DETROIT — Seven tries. Seven strikeouts.
Surely you can forgive Iggy Pop a little skepticism about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When he got the news in mid-December — his Stooges had finally, mercifully made the hall of fame cut — the front man’s reaction was understandable.
“My first thought was, ‘OK — now what are they going to do to kick us out?’”
The line is followed by Iggy’s familiar cackle, but you get the sense he’s only half joking. Iggy’s favorite version of the Stooges story is that of the snake-bitten band — a tale of bad breaks, missed chances and untimely self-destruction for a group that cut its teeth on the vaunted Detroit scene of the late 1960s.
But it’s probably about time we added “redemption” to that list: The little-band-that-couldn’t is now officially the historic force that has. Reunited in 2003 amid hosannas from younger acts who fully grasped the Stooges’ musical import, the band has enjoyed a new lease on life, marred only by last year’s unexpected death of founding guitarist Ron Asheton.
On March 15, Iggy and his bandmates — including Asheton’s brother, drummer Scott — will step before a tuxedoed crowd at New York’s Waldorf Astoria to graciously accept induction into the rock hall, joining the 2010 class of ABBA, Genesis, the Hollies and Jimmy Cliff. As is custom, the group will get a performance slot, during which the Stooges will play what Iggy sardonically describes as “our two big hits.” (He won’t divulge names.)
He’d given up on the prospect.
“It’s an honor,” says the 62-year-old Iggy. “And I do think the group belongs there. If you’re going to take the honor at face value — ignoring the corruption that’s endemic to any institution — then it’s great. I mean, Fats Domino! Come on. It’s all the great musicians from a great music form.”
The Stooges became eligible for the rock hall way back in 1994, a quarter-century after the release of their self-titled debut record. What followed was like a replay of the band’s early days, when respect from hipster quarters failed to convert into a broader embrace. Seven times the Stooges made the nomination round, handpicked by a committee of rock experts; seven times they were shot down at the finish line by the 500 writers and executives who make up the hall’s electorate.
“I kept hearing it’s a bunch of 40- to 60-year-old guys,” says Iggy of the balloters. “It’s funny to me: I still think like a kid, so when I hear ‘males 40 to 60,’ I think, ‘Ugh, yeah, they hate us.’ Then I realized, wait a minute — that means they’re all younger than me.”
That cackle emerges again — a glimpse of the infectious, devil-may-care vibe that still permeates everything Iggy. It was the same spirit that guided classic work like “Funhouse” and “Raw Power,” the latter slated for a deluxe boxed-set release April 13. The Stooges’ primal rock maelstrom, a sinewy blast of punk and metal before those genres had names, was Detroit through and through.
The Stooges got a taste of hall of fame pizzazz in 2008, when Madonna enlisted them for her induction performance, welcoming the band onstage as “another ass-kicker from Michigan.” Hours before the show, Ron Asheton had spoken with obvious bemusement about the whole odd affair.
“Basically she was upset that we’ve been nominated so many times and never made it, so she asked us to play in protest,” he said. It wasn’t the first time: The previous year’s closing jam session saw inductees whipping up a version of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
The Madonna night was to be Asheton’s lone hall of fame appearance. Within 10 months he was dead, having succumbed to a heart attack at home in Ann Arbor.
Filling the guitar role now is a returned James Williamson, whose gritty, roaring riffs drove the Stooges’ “Raw Power” in 1973. He left the rock ‘n’ roll life in 1976, and embarked on a business career that made him a vice president with Sony Electronics.
Williamsons’ wife, daughter and son will be on hand for the ceremony March 15, the latest high point in what’s been a whirlwind few months since he rejoined the band.
Williamson was deep into his globetrotting executive life in the ‘90s as the Stooges’ historical revisionism kicked in. Amid the rise of Nirvana, punk’s rebirth and the garage-rock revival, the once-beleaguered Detroit band was getting a positive reassessment, two decades after its inglorious split.
“It was astonishing to me,” Williamson recalls. “I didn’t believe it, having lived through the rejection of the Stooges by everybody. Literally, our tours were like death marches through the country. Everyone hated us.
“So when people started giving us all these accolades, calling me for interviews, I thought they were just blowing smoke.”
Grande Ballroom founder Russ Gibb was in the thick of it all in 1968 when the Stooges arrived on the Detroit scene from Ann Arbor, honing what became a legendary live show. Gibb, who saw Iggy Pop take the Grande stage wrapped in aluminum foil, singing into a prop toilet bowl, is convinced the herky-jerky front man invented the art of stage-diving with his high-charged Detroit audiences.
He also gets why the Stooges faced a long haul to the rock hall. It was the same struggle he saw years ago, when the band captivated its hometown while failing to stir outsiders. Rock culture may have couched itself against the conventional establishment, but the Stooges grated against rock’s own established conventions.
“Early on, the people who liked them were the avant garde — the kids who had long hair long before anyone else in Michigan, wearing bell-bottoms, who liked their music loud,” says Gibb. “There’s always this group of people who are doing things the great masses don’t catch on to.
“Part of the problem the Stooges had is their base was here in Michigan. It became a very intense fan club. But New York and L.A. didn’t catch on. So the belly of the beast was filled, but nobody else understood what they’d eaten. Iggy put a show to rock ‘n’ roll before rock ‘n’ roll understood it had a show to put on.”
Iggy takes it all in stride. He may not be convinced he’s made it until he’s handed a plaque on March 15. He needed some reassurance from friends after the December news.
“No, you don’t understand — you’re in it. They can’t kick you out,” he recounts their telling him. “And even if they do, at least you’ve been in it.”
ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTIONS
8:30 p.m. ET March 15