Showing posts with label Detroit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Detroit. Show all posts

Saturday, September 3, 2011

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 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.


I lived in Detroit during the MC5's heyday, and I am grateful in that we had many teen clubs that had no age limits; this allowed me to witness local bands like the 5, Bob Seger The Rationals and the Stooges perform their brand of major chord guitar insanity against a complacent culture of hippiedom. Detroit was an uptight, racially tense factory town that had little truck with those either coastline who wanted to ease through the 60s and beyond in a stoned either. The MC5 were, as John Sinclair wrote, a "whole thing", and their task, for art, for music, for the Revolution everyone with sideburns and wire frame glasses claimed to support, was to drive people out of their homes, out of their workplaces, out of their clothes and into each other's arms. There was love in Detroit rock and roll, but it was hard, brutal, arrogant in a fashion that mirrored the worst undertakings of The Man. It was a kick in the nuts to a privileged  Bohemia.

This was the Politics of Ecstasy with a tangible, violent edge, and the 5 wanted to put us in touch with the most primal and alive parts of our animal selves There is nothing particularly revolutionary about this thinking, as there of been an endless line of bright thinkers and florid writers , from Rousseau, DH Lawrence to Norman Mailer who've foretold, in varying degrees and levels of conviction and practice, that if we embraced our instinctual side and did away with the intellectual superstructure that has cauterized our lives and potential, all falseness would cease and only then can we realize joy, creativity, the results of a good toss in the hay. To many, the 5 seemed an antidote to the groovy and lazy vibe that had robbed rock and roll of vitality,  but it bears saying that many considered their cure to be nearly as awful as the malaise it was meant to cure.

The 5, though, were punks, unhampered by book learning; their counter culture was composed of absolutes, black and white extremes, and almost comically effective resistance to new ideas.  They were opportunists under it all, like the punks who harassed us during lunch period, and they embraced this extreme ideology chiefly as a means of getting their drugs, their money, their groupies. As punks who basically became the standard from which punk bands that emerged in the late 70s were judged, the MC5 dumped John Sinclair and his White Panthers when they had the chance. Sinclair wanted them to be bigger than Chairman Mao. The MC5 wanted to be bigger than the Beatles.