So there I was, August of 2003, at the Roseland Ballroom, where a grandfather that I never knew once worked as a bouncer, and there they were onstage– The Stooges. Ron has put on some weight, Scott’s baseball cap might be covering a bald spot, and Iggy’s skin looks to have been cured to the color of a tan alligator shoe, but when the opening chords of “Loose” come thundering out of the amps, it matters naught.
It’s the Stooges, playing the better parts of The Stooges and Funhouse, and sounding just like the goddamn Stooges. There’s a new guy on bass (Mike Watt from the Minutemen) who plays Dave Alexander’s bass parts with respect and authority, and keeps well to the back (when Ron suggested Mike to Iggy, Iggy told him “No Flea-ing around”), and wonder of wonders, Steve McKay is still around, bleating out his tenor sax on “Funhouse.” It’s an amazing show, the best I’d seen in years, maybe decades. How did Iggy get himself from the stage to the balcony in three hops? I’d seen people in the audience I hadn’t seen out in twenty years, hell, I probably knew seventy-five percent of the crowd.
It was a breathless and breathtaking hour of rock & roll, the kind of performance that reminds you, after years of watching down watered-down, second and third hand, half-assed attempts, just how much you’ve missed the real thing. A friend (thanks, Eric) later gave me a CD of the show, which I was afraid to play for a few days. Was it wishful thinking that they were that great? No, the recording affirmed, the Stooges were back, and everyone else was in last place…
In 2003, nearly thirty years after their demise, The Stooges hit the road, wowing ‘em world wide. Their studio efforts sounded tentative and tame, although they did nail it and reclaim their recording glory in the studio once (twice actually, since they did two takes) with a version of Junior Kimbrough’s “You Better Run” for a tribute album (version one – version two). When Junior, an ancient old guy who played one chord blues and ran a juke joint in the North Mississippi hill country south of Memphis, was hired by Iggy to open a few dates on one of his last solo tours, Junior, who’d never heard of Iggy, took to calling him Lollipop.
I’d see the Stooges several more times after that, once at Tower Records with Ron playing through a tiny amp and Scotty bashing on plastic garbage cans while Iggy lectured about his music (quite entertaining); at a beautiful theater owned by Reverend Ike (the Little Richard of televangelists) in Harlem, where Iggy’s header into the audience (who were all holding up their phones to take photos) ended in a painful collision with the velvet covered seating; and at an awful place called Terminal 5, which was the last time I saw Ron alive. By then they’d added Raw Power era tunes like “Search and Destroy” and “I Got A Right” to their set.
Ron Asheton died in 2009 (on New Year’s day, just like Hank Williams), and it looked like the end of the final act for the mighty Stooges. In a strange bit of serendipity, “straight” James Williamson had just taken an early retirement package from his job as Vice President of Technology Standards at Sony where he’d designed computer chips, and was ready to accept his fated reinstatement as a Stooge. Now, the second part of the Stooges– Iggy and the Stooges (as Iggy himself made sure to differentiate between the Elektra and Raw Power line ups) had their own successful sequel. This line up would release a boiling hot live album of Raw Power tunes called In The Hands Of The Fans that provides the guaranteed OD of the live show on your iPod, iPad, or even, for curmudgeons like me, record player. Recently a new disc of studio recordings– Ready To Die– has just been announced.
Jump to March 15, 2010. A bunch of us are gathered in Danny Fields’ living room to watch the Stooges be inducted (perhaps sentenced would be a better term) into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an institution that Danny was banished from because of his endless attempts to induct the Stooges (and the MC5, and Yoko Ono, and Kiss…) Although Danny, the man who discovered the Stooges, was not invited to the ceremony he was informed that for $2000 a ticket could be provided.
As much as I hate the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (and will never forgive them for fucking up my Hank Ballard bio in some induction booklet that I wasn’t even paid to write for), seeing the Stooges there was a satisfying moment. They’d outlasted everyone and they still sounded great. In fact they were and are the greatest rock & roll band in the world, especially since the Stones started sounding like a Vegas act. Following a performance by Phish, who could be the worst band ever, the Stooges just about blew the audience out of their seats and back out the door onto Park Avenue. Triumph of the Will indeed. The guy from Green Day quoted Scott Kempner in Please Kill Me, Iggy pronounced Danny Fields cool, along with the MC5 (preceded by ”I imagine Ron Asheton is watching us from heaven right now, having martinis with Brian Jones, trying to flick his cigarette ashes on our heads.”), Danny’s apartment applauded…
Since this is the Please Kill Me website, I must bring up something that always stuck in my craw. James Williamson comes off as one of the bad guys of the book—which in a tome full of venal and ambitious characters is quite an accomplishment—but to my mind, it also makes him the coolest guy in the book. However, he never got to tell his side of the story. Which ain’t my fault. Ron Asheton had a contact number for James all along, he even offered to make a phone call to set up an interview. Gillian and Legs never got around to it, probably the daunting amount of material they had already gathered was starting to get scary, or perhaps they liked the idea of James as the bad guy. No matter, I feel I must say something to defend a musician I consider nearly the equal of Guitar Slim and Ike Turner (my guitar Gods, you can keep your Eric “Wogs Out” Clapton). Let’s face it, as I said in Part One, the Ron vs. James argument is a Shemp vs. Curly question; personally I don’t have a preference. Sometimes I like Raw Power better, sometimes Funhouse. But it has to be said that James Williamson was and is one of the most unique and amazing musicians in the history of rock & roll. Keep in mind that at one point after Raw Power he was unceremoniously fired in a three-nil vote when the band were told they had to choose between Williamson or manager Tony DeFries. After being replaced by a mustachioed Kim Fowley discovery named Tornado Turner, James was brought back after one disastrous gig in Chicago.
The Asheton’s can say whatever they want, they have the right, its their band. But to those others quoted saying nasty things about James, all I can say is, he wrote and played on Raw Power, and is still one of the greatest guitarists in the whole history of rock’n’roll, what did you do?
And the Stooges are still out there, doing a handful of shows every summer and fall. Iggy’s body is twisted and battered, but when the beat starts he suddenly becomes Mighty Mouse. At the moment there are no Asheton’s onstage (Scott is taking a sabbatical, his replacement who played in Iggy’s last solo group has changed his name so many times I can’t remember any of them).
So I’m trying to figure out how to end this thing. What’s left to say about the Stooges? Five of ‘em lay in their grave– Ron, Dave, Scott, and shortimers Tommy “Zeke” Zettner and Bill Cheatham. They are our saints. All the old words are used up; meaningless. Legends? Survivors? I’ve heard those terms bandied about for anyone who can zip up their leather pants past age thirty. The Stooges are cultural icons with no equal. The Rolling Stones open their 50th anniversary show with a video of Iggy comparing Keith Richards’ guitar sound to being hit with a wet mackerel, Iggy does a video for PETA to save seal pups from being clubbed to death. He records albums of French ballads and no one laughs. Hell, France even awarded him the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor)—do you think they had heard Metallic K.O.?
Killing time, I stumble upon this, a show from Paris, just a few weeks ago. The Stooges, still feral and alive and still playing “Louie Louie!” Amen…