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Ready to Die: Why Iggy And The Stooges Matter Now

In Music
Iggy And The Stooges at SXSW in 2013. Photo by Jennifer Anderson.

Iggy And The Stooges at SXSW in 2013. Photo by Jennifer Anderson.

Iggy And The Stooges could be playing oldies shows in Vegas or at the Mountain Winery like their contemporaries. Instead of reliving their glory days, the four-decade-old group is enjoying the peak of their success now. In 2013, the band released a searing LP, Ready To Die and played to slam-dancing audiences at outdoor festivals from Australia to Belgium. They take a victory lap with their last scheduled show of 2013 on Sept. 28 at C2SV Music Festival, but it wasn’t always this way.

For decades, the Stooges were more a legend than a band. In seven years of demented existence, from 1967 to 1974, their records sold so poorly that they were kicked to the curb by their label, despite the fact that Danny Fields—the wunderkind of the music industry at the time, who built the careers of Jim Morrison and Lou Reed, and discovered the MC5 and Ramones—was so convinced of Iggy Pop’s genius that he personally took over management of the band.

Pop himself didn’t seem to take offense, didn’t even seem to care. In Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s punk history Please Kill Me, Pop admits he can see it from the record industry’s point of view. “I mean, they must have thought ‘These guys are maniacs, you know, the singer attacks the audience, they’re all loaded, they don’t communicate nicely with us, their songs won’t go on the radio … So I could see their point. But hey, I didn’t know we were that way. I saw it differently. I thought we were great. I thought we were the best band in the world. We knew what we were doing was better than anybody.”

And yet, by the time Raw Power came out—in 1973, a full year after it was recorded—the man who would eventually be hailed as the Godfather of Punk was literally lying in the gutter on Sunset Boulevard. At the same time that he was doing his most famous shows at Max’s Kansas City in New York—where his antics rolling around in broken glass and walking across tables and generally bleeding all over the place got him sent to the hospital for stitches one night by order of Alice Cooper, who was in the crowd—Pop was a music industry pariah. Kicked out of his house, hooked on heroin and couch-surfing between gigs, he was hurtling toward either certain death or rehab.

Luckily, it was the latter. It wouldn’t be until 1976 that Bowie would help Pop reinvent himself as a successful solo artist, with iconic songs like “Lust For Life” and “The Passenger” paving the way for his first and only mainstream Top 40 hit, 1990’s “Candy.”

Over the course of those years, the legend of the Stooges grew exponentially. Their three albums, 1969’s The Stooges, 1970’s Fun House, and Raw Power, lacerated the indie-rock generation with a jagged, heavy sound that was unlike anything else. Forensic evidence of those three records is all over almost every significant rock movement since, from punk to stoner metal. Stooges classics like “Search and Destroy” were enshrined in the holy canon of rock, and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” had become one of the most covered songs of all time.

The problem was not just that no one could see the Stooges, but that barely anyone had seen them, ever—by the turn of the century, almost everyone who had seemed to be in some book talking about it. The rest of us knew their indescribable live shows only via the stories handed down, and through famous bootlegs like Metallic KO, Jesus Loves the Stooges and tons more (a legit box set of Iggy bootleg material, Roadkill Rising, was released in 2011). The world wanted a Stooges reunion.

In 2003, it got it. The whole thing was actually set in motion by Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and SoCal punk legend Mike Watt, who made original Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton a sort of ad hoc member of their band J Mascis and the Fog. Whenever they could, they’d get him to play with them when they toured in the early 2000s, and they’d always break out a handful of Stooges classics. Eventually, they roped in Scott Asheton, Ron’s brother and the original drummer for the Stooges.

By this time, Pop had taken notice, and he invited the Ashetons to play on his 2003 solo album Skull Ring. Of the three songs they collaborated on, only one—the title track—really recaptured the sludgy, almost psychedelic proto-punk of their original sound. Still, that was more than enough to give everyone a taste of how good a Stooges reunion could be. That same year, it came together, with the band showing their appreciation for Watt’s role by inviting him to replace original bassist Dave Alexander. Alexander had been fired from the Stooges for drinking too much—a seemingly impossible feat, to be sure—and died in 1975, a mere 27 years old, of complications related to exactly that. Watt joined the band for the first Stooges performance in three decades at Coachella in 2003, and played with the reunited band for five and a half years.

The reunion also brought Steve Mackay, the saxophonist who had crafted the Stooges’ unique horn sound, back into the fold. It produced a 2007 reunion album, The Weirdness, that was appropriately titled. It certainly couldn’t have been called The Greatness, although a couple of tracks got close to that classic Stooges mix of nihilism and shake appeal.

It all seemed to come crashing down though, with the death of Ron Asheton in 2009. Just as the band had begun adding classics from the Raw Power years back into their set, Asheton’s reported heart attack put a stop, once again, to the Stooges.

But it led to what was almost a whole new reunion of Iggy and the Stooges. That was the moniker the band used in the Raw Power era, when James Williamson played guitar. After his warm-up at the Blank Club with local favorites the Careless Hearts—a now-legendary show at which the Hearts’ Paul Kimball filled in for Iggy with eerie accuracy—Williamson rejoined the band in Brazil, and the new era of Iggy and the Stooges began.

The Stooges have played more than 100 dates, but stage diving seems to be taking its toll on the 66-year-old frontman. Pop had to be carried off stage after the Aug. 25 Riotfest show in Toronto, during which he leapt into the crowd and dropped his microphone.

The Sept. 28 San Jose show is The Stooges’ only West Coast performance and the last show of the year. The band will take a needed rest and no dates have been booked for 2014.
“We’re ready for a break,” Williamson says without saying when the legendary band will play again. With a touch of exaggeration, he adds, “We’re so old, you never know if there’s going to be another show or not.”

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