Of Pop and Pies and Fun
A program for mass liberation in the
form of a Stooges review. Or, who’s the fool?
by Lester Bangs
Like most authentic originals, the Stooges have endured more than their share of abuse, derision, critical condescension and even outright hostility. Their stage act is good copy but easy grist for instant wag putdowns. At first glance their music appears to be so simple that it seems like anyone with rudimentary training should be able to play it (that so few can produce any reasonable facsimile, whatever their abilities, is overlooked). While critics have a ball crediting John Cale with the success of their first album (as I did) and relegating them to the status of a more than slightly humorous teenage phenomenon, theme music for suburban high school kids freaked out on reds and puberty and fantasies of nihilistic apocalypses, the majority of the listening public seems to view them with almost equal scorn as just one more blaring group whose gimmick (Iggy) still leaves them leagues behind such get-it-on frontrunners in the Heavy sets as Grand Funk, whose songs at least make sense, whose act shows real showmanship (i.e., inducing vast hordes of ecstatically wasted freaks to charge the stage waving those thousands of hands in the air in a display of marginally political unity ‘nuff to warm the heart of any Movement stumper), and who never make fools of themselves the way that Stooge punk does, what with his clawing at himself, smashing the mike in this chops, jumping into the crowd to wallow around a forest of legs and ankles and godknows what else while screaming those sickening songs about TV eyes and feeling like dirt and not having no fun ‘cause you’re a fucked up adolescent, horny but neurotic, sitting around bored and lonesome and unable to communicate with yourself or anybody else. Shit. Who needs songs like that, that give off such bad vibes? We got a groovy, beautifully insular hip community, maybe a nation, budding here, and our art is a celebration of ourselves as liberated individuals and masses of such—the People, dig? And antisocial art simply don’t fit in, brothers and sisters. Who wants to be depressed, anyway?
Well, a lot of changes have gone down since Hip first hit the heartland. There’s a new culture shaping up, and while it’s certainly an improvement on the repressive society now nervously aging, there is a strong element of sickness in our new, amorphous institutions. The cure bears viruses of its own. The Stooges also carry a strong element of sickness in their music, a crazed quaking uncertainty and errant foolishness that effectively mirrors the absurdity and desperation of the times, but I believe that they also carry a strong element of cure, of post-derangement sanity. And I also believe that their music is as important as the product of any rock group working today, although you better never call it art or you may wind up with a deluxe pie in the face. What it is, instead, is what rock and roll at heart is and always has been, beneath the stylistic distortions the last few years have wrought. The Stooges are not for the ages—nothing created now is—but they are most implicitly for today and tomorrow and the traditions of two decades of beautifully bopping, manic, simplistic jive.
To approach Fun House (Elektra EKS-74071) we’ve got to go back to the beginning, to all the blather and arbitration left in the wake of notoriety and a first album. Because there is a lot of bad air around, and we’ve got to clear away the mundane murk of ignorance and incomprehension if we’re going to let the true, immaculate murk of the Stooges shine forth in all its chaotic prisms like those funhouse mirrors which distract so pointedly. I don’t want to have to be an apologist for the Stooges. I would like it if we lived in sanity, where every clear eye could just look and each whole mind appreciate the Stooges on their own obvious merits (even though, granted, in such an environment the Stooges would no longer be necessary—as William Burroughs counseled in one of his lucider epigrams, they really do work to make themselves obsolete). However, since conditions are in the present nigh irremediable mess, with innocent listeners led and hyped and duped and doped, taught to grovel before drug-addled effeminate Limeys who once collected blues 78s and a few guitar lessons and think that that makes them torch-bearers; a hapless public, finally, of tender boys and girls pavlov’d into salivating greenbacks and stoking reds at the mere utterance of certain magic incantations like “supergroup” and “superstar,” well, is it any wonder your poor average kid, cruisin’ addled down the street in vague pursuit of snatch or reds or rock mag newsstands, ain’t got no truck with the Stooges?
So, to facilitate the mass psychic liberation necessary, it’s imperative that we start with the eye of the hurricane, the center of all the confusion, contention and plain badmouthing, Iggy Stooge himself. Now, I’ve never met Iggy but from what I’ve gathered listening to his records and digging the stage act and all, he’s basically a nice sensitive Amerikan boy growing up amid a thicket of some of the worst personal, interpersonal and national confusion we’ve seen. I mean, nowhere else but in Amerika would you find a phenomenon like Iggy Stooge, right? I was at one time going to write a letter to Malcolm Muggeridge over in England telling him all about Iggy and the Stooges, but I didn’t because I finally decided that he’d just mark it up as one more symptom of the decline of Western Civilization. Which it’s not. Not finally, that is—it may be now, in some of its grosser, semi-pathological trappings, but then look what it came out of. There’s always hope for a brighter tomorrow because today’s mess spawned stalwart crusaders for something better like Iggy. And presumably, the rest of the Stooges.
So, Iggy: a preeminently Amerikan kid, singing songs about growing up in Amerika, about being hung up lotsa the time (as who hasn’t been?), about confusion and doubt and uncertainty, about inertia and boredom and suburban pubescent darkness because “I’m not right/ to want somethin’/ to want somethin’/ tonight…” Sitting around, underaged, narcissistic, masochistic, deep in gloom cuz we could have a real cool time but I’m not right, whether from dope or day drudgery or just plain neurotic donothing misanthropy, can’t get through (“You don’t know me/ Little Doll/ And I don’t know you…”)—ah well, wait awhile, maybe some fine rosy-fleshed little doll with real eyes will come along and marry you and then you’ll get some. Until then, though, it shore ain’t no fun, so swagger with your buddies, brag, leer at passing legs, whack your doodle at home at night gaping at polyethylene bunnies hugging teddy bears, go back the next day and dope out with the gang, grass, speed, reds, Romilar, who cares, some frat bull’s gonna buy us beer, and after that you go home and stare at the wall all cold and stupid inside and think, what the fuck, what the fuck. I hate myself. Same damn thing last year, this year, on and on till I’m an old fart if I live that long. Shit. Think I’ll rape my wank-fantasy cunt dog-style tonight.
Pretty depressing, eh? Sheer adolescent drive. Banal, too. Who needs music with a theme like that? What does it have to do with reality, with the new social systems the Panthers and Yips are cookin’ up, with the fact that I took acid four days ago and since then everything is smooth with no hang-ups like it always is for about a week after a trip. Feel good, benevolent. So what the fuck does all that Holden Caulfield garbage Iggy Stooge is always prattling about have to do with me? Or with art or rock ‘n’ roll or anything? Sure, we all know about adolescence, why belabor it, why burden “art” (or whatever the Stooges claim that caterwauling is) with something better left in the recesses of immature brains who’ll eventually grow out of it themselves? And how, in the name of all these obvious logical realities, can any intelligent person take Iggy Stooge for anything but a blatant fool, wild-eyed, sweaty and loud though he may be?
Well, I’ll tell ya why and how. I’ve been building up through lots of questions and postulations and fantasies, so not one dullard reading this and owning a stack of dated, boring “rock” albums but no Stooge music can fail to comprehend, at which time I will be able to get on to the business of describing the new Stooges album. So here comes the payload. Now, to answer the last question first, because the final conclusion of all Stooge-mockers is definitely true and central to the Stooges: you’re goddam right Iggy Stooge is a damn fool. He does a lot better job of making a fool of himself on stage and vinyl than almost any other performer I’ve ever seen. That is one of his genius’ central facets.
What we need are more rock “stars” willing to make fools of themselves, absolutely jump off the deep end and make the audience embarrassed for them if necessary, so long as they have not one shred of dignity or mythic corona left. Because then the whole damn pompous edifice of this supremely ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll industry, set up to grab by conning youth and encouraging fantasies of a puissant “youth culture,” would collapse, and with it would collapse the careers of the hyped talentless nonentities who breed off of it. Can you imagine Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant conning the audience: “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love”—he really gives them nothing, not even a good-natured grinful “Howdy-do”—Or Jimmy Page’s arch scowl of super-musician ennui?
A friend and I were getting stoned and watching the TV eye’s broadcast of the Cincinnati Pop Festival the other night, when a great (i.e., useless) idea struck us. Most of the show was boring, concentrating on groups like Grand Funk (endless plodding version of “Inside Looking Out” with lead singer writhing and barking and making up new lyrics like “Oh little honey I need your love so bad… c’mon, give it to me… oh little mama” etc.) and Mountain (Felix Pappalardi spinning off endless dull solos in a flat distillation of the most overworked elements of Cream’s and Creedence’s sounds, while fat buckskinned Leslie West thumped bass and reacted to Pappalardi’s piddle with broad, joyously-agonized mugging, grimacing and grinning and nodding as if each and every note out of Papa’s guitar was just blowing his mind like no music he’d ever heard before). Well, I watched all this monkey business with one eye scanning the bookshelf for a likely volume to pass the time till Iggy hit the tube, and when he did it was fine—not as good as watching Carlos Santana squint and Cunt Joe spell out “FUCK” in Woodstock, mind you, but a fine video spread anyhow—but the part of the show that intrigued us the most came in Alice Cooper’s set (who, however gratingly shrill their amphetamine-queen hysteria, certainly can’t be accused of taking themselves seriously—come the revolution, they don’t get offed with Pappalardi and West and George Harrison and all them other cats), when Alice crouched, threw his billowy cape over his stringy mop like a monk’s cowl, exposing his hormone-plasticized torso, and crept duckwalking like some Chuck Berry from a henbane nightmare to the apron of the stage, where he produced a pocketwatch, set it hypnotically in motion, and started chanting in a calm conversational tone: “Bodies… need… rest…”—repeating it at same tempo till finally some (genuinely wise) wiseacre a few bodies into the crowd piped up, “So what?” Good question. What if somebody said “So what?” when Richie Havens started into his righteous “Freedom” number? Of course, the question is stupid since three dozen devout Richie Havens fans would promptly clobber the boorish loudmouth, if not off him completely (in line with the temper of the times, in which case he’d be post-mortemed a pig). But nobody gives a shit what anybody sez to A.C. least of all A.C. who was probably disappointed at not soliciting more razzberries from the peanut gallery, except that a moment later he got his crowd reaction in spades when some accomplished marksman in the mob lobbed a whole cake (or maybe it was a pie—yeah, let’s say it was a pie just for the sake of the fantasy I’m about to promulgate) which hit him square in the face. So there he was: Alice Cooper, rock star, crouched frontstage in the middle of his act with a faceful of pie and cream with clots dripping from his ears and chin. So what did he do? How did he recoup the sacred time-honored dignity of the performing artist which claims the stage as his magic force field from which to bedazzle and entertain the helpless audience? Well, he pulled a handful of pie gook out of his face and slapped it right back again, smearing it into his pores and eyes and sneaking the odd little fingerlicking taste. Again and again he repeated this gesture, smearing it in good. The audience said not another word.
The point of all this is not to elicit sympathy for Alice Cooper, but rather to point out that in a way Alice Cooper is better than Richie Havens (even though both make dull music) because at least with Alice Cooper you have the prerogative to express your reaction to his show in a creative way. Most rock stars have their audiences so cowed it’s nauseating. What blessed justice it would be if all rock stars had to contend with what A.C. elicits, if it became a common practice and method of passing judgment for audiences to regularly fling pies in the faces of performers whom they thought were coming on with a load of bullshit. Because the top rockers have a mythic aura around them, the “superstar,” and that’s a basically unhealthy state of things, in fact it’s the very virus that’s fucking up rock, a subspecies of the virus I spoke of earlier which infests “our” culture from popstars to politics (imagine throwing a pie in the face of Eldridge Cleaver! Joan Baez!), and which the Stooges uncategorically oppose as an advance platoon in the nearing war to clear conned narcoleptic mindscreens of the earth, eventually liberating us all from basically uncreative lifestyles in which people often lacking half the talent or personality or charisma of you or I are elevated into godlike positions. Pure pomp and circumstance.
So now you see what I’m driving at, why the Stooges are vital, aside from being good musicians, which I’ll prove just as tangentially later. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself, to say, “See, this is all a sham, this whole show and all its floodlit drug-jacked realer-than-life trappings, and the fact that you are out there and I am up here means not the slightest thing.” Because it doesn’t. The Stooges have that kind of courage, but few other performers do. Jim Morrison, of late—how inspiring to see the onetime atropine-eyed Byronic S&M Lizard King come clean stumbling around the stage with a Colt 45 in hand and finally wave his dong at the teeny minions who came there to see him hold both it and his gut in and give them some more vivid production which communicated nothing real but suggested everything a fertile pube brain could dredge up! Morrison def, does not get a pie in the face! He ‘fessed up! And even old John Lennon, who for awhile qualified for the first and biggest pie (to drown him and Yoko both in slush as ersatz as that which they originally excreted on the entire Western world), has set such a consistent record for absurd self-parody above and beyond the needs of the revolution (like saying “I gave back the MBE also because ‘Cold Turkey’ was slipping down the charts”—a fine gesture. We won’t forget it later, either.) that he too qualifies for at least a year’s moratorium from the creem guerillas. But then there’s all those other people—Delaney and Bonnie (through no fault of their own—after all, a man and his woman are known by the company they keep) and George Harrison (a giant pie stuffed with the complete works of Manly P. Hall) and that infernal snob McCartney and those radical dilettante capitalist pigs the Jefferson Airplane (it’s all right to be a honkey, in fact all the Marxists are due for some pies in pronto priority, but to wit on all that bread singin’ bout bein’ and outlaw when yer most scurrilous illegal set is ripping off lyrics from poor old A.A. Milne and struggling Sci-Fi hacks, wa’al, the Creem Committee don’t cotton to that, neighbor.)
Similarily, Mick Jagger gets immediately pie-ority as a fake moneybags revolutionary, and in general for acting smarter and hipper and like more of a cultural and fashion arbiter than he really is. If Jesus had been at Altamont, they would have crucified him, but if Mick Jagger makes me wait 45 minutes while he primps and stones up in his dressing room one more time and then blames it on some poor menial instrument mover, then me and the corps are goin’ stageward with both tins blazing when he does show his fish-eyed mug. And he’s far from the worst offender—in fact, as a performing artist, he’s one of the least offensive around—his show, with its leers and minces has always been outrageous and foolish and absurd and transcendentally arrogant, yet pretentious only in the best possible way, a spastic flap-lipped tornado writhing from here to a million streaming snatches and beyond in one undifferentiated erogenous mass, a mess and a spectacle all at the same time. You won’t catch Mick Jagger lost in solemn grimaces of artistic angst, no sir! So he really is almost as good as the Stooges, in fact anticipated them, but I’d still hate to think of his tantrum if some grinning geek from down in the street tried to commandeer the sacred stage where he jerks out and rips off his rushes. In that sense his whole show is another anachronism, though nowhere near as fossilized as most other rock acts, who will drown in creem and crust before we’re through. The plain fact is that 99% of popstars do not have the true charisma, style of stature to hold their bastion (bastille) stage without the artificial support they’ve traditionally enjoyed. Most of them, were they splat in the kisser with a pie or confronted with an audience composed of sane people demanding calmly (crude militant bullshit is out): “What the fuck do you think you are doing? Just what is all this shit?”—most of your current “phenomenons”, “heroes” and “artists” would just fold up a stupefied loss, tempermentally incapable (by virtue of the debilitating spoiled-brat life they’ve been living, even if they ever had any real pazazz in the first place—the oppressor is fat and weak, brothers!) of dealing with their constituency of wised-up marks on a one-to-one basis. They simply don’t have enough personality, enough brains or enough guts, your average popstar being neither very bright nor very aware of much that goes on outside his own glittering substratum, half lodged in fantasy, where ego and preening vanity are overfed and corrode substance like a constant diet of cocaine.
But the Stooges are one band that does have the strength to meet any audience on its own terms, no matter what manner of devilish bullshit that audience might think up (although they are usually too cowed by Ig’s psychically pugnacious assertiveness to do anything but gape and cringe slightly, snickering later on the drive home). Iggy is like a matador baiting the vast dark hydra sitting afront him—he enters the audience frequently to see what’s what and even from the stage his eyes reach out searingly, sweeping the joint and singling out startled strangers who’re seldom able to stare him down. It’s your stage as well as his and if you can take it away from him why, welcome to it. But the Kind of the Mountain must maintain the pace, and the authority, and few can. In this sense Ig is a true star of the most incredible kind—he has won that stage, and nothing but the force of his own presence entitles him to it.
Here’s this smug post-hippie audience, supposedly so loose, liberated, righteous and ravenous, the anarchic terror of middle Amerikan insomnia. These are the folks that’re always saying: “Someday, somebody’s gonna just bust that fucked up punk right in the chops!” And how many times have you heard people say of bands: “Man, what a shuck! I could get up there and cut that shit.”
Well, here’s your chance. The Stooge act is wide open. Do your worst, People, falsify Iggy and the Stooges, get your kicks and biffs. It’s your night!
No takers. They sit there, wide-eyed vegetative Wowers or sullen in a carapae carapace of Cool, unafraid or unable to react, to get out there in that arena which is nothing more than life, most often too cowed to even hurl a disappointing hoot stageward. And that is why most rock bands are so soporifically lazy these days, and also why the Stooges, and any other band that challenges its audience, is the answer. Power doesn’t go to the people, it comes from them, and when the people have gotten this passive nothing short of electroshock and personal exorcism will jolt them and rock them into some kind of fiercely healthy interaction.
Alice Cooper experiments along similar lines, but their routines are really just as old-hat as everybody else’s. Fling dead chickens and carting around props of every size and shape, utilizing splintery deluges of screaming feedback (Velvet Underground, 1965) to attack the nervous systems of the presumably uptight, latent or whatever section of the audience whilst raping their libidos with an outrageous blitz of shifting sexual identities and “perversions”—that’s just the old epater le bourgeois riff again, and for all the talk of Artaud and audiences convulsed with certain unstable souls in frothing fits, it still and f’rever will remain that A.C. is putting on a show in the hoary DC manner, and with fewer and fewer people game for sprained sexual sensibilities, since nobody gives a fuck anymore anyway, a seemingly futuristic band like this must fall back on its music, which is too bad, because there’s not much happening there outside the context of the act, as their records bear out. So Alice Cooper’s slithering around and doing methedrine somersaults in drag, so Jim Morrison finally showed the fans his cock, so what. It’s gonna get to the point where Mick Jagger can turn tinkling mandalas across the stage in troilist hubbub with three groupies performing simultaneous services at all his orifices while the Rolling Stones play on a “seemingly” (although the Deep Meaning contingent in each audience will still whisper desperate stabs at what it all Signifies—and the Stones will go on letting it bleed cross the decades into Sun City) unrelated stream of Chuck Berry riffs and Mick comes and the groupies groan and wet sparks fly everywhere like tickertape and no one in the crotch-jaded audience blinks an eye. Mark my words.
So gimmicks have had their day. Where does that leave us now? Where else: with Ig and the Stooges, whom it is finally my pleasure to return to. Because beside the mawkish posturings and nickelodeon emotings of _’s of the duds foisted on today’s public, the earthy brilliance, power and clarity of the Stooge music, though its basic components may resemble those ready-made musical materials lying around in the public domain like Tinkertoys for experimentation by every jerkoff group from Stockholm to San Diego—it will nevertheless shine in the dark carnivorous glow of its own genius.
The first thing to remember about Stooge music is that it is monotonous and simplistic on purpose, and that within the seemingly circumscribed confines of this fuzz-feedback territory the Stooges work deftly with musical ideas that may not be highly sophisticated (God forbid) but are certainly advanced. The stunningly simple two-chord guitar line mechanically reiterated all through “1969” on their first album, for instance, is nothing by itself, but within the context of the song it takes on a muted but very compelling power as an ominous, and yes, in the words of Ed Ward which were more perceptive (and more of an accolade) than he ever suspected, “mindless” rhythmic pulsation repeating itself into infinity and providing effective hypnotic counterpoint to the sullen plaint of Iggy’s words (and incidentally, Ig writes some of the best throwaway lines in rock, meaning some of the best lines in rock, which is basically a music meant to be tossed over the shoulder and off the wall: “Now I’m gonna be 22/I say My-my and-a Boo-hoo”—that’s classic—he couldn’t’ve picked a better line to complete the rhyme if he’d labored into 1970 and threw the I Ching into the bargain—Thank god somebody making rock ‘n’ roll records still has the good sense, understood by our zoot-jive forefathers but few bloated current bands, to know when to just throw down a line and let it lie).
And the fine guitar solo which followed also bears mention, counterposing as it did some distinctively non-excessive wah-wah against the technique of playing the tuning twigs instead of the frets, which was introduced to far-out rock by Lou Reed.
Now there’s a song just packed with ideas for you, simplistic and “stupid” though it may seem and well be. A trained monkey could probably learn to play that two-chord line underneath, but no monkey and very few indeed of their cousins half a dozen rungs up on the evolutionary ladder, the “heavy” white rock bands, could think of utilizing it in the vivid way it is here, with a simplicity so basic it’s almost pristine. Seemingly the most obvious thing in the world, I would call it a stroke of genius at least equal to Question Mark and the Mysterians’ endless one-finger one-key organ drone behind the choruses of “96 Tears,” which is one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time and the real beginning of my story, for it was indeed a complex chronology, the peculiar machinations of rock ‘n’ roll history from about 1965 on, which ultimately made the Stooges imperative.
Brief History Lesson
I used to hate groups like Question Mark and the Mysterians. They seemed to represent everything simpleminded and dead-endish about rock in a time when groups like the Who and the Yardbirds were writing whole new chapters of musical prophecy almost monthly; certainly we’ve never known music more advanced at the time of its inception than the likes of “I’m a Man,” “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” “My Generation” and “Shapes of Things.” The Yardbirds I especially idolized. Eventually, though, I wised up to the fact that the Yardbirds for all their greatness would finally fizzle out in an eclectic morass of confused experiments and bad judgments (like having Mickie Most produce them), and hardest of all to learn that the only spawn possible to them were lumbering sloths like Led Zeppelin, because the musicians in the Yardbirds were just too good, too accomplished and cocky to do anything but fuck up in the aftermath of an experiment that none of them seemed basically to understand anyway. And similarly, the Who, erupting with some of the most trail-blazing music ever waxed, got “good” and arty with subtle eccentric songs and fine philosophy, a steadily dilating rep, and all this accomplishment sailing them steadily further from the great experiment they’d begun.
So all these beautiful ideas and raw materials were just lying around waiting for anybody to pick them up and elaborate them further into vast baroque structures that would retain the primordial rock and roll drive whilst shattering all the accumulated straightjackets of key and time signature which vanguard jazz musicians had begun to dispose of almost a decade before. By now jazz was in the second stage of its finest experimental flowering, in that beautiful night of headlong adventure before the stale trailoff workaday era which has now set it. The Albert Ayler who is now spooning out quasi-cosmic concept albums cluttered with inept rock ripoff’s and sloppy playing, was then exploding with works like Spritual Unity’s freeflying Ozark-tinged “Ghosts,” and Archie Shepp had not yet passed from Fire Music into increasingly virulent Crow-Jim nihilism. Jazz was way out front, clearing a path into a new era of truly free music, where the only limits and imagination, a music that cut across all boundaries yet still made perfect sense and swung like no music had ever swung before.
Clearly, rock had a lot of catching up to do. We could all see the possibilities for controlling the distortions of Who/Yardbirds feedback and fuzz for a new free music that would combine the rambling adventurousness of the new free jazz with the steady, compelling heartbeat of rock, but the strange part was that nobody with these ideas seemed to play guitar or any of the necessary instruments, while all the budding guitarists weaned on Lonnie Mack and Dick Dale and Duane Eddy and now presumably ready to set out for the unknown were too busy picking up on the sudden proliferation of borrowed, more accessible forms that came with the 60’s renaissance. Christ, why go fuck with screaming noise when there were Mike Bloomfield and George Harrison’s newest ideas and all that folk rock to woodshed with?
About this time it also began to look like a decided majority of the rising bands were composed of ex-folkies, as opposed to previous waves whose roots had lain in 50’s rock and R & B but never crossed paths with the college mobs of coffee house banjo-pickers, who almost unanimously, from Kingston Trio frat sweaters to hip Baez/Lightnin’ Hopkins “purists,” looked down their noses at that ugly juvenile noise called rock ’n’ roll which they all presumed to have grown out of into more esthetically rewarding tastes (or, in other words, a buncha fuckin’ effete snobs).
Well, I never grew out of liking noise, from Little Richard to Cecil Taylor to John Cage to the Stooges, so I always like rock and grabbed hungrily at the Yardbirds/Who development, expecting great things. Meanwhile, all these folkies who grew out of the jolly Kennedy era camaraderie of “This Land is Your Land” singalongs into grass and increasing alienation were deciding that the rock ‘n’ roll stuff warn’t so bad: it, not they, was getting better (I’m sure I’m simplifying this a bit, but not much, I fear, not much). So they all got electric guitars and started mixing all the musics stored in their wee-educated little beans up together, and before we knew it we had Art-rock.
Some of the groups that came out of this watershed were among rock’s best ever: the Byrds, the early Airplane, etc. But the total effect, I think, was to set the experiment begun by those second-string English bands back by at least two years. You kept listening for something really creative and free to emerge from all the syntheses, but in the end it mostly just seemed competent and predictable. Raga-rock and other such phases with marginal potential came and went, and the Byrds did a few far-out but seldom followed-up things like “Eight Miles High,” while the Stones kept on being great following the trends like the old standbys they had already become. The Airplane hinted at a truly radical (in the musical sense) evolution in After Bathing at Baxter’s, but the most advanced statement they could seem to manage was the Sandy Bull-like standardized electric guitar raga of “Spare Chaynge.” Clearly something was wrong. Rock soaked up influences like some big sponge and went meandering on, but no one in the day’s pantheon would really risk it out on the outer-edge tightrope of true noise. 1967 brought Sgt. Pepper and psychedelia: the former, after our initial acid-vibes infatuation with it, threatening to herald an era of rock-as-movie-sound-track, and the latter suggesting the possibility of real (if most like unconscious) breakthrough in all the fuzztone and groping space jams. Even local bands were beginning to experiment with feedback but neither they nor the names they followed knew what to do with it.
Meanwhile, rumblings were beginning to be heard almost simultaneously on both coasts: Ken Kesey embarked the acid tests with the Grateful Dead in Frisco, and Andy Warhol left New York to tour the nation with his Exploding Plastic Inevitable shock show (a violent, sadomasochistic barrage on the senses and the sensibilities of which Alice Cooper is the comparatively innocuous comic book reflection) and the Velvet Underground. Both groups on both coasts claimed to be utilizing the possibilities of feedback and distortion, and both claimed to be the avatars of the psychedelic multimedia trend. Who got the jump on who between Kesey and Warhol is insignificant, but it seems likely that the Velvet Underground were definitely eclipsing the Dead from the start when it came to a new experimental music. The Velvets, for all the seeming crudity of their music, were interested in the possibilities of noise right from the start, and had John Cale’s extensive conservatory training to help shape their experiments, while the Dead seemed more like a group of ex-folkies just dabbling in distortion (as their albums eventually bore out).
By the time the Velvets recorded “Sister Ray,” they seemed to have carried the Yardbirds/Who project to its ultimate extension, and turned in their third album to more “conventionally” lyrical material. Also, their two largely experimental albums had earned them little more than derision (if not outright animosity) among critics and the listening audience at large. Their music, which might at first hearing seem merely primitive, unmusicianly and chaotic, had at its best sharply drawn subtleties and outer sonances cutting across a stiff, simplistic beat that was sometimes (“Heroin”) even lost, and many of the basic guitar lines were simple in the extreme when compared with the much more refined (but also more defined, prevented by its very form and purposes from ever leaping free) work of groups like the Byrds and Airplane. I was finally beginning to grasp something.
Sixties avant-garde jazz is in large part a very complex music. The most basic, classic rock, on the other hand, is almost idiotically simple, monotonous melodies over two or three chords and a four-four beat. What was suddenly becoming apparent was that there was no reason why you couldn’t play truly free music to a basic backbeat, gaining the best of both worlds. Many jazz drummers, like Milford Graves and Sonny Murray, were distending the beat into a whirling flurry that was almost arhythmic, or even throwing it out altogether. So if you could do that, why couldn’t you find some way of fitting some of the new jazz ideas in with a Question Mark and the Mysterians type format?
It was also becoming evident that the nascent generation of ex-folkie rock stars, like the British beat and R&B groups which preceded them in’64, were never going to get off their rich idolized asses to even take a fling at any kind of free music. They simply knew too much about established musical forms which the last three decades of this century should make moribund, and were too smug about it to do anything else. So the only hope for a free rock ‘n’ roll renaissance which would be true to the original form, rescue us from all this ill-conceived dilettantish pap so far removed from the soil of jive, and leave some hope for truly adventurous small-guitar-group experiments in the future, would be if all those ignorant teenage dudes out there learning guitar in hick towns and forming bands to play “96 Tears” and “Wooly Bully” at sock hops, evolving exposed to all the eclectic trips but relatively fresh and free too (at least they hadn’t grown up feeling snobbish about being among the intellectual elite who could appreciate some arcane folksong), if only they could somehow, some of them somewhere, escape the folk/Sgt. Pepper virus, pick up on nothing but roots and noise and the possibilities inherent in approaching the guitar fresh in the age of multiple amp distorting switches, maybe even get exposed to a little of the free jazz which itself seemed rapidly to be fading (in its finest and most piquant form) into its own kind of anachronism. Just maybe, given all those ifs, we might have some hope.
Well, maybe the gods were with us this time around, because sure enough it happened. On a small scale of course—the majority of people listening to and playing rock were still mired in blues and abortive “classical” hybrids and new shitkicker rock and every other conceivable manner of uninventively “artistic” jerkoff. But there were some bands coming up. Captain Beefheart burst upon us with the monolithic Trout Mask Replica, making history and distilling the best of both idioms into new styles and undreamed off, but somehow we still wanted something else, something closer to the mechanical, mindless heart of noise and the relentless piston rhythms which seemed to represent the essence both of American life and American rock ‘n’ roll.
Okay. Bands were sprouting and decaying like ragweed everywhere. The MC5 came on with a pre-records hype that promised the moon, failed to get off the launching pad. Black Pearl appeared with a promising first album—no real experiments, but a distinct Yardbirds echo in the metallic clanging cacophony of precisely distorted guitars. Their second LP fizzled out in bad soul music.
And, finally, the Stooges, The Stooges were the first young American group to acknowledge the influence of the Velvet Underground—and it shows heavily in their second album. There early Velvets had the good sense to realize that whatever your capabilities, music with a simple base was the best. Thus, “Sister Ray” evolved from a most basic funk riff 17 minutes into stark sound structures of incredible complexity. The Stooges started out not being able to do anything else but play rock-bottom simple—they formed the concept of the band before half of them knew how to play, which figures—probably just another bunch of disgruntled cats with ideas watching all the bullshit going down. Except that the Stooges decided to do something about it. None of them have been playing their instruments for more than two or three years, but that’s good—now they won’t have to unlearn any of the stuff which ruins so many other promising young musicians: flash blues, folk-pickin’, Wes Montgomery style jazz, etc. Fuck that, said Asheton and Alexander, we can’t play it anyway, so why bother trying to learn? Especially since even most of those styles’ virtuosos are so fucking boring you wonder how anyone with half a brain can listen to them.
Cecil Taylor, in A. B. Spellman’s moving book Four Lives in the Bebop Business, once told a story about an experience he had in the mid-fifties, when almost every clubowner, jazz writer and listener in New York was turned off to his music because it was still so new and so advanced that they could not begin to grasp it yet. Well, one night he was playing in one of these clubs when in walked this dude off the street with a double bass and asked if he could sit in. Why not, said Taylor, even though the cat seemed very freaked out. So they jammed, and it soon became apparent to Taylor that the man had never had any formal training on bass, knew almost nothing about it beyond the basic rudiments, and probably couldn’t play one known song or chord progression. Nothing. The guy had just picked up the bass, decided he was going to play it, and a very short time later walked cold into a New York jazz club and bluffed his way onto the bandstand. He didn’t even know how to hold the instrument, so he just explored as a child would, pursuing songs or evocative sounds through the tangles of his ignorance. And after awhile, Taylor said, he began to hear something coming out, something deeply felt and almost but never quite controlled, veering between a brand new type of song which cannot be taught because it comes from an unschooled innocence which cuts across known systems, and chaos, which playing the player and spilling garble, sometimes begins to write its own songs. Something was beginning to take shape which, though erratic, was unique in all this world. Quite abruptly, though, the man disappeared again, most likely to freak himself to oblivion, because Taylor never saw or heard of him again. But he added that if the cat had kept on playing, he would have been one of the first great free bassists.
The Stooges’ music is like that. It comes out of a primal illiterate chaos gradually taking shape as a uniquely personal style, emerges from a tradition of American music that runs from the primordial wooly rags of backwoods bands up to the magic promise eternally made and occasionally fulfilled by rock: that a band can start out bone-primitive, untutored and uncertain, and evolve into a powerful and eloquent ensemble. It’s happened again and again: the Beatles, Kinks, Velvets, etc. But the Stooges are probably the first name group to actually form before they even knew how to play. This is possibly the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll story, because rock is mainly about beginnings, about youth and uncertainty and growing through and out of them. And asserting yourself way before you know what the fuck you’re doing. Which answers the question raised earlier of what the early Stooges’ adolescent mopings had to do with rock ‘n’ roll. Rock is basically an adolescent music, reflecting the rhythms, concerns and aspirations of a very specialized age group. It can’t grow up—when it does, it turns into something else which may be just as valid but is still very different from the original. Personally I believe that real rock ‘n’ roll maybe on the way out, just like adolescence as a relatively innocent transitional period is on the way out. What we will have instead is a small island of new free music surrounded by some good reworking of past idioms and a vast Sargasso sea of absolute garbage. And the Stooges’ songs may have some of the last great rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, because everybody else seems either too sophisticated at the outset or hopelessly poisoned by the effects of big ideas on little minds. A little knowledge is still a dangerous thing.
Now, however, that we have cleared up some of the misconceptions and established the Stooges’ place in the rock tradition, we can at long last get on to the joyous task of assessing Funhouse. The first thing you notice about it is that it is much rawer and seemingly more erratic than the first album. In fact, the precise clarity of that set would seem now to be a John Cale false alarm. His influence on it was always apparent: the viola, of course, in “We Will Fall,” and the insistent, monotonous piano note piercing like weird sleighbells through “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is very reminiscent of the piano solo on the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting For the Man.” It seems probable now that Cale both made the Stooges’ music more monotonous than it really was (although it’s still fairly monotonous—it’s just that the new monotony is so intensely sustained that you can’t get bored), and “cleaned it up” some to make the premiere disc a definite statement, with all of Iggy’s vocals absolutely intelligible and the instrumental sections precisely defined, if a bit restrained. The first set, on the whole, sounded almost more like a John Cale Production than whatever band the Stooges might be, and so we who had never heard them live looked forward to the second but nourished serious reservations about their musical abilities. They’d gotten very bad press—Chris Hodenfield had called them “stoned sloths” making “boring, repressed music [which] I suspect appeals to boring, repressed people” (hmmm, certainly would hate to be one of those—whaddaya hafta be, some sick creep to like the Stooges?—well, I guess Grand Funk is safer—but, on the other hand, might that not be the defensive reaction of people who’re afraid they might be sick creeps and read their own nightmares into the Stooge story—just like so many people just absolutely hated the Velvet Underground for so long, and still do, one prominent Rolling Stone critic asking me when I asked him whether he’d heard White Light/White Heat: “Are they still doing fag stuff?”—no, friend, not to worry—they’re doing MUSIC). And Robert Christgau wrote of fleeing a room where the Stooges were playing with a pounding headache, desperate to get away from them. Are they really that bad, or is so much critical revulsion an almost sure sign that there’s something important going on here? Just like reading about Mighty Quick raising a whole roomful of Movement people to nigh homicidal wrath (“Off the pig band!”) at the Alternative Media Conference—anybody who can piss off that many people just be standing on a stage and going through an act, no matter how bad it might be, must have something going for ‘em.
The first time I played Funhouse I got very turned off. I had hoped that at least some of the clarity of the first LP would hang on. I put it on, turned it up, and listened through headphones because it was near midnight. Every song sounded exactly the same, the textures seemed mighty muddy, as if the instruments were just grinding on in separate universes, and Iggy’s vocals seemed much less distinctive than on the first—more like just any hollering kid. Also, I could make out almost none of the words. The last straw was the instrumental, “L.A. Blues,” which closes side two—it just seemed to freakout.
“Dirt” is a specific ballad of the only stripe possible in this post-romantic era: terse personal assessment and flat-out proposition. “I’ve been hurt!/But I don’t care… I’ve been dirt!/But I don’t care…Cause I’m learnin’… Learrnin’…” And later: “It’s the fire/Do you feel it when you touch me…”
“Dirt’s” instrumental track is fine, bitter and somehow proud at the same time, and its thematic material seems to sum up all the adolescent moonings of The Stooges and file them away as past history. Iggy, having suffered the sorrows of Young Werther and every other type of freaking frustration, has finally stepped out of the night of inertia into his own strange madmanhood, schooled in blows and ready to take on the world. Right on. I wondered why, when the crowd in that TV show hoisted him on their arms and shoulders, he clenched his fists, puffed out his chest and flexed in the classic Charles Atlas manner (which looks pretty funny when the flexer is a skinny wildeyed kid pouring sweat)—he was rather pugnaciously asserting his newfound resilence and toughness: “Here I am, babies. I, Iggy, have conquered—do your worst!”
Side two, like the first, shapes up with steadily rising energies, but the emphasis and pacing is different. Only three songs, the introduction of a sax, and progressions (at least in the first two songs) which again seem directly or organically related. “I Feel Alright (1970)” is probably the set’s weakest song, not counting “L.A. Blues” which is ungradeable. Somehow the arrangement lacks the tight hysteria of the pieces on side one, and for once the sense of raving disorder seems closer to actual sloppiness than a swirling energy vector. The words echo Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me, ” but still make it fine as a Saturday night getloose party song, although the song’s general haziness and sense of disorientation make you wonder just what sort of party he’s going to. Certainly ain’t no whooping bash, because while on side one you always know exactly where you are through each electric storm, this one finds Ig and the whole band just sort of wandering around in the murk.
“Feel Alright’s” saving grace is the appearance of snazzy saxman Steve McKay, whose work through the whole of this side bears no slighting. For some reason very few young white “rock” sax players can handle jazz forms without getting into one sort of mawkish woodshed parody or another, and when they attempt the free music of the Shepp/Ayler fringe the results regularly sink even lower. Somehow they always seem to end up merely gargling out some most untogether flurry of notes, their fingers skittering carelessly over the keys as if that were all that free jazz, in reality a fierce taskmaster, required. That’s all it requires to blow shit, but playing the real shit takes a specialized imagination and sense of control. Steve, thank god, has enough of both to make his solos and ensemble fills interesting in their own right, and treads a fine though constantly zigzagging line between the post-Coltrane approach and a great old primitive rock ‘n’ roll honk.
The title track is next, longest cut, opens with same Ig vocal chorus as “Feel Alright,” and features a stomping, slamming arrangement that charges right ahead in a blustery delirium. Early on the guitar starts meandering Lou Reed-style behind Iggy’s vocal, and MacKay maintains a gutty percussive blat, interspersed with occasional restless flurries of plaintive squawks. The set’s most gloriously “sloppy” piece, it creaks and cranks and crackles along like some peglegged Golem hobbling toward carny Bethlehem. The lyrics and Ig’s delivery are choice, a vision of delirious kids cascading through garish phantasmagorias of sideshow and steeplechase, with the Funhouse seemingly a sort of metaphor for the fully integrated, getloose life-style, all recited by Iggy with a kind of lunatic glee: “Little baby gurl and little/Bay-buh boy/Covered me with lovin’ in a/Bundle o’ joy/Do I care to show ya whut I’m/Dreamin’ of/Do I dare tuh fuck ya/With mah luve?” The “fuck” comes out as a high wheezing whoop, and then he adds: “evah little baby knows just/What I mean/Livin’ in a division, in the/Shiftin’ sands/I’m callin’ from the funhouse. . .”
And finally there’s “L.A. Blues,” the searing arhythmic freak-out which drove me to distraction first hearing and which I’ve since come to kind of dig on its own level as more a steaming, stormy atmosphere than a piece of music. I prefer things that swing or rock or even shuffle—although I’ve heard many similar freakouts on both rock and jazz albums, and this one beats all of those from other rock bands and most of the jazz. Somehow after a couple of listenings it’s not grating, the way Yoko Ono or Archie Shepp’s angrier outings or even “European Son” gets grating. The Stooges seem to know what they’re doing—most times I rip such aural blitzes off the phonograph posthaste (even a Stooge fan’s ears take sensitive exception to some outer-edge tonalities—in fact, I would say that a true Stooge fan, like a true aficionado of Captain Beefheart or the Velvet Underground or Pharaoh Sanders, probably has a couple of the ten thousand or so most sensitive ears on the planet, since they are sufficiently developed to appreciate that Stooge magic which so escapes dullards). In fact, the other night I fell in well-stoked with ozone, listened to “L.A. Blues” and really got behind it in a big way—seemed like some vast network of golden metal pulleys rising infinitely into the sky—not that I expect any of the folks around the hearth to heed them kind of psychedelic testimonials. What I do notice through repeated playings is that Iggy is up to some of the album’s most abstract vocal tricks here—his voice at times takes on the timbre of one more distorted amplifier, later screams like a wildcat suffering the short end of a boxing match, and at one point sounds as if he is trying to sing through a mouthful of radiator coils. The fading feedback of the song’s last minute, however, finds him returning ever so briefly for a signoff reminiscent of Porky Pig’s in the old Warner Brothers cartoons: curled up atop the massed metal wreckage of the past five minutes, he’s once again the wildcat, considerably quieter now, emitting two low purring yawns, smiling, sleepy, sated.
Well, that’s just about it. My labors have been strenuous but thorough, and by rights every last bleary orb running down these last works should be satorized and sold on Pop & Co. Yet somehow I still hear a horde of sluggards out there whining: “Are you putting me on?” Or, more fundamentally, haven’t the Stooges been putting us all on from yelp One? And the answer, of course, is Yes. Because, as beautiful Pauline Kael put it in her characteristically epigrammatic way: “To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at Bonnie & Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they’re not stooges—that they appreciate the joke—when they catch the first bullet right in the face.
Some of the most powerful “esthetic” experiences of our time, from Naked Lunch to Bonnie & Clyde, set their audiences up just this way, externalizing and magnifying their secret core of sickness which is reflected in the geeks they mock and the lurid fantasies they consume, just as our deepest fears and prejudices script the jokes we tell each other. This is where the Stooges work. They mean to put you on that stage, which is why they are supermodern, though nothing near to Art. In Desolation Row and Woodstock-Altamont Nation the switchblade is mightier and speaks more eloquently than the penknife. But this threat is cathartic, a real cool time is had by all, and the end is liberation.
|Released||July 7, 1970|
|Recorded||May 11–25, 1970|
|Studio||Elektra Sound Recorders in Los Angeles|