debut right here (dig the sleigh bells): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJIqnXTqg8I&list=RDqannFs974gg
Listen to the Stooges’ “Down On The Street,” from “Fun House” here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=RDqannFs974gg&v=qannFs974gg
Listen to the Stooges’ “Dirt,” also from “Fun House,” right here kids: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxYXV2RrwIs&list=RDqannFs974gg
Listen to “Search and Destroy” from 1973’s “Raw Power” right here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDNzQ3CXspU
Watch rock’s most unpredictable frontman take it to the crowd live in Cincinnati in 1970 right here (amazing amateur footage): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XR2rl_OVcl4
Watch live footage and listen to the studio hit “1969” while the Stooges lay waste to the Delta Pop Festival in — you guessed it — 1969:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_UWo4_gGVo&feature=youtu.be
Long-form trailer for 2007’s “The Weirdness” including some cool vintage footage and interview with Iggy Pop here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZajyhjyGsa4
Another reason why I miss Tom Snyder and his late night show(s), “Tomorrow,” among them: Here he is, surely one of the best and most enigmatic television interviewers of his time, interviewing a recently dentally challenged Iggy (one of the best and most enigmatic interview subjects of his time) in the late ’70s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eP7tURQX1xc