Sunday, September 25, 2011

A REAL COOL TIME: The Other Stooges

The Stooges: Head On
A Journey Through the Michigan Underground
Written by Brett Callwood
Foreword by Alice Cooper
Afterword by Glenn Danzig
September 2011
Wayne State University Press

Mention “The Stooges” and what immediately comes to mind is Iggy Pop, the brash and charismatic Street Walking Cheetah himself. His self-destructive persona (onstage and off) attracted an audience but like a crowd of onlookers at a horrific traffic accident, they drifted off when the bleeding stopped and the ambulance pulled away. Those few who appreciated the ferocious music stuck around to see what brothers Scott (drums) and Ron (guitar) Asheton were doing.
Iggy’s confident and go-getter personality would eventually have led to some sort of stardom or acclaim but it was the Ashetons’ musical fury that gave him the opportunity to pull out the stops. The Stooges’ earliest gigs were considered adventurous, dangerous and fun but you-had-to-be-there affairs that veered towards the experimental and psychedelic -- with emphasis on psycho more than the psyche. Iggy was just part of a chaotic ensemble and not the main attraction.
Ron’s innovative guitar attack was more dissonant and distorted than any of his contemporaries including “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer of The MC5.  As neighbors and mentors of The Stooges, these ax slingers played tough riffs in the midst of a waning peace and love culture characterized by the tender harmonies of outfits like Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Brother Scott too was at odds with the current drum styles headed toward extended solos and “musicianship” at the expense of the steady heartbeat a good rock and roll drummer must provide. Although his style could be like severe tachycardia, he was deceptively simplistic and economic: hard hitting with no wasted moves.
Giving credit to the Ashetons is Brett Callwood’s triumph in The Stooges: Head On--A Journey Through the Michigan Underground (released this month). There are countless Iggy Pop bios (Paul Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed is my favorite) but these tend to treat the brothers as mere sidemen, something even Iggy himself did with alarming frequency.
Callwood managed to interview the reclusive Ron for the first version of this book (published in the UK in 2007 under a similar title) but outdid himself in getting the most extensive Q & A sessions ever with Scott for this new edition. Sad to say, it was Ron’s death in 2009 that spurred his equally reclusive brother to speak.
This new version is not a meager update but essentially a rewrite of the first edition, adding the interview with Scott and dropping Callwood’s own personal adventure as an Englishman prowling Detroit for info about his subject.
As much as Callwood’s interviews are a victory, as a writer they are also a defeat. He heavily relies on long passages quoted not only from his sessions with the brothers, Iggy and other Detroit characters but at times from other interviewers. Presented in the body of the book, verbatim record reviews from the pages of Rolling Stone, Creem and even the New York Times feel like padding. And the less said about the Afterword (two pages of poetry by Glenn Danzig ?!) the better.
The Ashetons’ words are valuable for musical and production details not previously well known but the brothers’ own personal stories are barely touched. Neither is Iggy’s since it’s been covered many times but Callwood purposely and wisely chose not to rehash the too familiar details that are easily available elsewhere.
If you've read any of the Iggy Pop bios, you already know what makes him tick. Sadly, except for a few tiny clues, you do not close the last page of Head On with any clearer understanding of who the Ashetons were and why but in their roles as Stooges.
To be fair, Head On is a biography of a band and not its members. As influential as The Stooges became  --“became” is the key word here; the majority of ‘70s listeners hated them-- it’s unlikely the band will ever attract another author who is willing to dig even this deep into the Asheton story. Ultimately Callwood is recounting facts, offering relatively little embellishment or opinion. In other words if he has story telling talent, it doesn’t come across here.
Head On is to be commended however for giving “the other Stooges” their due and for that alone, Callwood deserves praise. This book will find a cozy home on my groaning shelf sandwiched between similar but worthy efforts that provide more fact than insight such as Nina Antonia’s New York Dolls bio Too Much Too Soon. I’ve a different section for revealing and in-depth biographies like Eye Mind: Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys and, yes, Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed.

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