By Steve Wilson
A memoir, a reverie, a new record.
It wasn’t much of a record store. Probably my third stop locally after Kief’s and River City. But Ray’s was the spot where all the radio and print guys in my little college town, Lawrence, Kansas – the guys on label lists for promo service – dumped the stuff they didn’t want. So sometimes you could take a chance on something for a buck instead of plunking down $4.00 for a sealed copy.
Hell, I don’t even remember where I read about the Stooges, probably Rolling Stone, maybe Creem. They intrigued me, but not enough to spend $4.00. Not like I would for Sabbath or Free. Nope, I was afraid these guys might be a little too strange. Mind you, the MC5’s Back in the USA and the Velvet’s third album were already in steady rotation in my rock dreams bedroom. I was already on point to dump stuff like prog-rock in preference to the harder sounds emerging from cities like Detroit and New York.
But no one much was saying laudatory things about the Stooges. And now that I look back on it, given my seventeen year-old’s disillusionment, this probably only made them progressively more, as I say, intriguing.
I remember the spring 1970 day I located The Stooges at Ray’s. It had been out since the previous fall, but this was the first time I’d seen it used. I stared at the cover. It reminded me of the Doors first album, but in place of that cover’s dreamy juxtaposition of faces and figures, this shot was stacked, totemic, and direct. I continued to stare. Finally, I purchased the record, stuck in under my arm and bounded off to my ’55 Desoto Firedome.
I didn’t run home immediately. But later that night I put it on my $100.00 GE stereo, a fancy version of the their classic $80.00 model, called the Swingline.
Wah-Wah guitar. Huh. Could be Cream. Or Hendrix. Then that voice, sullenly exhorting – “all right.” Nope, not Cream. The voice sounded authoritative and petulant at the same time. Then the rhythm section kicked in, syncopated, but heavy, and brutally efficient. I’d never heard anything like it, exactly. And I knew all the garage-rock “Nuggets” style recordings; shit they sounded baroque compared to this. I was fucking 17. I’m not sure I had glommed onto vocab like neo-primitive or elemental … yet. But I instinctively knew this was rock stripped down to hot rod essentials, strangely like some of the blues I’d just begun listening to. The Stooges and John Lee Hooker had a lot more in common than the Stooges and Yes, or King Crimson, you know? These associations were still nascent, but emerging in what would be significant ways.
The Stooges became my little secret. My girlfriend, who had a steady diet of the Beatles, Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton, and tolerated Sabbath, thought they were moronic. I had a friend or two I could share the Stooges with, but most of them (when they wanted it hard and dirty) grabbed for Johnny Winter or the Stones, and selling them on the Stooges as a next logical step was a tough one.
So, I listened alone. And I continued to when Funhouse arrived, although it made a few more converts in my crowd with its manic perversions of fat-ass funk grooves (think “Down on the Street” or the title cut …total James Brown, once you get past the denim, leather and Indian rugs). Loud, lascivious, yes “Loose.” Funhouse set new standards for the unleashed animal libido in rock. And a few thousand people noticed this monumental record, while the rest of the hippies reveled in It’s a Beautiful Day, or Poco.
Then the Stooges seemed to disappear.
Dave Alexander battled the bottle, ultimately losing.
Iggy was easing into junk.
Parting with the Asheton brothers he departed for London with a new Detroit guitarist named James Williamson.
David Bowie, an early admirer, undoubtedly attracted by John Cale’s stewardship of the band’s first album initially, served as patron of the arts. Sessions using local, London musicians came up short. Iggy and James got the okay to summon the Asheton Brothers, holed up in Detroit. Ron was relegated to bass.
This was really a different band. Where Funhouse was as tight as a Stax rhythm section, playing with Williamson, as taut (still) as the arrangements were, his convulsive playing gave the whole band a careening, convulsive off the rails quality. Sure, there were precedents for his sound and playing, everyone from Link Wray to Jeff Beck, and for sure local heroes like Jim McCarty and Steve Hunter. But Williamson’s sheer, blistering attack was unprecedented. His chops were clear, but his abandon both employed and betrayed them. It’s hard to imagine Mick Taylor playing the leads on “Search and Destroy.” Nothing had ever sounded quite so abruptly in your face. Vocally, Iggy traded in his bari-croon, at least on some songs like “Search and Destroy” and “Shake Appeal,” and the title track, for an alley cat vocal sound an octave or so higher. Combined with Williamson’s unhinged guitar it was an aggressively brutal sound like nothing heard before.
Of course Raw Power, while solidifying forever the Stooges role in the evolution of the rock underground, did nothing to improve their commercial prospects. The drug party commenced in London moved to L.A , where Osterberg and Williamson worked with new rhythm sections, cutting the tracks that would later become Kill City. Those sessions cut some really good songs and solid performances, but nothing there was the revelation of Raw Power. Although the in between, and one-off, single of “I Got a Right” and “Gimme Some Skin” was as wild a blast of proto-punk defoliant as anything the New York Dolls ever essayed.
Iggy and James didn’t work together again until the late Seventies, after Iggy’s two Berlin (The Idiot and Lust for Life) records with David Bowie. The underrated New Values had Williamson at the helm as producer. The songwriting was some of Iggy’s best, the performances sharp. It may seem like a waste for Williamson to have set the Gibson down, leaving guitar to other, less powerful musicians, but maybe it was for the best. These taut, snaky tracks might have been less coiled to strike with the powerful badinage between singer and guitarist that characterized Raw Power.
James Williamson retired from the music scene, becoming a software engineer for Sony. Actually, he reached the position of Vice President of Technology Standards for Sony. There’s a career transition for ya.
Iggy, of course, pursued what one might call a career, Performing and recording constantly, sometimes with glorious results, sometimes desultory. In performance he was rarely less than powerful, often a revelation. It was in the early Eighties that I became a little acquainted with him, having him as house guest on the Soldier tour, and hanging out together (again), and performing with my band Thumbs on the bill for his Party stopover. I won’t bore you with my tales, but it was great fun, alcohol and non-prescription drugs were consumed, shared musical enthusiasms were sated and good conversation enjoyed. Among my many ‘star’ encounters, Jimmy was an ace. He certainly never threatened to urinate on me.
That was Lou Reed.
Over the course of time, Jimmy (as he insisted I call him) became a wealthy man from the use of his songs in films and commercials.
In 2003 he was reunited with the original Stooges with Ron Asheton back on guitar. Live, they still were a formidable band. Their one album, The Weirdness, was an entertaining, if spotty affair. Did it rival Funhouse or Raw Power? Nope. But to everyone who bitched about it upon release in 2007, I responded, “well no one liked those big fat icon status records when they came out either; give this one twenty years.” Because, I rather liked it.
Upon Ron Asheton’s unfortunate passing in 2009, Iggy gave James Williamson a call, inviting him back to the Stooges as guitarist. Playing live with an emphasis on Raw Power cuts, it was clear immediately that Williamson, despite his professor emeritus appearance, had returned remarkably to remarkable form. Anyone who heard their performances was left with at least some enthusiasm for new recordings.
With Ready to Die they’re here. And for old fuckers this is good shit.
End of review.
Kidding. First, let’s talk about Scott “Rock Action” Asheton, the man, the legend. Apparently, he’s withdrawing from the band’s tour schedule. I’m glad he played on these sessions. Punk drummers struggle to combine his loose groove and metallic drive. Like (but not) Charlie Watts, he is from another time, and his playing, for all the influence of the music, is not mimicked enough for my tastes. Drummers like Asheton, raised on soul and r ‘n’ b brought sex to the rock. Ever since hardcore turned punk into a sweaty male mosh pit, drummers, almost to a man, have lost the sex, lost the swing, lost … in my opinion, the way.
Here, it’s just great to hear him play.
Mike Watt covers the bass, as he has with passion and skill since the first days of the Stooges reunion era.
Finally, this is Iggy and Williamson’s record. Does it succeed, even excel, Raw Power? Oh, hell no. But A Bigger Bang was a hot little Stones record, and it sure wasn’t Exile on Main Street. Didn’t mean it wasn’t nice to have a good new record from a treasured artist. And so it is with Ready to Die.
I guess I had a faint hope that Iggy would tap back into the emotions and the emotional language that fueled Raw Power. At the time, the lyrics for Raw Power were a revelation. Where The Stooges and Funhouse were powerful, guttural expressions, almost pre-language or at least pre-literary (and no less brilliant for that), Raw Power was fucking poetic. Really, really listen to the now familiar lyrics of “Search and Destroy” or “Gimme Danger.” What began, as inchoate emotion with the first album had become an articulate mission statement by the third.
Lyrically, Ready to Die is the thesis of a punk – as avuncular uncle and curmudgeon. The avuncular Ig is present on acoustic tracks like “Unfriendly World,” a rather lovely testimony to romantic love’s (“hang on to your girl, cuz this is an unfriendly world”) salving power, and “The Departed,” an elegant expression of hard core melancholy, a deeply felt, but unsentimental nod to lost ones; his late friend and partner Ron Asheton of course coming to mind.
The rest of the record rocks out, and while there may be a slight godfather tenor to songs like “Dirty Deal,” for the most part the aggressive elements of Ready to Die are in the Iggy as bitter, but bemused old bastard mode – the curmudgeon. Iggy laments the emerging rule of the soulless corporatists, but is torn between empathy with the average dude (“Job”) and a more familiar, Nietzschean contempt (“Gun”).
For a man absent the rock and recording scene for three decades, Williamson does a masterful job framing Iggy’s assertions and laments. Ready to Die sounds vital and fresh, while at the same time revisiting, where appropriate, many of Ig’s and Iggy and Williamson’s shared glories.
Williamson plays it straight on the opening cut “Burn.” Locking in with Steve McKay’s braying tenor lines, and Asheton’s Detroit groove drumming. Iggy insists the “man of the future is a bully and bruiser,” sounding torn between lamentation and confrontation. The little turnarounds evoke a half remembered whiff of the Temptations’ “Get Ready.” Take the boy out of Motown, but … you know. “Sex and Money” again finds Iggy in ambivalent mode, part class rage, part social Darwinian. Petra Haden’s darting, cooing backup vocals add just the right dash of sass and femininity. Lyrically, this cut would fit on the underrated Naughty Little Doggie set. Opening and ending with the line “I can’t sleep at night anymore” is a nice arrangement touch.
Never one to duck biting the hand that feeds, “Job” find our artist attacking the fashion crowd, even as the man is taking money from Chrysler for the John Varvatos model commercial. I’m not giving him shit. Because I don’t give one. Short of snuff films I could give a flying fuck what my favorite artists do to drain the system. But it does provide a curious conundrum. But hey, more important – at the 2:33 mark we get our first gen-yoo-wine blast of James Williamson blister-magic. It feels swell.
The title cut is meat and potatoes hard rock, frankly – not that patented, snaky Stooges groove. Williamson’s guitar stings, his solo soars and splinters, trilling off and on and off and out as the song fades. And Iggy’s vocal is less mannered, his lyric sincere. You realize he’s always been “reaching for the sky,” and that he’s really not afraid of death … just not hastening it down. “Dirty Deal” sounds personal and universal, using the record company exploits young artist paradigm to address a system that, “favors crooks; you don’t find out in civics books.” Williamson’s guitar reminds us that however far we travel from Chuck Berry we always find ourselves taxiing back to the terminal zone. The guitarist also shines on “Beat That Guy.” Elegiac, almost folk-rock, the performance builds slowly in intensity, Williamson adroitly layering guitars, while Iggy serenades overcoming. Of course the ‘guy’ he has to ‘beat?’ It’s himself. Pretty mature, pretty poetic, by God for the world’s not so forgotten boy.
A bona fide initiate into the freaking Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Iggy and the Stooges will never be forgotten boys. And a lot of time has passed since a young James Newell Osterberg wrote and sang those words. But Ready to Die is a fiery, explosive statement from by now old masters. Face it, guys like the mature versions of the Stooges and the Dolls are punk rock’s equivalent of the late versions of the Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf bands – past their most primal and intense statements, but chiseled, still powerful masters of an idiom they all but created. Not to be forgotten. Not to be fucked with.
I am still the kid with short funds and crazy curiosity. The kid waiting for some freaked out scribe to dump the first Stooges album at the local used record emporium. I’m the same kid digging the sound of the outsider, absorbing the message, and plotting my own revenge against the stultifications of quotidian bullshit. Like Iggy Pop I’m ready to die. But hey, what’s the rush?
Ready To Die is released by Fat Possum Records