Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Things we like: The Ig and I

St. Lester was half right when he wrote that never again would we agree about anything the way we did about Elvis. David Bowie, Prince, and now Tom Petty have proven him incorrect in the specifics, but he nailed the big overarching thing: only music can unite us the way grief and loss do. Put 'em together, and...goodbye, baby, and amen, indeed.

When Ron Asheton died, my buddy Geoff in Philly called me up and said, "Day the music died." For me, it was and it wasn't. Sure, Ron was the guy -- not Iggy -- whom I wanted to be from the time I watched the Stooges at the Cincinnati Pop Festival on my mother's TV when I was 13. In my 40s, was fortunate to be able to interview him (although I kind of got the impression he'd tell those stories to anybody who'd listen, in those years between the Stooges' 1974 implosion and their 2003 resurrection), and to get to say "Thanks" to him in person (and see him play Those Songs three times). After that, I didn't need to see the reunited Stooges play (although I had oppos), because I'd already seen the part I needed to. (By then, I was also playing Stooge songs in a band that had all my favorite local musos on their respective instruments. Lucky me!)

As much as I love the Stooges, there's other music that's given me as much enjoyment over the years: the 'orrible 'oo, the Stones (as much the water I grew up swimming in as Hendrix, I've lately come to realize), Uncle Lou and the Velvets, Zappa and Beefheart, Ornette and Shannon Jackson. Almost all gone now. When Townshend checks out, it really will be "the day the music died" for me. (For some reason, I'm not as invested in Mick and Keef.) And then...there's Iggy.

Even though I lost the thread of his career after Raw Power, briefly picking it up again for the James Williamson-produced New Values, I have no trouble acknowledging that it's Jim Osterberg who now owns the Stooge story, by virtue of his being the Last Man Standing (Strait James having gone on to other musical projects, and more power to him). It's Jim/Iggy's voice that dominates Jim Jarmusch's Stooges doco Gimme Danger (which I discussed at length with Phil Overeem here), as well as Jeff Gold's coffee table book Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges.

Both of these artifacts appeared in late 2016. Put 'em together and you have a pretty comprehensive document of the Stooge saga as told by its protagonist and uber-alienated "ethnographer," as Maria Damon characterized Iggy in her review of Total Chaos for the literary journal Rain Taxi. Add Ron's stories from Please Kill Me and Paul Trynka's well-constructed narrative from Open Up and Bleed and you've got as close to the full story as anyone who wasn't there is going to get. (Although there's always more; Ed Caraeff just pubbed his photos of the Stooges' stand at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, just after recording Funhouse, in a volume entitled Iggy and the Stooges: One Night at the Whisky 1970.)

The Achilles heel in Jarmusch's film is the paucity of live footage of the Stooges in their heyday (the Youtube-era reunion is, of course, extensively documented). To compensate, Jarmusch used still images in a manner that could uncharitably be compared with humorist John Hodgman's Ken Burns parody Hobo Matters. In a way, the Gold book (edited by the estimable Jon Savage) serves the same purpose as the cornucopia of stills that flashes on the screen toward the end of Jarmusch's film (bringing to this viewer's mind the cathartic reel of romantic scenes at the end of Cinema Paradiso), with the added benefit of being able to hold them in your hand and linger over them.

Ex-record label guy Gold and his collaborator Johan Kugelberg (the main man behind the excellent The Velvet Underground: New York Art coffee table book of a few years back) are elite fans, mavens with access and enviable memorabilia collections (a nice term for the administrative detritus of rockaroll), and they ask the kind of clued-in questions any Stooge fan would, given the chance -- often using a photo or piece of memorabilia as a springboard or memory jogger.

The Iggy of Gold's book and Jarmusch's movie is an intelligent man of wit and charm, impressive recall (even of extremely dissolute periods in his life), and a fair amount of self awareness -- a friendly, plain-spoken midwesterner, reminiscing from the perspective of someone with 50 years' experience as a professional entertainer. "Yeah," he tells Gold, "I'll tell you I've made every wrong move that anybody has ever said I've made. The only thing that bothers me is that how consistently the people who tell tales the most on that have never figured out their own wrong moves. They're all peerless, flawless, and blameless."

Ig's spiel is less self-aggrandizing than one might expect, and his comments shed light on his collaborators' contributions in a way that makes them ring true. Who'd have guessed that the early Stooges had stage fright, and were in awe of some of the bands they opened for at the Grande? As a guitar player, I nodded my head reading Iggy's observation that unlike "a normal white guy blues asshole," Ron the once-and-future bass player started out using very heavy strings, which explains why he never bent a string more than a half-step on those first two albums, and awoke in me the sense memory of the first time I kicked on my Fuzz Face and tried to bend the wound G from a set of Black Diamond heavies. The revelation that Ron used a Leslie rotating speaker to get the shimmering sound on "Dirt" made me feel idiotic for trying to imitate it with a wah-wah pedal for the past 11 years.

The most telling comment comes in response to Richard Creamer's photo of the five Raw Power-era band members (by this time, future Tom Petty sideman Scott Thurston had joined on piano) in the dressing room at LA's Whisky-a-Go-Go. Iggy and Scott Asheton are seated and obviously junked out -- their hooded eyes tell the story. Thurston, mustachioed Ron, and James stand behind them in glam drag. In Iggy's recollection, "The two guys in front who are the most fucked up are the guys who have to do the actual physical work, and we're the two guys who at all times were the most totally committed to the insane romanticism, to the Quixote aspect of the group. Here you have the three little birds sitting on the fence. The vulture, that's James, the magpie, that's Ron, he love to gossip and chat. And...[Thurston just] imitates whatever he hears and plays along, that's what I see. They're sitting on the fence and these two guys in front are taking the hard knocks."

And there's this -- Iggy on how his access to a paternal role model growing up affected his dealings with the other Stooges, who lost their fathers while they were young: "There's a father [thing] going through this band, and it goes like this. If you ask -- or God forbid, demand -- of an Asheton brother to do anything, no matter what the words or action that comes out, the real statement is, 'You're not my dad. You're not my dad. I don't care about you. You have no authority. I don't have to. You're not my dad.' If you ask Williamson or tell him anything or fight any, 'Fuck you. You're my stepfather. Fuck you. You're my step-dad.'...With me it was, 'I'm your dad. Hey. Hi. I'm [your] fuckin' dad!' And that's what I was for this fuckin' group."

To read any band bio (or view any band biopic) is to be reminded of how merciless young men can be, how ephemeral their alliances, and how enduring their grievances. The most compelling parts of the Stooge saga, to me, are the "becoming" years, culminating in Funhouse, before every move was made with an eye toward "keeping the career going." The Jim Osterberg who speaks in these pages reminds me of the man I heard speaking to Detroit DJs Deminski and Doyle the day after Ron died, capable of more compassion and vulnerability than his stage persona would indicate. The bits in Gold's book on the Asheton brothers near the end of their lives are poignant, and make Jarmusch's interview segments with Scott Asheton -- appearing frail and wizened for someone with such a fearsome reputation -- seem even more so.

If I have a beef about the book, it's that I really don't care what contemporary rockers -- even Josh Homme, who worked with Iggy after Scott Asheton's death put paid to the Stooges reunion, or Joan Jett, whom I saw wipe the floor with Ig in Dallas, ca. 1980 (in fairness, her guitarist at the time said that Iggy smoked three joints of angel dust before his set) -- have to say about the Stooges' importance. A better use of the space might have been reproducing the text of some of the articles from broadsheet newspapers illustrated here, which are a little taxing on the eye (although some of the correspondence from Stooges manager Jimmy Silver and Elektra company freak Danny Fields presented in this manner is both legible and delightful). A minor point.

I recently responded to a Facebook post by Pete Townshend, atypically doing his own social media during a brief tour with "Classic Quadrophenia," in which he contemplated whether or not he would continue to do so. I would say the same thing to Iggy, if I could: "You owe nobody anything. But thank you for what you have given us."


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