Sunday, October 14, 2018

MATTERS CONCERNING IGGY POP AND THE STOOGES


No band embraced nihilism with more profound off-handedness than The Stooges. Part of their genius lies in t their lyrics, hardly cliché but not conventionally poetic, these were rhymes that were spare and simple, and powerfully to the point, talking about the small matters of frustration that send the young mind into paroxysms of rage and self-recrimination. Ever say something or overheard a phrase from someone else uttered in exasperation or another kind of brain locking state where what is said is so starkly simple and clear and unadorned by apology or other sorts of mental equivocation that it resembles brilliance? That’s my take on the collective lyrics of the Stooges, words as an instinctive reflex, Nor was their music dependent on the trivial concern of instrumental virtuosity. This was the sticking point with a majority of critics at the time when their first album, The Stooges, was released in  1969. In a counter-culture that was ironically putting premiums on the extreme professionalism of well-trained musicians who could hit notes precisely and improvise at length over increasingly tricky time signatures, the Stooges were the textbook example of the anathema, an insult to the taste-maker elite. Reviews were generally insulting to the band’s repetitive slam and clang approach, and it is one of the wonders of staying alive long enough to see a groundbreaking band, unfiltered from the start, outlast the negativity and change the critical consensus. The intelligentsia had to catch up with them.  The Stooges rejected formal instruction on their musicianship and, in turn, weren’t about to suffer the instructions the snoots, snobs and snoids demanded they follow. What’s ironic is that Rolling Stone, the arbiter of quality in matters of the New Rock, still had integrity in their record reviews at the time and allowed one of their original rock  critics, Ed Ward, to let the air out of the inflated importance of over-serious rock music and the earnest critiques they inspired with his review of the album.  The first two paragraphs have Ward offering a thumbnail sketch of the band’s background, quickly followed the expected litany of sins, that Iggy is a bad Jim Morrison imitator, the lyrics are sub-literate, the guitar and drum work is lifeless and lacking even the dignity of being mechanical. The something wonderful happened halfway through. He summarized his feelings thusly “Their music is loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish.”  Then something wonderful happened.


With the grievances listed and the verdict delivered,, Ward added, in a single sentence, standing alone , unencumbered by other sentences, “I kind of like it”,  Ward performed an endearing bit of proto-deconstruction, using the aforementioned deficiencies in the music as examples of  virtue, value, honesty, artistic vision. It was, I think,one of the great pieces of rock  criticism because here Ward created the basis of real aesthetic argument that maintained, essentially, that the Stooges were the true face and sound of a rock and roll that was relevant to life as it was being lived by millions, a voice, sound and poetry from the curb, alley and shuttered doorway that wanted nothing to do with millionaire musicians with long hair striving to achieve legitimacy by mimicking and misreading the most superficial elements of High Culture.  Ed Ward established the concerns that Lester Bangs soon picked up and turned into a masterful argument with the dying of the light. We can thank Ed Ward and the Stooges for that relief.

This was a band that went in the other direction when they began their quest to find what lay beyond avant-garde posturing in Music during the 60s away from trudging drum solos and long-form guitar essays. Iggy and the Stooges were primitive, out of tune, irritated and irritating in turn. It was a matter where the band and their front man, Iggy Pop (nee Stooge) blended perfectly, given their ability to turn something that sounds horrible and repetitive into a crashing, sustained drone of attitude, and Iggy's serpentine stage presence and clipped verbal dexterity. He was the guy who couldn't sit stand and would stand for nothing less than what he wanted in full, and they were the grind of the city turned into a droning inner voice prodding him to smash down whatever walls came before him. It wasn’t that he was a bad boy going contrarily to the niceties of all things middle class and calcified, it wasn’t that he as a sentient being had identified an artifice he disliked and defined himself in opposition to it; it was more like Iggy Stooge was unaware of the feelings of others, greater ramifications of dangerous self-gratification, or any code of behavior the rest of us depend to keep drivers and pedestrians, for example, on the streets and the sidewalks, respectively. He was unadulterated id, a squirming mass of impulse that transgressed boundaries, mashed together poetry and porn, and displayed no interest in theorizing about what he had done or about what he was thinking of doing.  His was the case of living in the present tense solely, and whatever sensation at the moment was utmost. Let us not be mistaken about this, as Iggy Stooge’s persona and psyche had the virtue of being monochromatic; his immediate impulse was not the only thing that mattered. There simply wasn’t anything else.  All this play against the quarrelsome insomniac raunch of Ron Ashton’s guitar work, very simple, rudimentary, undeniable effective, endlessly influential. What he lacked in technique he made up for in essence, a counterpoint to the corrosive thrills of Iggy’s distilled juvenile delinquency; his guitar work might be politely described as “steady”,  but this a dodge against the annoyance factor this band turned into a new aesthetic. “Persistent” is more apt, like a dislodged bit of a fender dragging along the highway, kicking up sparks near the gas tank, or a door slamming for hours in a strong wind, or jackhammers at night carving up your street at precisely the moment your brain demands you sleep or die inanely. Obnoxious,  profound without knowing. We should all be grateful these guys wielded musical instruments, not guns. Or worse.

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Iggy Pop is the man to go against expectations, especially in the sense that he hasn't yet died. For decades he was on the list as The Next Rock Star to Die, in the wake of Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and the lesser known musicians who've died young. Iggy's tale is as horrendous as it got for pop musicians, all sorts of bad habits and tough breaks visited him like spirits to a hard knocks convention, the culmination of such things usually being fatal, as in dead, as dead as a beef jerky, if not as tasty. Pop pulled out of the tailspin, though, cleaned up and, thanks in large part to the recently belated David Bowie, became, even more, the artist than he was before. An icon and proof that one can survive from the Edge and have the severe experience lend authenticity to the angry three chord bashing you perform in front of. His legacy is such that he could just about sing anything he chooses and have critics slobber over with foamy superlatives. Apres, his album of covers of French songs, is that bridge collapsing.It's an album worth skipping. It is his version of The Great American Songbook fad, where fade rock belters like Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and Cyndi Lauper attempted to become "real singers" but offering piecemeal versions of very old tunes. The results varied wildly artist to artist; there were not enough interesting interpretations of old ballads and standards for it to be anything more than a fad, like the notion that Rock and Roll is an art form on a par with, say, professional wrestling. Iggy tackling French tunes just seems pretentious; Mr. Pop has an expressive range midway between a car alarm and a beluga impaled on a bendy straw. It is a voice best saved for the personal bits of self-defining rage that continue to be his genius. Everything else he might try is baloney by definition.

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A problem of being a self-appointed culture critic is that the longer you hang around the planet breathing the air, the faster it seems your heroes seem to die.  That's a generational thing, your elders and your peers start to pass on, and your tribe is just a little smaller every few weeks. The cure for that sort of minor depression is, of course, get new heroes, read new artists, listen to music by younger musicians, and, most obviously, make more friends.
Iggy turned 63 April 21st, 2016 and it's an unending round of cheap ironies that he enters the last year of his 6th decade of life on the same day we find out that Prince has passed away at the age of 57. Iggy survived the morbid predictions that insisted that he would be the next major edgy rock star to go, joining Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, and others as having a bad end to an edgy life lived in the spotlight. Nihilism was at the core of his act, both as Stooges frontman and as solo artist, and it seemed that the fabled mixtures of teenage impulse and fantastic amounts of methamphetamines and heroin were willful tools he was using to describe life not just at the edge of existence but also, if he were lucky, a will to narrate the passage through the thick shroud of unbeing . It's a classic conceit in modern arts, that an artist's demise is confirmation of their greatness/genius/cutie-pie factor, what have you. It's a species of pornographic thinking and shame on us for egging it onward in the culture. 

 Something intervened in that cliche, however, and Pop has been one of the more interesting elder statesmen for some time, always worth a listen. We benefit by his persistence to remain creative; not to be too terribly sentimental about it, but Pop's longevity improves the quality of my life by his example that you can continue to respond creatively, with imagination to the short existence we're allowed to have. Prince was one of those people, like Bowie, you assumed would be around for the final mile of the long haul, a genuinely gifted polymath who would make music into his dimmest twilight. What hurts the most, from this fan's view, is that we won't get to hear the grander, more experimental adventures Prince would have had as a musician. A straight-ahead jazz album. A record of guitar blitzing? Serious classical endeavors? Movie soundtracks? Big Band Music? A blues thing? Reggae? A stage turn as Othello?  His androgyny/sex fiend persona aside, I marveled at the chameleon nature of his music, the jumping around from style to style. Unlike Bowie, equally eclectic in taste and output, there was a substantial musical virtuosity to Prince's switching up and mashing up and fusing the elements of rock, fusion, Philly/Motown/Memphis/ soul, jazz and the occasional bits of classical allusion. Though he never spoke much of his training, self-taught or schooled, he had as solid a grasp of the mechanics of music and controlled his virtuosity like it were a tool to be used judiciously, in service to the music. There was little that was excessive in his music, and I rather liked his singing, which was far from your traditional rock or soul voice; thin, reedy, nasal, limited in range and color, he still molded it convincingly over his melodies and lyrics, sounding wise, insinuating, dangerous, alluring, nearly any persona he wanted to get across. Anything seemed possible for him because he was spectacularly good at the varied projects he'd already finished and released.  Alas, but no. This makes you want to pause a few moments and consider the breath your taking at that instant and recognize that life is a gift we are given but that which we don't own. Embrace the days we have and do something with the hours while we have them.





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