Thursday, July 14, 2011

Confessions of a Stoogeaphile

I'm the world's shittiest fanboy. Seeing the Stooges' iconic 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival performance on broadcast (!) TV when I was 13 changed my life, but I've never seen 'em live, although I've had plenty of chances: a net bud in San Francisco repeatedly offered me tickets to reunion shows, but they always seemed to coincide with shows I was playing, and I'd rather play than watch anybody.

Besides, I'd already witnessed the bit that I needed to see when I saw Ron Asheton play those songs, twice with J. Mascis and Mike Watt at SXSW around Y2K, once with Scott Morgan's Powertrane in Ann Arbor in 2002, an event that got me so high I almost didn't care when I got shitcanned from my corporate slave gig a week later. When I made my late '90s girlfriend watch a dubbed VHS copy of the Cincinatti performance, she was shocked: "You want to be like Iggy, don't you?" But it wasn't true; I wanted to be RON. I'd seen Iggy ca. 1980 at the Palladium in Dallas. His best song was the Stones' "I'm Alright" and Joan Jett (with Eric Ambel on guitar) wiped the floor with him. True story.

I started a Stooges cover band back in 2006 that was supposed to be a one-off but wound up lasting for five years, so far (touches wood). Stoogeaphilia has been wish fulfillment for me in the same way as seeing Ron play those songs was. I'd been waiting to play 'em since I'd picked up a guitar, but back in the day, I got nothing but grief from my contemporaries for digging the Stooges (and MC5, the Velvets, Flamin' Groovies, Nuggets, all the stuff that's so revered now).

I only had Funhouse for about a year, back then, before my best friend puked my dad's stolen gin all over my record player with the record on the turntable. If such were to occur today, I'd probably just hose it off, but back then, I let it sit for awhile before tossing it out, only to discover that it was impossible to find another copy. (Elektra had already deleted it.) As a result, I didn't own another Stooges record until 1980, when I found a Canadian compilation of their first two albums at Inner Sanctum in Austin.

I got re-obsessed in 1993, when I was recently separated, soon to be divorced, and moonlighting at the record store I'd come to Fort Worth to open, which was still open at the same location with the same manager, although it'd been through three or four changes of parent company since '78. That was when I read Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, found validation for all the music I'd taken shit for liking as a teen and started collecting "quasi-official" Stooges recordings, of which there were a ton.

When I started writing for fanzines a few years later, I interviewed Deniz Tek, who put me in touch with Ron. Ron was a nice fella and great storyteller; it was only later that it occurred to me how sad it was that he spent 30 years sitting in his mom's house, telling those stories to anyone who'd listen. His post-Stooges bands weren't worthy of him, with the exception of New Race, the short-lived outfit with MC5's Dennis Thompson and 3/5 of Radio Birdman that toured Australia for a couple of weeks in 1981. My buddy Geoff from Philly said it, and I believe it: "Ron could only play one thing, but it was the _best_ thing." I'm glad that he and Iggy were finally able to bury the hatchet and enjoy a nice victory lap together before he checked out in January 2009.

It was via Ron that I got to interview James Williamson, who'd replaced him on lead guitar for Raw Power. James had subsequently embarked on a career as an electronics executive, giving the lie to Fitzgerald's canard about there being no second acts in American lives. (By now, James is up to act three or four.) He'd become quite elusive; the late Bomp Records honcho Greg Shaw told me, "Forget about it, kid." But one day in 2001, Ron called me and said, "I saw James last weekend and he's nostalgic about the past. I think he wants to talk."

I came to the interview loaded with misconceptions, mostly gleaned from reading Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me, but "Straight James" had matured into quite a different cat than the one McNeil and McCain had depicted. Whatever darkness had existed in him as a young man seemed to have been laid to rest; the last time I heard from him before the advent of social networking, on 9/11, he very kindly emailed me information about how to talk to my kids about the disaster. "Junkie skull" my ass.

Just this week, I finally got around to reading Paul Trynka's 2007 Iggy bio Open Up and Bleed, which is definitely the most balanced account of the Stooges' trajectory in print. Ex-MOJO editor Trynka's a great reporter, and if he's less compelling when describing the music than Heylin (whose style can otherwise be dry and snarky), at least he makes the music part of the story, unlike McNeil and McCain. (When Please Kill Me was new, the cat who sold it to me said it was the best music book he'd ever read that contained not one word about music. But without the music, why would anyone care about all those folks' misbehavior?)

While his book isn't an "authorized biography," Trynka had access to all of the principals and gives them all a fair shake. He's a bigger fan of Iggy's Bowie/Berlin period than I am, and he doesn't make me want to hear any music that I know I don't like the way that Greil Marcus can, but he at least puts all of that stuff in context. And his clear-eyed portrayal of the charming, intelligent guy who shares a body with Everybody's Unbridled Id makes for a good read. One which sent me back to my pile of Stooges vinyl and CDs to re-experience a few gems:

1) The Stooges: The remastered Rhino 2CD, which I passed on when it was new but copped when it became Half Price Books-available, offers such wonders as the muted Cale mixes of a few songs, and a few more with Ron's unedited rides. And I actually like listening to "We Will Fall" now.

2) Have Some Fun: Live At Ungano's: Sure, Funhouse is the definitive Stooges artifact and probably my all-time favorite rekkid (I own two copies of the Sundazed reish, one of 'em still sealed, _just in case_). I even ponied up the two bills to hear Rhino Handmade's Complete Funhouse Sessions box set, but I also let it go without too many tears in the wake of getting shitcanned from RadioShack. To be honest, I don't need to hear 23 versions of "Loose;" while it's _interesting_ to know that the lyrics to the first verse were originally "I took a ride on a red hot weiner / Yeah I'm riding on a big hot dog," the final ones are a lot more impactful, and the net effect of hearing all those takes was to validate the soundness of whoever's decision it was to choose the ones that made it onto the released LP. That said, it's nice to hear the rarer-than-hen's-teeth live recordings from 1970 on this other overpriced Rhino release and Easy Action's Popped (although as Trynka points out, the definitive live Stooges document remains the five minutes of Cincinnati performance footage that feature the iconic walking-on-crowd's-hand's/slinging-peanut-butter moment). Especially when "Funhouse" breaks down a minute or so into the song and Ig 'n' the boys take off on a lengthy improvised foray. Trynka's narrative reminds us how experimental they started out, and they _never_ played "old stuff." They weren't making music for the ages; they were about the Now. Ironic in light of how things turned out.

3) Electric Circus: Easy Action released a box set of recordings of the '71 lineup with both Ron and James on guitars, and released one show, probably the best of the bunch, on vinyl. Ig's vocals are low in the mix and the band rocks and roils in a way that's equally turbulent and somewhat lacking in direction. After it had been released, Easy Action honcho Carlton Sandercock managed to track down '71 bassist Jimmy Recca and had me interview him; the resultant document was mailed out to folks who'd bought the box set because that's the kind of cat Carlton is. Myself, I really like Recca's story. He was 18 when he spent about eight months in the Stooges, and his story reads like Almost Famous if it wasn't lame and had real rock 'n' roll in it. Myself, I'm convinced there's a movie in there if somebody wants to make it. Yeah, right, as if.

4) Raw Power: The Legacy remaster makes the original Bowie mix, deleted since '97, once again CD-available, and adds a killer live set, Georgia Peaches, which future Nervebreaker Bob Childress attended while attending college in Atlanta. I've listened to hours of live Williamson-era Stooges, and if this isn't the best of 'em, it's certainly one of 'em, and a good case for Ron Asheton as a great bassplayer along the lines of Ron Wood with the Jeff Beck Group.

5) Metallic K.O.: The album that kind of legitimized shitty-sounding bootlegs when it first appeared in '77, and opened the floodgates for the profusion of live/rehearsal recordings that followed and continue to appear to this day. My theory is that the post-Raw Power Stooges bear such excessive documentation because those songs were never "officially" recorded. One hopes that Scott Asheton's health remains good enough for Ig 'n' James to rectify that now that they're back together, a la Rocket From the Tombs' Rocket Redux.

6) Kill City: An album that I never heard until it was recently reissued, and which I now see as a great lost masterpiece, although not all the songs are great. Maybe the pinnacle of the Pop-Williamson collaboration.

The Stooges are proof positive (as if any more were needed) that living well is the best revenge. They _always_ win. Now, back to reading that Malcolm X bio...


Blogger Fast Film said...

I hope we are sufficiently good online friends for my ranting diatribe to be taken seriously by you. Go see'em NOW, forget the romanticism of your excuses. This will be like seeing JFK in person, something that will sustain you all your life. Plus who knows, there may not be a next year, as they remain committed to being amongst the most physically demanding of all acts. At my age! Even survivors can be sidelined, as recent events sadly proved.

It's like thoroughbred horse racing or Top Fuel Drag Racing: it's one thing to be off-site expert; it's entirely another to hear the thunder of the pounding hoofbeats (no, not romanticsm- it's REAL, you keep thinking there's hidden P.A.s but there's not) or the roar of those ungodly mighty machines, fastest in the world for 4 secpnds in person. In person. IN PERSON! With your senses amazed beyond what we documnentarians thought possible.

P.S. sub-rant: the late Tom Copi wouldn't have been allowed to take his iconic-for-alltime Cincinnatti shot of the Ig walking on a sea of audience hands were this improbably to erupt today. Y'see, it's past the 2 or 3 song limit for photographers, and no screen capture retains the magic of an artist's expertise in action.

10:11 PM  

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