Sunday, July 22, 2007

THE STOOGES, The Stooges (Deluxe Edition) (Rhino/Elektra)
THE STOOGES, Fun House (Deluxe Edition) (Rhino/Elektra)
Uncut, 2005

There’s no point in revisiting The Stooges’ first two albums as monuments in rock’s heritage landscape. This music demands to be taken purely as a now-thing: a dynamo coiled with electric essence, something you can use to recharge your existence today, tomorrow, forever. So let’s bypass history and context as much as possible and instead get under the skin of the Stooges music. Let’s skip the facts and aim for truth--what this sound feels like as a drama of energy.

Which means talking about cocks. You hear an awful lot about “rockism” these days, but The Stooges aren’t just rockist, they’re cockist. Like their obvious forebears, The Stones and The Doors, the Stooges surge and swing with a particular phallic energy. Iggy spells it out in later songs like “Penetration” and “Cock In My Pocket”, but you catch the drift early on, with the debut’s “Real Cool Time” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, anthems of penile delinquency. Side One of Fun House is actually structured to mirror the male sexual trajectory, from the predatorial gaze of “Down On the Streets” (Iggy the man-missile cruising for action), through penetration and orgasm (“Loose” and “TV Eye,” the latter climaxing with Iggy’s holler “now ram it”) to the tingling, tristesse-tinged afterglow of “Dirt”. Throughout Iggy wields it like a weapon, but the “it” is less a prong of gristle between his legs than his whole being, engorged with will and burning with lack. One side of The Stooges music incarnates the dream of being perpetually on fire. But there’s a contradictory impulse too, a quest for absolute satiation, the grail of Norman Mailer’s “Apocalyptic Orgasm,” the bliss-blast that will snuff the flames of desire and achieve a deathly serenity.

Side one of The Stooges starts with unrest and restlessness (“1969” contrasts “war across the USA” with the boredom of Iggy as suburban Everykid faced by “another year of nothin’ to do”) but ends with the nirvana trance of “We Will Fall.” Oft-maligned as John Cale-damaged raga-wank, its ten minutes of “Venus In Furs” drones and Buddhist chanting is soporific, true, but that’s the point: Iggy links love with surrender (“I won’t fight… I’ll be weak”), conflates happiness and sleep, and equates sleep with death. Usually Ron Asheton’s wah-wah guitar ejaculates napalm, but on “We Will Fall” it glistens wetly, inky-black ripples in a viscous, slow-motion whirlpool. The same narcotic shimmer reappears on “Ann”, an equally under-celebrated ballad that starts where “End of The Night” by The Doors left off. In a Quaalude-foggy Sinatra-croon, Iggy sings again of love as a detumescence of the spirit: “you took my arm and you broke my will”. Entranced, he’s floating in the amniotic “swimming pools” of his lover’s eyes: “I felt so weak, I felt so blue”. But at the chorus, Iggy’s agonized, somehow humiliated “I looooove you” is unexpectedly completed with the war-cry “RIGHT NOW!!!!”. Amorous lassitude abruptly shifts to aggressive lust; Asheton’s limpid guitar instantly hardens into a rampaging riff. An evil humming rises up from the depths of the mix, and it’s a shock to realize that it’s actually Iggy, a low moan-drone of gaseous malevolence that seems to emanate not from his mouth but from every pore in his body.

The debut, great as it is, feels a little leashed in its energy initially. Towards the end, though, with “Not Right” and “Little Doll,” The Stooges loosen up rhythmically, Scott Asheton’s drums resembling The Troggs-as-free-jazz, Dave Alexander’s bass sidling like a rattlesnake about to strike. It’s as though the band gradually find their groove in preparation for Fun House. If The Stooges is a teenager--randy-fit-to-explode, but still awkward-- there’s a cocksure swagger to Fun House, as though the music’s got conquests under its belt now. The taut on-the-beat drums of “Down on the Street” stomp, as Lester Bangs put it, like a gang clicking its heels on the sidewalk. They’re on the prowl for sweet young thang. Iggy hits the ignition on “Loose” with war-whoops and the warning “LOOK OUT!!,” then gloats “I stuck it/Deep inside”. Later in the song, this chorus sounds closer to “I’m stoopid/Deep inside”--a pretty-vacant boast, perhaps, referencing the Stooges’ ideal of the O-Mind, a paradoxical state of hyper-alert oblivion reached through drugs and noise.

“TV Eye” is The Stooges’ “Whole Lotta Love”. Structurally the songs are almost identical, with a bulldozing prime-evil riff giving way to an eerie ambient-abstract mid-section (where Percy shrieks, Iggy emits subhuman gnashings and whooshing gusts of flamethrower breath). In both songs, there’s a pause of appalled silence before the riff magically re-erects and goes on the warpath once more. Led Zeppelin always came across as overlords, though (which is why they’re heavy metal), whereas the Stooges were obviously underdogs (and therefore punk). You can’t really imagine Zep doing a song like “Dirt,” on which Iggy preaches spiritual education through abasement (“oooh I been hurt… oooh I been dirt/But I don’t care/Cos I’m learning/Inside”), while Asheton rains down silverflicker guitar from the same pained-but-ecstastic place as the intro to “Gimme Shelter”.

Zep were also hippie-boys, but Fun House the album and “Funhouse” the song turn Sixties dreams of generational unity and pleasure-as-insurrection inside out. “We’ve been separated, baby, far too long… Living in division/In the shifting sands,” intones Iggy, beckoning the “baby girls” and “baby boys” into the funhouse. But this “come together” anthem is closer to National Lampoon’s Lemmings than Woodstock, liberation through regression rather than higher states. “Funhouse” is an orgy of debased sound, an electric mudbath mixing primal soup and primal scream (the acrid honk of Steve Mackay’s sax). On this and the preceding “1970”, Iggy keeps screaming “I feel all right” but he doesn’t sound it; he seems wracked by the pleasure grind. The final “LA Blues” reaches the howling void at the heart of hedonism. It’s a spasm of writhing feedback, freeform sax, and Iggy throat-noise, a glimpse ahead to Metal Machine Music and “Radio Ethiopia,” as well as 1000 long-hair retro-bands in the late Eighties lamely leaning guitars against amps and exiting the stage to a wall of screech.

I almost forgot: each of these glorious-sounding reissues comes with a bonus CD (“Deluxe” isn’t exactly a Stooges word, is it?) of alternate takes. The Fun House disc sifts the “cream” from that absurd, fan-fleecing seven-CD Fun House sessions box, but The Stooges disc is all hitherto unreleased, the peach being an “Ann” twice as long as the album version. Everything is worth hearing if only to note just how tight the Stooges were, how honed their on-the-surface sloppy frenzy actually was (in other words, the takes don’t vary that much). In the end, though, they’re superfluous because without exception the definitive version is the one that made the final cut.


SR: The Stooges sold spectacularly small amounts compared to the MegaBands of their day. But it’s hard to imagine Blood, Sweat & Tears, say, being able to reform and tour the world, like The Stooges have done. Do you feel vindicated?

RA: I don’t feel a revenge, I just feel grateful. My brother Scott and I always hoped the band would get it together again. We weren’t commercially successful at the time, but I guess over the years other groups would mention us an influence, and people would pick up on that, and it just built. I turned on a “classic rock” radio station recently and the voiceover said, “next we’ll be playing Led Zeppelin and Stooges”. It wasn’t like that back in the day! With reforming, I’m really just enjoying hanging with my friends. It’s great touring now, because it’s like a family vacation. We’re not scrambling looking for women or a party. We go sightseeing, check out the aquarium in Lisbon!

Although Sixties garage bands like Count Five may have the prior claim, The Stooges are generally regarded as the dawn of punk rock. Historians often talk about how you guys hated “love beads” and flower power. Were you really anti-hippie or did you participate a bit in the Summer of Love?

Some of it was kinda corny. But we didn’t have any great animosity towards hippies. We certainly had a lot of sex with hippie women! And we listened to the San Francisco bands. It could get a little too earthy and pious. But there was a great divide in America and we were on the same side as the hippies. You don’t shit on an ally! The difference was, some hippies were so anti-war they were anti-soldiers, calling them baby-killers. We hated the Vietnam war but we supported the soldiers. We said, ‘they’re your age and our age; they’re us’.

Indeed Detroit rock has this cult of the military, from MC5 and their whole White Panther/ “guitar army” shtick to the running thread of ballistic imagery in Iggy’s lyrics.

I wrote a song with Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman called “Rock’n’Roll Soldiers”. I always felt that being in a band was a military operation. You get your transport to the area and you carry out the mission. I’m like the medic on our tour, I’ve got all the vitamins, the sinutis pills, the anti-diarrhoea medicine! When we play London this year I’m looking forward to visiting the Imperial War Museum. I used to go there all the time when we lived there, recording Raw Power. There’s all these things that aren’t on display that you can only see on appointment--like Herman Goering’s uniform. I’d put my name down but never managed to see them. Maybe this time.

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