Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Stooges' "A Thousand Lights"

Music is life, and life is not a business. Ron Asheton knew that. 
And Ron was cool. 
          - Iggy Pop

When I first got my copy of Popped, Easy Action Records' release of Natalie Schlossman's 1970 Stooges "fan club package," I was getting ready to play a Stoogeaphilia show in Dallas. Now, it's a year and a half later, the band is on hiatus, and A Thousand Lights, the vinyl artifact of the audio portion (compiled from audience cassettes and TV audio) just arrived in the mail, evoking a range of thoughts and feelings.

I'm probably the world's shittiest Stooges fan. I had offers of tickets to a lot of their reunion shows, beginning with Coachella in 2003, but they always seemed to coincide with shows I was playing -- Coachella in 2003, in fact, with the occasion when Joshua Loewen (bless him) invited me to play "TV Eye" with Voigt at, um, the Aardvark, which was the very first time I ever played Stooges music in public; all the other ones, I shit you not, with Stoogeaphilia shows. I've always said I'd rather play than watch anybody. Meant it, too. But I'd already gotten my fanboy ticket punched when I got to interview Ron Asheton back in '99 and James Williamson in '01, and when I got to see Ron play Those Songs three times: twice with J. Mascis and Mike Watt at SXSW 2001, and again with Scott Morgan's Powertrane in Ann Arbor the following year.

When I forced my ex-girlfriend to watch the infamous video of the Stooges at the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival, she'd shaken her head and responded, "You'd like to be him, wouldn't you?" "Him" being Iggy, of course -- who wouldn't wanna be Everybody's Unbridled Id? The truth of the matter, though, was that I wanted to be Ron. When I was a weird, alienated 13-year-old and saw that performance on TV, it wiped me clean off the map. But the guy I wanted to be wasn't the skinny, barechested kid in the dog collar and the elbow-length silver gloves; it was the one behind the Stratocaster, in the shades and the Go-Kart T-shirt. A guy who, as I'd find out much, much later, was a weird, alienated kid his own self: "the fat Beatle," the guy who collected Nazi memorabilia and was so geeked on bands that he made a pilgrimage to England to try and see the Beatles.

When I saw Ron play, I learned the key to playing his music: Do everything the simplest way possible. Why would anyone want to do anything else? Ron might have only had one musical idea, but it was the best idea. In the same way as Iggy -- the smart, funny, popular kid who played "sociologist on Mars" with the scuffling hoodlums that used to hang out on the street in front of his record store gig -- was describing the world as seen by a teenage loser in more basic terms than anybody (which is why the songs still stand up, 40 years down the road), Ron intuitively found a way of using very limited musical tools (first-position "cowboy" and barre chords, droning open E or A strings, a few simple hammer-on and pull-off licks) to make a sound that was lethal. On drums, his brother Scott was wa-a-ay overreaching his technical abilities to create something as unique and powerful as it was accidental, which is why Stooges songs just don't sound right when people try to play them with four-on-the-floor stereotypical punk drums.

In Stoogeaphilia, we discovered these things as we set about trying to learn the music off the records, which meant 1) taking songs that we'd always used as a sonic bath and transforming them in our minds into playing forms, and 2) copying all the mistakes. Once we'd done that, we could play them our way, and eventually become something other than the one-off goof that we started out as. Ultimately, the central organizing principle of that band was the friendship between us -- which is the organizing principle behind any band I'd want to be a part of. Once I was telling Jon Teague about getting fired from a band via email, and his response was, "I can't imagine being in a band that it would be possible to get fired from."

Dave Alexander -- the original bassist, who came up with the bass lines for "Little Doll" and "Funhouse," and was responsible for "We Will Fall," the mock-Indian chant that took up 11 minutes at the end of the first side of the first album -- got fired from the Stooges, for forgetting all the songs onstage at the Goose Lake Pop Festival. You can hear it on the Goose Lake version of "1970," one of four included on A Thousand Lights. He went home to his parents' house in Ann Arbor, and within a few years, drank himself to death.

All the friendships in the Stooges took a lot of hits over the years. First, Iggy cast Ron aside in favor of James Williamson, a sharper songwriter, when David Bowie came calling, only pulling the Asheton brothers back into the project as a last resort. After the final wheel came off the Stooges in 1974, Iggy went on to become the "Godfather of Punk," while Scott Asheton went to Florida to work construction and Ron played in a few bands including Destroy All Monsters, had some bit parts in low-budget horror flicks, but basically spent 25 years sitting in his mother's house, telling Those Stories to anyone who'd listen.

When I first spoke to Ron in '99, Iggy's dismissive comments in the liner notes to the '97 reissue of Raw Power still rankled, and chances of a Stooges reunion seemed remote. Goes to show how stuff you don't think can happen, can happen. Maybe it was opportunism on Mr. Osterberg's part, but I choose to believe that with age, Iggy came to value the uniqueness of the Stooges' gestalt, and gave the Ashetons et al. their lengthy victory lap as a token of that appreciation. And when Ron checked out at the beginning of 2009, Iggy had the final word: "He was my best friend."

The price of getting to play music I'd wanted to play all my life for six years was forfeiting the pure enjoyment of listening to it: it became "material." So now, I'm enjoying listening to the versions of the Funhouse songs on A Thousand Lights and rediscovering the joy of this music, particularly in songs that drifted out of the li'l Stoogeband's set over the years. "1970," in particular, we always found daunting, so the multiplicity of versions here is welcome, and Jon Teague claims not to remember how to play "Dirt," which Neneh Cherry and the Thing's cover of reminded me of the song's slow, sleazy, sexy menace when I heard it earlier this year, so I'm having fun immersing myself in the relatively well-registered take that opens Side Two.

The "Funhouse" on A Thousand Lights whomps the tar out of the one on Rhino's Live At Ungano's, which breaks down a couple of minutes into the song and morphs into something more amorphous and less impactful. Plus, Dave Alexander's on all these recordings; by the time the Stooges made it to Ungano's -- indeed, within a month of Funhouse's release -- he was out of the band. All of music -- indeed, all of human experience -- is made up of ephemeral moments. A Thousand Lights captures one.

As I write this, I am hyperaware that I keep writing the same stories again and again, and that writing about one's own band is kind of like looking in the mirror and jerking off -- a fool's act of vanity. But writing all of these words, and playing in that band, were my way of trying to get closer to this music -- just as writing a newsletter and running a fan club were for Natalie. Listening to the Cincinnati audio, those brief, truncated versions of "TV Eye" and "1970" that seem so insubstantial now, but were so life-changing when I saw them in my parents' living room when I was 13, I'm right back where I was then. As long as I draw breath, may it always be so.


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