nthposition online magazine

Death in the 21st century

by Tom Vater

[ opinion - october 05 ]

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” - Hunter S Thompson

The Stooges Play Funhouse London 30 08 05

The early evening light is dying across the tacky glass palaces around Hammersmith that pass for the modern world in Britain. Thousands of office slaves move through neon tunnels to their trains like so much human wallpaper. A black man with matted hair and torn pants is pissing against a lamppost while the cops look on. They have other priorities. Britain is fighting foreign wars at home and the touts in front of the Hammersmith Odeon sound like British squaddies: "Tickets for the Stooges - 50 quid and you're in."

For me, it’s a flash back in time. I moved to the UK in 1987 and the first show I saw was a late version of Motörhead. Same place, different times. I was stoned and almost threw up. Lemmy looked no better than he does today. We were all idealists then, thinking that the drugs and squats, the STDs and DTs could do us no harm. We knew the world was fucked, but we were born to live forever. Grunge was our soundtrack, but at heart those who cared to look closely knew that the Man had won the battle for our culture and the military-industrial complex had long taken over the music business. Punk rock, the violent spurt of discontent of our peers, had petered out. Youth culture had lost its romance. Hip-hop, the brutal re-emergence of young voices, was still locked in the ghettos, and in any case, had more to do with pride and desperation than with desperate hedonism. We filled the vacuum by listening to old revolutionaries, most of them imported from the US - the Stooges, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, The MC5, Patti Smith. Self abuse, championed as enlightenment by previous generations of deviants (right back to the very start of everything we call civilization), came natural. Drugs and music gave respite, sometimes brief, sometimes forever, from the tedium of system and society. Then, after Cobain had died, some straightened out, some more died and some went away.

The entrance to the Odeon, now called the Apollo, is crowded with the devil’s rejects. We are all here to see Iggy and the Stooges. We are all here to remind ourselves of the death of the world. Most of us are old enough to do that. We have come to pray at the shrine of the rock iguana, Satan’s brat, the original sick boy, the dawn of punk and the two-finger salute.

'The Stooges play Funhouse' is a curated event. Leave a carcass lying long enough and someone will call it art. The show is sold out and the pundits are pacing the forecourt; a cultural watershed is being remembered, mythologized and repackaged. The Stooges, seminal Detroit punk band, disintegrated in an orgy of drugs and dysfunctional living in 1974 after a three-album career and violent and anarchic shows, barely noticed by anyone at the time. But the songs lingered, were rediscovered, forgotten again and dug up once more. ‘I wanna be your dog’ is an awesome, angst-ridden and brutal loser’s anthem, uniting generations of marginalized youth with the secret mantra of the sexually frustrated underdog who hates a world not of his making and not to his liking. Following disintegration, the Stooges’ enigmatic and narcissistic front-man Iggy Pop enjoyed a patchy rock star career while his former bandmates disappeared into drug abuse and obscurity. Iggy is part of the establishment these days. The man who used to cut his chest and smear himself with peanut butter on stage chooses his words carefully in interviews. Iggy looks good. Iggy Pop is a survivor. He lives on the West Coast. Tonight the Stooges play their second album, Funhouse, first released to an unsuspecting public in 1970.

“We are amazed to be here. We are amazed to be fucking anywhere.”

The Stooges hit the stage. Never mind the support act. They are called Cool Kids of Death, come from Poland and look too young to have ever filmed themselves fucking. “We’ve had better audiences,” the singer laments. Someone throws half a pint of beer and shouts, “Fuck off.” Welcome to rock 'n' roll heaven. Ron Ashton is a fat, ugly man with carefully coiffured hair and tinted glasses. He looks like a Vietnam vet from Ohio who’s worked as bus boy in a scrap-yard for the last three decades. Ron Ashton plays a Telecaster with a whammy bar. He plays it like an M16, from the hip and with little precision. Standing stage right, the opening chords of ‘TV eye’ hurt. Scott Ashton looks like he hasn’t talked to his brother or anyone else for the last three decades. He wears funny goggles and a hat and plays his drums too fast. Scott is on a 90-minute work-out, in his own world, which is possibly dark and gray and filled with TV soap reruns on fast forward. The sound of high-flying B52s, the distant rumble of death pulsates from the drum riser and clings to the Art Deco ceiling of the Apollo. They call it entertainment. Mike Watts plays bass. He’s a middle-aged guy from the Bay Area, a punk veteran and a replacement for bass players that are dead, incapacitated or simply forgotten. He sweats into sonic symbiosis with Scott Ashton, adding grit if not flair to the adolescent racket. Steven MacKay, a mild mannered looking, grey-haired guy, contributes unearthly squeals on his saxophone. But it ain’t about flair. The Stooges were never Lear-jet junkies or hi-so enfants terribles. The Stooges were unnerving and savage. “Hallo fucking LA.” The Ig screams at London. James Osterberg, the rock n roll king of vanity, the godfather of punk, the world’s forgotten boy, the man with a cock in every pocket, in short, Iggy Pop, scrambles to the stage front and howls and contorts and writhes in tanned, practiced pain. Iggy is a star. The band lurches into ‘Loose’. Sonic shrapnel rips through the hall. Iggy jumps and contorts. The Ashtons hammer on like mid-Western zombie robots, uglier than parked cars, nastier than your third cousin. Show’s rolling like a juggernaut. These men aren’t virtuosi: they are rock n roll perverts, demented blues reapers; they are Satan’s pensioners.

I was born in 1967. I grew up in mid-range Germany and caught a bad case of rebellion in a stifling, conservative environment. America was with me from the start. I was an infant when they put the man on the Moon, when they butchered the people of Mai Lai and when the Stooges appeared on American stages, rewriting the rock n roll and teenage rebellion textbook with no more than three chords and a handful of catchy tunes about war, lies and despair. Of course, I didn’t know about any of this. By the time I found out about Vietnam and the 60s and began to deconstruct the past in a serious manner, the trail of libertarian self-abuse as message had gone cold. By then, I was living in Britain, a skinny white boy playing the guitar. Largely a musical pretender, I eventually realized I was more attracted to the lifestyle, attitude and politics of rebellion, than its sound. I dropped the guitar and started writing.

The Stooges fire through Funhouse in a brief half-hour of routine mayhem. Three decades have turned art performance into rock performance gone art, have transformed spontaneous chaos into institutionalized rebellion. At £25 a head, nostalgia, no matter how debauched and lowly its origins, does not come cheap.

But it hasn’t always been like that. The Stooges encapsulated the hell-fire of youth in the late 1960s. The Stooges took the elitist middle-class struggles against the war in Vietnam and the Man at home out of the college rooms and into the filthy, skuzzy street. The Stooges told us everything was fucked. The Stooges offered 'No fun'. They had their 'Head on the curb', while Iggy was always ready to ‘Open up and bleed’, had his ‘Cock in his pocket’ and just 'Wanted to fuck, and no romance’, they were in fact part of the age of the last romantics, intellectual freebooters and sub-cultural pirates. That’s why they are put on an unholy pedestal today, celebrated for offending, now that the offence has been contained and absorbed into the mainstream.

London buys into the myth wholeheartedly. As the Stooges saunter back on stage and launch into ‘I wanna be your dog’, the Hammersmith Apollo erupts and the crowd surges forward to take communion with their skinny, tanned and wrinkly god Iggy, who invites everyone on stage. 300 kids dance to ‘1969’. There’s still war across the USA, but the link is broken. Iggy no longer cares for war, the song has self-perpetuated and the audience has not come to hear about what a filthy place the world has always been. As the Stooges have turned into an artifact, so their suffering has turned into myth, and so four old men crank through quite brilliant but meaningless tunes to earn their pensions. War, like The Stooges, has become entertainment, part of our culture. We consume everything. We curate chaos. And they never played ‘Raw power’.

Outside, after the show, the crowd looks elated, but soon thins out and slips into the city’s nervous system, their minds on their jobs and families and the next great rock n roll show, probably trying to remember whether they’d set the video to tape that re-run of The X-Files. Rebellion is the stuff of desperate terrorists these days; the old war between the straights and the counterculture has become a ritual and any serious dissent is punished by being branded as ‘evil’ by the establishment, man. Iggy knows all this, of course, glad to remain the world’s forgotten boy. The Stooges’ arrival on Earth is the stuff of legends, their reappearance a reminder of more idealistic times.