Thursday, July 06, 2017

A visit to Stoogelandia (via the valley of the Dead) with Maria Damon

Maria Damon is a poetry scholar and Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at NYC's Pratt Institute. She's also, like your humble chronicler o' events, a fan of both the Stooges and the Grateful Dead. Her review of Jeff Gold's Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges As Told By Iggy Pop is in the current print edition of Rain Taxi. We recently chewed the fat online about our shared enthusiasms. I'm leaning; she's standing tall.

K: I am simultaneously amused and mortified that the sole Dead show I attended (Dallas '78) was so lousy that people don't even trade tapes of it. 

M: Yeah, they are the first to admit that they bombed here and there. It's amusing to me that people have such strong feelings about the Dead, both pro and con. I saw them once at the the Greek Theatre at Berkeley, an ideal venue. And I saw the Jerry Garcia Band at the Keystone in Palo Alto, both in 1981, my first year in grad school. Both occasions were excellent.

K: It is interesting the depth of feeling they inspire. Probably only prog rock comes close. I'm an idjit for missing Watkins Glen because my best bud from middle school and I were at some kid's house getting high and jamming endless versions of "Savoy Brown Boogie" and "Smoke On the Water" instead. I read the interview with Steve Silberman where he talks about how transcendent their soundcheck was. 

M: I spent the summer of Woodstock learning to weave, and listening to the festival on the radio. I had been so envious of the whole thing beforehand, but when reports of the torrential rain and the problems it caused came across the "transom" (as it were), I felt relief.

K: I watched news reports of Woodstock with my grandmother in Hawaii, on the same TV where we'd watched the Apollo moon landings a couple of weeks earlier. We didn't share enough language to communicate, but always got along. How bizarre that all must have seemed to her (b. in Japan at the end of the 19th century). Anyway, you're still weaving!

M: Yup, my preferred zone-out activity. The amount of time I devote to emptying my mind ... it takes up most of my day and night, really, but yeah, not through getting high.

K: I always think of the last semester before I dropped out of college as a waste (and a very dissolute time in my life), but that's actually when I learned about musical structure via my roommate forcing me to learn songs off records and play them over and over. If I'd been smart I'd have majored in journalism or English, but I was too chickenshit to commit myself to something where I feared failure...which I'd go on to experience in life anyway.

M: I  also feel very close to the experience of failure even though from the outside one could say I have it easy. I think that's why I love the Stooges and Iggy so much. Their failures were so spectacular and also an integral part of their identity and their strength. I like that zone where failure and achievement are so intertwined that they're hard to tell apart.

K: Something the Dead and the Stooges have in common! Walking that tightrope...

M: Ah yes! Never thought about that, but of course.

K: It's interesting to me that there was a direct linkage between the Beats and early psychedelic culture, including the Dead. And seeing how that translated to the midwest a couple of years later. (Ann Arbor as an extension of Berkeley, MC5 manager/Trans-Love Energies/White Panther honcho John Sinclair as a sort of latter day Beat-Leary amalgam).

M: A psycho-geographic mapping of psychedelic culture. Thinking too about the darkness hovering right around the edges of Jerry Garcia's easy-going funster persona.

K: The terrible tragedy is that the Dead's success destroyed him. He said he wanted to have fun, but carried the weight of all those people's economic need. They became too big for him to quit. In my mind's eye, I see them folding the tent after '74 and him going on to play little bluegrass and jazz gigs around the Bay Area. It's a nice fantasy.

M:  Yes, but I think there's something more. I don't think it was just benevolence and a sense of responsibility that kept him playing instead of resting. I think there was an enormous reservoir of grief that he didn't want to deal with, so he "kept busy," as it were, and then had to medicate to keep up the pace.

K: I think the jump to stadiums changed the essential nature of what they did. The direct communication that was the basis of their gestalt was no longer possible.

M: Yes, the Long Strange Trip documentary touches on that. Jerry always wanted the lights up a little so he could see the people's faces even in the stadia. I mean their individual faces.

K: And the loss of his father and his mother's absence created a big void, no doubt.

M: Yes, on top of the grief of being human.

K: Absolutely. One reason American Beauty resonates for so many is it really is an album about grief and loss. I didn't know why "Box of Rain" and "Brokedown Palace" evoked the emotions they did, but now I have a better idea.

M: Springteen has said that rock and roll is just one long cry: "Daaaaaaad-dyyyyy!"

K: Pretty much. But it changes as we grow older. As art does. But back to Stooges-Dead, I think what electric music offered Jerry was the opportunity to be expressive without the strictures of bluegrass. What he wanted to preserve was the "conversation." He intuited that with acid, they could learn to play together in a way that hadn't been done before. And for awhile, they did.

M: Yeah, I guess acid really worked for them. I was always afraid to find out if I was one of those "mentally unstable" people who really shouldn't do acid, so I played it safe. but I get some of the vibe anyway.

K: By the time psychedelic culture had filtered down to my backwater burgh on Long Island, it had become more of an insular, less of a communal thing. And it fucked up a lot of people I knew, including myself.

M: Yeah, now I'm kinda relieved that I never took the plunge, though I also feel like I missed out.

K: Nothing exceeds like excess. I knew lots of acid casualties. Couldn't listen to Hendrix for a decade after college because of all the ones who fried themselves in the name of being "like" him. Not something to toy with. But...we were children.

M: Yeah. I'm kinda glad I ... well, I'm ambivalent, like I said. But it's too late now. I'm not gonna go out and do it now.

K: Drugs were such a part of my growing up that it's hard to believe that now I wonder, "How many of the changes were from the things you were using, and how many were just...growing up?" I'll never know.

M: You don't need to know I guess... growing up is hard enough...

K: True.

M: I watched part of the Sunshine Daydream film [the document of a '72 Dead concert in Oregon], and it kind of grossed me out. All these blond white kids dancing naked and exposing themselves to melanoma, getting super sunburned, was all I could think. it didn't look ecstatic to me, it just looked stupid and misguided. But the music! For me, it stands on its own. Every year I get into a Jerry groove for a few days, and then something happens to pop me out of it, I think the underlying sadness gets to be too much. It's funny because though the Stooges are said to be "nihilistic," their music is far more life-affirming, ultimately. And of course Iggy is the ultimate survivor, while Jerry succumbed.

K: And that is totally luck of the draw. Ig had his addiction scene when he was young and strong. Jerry, when he was middle aged and pretty sedentary. Plus there's genetics. I find the Stooges pretty life-affirming myself. And a great story of historical validation late in life. The MC5 made a better movie, but the Stooges always win.

M: Yes, so glad Scott and Ron Asheton went out on a high note.

K: The victory lap was probably the last thing the Asheton brothers saw coming. The Stooges were Everykid. Any bunch of corner-loitering hoodlums in America could have done what the Stooges did. But they did it.

M: I think Iggy's ambition and his ability to corral the others into the band had a lot to do with their getting it done...I mean executing the vision, and they really had something pretty unique even if any group of kids could have done it. I really trust Iggy's revelation by the banks of the Chicago River ... it changed rock and roll.

K: Three things to remember: 1) He had some organizational ability (class president). 2) He was a better musician than any of them (drummer in a blues band). 3) He was like their sociologist from Mars -- observed their rituals, wrote songs about 'em.

M: Vice-president. Yes, that was the thing I focused on... the auto-ethnography. What rankled in that book I reviewed: Iggy takes credit for everything.

K: As last one standing, he now owns the story. He was alienated, but they were super alienated.

M: He was their link to the functional world. He used their alienation to fuel his art.

K:  Precisely. He created the frame to present them. Also interesting that they couldn't get a good take without him dancing in the studio. It really was a synergy (as overused as that word is).

M: Yes, it was synergy.

K: Was talking to a friend [Nick Didkovsky] who studied with Pauline Oliveros. He said they did an exercise where all the people in the class held hands and when you felt a squeeze, you squeezed the hand of the person next to you and made a vocal sound. She said there were two ways to do it: to think about it, and to feel it in your guts. It's a neural/spiritual connection -- musical performance as communication without words. Which you can relate to both the Stooges and the Dead. Her whole concept is "deep listening," which requires more than just attention. She relates it to meditative states, and the Stooges were definitely trance musicians. As were the "Dark Star" Dead.

M: Thich Nhat Hanh also uses that phrase but somewhat differently.

K: I re-read your piece, and it got me thinking of an int that Ig did with Detroit DJs Deminski and Doyle the day after Ron died. He sounded as though he was in shock, and mainly wanted to talk about old days. He called Ron "my best friend." After that, he got his game face back on, I guess, before he talked to Jarmusch and the book interviewer.

M: I remember that interview! Very moving and genuine. I think he goes through phases.

K:  As do we all. It was...surprising to hear his vulnerability in that moment. Although it shouldn't have been.

M: Also there was one with Terry Gross where he was very reflective about death, and remarked about Ron, "He knew me." Suggesting that there were fewer and fewer people of whom that could be said. That too was honest and vulnerable.

K:  Yes. I think Bowie taught him to hide behind the persona. Before, he just kind of ate the acid/did the show, and what you saw was what you got. Bowie's lesson enabled him to survive, but came at a cost.

M: Hmm, that's interesting. Do you mean Bowie explicitly "taught" him that, or that Bowie modeled that and it looked good to him?

K: I don't know what conversations they might have had, but he's spoken in interviews of how his time in Berlin with Bowie taught him that lesson. I suspect the modeling was a big part.

M: Oh, that's interesting. I've heard/read interviews in which he talks about Bowie's work ethic, but not that particular element of performance.

K: I think it's all part of a package. Iggy might have been the most "together" guy in the Stooges, but I think being a solo artist requires a different set of skills -- being a personality, rather than a member of a gang.


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