Open Up and Read
One of the things that made the Stooges such a potent force in pop music was their triple-welded bonding of form and theme. There had been a million pop groups prior to the Stooges that banged out heartfelt songs of adolescent angst and sexual frustration, but none of them reflected the truly dangerous aspects of feral youth.
There were, of course, a few true wild men like Jerry Lee Lewis and Jim Morrison, but somehow it all seemed academic until Iggy Pop stripped himself to the waist and began prowling the stage like a mutt in heat, snarling out perverse and subversive lines like “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.” No band prior to the Stooges had even tried to capture the dumb, psychotic limbo of teenage American suburbia, and if they had, they’d never have delved so deep or captured it so perfectly.
The beast the Stooges conjured was made of boredom and resentment, of freedom deferred, and the universal fear of growing old. While most popular music of the Stooges’ day tried to lull the beast to sleep (Wings, anybody?), Iggy and his gang of Motor City creeps coaxed the beast from its lair, gave it ten hits of acid, and set it free on Main Street, where it terrorized the old and fascinated the young.
Today, in 2009 America, the kids all know how to snap, growl and grovel like the dog Iggy wanted to be, but only a few of them really understand what it means, which should have been the point of The Stooges: The Authorized and Illustrated Story. Here was an opportunity to place the Stooges in their proper historical context, as the first rock ‘n’ roll band to tell the truth about the spiritual emptiness and emotional paucity of youth in the modern age, without any sense of irony or pretension, without claiming to speak for their generation, and without offering any phony solutions or marshmallow-flavored platitudes. But instead, author Robert Matheu describes the book as “…an unabashed celebration of a band that started out with no discernable talent but through vision, creativity, and sheer force of will managed to not only survive but ultimately triumph…” In other words, the book comes off a bit like an infomercial for a product called The Stooges.
Let’s start off with the foreword by ‘70s glam-rocker Alice Cooper. Now, I love Alice as much as the next aging punk rocker, but judging from his contribution to the Stooges book, I couldn’t possibly love Alice as much as he does. The one-page foreword that somehow earned him a photo on the dust sleeve reads more like a transcribed interview in which Alice spends most of his time talking about himself, sprinkling the conversation with backhanded compliments regarding Stooges members he admits he barely knew.
The book gets better from there, but is ultimately marred by a committee approach to the writing, in which it seems like everyone involved assumes one of the other writers will spill the real dirt about the band. Of course, nobody does, which makes the book read as if it has been sanitized for the reader’s protection.
Mattheu, a longtime Stooges fan and pal of the band, doles out biographical tidbits in a workmanlike manor and then leaves the chore of album analysis to a cast that includes: former Creem writer turned industry journalist Dave DiMartino; Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell; I-was-a-teenage-Stooges-fan-and you-weren’t scribe Ivan Suvanjieff; and Canadian Creemster Machine Rock, aka Jeffrey Morgan. The post-mortem reviews of the Stooges studio output are competently written and accessible to the uninitiated, though the writers don’t endeavor to add new insights for diehard Stooges fans.
You have to feel a bit sorry for Ben Blackwell, the youngest of the writers, as he is saddled with the task of dissecting Funhouse, a job that Lester Bangs definitively nailed to the wall back in 1970. The final review of the book also makes one pity Jeffrey Morgan, as he apparently drew the shortest straw and had to effusively praise the Stooges 2007 reunion album, The Weirdness, a disc that is widely reviled for sullying the Stooges’ three-perfect-album catalogue. In the end, Morgan has to actually dare the reader to listen to it.
The book also offers some awkward praise for the recently departed Ron Asheton, whose untimely death in January 2009 likely pushed publication back a few months. It barely mentions Ron’s brother and Stooges drummer Steve Asheton, and probes very little into the uneasy relationship between the sometimes arrogant Pop and the brothers Asheton. Bad blood is alluded to between the Ashetons and James Williamson, who inexplicably replaced Ron as guitarist on Raw Power, at which point the touchy subject is dropped. Even less ink is wasted on original bassist Dave Alexander, whose early-onset alcoholism caused him to drop out of high school at 17, get kicked out of the Stooges at 22 and die of pancreatitis at age 27.
The most curious thing about the book is that, in contrast to already accepted Stooges history, Iggy Pop somehow comes out looking like a saint. Washed away are the drug binges, hospital visits, freakouts, bad solo albums, jailbait groupies and most of the other embarrassing things Iggy has endured. In scrubbing his legacy, the authors of The Stooges, seem to have degraded the Pop legend rather than burnishing it. It wouldn’t be so bad if the writers didn’t constantly tease us with facts they aren’t willing to share. Matheu even goes so far as to write, “You want Iggy stories? We got a million of ’em…” But does he tell any? No.
Even when the narrative demands details, Matheu leaves us hanging, as when Elektra Records executives drop the band from the company’s roster after seeing something unpalatable at Ron Asheton’s house. Writes Matheu, “Everyone retired to Ron’s room for refreshments and saw his vintage collection of… the whole, the whole place was… well, it’s, it’s too horrible to describe.” Is this a joke? What is the purpose of a biography that hints at scandal and yet refuses to divulge details? (The fact that Asheton collected Nazi memorabilia must have been an issue too problematic for Matheu to go into. Anyway, there are better sources of Stooges dirt out there, like Pop’s own auto-bio, I want More; Paul Tynka’s Open Up and Bleed; Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me, etc.)
The Stooges Authorized is really more of a coffee table book than an actual biography, and as such, it’s more about the pictures than anything else. The photos are gigantic and wonderfully reproduced, spanning all the years the Stooges were active. Most of the famous shots are here, like the one in which Iggy strides across a crowd like Jesus walking on water. There are outtakes from all the album and promo shoots, including more than few that I’d never seen.
There are also a lot of photos that have probably never been used before because they’re either blurry or underexposed, and a few of these are at least interesting. Then there are the more recent photos of the post-reunion Stooges, including about 50 shots of pushing-60 Iggy with his shirt off, chest vein bulging, humping an amp, hair flying in the breeze from an industrial fan, looking thoughtful, etc. Rounding off the menagerie are a few snaps of fill-in bassist and punk pioneer Mike Watt, looking like one of the gang amidst the remarkably well-preserved Stooges.
If the point of The Stooges Authorized is to create a definitive history of the band, it fails. If the goal is to provide a biographical sketch for the casual fan and some eye candy to peruse while getting high and listening to Funhouse, it easily succeeds. If the aim is to provide waiting room material for record company coffee tables in the hopes of finally getting Saint Iggy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it just might get the job done.