stooge n. One who allows oneself to be used for another's profit or advantage.
TORONTO — I'm looking at a yellowing 4 inch-by-5 inch newspaper ad that I clipped from the entertainment section of a Detroit daily 30 years ago, one which proclaims in no uncertain terms that "the bizarre" Iggy and the Stooges will be "in concert" Friday, Oct. 5, and Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Michigan Palace ("Bagley at Grand River, downtown") with White Witch and Public Foot Roman, all for the one low price of five bucks.
Prominent in the ad is a head-and-shoulders detail of Mick Rock's famous photograph of Iggy with his hand contorted behind his back, open palm extended over his head. You know the pose: when a similar sinister hand ominously appeared over Paul (is dead) McCartney's head on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's, it was Uncle Russ Gibb at WKNR-FM who first discovered that this was an Indian death sign. How thoughtful of Iggy, then, to save his enemies the trouble by hexing himself.
And to drive "the bizarre" point home, someone in the art department has taken the additional step of whitening Iggy's crazed eyes around the pupils so they stand out in stark contrast against his silk-screened face like two luminous Lugosian zombie orbs.
However, contrary to what the small print on the notorious live album Metallic KO would have you believe, that sonic slugfest, recorded at the Michigan Palace on that same fateful Saturday night of Oct. 6, 1973, was not "the last-ever Iggy and the Stooges show." Lord knows in retrospect that it probably should have been, but it most certainly wasn't.
How can I say this with such unimpeachable authoritative certainty? Because I also happen to be looking at a ticket stub from another downtown venue, this time located at 287 Spadina Ave. in Toronto, called the Victory Theatre. Which was a genteel way of referring to the Victory Burlesque, a storied strip emporium where illustrious cleavage heavers such as Alexandria The Great 38 would regularly strut their stuff down the long center runway which bisected the seats some 10 rows deep.
On the evening of Friday, Jan. 25, 1974, however, the Vic was home to another famous peeler; one who was minimally described on the $4.40 ticket simply as "Iggy."
Take it from me: Anytime you see a performer's handle printed on the ticket in actual quotation marks — like he's some kind of gibbering circus freak to be held distastefully at arm's length — it's a sure bet that some self-anointed arbiter of good taste has deemed the headliner to be little more than a gimmick-laden, transitory flash in the pan with an unbecoming name that's straight outta Slang Junction. Kinda like another ticket had warned me about the "Beatles" in 1964.
But designations can be deceiving because this was no mere solo "Iggy" show: It was nothing less than a full-bore performance by those madcap Stooges who, four months after their "last ever" show, were still hitting the road on their Raw Power tour. And so the kohl-eyed faithful and the curious alike dutifully lined up to pay homage to that astonishing album and gawk at the (hopefully still) living legend and his band of scary men who recorded it.
It was loud and it was frantic. Iggy spun up and down the stripper's runway in a bitched-out ballet ensemble while James Williamson, resplendent himself in a bat-winged collar, shredded the air with soaring solos of sheer surgical precision. And as the band spewed out the sludgiest soundstew known to man, Iggy perched precariously at the end of the runway and proceeded to slash himself silly with a borrowed plastic take-out knife, spraying bright speckles of blood into the seats around him with each involuntary spasmodic twitch.
Sound too good to be true? You bet, because that's not what happened at all — it's only how I'd like to have remembered it. What you just read was a voluble accounting of the Iggy Myth which, truth be told, was in large part what brought us to the Vic in the first place. What we actually got, however, was quite a few rungs down from that on the legend ladder.
Oh sure, the volume was distorto loud, all right. And yes, there was a fair degree of thrift store sartorial splendor on display — that is, when the star of our show wasn't doing his periodic obligatory shtick of diving into the audience with wild, shirtless abandon.
But the main problem was that although the Stooges were still hitting the road, the road was beginning to hit back with an ever-increasing impatient fury at five guys who simply would not stay down. Absorbing life's punches on swaying rubber legs, they continued to take standing eight count after standing eight count while steadfastly refusing to kiss the canvas.
Which, although admirable, meant in reality that this was just another rock show at a strip joint that was desperately fighting for its life to survive in a straight-laced city as an alternative entertainment venue.
No, scratch that. Actually, it wasn't just another rock show at the Vic. Bereft of any real passion, it was much worse than that: it was boring. Sure, Iggy generated enough convulsive kinetic energy to light up a small prison but, as any porn star will tell you, energy in and of itself, by itself, does not equal passion.
And my problem was that I knew first hand what real Detroit rock ’n’ roll passion was. Because exactly two years prior to this I had been in a university common room waiting to see a band that was three hours late showing up for an 8 o' clock start time. Why were they late? Because all three band members had to personally drive themselves and their equipment all the way from the Motor City to Toronto. In the middle of the blizzard. To play for fewer than a hundred fans. At a comic book convention.
But then again, that's what Survival Of The Fittest-era Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes did for a living: they delivered the goods. Literally. When you booked the Amboy Dukes, you got the Amboy Dukes, no matter what.
So when the Dukes finally did show up sometime after 11 that night, covered from head to toe with snow like war-torn Vikings in a Frazetta painting, they set out to set up and then proceeded to play one of the greatest shows I've ever seen.
All of which meant that, short of a Kubrickian planet alignment, it was highly unlikely that the Stooges would be as good as the Dukes had been two years earlier. But there was no doubt whatsoever that these crusty young coots would blow the doors off every other lesser luminary who was just starting out, right?
Well, let's consult the Stooge Scoreboard and see, shall we?
Were they as good as Rush had been when Geddy and the boys played their first-ever gig in front of a paying audience at the Vic? Uh, no.
Were they as good as Kiss had been when Gene and the boys showed up at the Vic to promo their Dressed To Kill album? Again, no.
But surely, if there's a god in heaven, they must have been at least as good, if not quantumly better, than the New York Dolls, fer crissakes, when Buster and the girls hit the boards at the Vic, right?
Are you kidding? Compared to Iggy, David Johansen took up permanent residency on that runway. He worked the crowd like a seasoned pro from it. Even better than that, he had fun on it.
Speaking of which, what of Mr. Funhouse himself? What did Iggy do to earn his keep while James Williamson was busy playing long solos? The world's forgotten boy did just that — he made himself scarce by splitting the scene. Iggy would literally pull a Snagglepuss and exit, stage left. Then, once he was safely hidden from view by the side curtain, he'd calmly smoke a cigarette and wait until it was time for him to get back into character again. At which point he'd pick himself up and start all over again by lurching back into the spotlight to play the brain-damaged geek anew.
And as I watched this, I couldn't help but wonder: Who's the stooge?
But despite my disappointment, I didn't give up on Iggy because I figured everyone's entitled to an off night once in a while. Besides, since I'd conned the promoter into giving me a free ticket on the fraudulent grounds that I would be covering the concert for Creem magazine, it wasn't as if I were out the four and a half bucks, right?
Also, another reason I had for keeping the faith was that his next album, the demo tape discharge Kill City, had some solid songs on it with more than a few great lines littering the soundscape. ("I'm living in Kill City where the debris meets the sea. It's a playground to the rich but it's a loaded gun to me.")
Then came the release of those two meisterwacks of Teutonic turpitude, Die Idiot and Lusten Für Life, both of which so sufficiently convinced me of Iggy's stability that once again I used the old Creem gambit (albeit legitimately this time) to scrounge up another ticket and go see him perform, this time in a small college gymnasium, backed by Tin Machine.
And while he still scaled the speaker cabinets like a sherpa on Everest, this new improved Pop also hit his marks and recited his lines in a professional (if still perfunctory) manner, just like a well-mannered boy should. From now on, stray steak knives and proffered peanut butter jars would be implements of the past.
After that he reunited with Williamson to record New Values which had even more good songs with great lines. ("I'm as healthy as a horse. Ah, but everything is spinning.") So far so good, even when the quick one-two punch of Soldier and Party evidenced a slight dip in quality.
But then that self-inflicted five-fingered hoodoo surfaced to make itself manifest in the form of Zombie Birdhouse, an abysmal album of abominable atrociousness. Then came the aptly-named Blah Blah Blah, which sucked sucked sucked. But despite being almost as lame in the content department, Instinct was nevertheless a marked improvement thanks to Steve Jones' no-nonsense guitar and Bill Laswell's crisp, monastic production.
Brick By Brick, however, was a straw house that easily blew down. And aside from the first and last tracks, American Caesar was also a lost campaign. As for Naughty Little Doggie, well, it's at that point that the Iggy-Go-Round finally slowed down enough for me to step off. Because if there's one thing I can't stand, it's a guy with a ton of innate talent who refuses to use it.
And yeah, I know: Brick By Brick was Iggy's first bona fide gold album that give him his first Top-20 single. Big deal. That and a token will get me in the subway because the last truly great Iggy album that I've bought in the last four years was Rhino’s The Complete 1970 Funhouse Sessions.
Listen to that astounding seven-hour aural document and see if maybe you haven't forgotten somewhere along the way what Iggy used to be capable of. I sure haven't — and that's why I personally hold him to a much higher standard of accountability than the lame pop smear of "Candy," even if you and he don’t anymore. Just because Iggy’s last name is short form for "popular" doesn't mean it has to be shorthand for "lazy."
As a result, don’t ask me about Avenue B or Beat ’Em Up because I haven't heard either one. They may make Raw Power look like TV Eye but I'll never know it because, as a great philosopher once said — I believe it was Donna Summer — I work too hard for my money to keep throwing it into the aesthetic black hole known as the Jim Osterberg Retirement Fund.
So you’ll excuse me if I’m somewhat less than enthused about a new Stooges reunion, having seen the first one hit the ground crawling some 30 years ago.
Having said all that, however, hope still springs eternal in my rock ’n’ roll heart, which is why I sincerely hope that they’ll get it right this time, 30 years on.
And speaking of getting it right, I see that Iggy has a new album coming out at the end of September called Skull Ring. The fact that he’s named it after an idiotic piece of jewelry that Keith Richards compulsively wears (and looks more like with each passing day) does not bode well unless, of course, he makes fun of 60-year-old men who do happen to wear stupid accessories like skull rings and handcuff bracelets.
But I do have to admit that a few of Iggy's new song titles show a slight stench of potential, especially "Perverts In The Sun" and "Dead Rock Star." So if Metro Times sees fit to assign me Skull Ring to review later this year, I'll give it a fair shake; something which, speaking as an album-buying consumer, is a hell of a lot more than Mr. Pop's done for me in recent decades.
Remember, Ig: Just because you’re still here sucking air doesn't mean that your albums have to suck too.
We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.
Iggy and the Stooges will perform Thursday, August 14, at the DTE Energy Music Theater (Sashabaw Road off I-75, Clarkston) with Sonic Youth and Von Bondies. For info, call 248-645-6666. Jeffrey Morgan was, and is, the Canadian editor for Creem magazine. E-mail [email protected]