photo © by Mike Barich

We Will Fall: The Death and Rise of The Stooges

Death, its the greatest career move of them all. Ask Elvis, or Jacko. But Iggy did ‘em one better; he’s the only rock star to live through his own death. But I digress…

By the winter of ’74 The Stooges were gone; going out in a blaze of defiance as captured by the posthumously released live document Metallic KO. It seemed their tiny following had taken upon themselves to spread the gospel. Stooges fan clubs popped up in California, Paris and Germany. Fanzines with names like Back Door Man and Denim Delinquent reported on their final shows and current activities (I too joined the ranks of self-publishers naming my zine after Ron Asheton’s first post-Stooges band—New Order).

I remember one zine from Germany called Honey This Ain’t No Romance, produced by an ominous looking young couple who billed themselves as “Iggy’s only European Fan Club.” The publication consisted mostly of photos of the female half of the couple, the lovely and I’m sure talented Metchlin, who appeared draped across photos of Iggy and the Stooges in various forms of undress.

Stooges FanzinesBut international deification none withstanding, the news was dark.

Dave Alexander died in February of ’75 (his replacement Tommy “Zeke” Zettner had passed in November of ’73), and news from California of Iggy was almost as bad. Pictures of him at Rodney’s English Disco draped across Ron Asheton (in an S.S. Uniform) and covered in knife slashes and blood (from a performance called “Death Of A Virgin”–or “Murder Of A Virgin”–reports differ). Dispatches of Iggy in jail, teeth knocked out in front of a Bowie gig, Iggy living in a garage, in a mental hospital. I remember after many months of hunting and waiting, finally hearing the rough demo tape of what would become Kill City and thinking, he sounds tired. He sounds beaten. He sounds a hundred years old.

Iggy, that irrepressible force of nature, took a twisted path to the top that reads like a depraved re-write of Ulysses. There is no one who spent even hours around him who doesn’t have a story to tell. Blowing into town after town, leaving a trail of destruction, underage girls, drugs and booze, band members crawling off to die (as of this writing, at least six bass players lay in their grave). The last of the rock & roll stars… he’d bury them all, except maybe Keith.

And like the early apostles, we Stooges fans spread the lore far and wide (and wasn’t Iggy the closest thing to an old testament hero we could find in the consumer age?) with similar, double edged results.

Photo by Danny Fields
Photo by Danny Fields

Eventually, the news brightened. Not only did reviving Iggy’s career became David Bowie’s pet project, but Scott Asheton also re-surfaced in Ann Arbor and joined up with the MC5’s Fred Smith and the Rationales’ Scott Morgan to form the excellent Sonic’s Rendezvous Band (who ended up backing Iggy on an early solo tour of Europe). Punk rock was on the horizon—we could feel it coming—and the Stooges’ influence could be heard in new bands like the Ramones, the Dictators and every snot nosed “punk” in Great Britain. They were the Chuck Berry of a new generation. By 1976 it became de rigeur to have a Stooges tune in your set list. By the eighties every dogshit band in the US and Europe was doing an awful cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” for an encore. They even got a tune on the UK charts, albeit a b-side, with the Sex Pistols rendition of “No Fun” which appeared on the ass end of Pretty Vacant.

And like the occasionally jailed Chuck Berry, the Stooges took their lumps… Iggy, like Moses, wandered through this desert. With a solo career kick off courtesy of David Bowie, he puzzled Stooges fans with The Idiot (released at the height of the rock & roll vs. disco wars, always way out ahead of the commercial curve), and got back in the running with his best solo album Lust For Life (the title song, a hit twenty years after its release, was a note for note cop from Martha and the Vandellas’ “I’m Ready For Love”) but RCA dropped the ball, its pressing plants too busy filling orders for dead Elvis discs. New Values (see Paul Trynka’s wonderful Iggy bio Open Up and Bleed for hysterical coverage of that one), toured far and wide, and always put on a great show. Even at times when he seemed like the world’s greatest Iggy impersonator, he was still tremendous. None of his bands could compare with the Stooges, and their were lots of ‘em—west coast pros, ’77 punk all stars, hair metal rejects, raw kids that maybe Iggy thought he could school, hell, even the wild-eyed spawn of Soupy Sales, but it hardly mattered, the audience was there to see Iggy, and the worst Iggy show I ever saw was better than 99% of everything else that ever existed…

It was a slow process—thirty years—but the Stooges finally worked their way into mainstream culture. Iggy’s solo career certainly was the main instigator. Iggy is always good copy—there he was on TV, sitting on a couch with Dinah Shore, eating cake and telling her “I ended the 60’s”; or on the cover of the NME proclaiming to Nick Kent: “I’m a real woman. Like Catherine Deneuve.” Gotta love that guy.

His financial ship finally came in via the publishing mechanicals, first on the songs he co-wrote with Bowie (“China Girl” a world-wide hit), and then the Stooges tunes which would become advertising favorites (I was shocked when, watching the summer ’96 Olympic Games, “Search & Destroy” came barreling out of my TV courtesy of a Nike commercial), as well hundreds of cover versions of tunes used as album filler tracks for anyone wanting “punk cred.” He kept making records, good and bad, and kept touring, ending the century as one of rock’s elder statesmen, living in Miami and still taking headers into the audience. Some fans thought he’d sold out, selling his tunes to TV commercials, but keeping in mind how many true greats had already done so (Jimmy Reed for Gypsy Rose Wine, Little Richard for Royal Crown Hair Dressing, Ray Charles for Pepsi, The Stones for Rice Krispies) I don’t begrudge anyone a buck in the music biz. It’s tough to break even, and since radio has never played ‘em, why not?

I tried to do my part. Whenever I could plug one of Iggy or Ron’s new projects in print, or on the radio, I would. As a teen I had started writing about music for various mags and newspapers (my first published piece was a review of Metallic K.O. in a local Florida rag), and in ’84 started doing a radio show on WFMU (America’s first and longest running free-form station; Danny Fields was one of the original DJs there). Over the years I’d interview Iggy and Ron several times. Both men were candid, astute and sharp. Ron had a great memory and kept to his story (“such degradation”), but Iggy was always great. In 1986 I interviewed him in a bar around the corner from his NYC apartment so he could hype his upcoming album Blah Blah Blah. He told me of his days in Chicago, playing drums behind bluesmen like Johnny Young and Big Walter Horton–”the music dripped from them like sap… but I knew this wasn’t my music. I had a revelation, first joint I ever smoked, by the Chicago River, I could go back to Ann Arbor and do my version of the blues, not the riffs, something my own…”

He went on to rave about the Legendary Stardust Cowboy so I later sent him a copy of Hasil Adkins’ Out To Hunch and years later ran into him at a birthday party for artist Joe Coleman at which Hasil was playing, and told me how much he loved him. Come to think of it, they had a lot in common. We also discussed the Stooges:
Me: What do you think now when you hear Funhouse?
Iggy: That’s damn good! I’m damn proud of that work. Listen, right now I just wanna sell a shit load of records….

I think Iggy knew rock’n’roll as he knew it was probably a thing of the past.
What was left unsaid was that Iggy knew he’d never write another song as good as “Search & Destroy” but he could still make some interesting music, and he still wanted stardom. Me, I stopped paying attention around 1980, happy to dig around for old 45’s and 78’s made by black men and hillbillies who were paid in wine.

Eventually Iggy would even start selling records, a cover of the Johnny O’Keefe classic “Real Wild One” hit the charts in the UK, and a year later a ballad called “Candy” (a duet with Kate Pierson of the B-52’s) charted in the US. Brick By Brickwould be his biggest selling album and the closest he’d ever get to conventional stardom. He’d turn his back on it almost as soon as it arrived and by the 90’s his live shows had taken on a wild-eyed zeal, a feeling that he’d prevail by sheer will, crappy bands and crappy records be damned.

Photo by Peter Hujar.
Photo by Peter Hujar.

Ron Asheton in many ways became the keeper of the Stooge flame. Ronnie was every fans favorite Stooge. As the only non-dope addict in the band, he had the best memory, and plenty of time to give to fans. He gave great interviews, and despite a twisted sense of humor and unbendable cool, Ron was a sweetheart. He adopted stray cats and felt sorry for the girls Iggy kicked down the stairs. He had a soft spot for the fat girls that the other band members made fun of, the hurt from being called the “fat Beatle” in Jr. High still close to the surface.

Shortly after the Stooges break up, Ron returned to L.A. and formed a straight ahead hard rock band with Dennis Thompson from the MC5, Jimmy Recca from the ’71 Stooges line-up and Dave Gilbert of the Amboy Dukes called the New Order. Photos of them posing in front of a swastika probably killed all chances of them getting a record deal in those days of smile buttons and “peaceful easy feelings.” When the New Order flamed out Ron returned to Ann Arbor and his mom’s house, eventually resurfacing in a band called Destroy All Monsters with singer Niagara. DAM were followed by an Australian tour with Dennis Thompson and Radio Birdman’s Dennis Tek in a group called New Race, then he reunited with Niagara in an outfit called Dark Carnival. I saw the former and the latter when they played NYC. He also appeared in some low-budget horror flicks. Who could forget him as the park ranger in the Mosquito? He loved to talk about his celebrity run-ins and had priceless stories about Robert Mitchum, Larry Fine, William Shatner and the Rolling Stones. His dream was to restage the Nuremberg Rallies as a rock & roll concert, torches and all.

The eighties and nineties were full of books (including one by Iggy, I Need More), magazine articles, fanzines, and eventually websites devoted to every minutia of Stooges lore. Endless arguments could be heard in any hip bar on almost any night, over the various mixes of Raw Power, Ron vs. James as guitar genius, Raw Power vs. Funhouse as the greatest album ever. Of course the Stooges’ fans (soon you could tell a true believer by if they identified themselves as a “Stooges fan” as opposed to an “Iggy fan”) needed to be fed and every scrap of tape would be unearthed to the point where today there are more Stooges boxed sets than there are albums. Milestones including the Raw Power demos (the first to see the light being the 45 rpm of “I Got A Right” b/w “Gimme Some Skin,” issued in France on the Siamese label in early ’77), hours of live ’73 shows and rehearsals, the John Cale mix of the first LP (which Rhino released as a bonus disc to the first LP, but the tape seems to be mastered at the wrong speed), Raw Power w/out-takes with one of the shows I saw in Atlanta thrown in, five live shows from ’71 with the James Williamson/Jimmy Recca/ + Asheton brothers line-up, the legendary Unganos show (taken from a cassette stolen from Danny Fields by a well-known ignoble Swede), enough mixes of Raw Power to make us realize that Bowie’s was about as good as it was going to sound, and for the truly insane, The Complete Funhouse Sessions, a six CD set that includes thirty takes of “Loose” and twelve of “Dirt” (I bought two copies). Yes, you can go through the rest of your life listening to nothing but the Stooges and still not get your fill…

Iggy Pop Photo by Danny Fields.
Photo by Danny Fields.

Eventually Scott Asheton would finally give an interview (PKM being the first, even Ron was surprised to find out that “TV Eye” meant Twat Eye Vibe). There’s some surprising revelations on the Scott Asheton tapes that never made PKM, like he thought the Stooges should reform (this was in ’94) and go back to the way they were in the beginning, playing homemade instruments and making free noise.

The Stooges story was handed down like the New Testament, with PKM opening a floodgate that would see Paul Trynka’s excellent Iggy Pop bio Open Up and Bleed sort out the truth from the legend. By the end of the century Ron was in demand, touring with J. Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr.), an altogether strange match up, pitting one of the most exciting and succinct guitarists of all time against possibly the most tedious and pointless string bender this side of the Grateful Dead.

The last time I talked with Ronnie he was playing in Mascis’ band. Gillian and I invited him over for dinner. He agreed with my verdict that Iggy’s re-mix of Raw Power sucked (Bowie got the vocals and guitars perfect, all it needed was for the drums and bass to be louder… anyways…) and admitted to lifting the riff to “Little Doll” from Pharaoh Sanders’ Upper & Lower Egypt (“You busted me”). He talked about his summer cottage on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and how much he loved the lighthouses there. He invited us up for a visit. We couldn’t make it that summer as Gillian’s father was dying, and the next year he began spending his summers doing the only thing he liked better, gigging with the Stooges. So we never made it to Ron’s place on the UP, one of the greatest regrets of my life (for Gillian, too).

Although they had worked their way into the fabric of popular culture in a way few ever had, the idea of a Stooges reunion seemed remote. Hadn’t Iggy gone out of his way to insult the Ashetons in the liner notes to the Raw Power re-mix (“they couldn’t organize a fish tank…”)? Rumors of big money offers from Rick Rubin floated around, and then, in 2003, nearly thirty years after their break up, they were back. Iggy and the Ashetons, together again. Well, the one thing these guys aren’t are predictable…

STOOGES PART III – Triumph of the Will

STOOGES PART I : The Three Chord Train To Hell

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