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The Stooges take 34 years off and become punk legends

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

The Stooges once made groundbreaking, life-altering music, and they paid dearly for it. Now more than three decades after they came and went, the Stooges have returned, acknowledged as legends and basking in unprecedented respect, adulation and cash.

The Stooges once made groundbreaking, life-altering music, and they paid dearly for it. Now more than three decades after they came and went, the Stooges have returned, acknowledged as legends and basking in unprecedented respect, adulation and cash.

But old reputations die hard, as Stooges singer Iggy Pop found while recording "O Solo Mio" in Chicago last October, one of about 40 songs he co-wrote to be considered for inclusion on The Weirdness (Virgin), the first Stooges album in 34 years, out this week.

Pop describes the song with a hearty laugh: "It's very, very difficult, very long and almost monotonous. It's the story of my miserable life."

After the band recorded it with Steve Albini at his studio, Albini argued that "O Solo Mio" should lead off the album, in part because of its abrasiveness, the way it would separate the true Stooges fans from the latecomers. "Steve said something like, `It'll make the Stooges fan feel like he's the only person in the world who likes this group.' And I wanted to cry," Pop says with mock exasperation. "You mean I can't pay my rent and make a living? C'mon, it's 40 years now since I tried to start this band. Can't we be popular?"

Pop won the argument. "O Solo Mio" won't appear on the CD version of the album, though it will be appended to the vinyl incarnation. But the tale cuts to a deeper truth about a band that never defined its worth by popularity.

In the band's brief life, 1967-74, the Stooges made three albums now considered proto-punk classics: The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power. For their trouble, they got booed, bottled and cursed by a hostile audience at their final gig. They broke up in a pool of ill will, drugs and neglect.

Now, the three surviving original members -- Pop, guitarist Ron Asheton and his younger brother drummer, Scott Asheton -- are back with The Weirdness, a national tour and a reputation as one of the most influential bands in rock history. Though their albums were virtually ignored when they were originally released decades ago, they are now regarded as blueprints for punk, postpunk and alternative rock.

Pop, born Jim Osterberg 59 years ago in Ypsilanti, Mich., approached his music with absolute certainty. But he had his doubts whether it would ever be appreciated. And to an extent, he still does.

"Before this group, I was playing five sets a night, six nights a week straight out of high school," he says of his days as a drummer in the Iguanas. "And I was playing that way for three years. I supported myself as a musician, and I learned a lot of tricks."

He spent a number of months in Chicago in the mid-'60s while working in a blues band, the Prime Movers, and learned the finer points of percussion and the blues life from master drummer Sam Lay. Then he returned to Michigan and put together the Stooges with his old high school pals the Asheton brothers and bassist Dave Alexander. They melded raw musical skills with rarefied ideas, a meld of punk, funk and the avant-garde that has yet to be matched.

"It was seen as this very primitive thing, but everything was thought out," Pop says. "Even the drum parts were written and carefully arranged. On `1969'" -- the first song on the Stooges' first album -- "that was a very particular Lebanese belly dancer beat. It was a twist on the Bo Diddley beat and the surf beat in `Wipeout.' It's very particular. We had a limited vocabulary, but we got a lot out of it."

At the height of the hippie era and its claims to youth solidarity, the Stooges sought to provoke. They loudly testified to their dissatisfaction with just about everything and everyone, including the hippies. They were not about peace, love and wearing flowers in their hair. Pop wore dog collars and dresses, while singing about boredom, anger and sex, sometimes all in the same song. He, Alexander and the Ashetons were Midwestern blue-collar kids who weren't cool enough to belong to anyone's club. Their music was hard, minimal and direct, lubricated by a groove that was rock's answer to James Brown's funk and animated by the spirit of John Coltrane's free jazz. It was a sound that spawned imitators and acolytes, from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana. But none of them quite matched what the Stooges had: Godzilla-size guitar riffs, a loose, spacious sense of swing, and Pop's wicked wordplay and showmanship.

"Throughout the punk scene in the `70s and `80s, everyone leaned on the Stooges' music really heavy," says Mike Watt, co-founder of the California punk band the Minutemen who is now playing bass with the Stooges. "I was 16 when I first heard Fun House, and it still sounds like it could've been recorded last week. At first it seemed crude, but there are so many nuances in there, it's practically symphonic. At first we thought anyone can do this, but we couldn't really ever do it right. It was like the Stooges had invented their own music ..."

The band's early shows were freakish, improvised affairs, with Scott Asheton banging away on amplified 50-gallon oil drums and Pop experimenting with homemade feedback machines, vacuum cleaners and blenders. But Pop's charisma as a live performer led to a small record deal with Elektra Records, and a debut album produced by Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale. The Stooges had written only a handful of songs and had to scramble to come up with more material in between recording sessions, including the proto-punk classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

By the time of Fun House in 1970, the band had become a ferocious concert act, and the album documented that unrivaled power by recording the quartet live in the studio, with the addition of a saxophonist they had begun working with in Detroit, Steve Mackay. It's one of the two or three greatest rock albums ever made, but it had the misfortune of coming out 21 years before Nirvana made such brutal guitar-based rock commercially viable. Soon after, Elektra cut the band loose, drugs crept in and the Stooges splintered.

Two years later, Pop resurfaced in London under the wing of rising star David Bowie, who had blended some of the Stooges' brio into his "Ziggy Stardust" persona. There, Pop and new guitarist James Williamson tried to craft a follow-up to Fun House, but they couldn't find a satisfactory rhythm section. Finally they coaxed the Asheton brothers to fly over from Michigan to play bass and drums. The subsequent album, Raw Power, is another classic, though poorly mixed by the inexperienced Bowie. Its oblivion-courting songs, including "Search and Destroy" and "Gimme Danger," were stunning -- and way too much for radio programmers or a buying public enamored with Elton John and Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Once again, the band was cut adrift by its label and sank into acrimony. Its final show in Detroit in 1974 found a drug-addled Pop knocked unconscious by a heckler's well-aimed bottle. Pop checked himself into a mental hospital and re-emerged to launch a respectable solo career flecked with a handful of great albums, a few signature songs ("Lust for Life," "China Girl," "The Passenger") and a number of duds. All the while the Stooges reputation continued to expand, and Pop continued to perform the band's best songs in his still-terrific live sets. Alexander died in 1975, but the Ashetons continued to perform in various incarnations, with Ron Asheton most recently in a band with Watt and Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis.

Starting in the late `80s, Scott Asheton would ring up Pop periodically about re-assembling the Stooges, but the singer waited until 2003 to act. Pop first called Ron Asheton, still stung by how shabbily he had been demoted from songwriter collaborator and lead guitarist to hired-hand bassist for the Raw Power album, to arrange a meeting. The Ashetons met Pop in Miami, where the singer has two modest homes.

"It was like seeing your ex-wife for the first time in 20 years," Ron Asheton says. "But then we started talking and all the nervousness faded. He said something like, `My management said that you guys could help me save my career.'"

The Ashetons collaborated with Pop on four songs for his 2003 album Skull Ring, and appeared with him and Watt billed as the Stooges at the Coachella Music Festival in California. Watt worried it would be perceived as "warmed-over nostalgia," but was thrilled to see the commitment of all involved. "Iggy's work ethic is unbelievable," the bassist says. "He's going to give a great show, or die trying. After that, I was more worried whether I could hold up my end. Iggy and the brothers were hungry; they wanted to do some damage."

Offers started to pour in for more money at better locations than the band had ever experienced previously, and plans slowly began to emerge for a fourth Stooges studio album. Rick Rubin and the White Stripes' Jack White were among the producers seriously considered for the project, but Albini eventually got the nod, thanks in part to his persistence.

The Ashetons and Pop worked on new songs for three years. Pop, as usual, had very specific ideas about how he wanted them to sound. He instructed Watt, for example, to play bass with a pick instead of his fingers. "I learned the meaning of restraint," Watt says. "I felt like I should have paid him for lessons."

Pop aimed for an album as concise as an old vinyl record, with about 20 minutes of music per side. He wanted the songs to speak without artifice: "I just wanted to know did it make some part of my body wiggle? Did I know what the guy was singing about? Did it have something, either a bit of melody or something in the lyrics, to make it memorable?"

The songs lean toward the rough, garage-rock side of the Stooges. The slower blues and psychedelic dirges are gone. The album is inconsistent, but when it's good, it's very, very good, an affirmation of the Stooges' strengths, if not their versatility and ability to shock. Ron Asheton's riffs are in peak form, and Scott Asheton and Watt replicate the greasy groove of old on tunes such as "Mexican Guy," "Free and Freaky" and "Greedy Awful People." Pop's subject matter hasn't changed much: He's still the world's forgotten boy, alternately upset or bemused by the absurdity that enfolds him.

He will be 60 in April, and his lithe body, toughened by decades of tai chi training, is breaking down. He now walks with a limp, and says he has one more album in him. Perhaps with the Stooges. Perhaps not.

"I'm still nervous about the whole thing," he acknowledges. "Nervous in the sense that it's dangerous to be in a group. That's why almost all the new groups that have succeeded in the last 10 years are just brand names. It's just one guy with all the power and three or four guys that adopt his haircut and are willing to live where he lives. We did some reunion gigs and people liked it. But now we've got the temerity to actually make an album that will be compared to the earlier ones. We've put ourselves out there again. It would've been easier for us to just keeping playing the old songs, frankly. But every album we've made has ruined us in some way. So why change now?"

Few hard-rock songwriters can match Pop's underrated skill as a lyricist who specializes in dark humor and sarcasm, a hallmark of the new album. One of the best songs, "She Took My Money," could've been just another rant from a guy upset that his ex-girlfriend ripped him off, but with Pop there is always something deeper going on. "She sets her watch on Paris time," Pop sings, "I'm living in a friend's back yard."

It's a funny line. But for Pop it carries more than a hint of dread. Once again he'd be the world's forgotten boy, as an old man.

"I was trying to think of my ultimate nightmare," Pop says, "which would be 10 years from now calling up Ron and saying, `Hey, Ron, I've had a couple of problems. Can I pitch a tent behind your house?'"

Pop laughed, and said he needed to take a walk. "I'm going to spend two beautiful hours at the beach," he says. "Then it's back to work."


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