"This is a song about a year with a really scary number," Iggy Pop howled to the crowd of some eight thousand. With that, a familiar drum/bass thud led off "1969" in an ominous rumble and the strangeness of this nostalgic showcase became apparent. I was entering first grade when that song was released on Elektra in August of that year; within eighteen months the Stooges would split, existing forever after as a series of reconstructions. Their stature was cemented by incendiary studio recordings and hundreds of bootlegs chronicling an output amounting to well under three dozen songs. One of them, Metallic K.O., was among the first rock records I ever bought, in 1976 at age 12 after hearing "Cock In My Pocket" on a pirate radio station, with the Asheton brothers hired as rhythm section under the partnership of Iggy with James Williamson. That record was a vivid crystallization of a band on its last legs, and like all Stooges discs, a snapshot in a short and discontinuous history. To drop the expected phrase, it changed my life.
Live examples of the original lineup are hard to come by, but the most famous is the NBC broadcast footage from Cincinnati in 1970 as part of a television program entitled A Midsummer Night's Rock, now known to all as the "peanut butter incident." An obvious, gnawing demand for their music remains, most obviously in the recent Fun House box set containing every note played at those sessions. The lack of live material from this period coupled with the accumulated weight of history has led to this curious reunion, facilitated in part by the brilliant Mike Watt, late of the legendary Minutemen and fIREHOSE. I say "curious" because of the massive imbalance between Pop and the Asheton brothers, in terms of historic reputation, recorded activity, and their own frosty personal relations. This imbalance subtly, or perhaps not-so-subtly, surfaces in their live act. Put plainly, there is a vast energy gulf between the Ashetons and the rest of the band, across which Iggy rages and Watt tears at his bass with feral intent. Call it sacrilege: for newer fans, the show was phenomenal, powerful, shit-hot. Yet seasoned Iggy-watchers closing their eyes and listening may well wonder where some of his rawer, tighter sidemen went (pick any unit of the past fifteen years). Opening one's eyes, we see Ron and Scott lumbering on, unrecognizable as their former selves and hanging on to their own music for dear life. Primal, heavy, looking for all the world like Upper Peninsula deer hunters taking time off to break things, they formed the smoldering foundation for the set. Chemistry is not the word: this is a business partnership.
During this brief detente, we've been treated to the one-off appearance at the Coachella Festival near Indio, CA, and this odd three-date tour that goes from New York to Detroit before ending in Spain. In this historic showcase, the reformed Stooges have gone to great lengths to reconstruct their sound from the late sixties, and, stopping short of exhuming Dave Alexander, it works well. In particular, the electric Steven Mackay, who Iggy drafted from Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen to play on side two of Fun House, returns here, playing beautifully on tenor saxophone and driving the band through a truncated "L.A. Blues." Mackay thankfully remained throughout the rest of the concert, underpinning the songs with disciplined chaos. Few guitarists sounded like Ron Asheton in the Stooges' heyday, and no one sounds like him now: a clean yet overdriven tone riddled with leakage. His lead playing is assured and abrasive. Given that virtually every touring band of that era or this used a Stratocaster, Marshall stack and Morley wah, the uniqueness of his signature is the hidden blessing here. A history lesson, in short: as close as is humanly possible, we're returned to those two LPs ca. 1970 and they've done a superb job at recreating the listening experience.
As for spectacle, Iggy remains Iggy, with otherworldly energy, stamina and nihilistic abandon. It may well be the sense of competition with younger and more successful groups, if not outright bitterness, that sends certain seminal performers to animalistic lengths. Iggy has much in common with Lemmy in this regard. There's an urge to be consistently louder, harder and better than anyone, as if to say, "I am in my late fifties, I have been playing live since 1964, I'm still here, you assholes, and I can mop up the stage with you. Top this." And God, was he a wonder to watch. Over the course of a set that included all of the original material minus "Dog Food," "Ann" and "We Will Fall," he flung stands, had a brief fling with Mike Watt's Ampeg stack, and whipped the microphone in dangerous arcs. Iggy was a heated molecule rebounding across the confines of the stage and, when it suited him, he left those confines for the front rows, then past me in the orchestra, to the upper orchestra, almost making the mezzanine before being rescued by the crush of fans. In other words, very much his show.
As a solo artist, he was prone to revamp older tunes, in response to uptempo cover versions by younger bands like the Damned and the Birthday Party; he would run them even faster to the point where breakneck songs like "I Got A Right" became a blur, for sets that lasted two and a half hours. Friday night, however, was a compact duplicate of the old arrangements, right down to the phrasing. The unexpected realization, every once in awhile as I looked up at the video screens..."hell, it's the old Jim I knew only from photographs! Except his hair isn't brown, he's wrinkled...and he's sober..." Not to mention triumphant, which was a word few would have used three decades ago. Thanks, Stooges. It was worth the wait.
Down On the Street
I Wanna Be Your Dog
Real Cool Time
Skull Rings (new)
I Wanna Be Your Dog (encore)
Sonic Youth preceded them, and it's quite possible they've never played better. The group is greatly abetted in their efforts by Jim O'Rourke on bass and guitar, and their new Murray St. material is luminous and powerful. Perhaps goaded by the nostalgic tone of the evening, they plumbed their own ample back catalog and stormed through "(I Got A) Catholic Block" and "Xpressway to Yr Skull." A new split single with Erase Errata surfaced, defined by Kim Gordon's trademark vocals which alternately haunt and snarl. I'm not wanting to forget New York's Sexy Magazines, who played in the plaza outside the coliseum between sets. They blasted away in classic Dolls-glampunk glory, fun, good and loud, and it's been some time since I've seen a lead singer in mascara playing good music.