Monday, June 28, 2010

The Stooges (some thoughts on three recent releases)

The question of which band is the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time has perplexed humankind almost since the invention of the form itself. While a quite convincing case could be made for the Rolling Stones, for me there has never been any doubt — the Stooges are the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time. For many years, though, they have existed strictly as an underground phenomenon (the original group having disbanded in 1971, and the reformed group in 1974), despite Iggy Pop’s later fame. So in a way it’s been weird to see all the recent Stooges activity, the reunion, the re-releases, the demos and live shows being given the official treatment, their acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Weird, but good for them, and good for Stooges fans that more of their work has been made available.

The 2010 Rhino Handmade Collector’s Edition of the first album, The Stooges (1969), is notable primarily for the inclusion of the track “Asthma Attack,” which has never been available up to now. It brilliantly exemplifies the Stooges’ free jazz side, which came to the fore on their next album, Fun House (1970). In fact it is very similar to “L.A. Blues.” Some may see the noise jam as an inferior form, a throwaway cut on an album, but I think “Asthma Attack” is a great piece of music, and while it sets a tone for things to come, it also harks to what the band sounded like before they got a record contract and decided to write some actual songs. The vocals on “Asthma Attack” consist of the word “Tonight” sung several times, followed by a coughing evocation of a real asthma attack, followed at various points later by Iggy improvising (he always was an amazing improviser of lyrics). At times toward the second half of the piece, Ron Asheton’s guitar recalls Sonny Sharrock, who played on Pharoah Sanders’s Tauhid album, which Iggy has noted as an influence on the group. It would have been really interesting if The Stooges included “Asthma Attack” as its closing track, à la the sequencing of Fun House.

In fact, it would also have been interesting if the album had used the full uncut versions of the songs, some of which are included here, instead of the more familiar shortened and faded-out versions. “Ann,” for example, continues for about twice as long as the faded-out version on the original album. There’s a version of “We Will Fall” here which also continues on a bit further, with some extra flourishes of John Cale’s guest viola, and other nice tidbits such as outtakes of “Real Cool Time” and “Little Doll.” But all of that said, this Rhino package leaves something to be desired. For example, the versions of the John Cale mixes are slow. For some inexplicable reason, Rhino decided not to speed-correct these tracks, as they did do for the ones included on their 2005 re-release, and that is a serious mistake. I’m not a huge fan of the Cale mixes (the guitars are too low, and while the echo on Iggy’s vocals is interesting, it all comes off as Cale’s attempt to make the band sound more arty and less brutal), but not rendering them at the proper speed makes their inclusion here almost worthless. The vinyl 7” version of “Asthma Attack” is a nice touch, but since the track had to be split onto two sides, who’s going to actually listen to it over the intact CD version? This is still a must-have because of “Asthma Attack,” but something of a lost opportunity in other respects.

Last year, Easy Action released You Want My Action, which contains the only known recordings of the Stooges in 1971. These four very similar live shows (including the two now-famous Electric Circus shows in New York City) display some of their best material ever, in my opinion, and it makes the fact that they were dropped by Elektra Records before they could make a studio album of it all the more a travesty, and a tragedy. The 1971 version of the band is truly a missing link, including both Ron Asheton and James Williamson on dual guitars. The set’s opening song, “I Got a Right,” was later recorded as a demo when the reformed band was rehearsing for the Raw Power album in 1972. But these 1971 songs sound amazing. They are violent and aggressive like all of their material, but also have some of the groove of Fun House. “You Don’t Want My Name” and “Fresh Rag” are mid-tempo songs and with a garage-rock feel over which Ron and James lay down some blistering guitar solos. “Dead Body/Who Do You Love?” is somewhat slower and is perhaps reminiscent of the song “Dirt,” being based on a single repeated bass riff. “Big Time Bum” takes it back to a faster metallic vibe, and then the band moves into “Do You Want My Love?” which, with its intensity of guitar playing and feedback, almost achieves something of an industrial feel — but with a chugging rock’n’roll beat underneath it.

Because of the extremely low-fi nature of these 1971 recordings I have found that the best way to listen to them is turned up loud on computer speakers, with your head right between the two speakers. This almost makes it seem like you are there and somehow gives more separation between the two guitars. The vocals are, unfortunately, often less audible and buried in sludge. Still another reminder of the loss, the fact that these songs were not properly recorded before the band imploded right after this tour. The album that they could have made in 1971, and which I envision in my mind, would have been a masterpiece. You Want My Action at least gives a big hint at what could have been.

This year, Legacy Recordings released a repackaging of Raw Power (1973) which brings the album back to its original David Bowie mix, after the debacle of Iggy Pop’s 1997 remix (which I think pretty much sucked, and buried Williamson’s leads). That is Disc One. Disc Two is a live show from October 1973 recorded in Atlanta, here titled Georgia Peaches. There are lots of live recordings from 1973-74 out there, but this is indeed one of the better ones, both in terms of sound quality and playing. The opener, “Raw Power,” comes in sounding almost like a raw Velvet Underground track or something, and then the band plays “Head On” which was always one of my favorite Stooges songs from this era. Here it almost seems as if Scott Asheton is playing an all-snare-drum shuffle through the main riff (but I think it might actually be some kind of hiss that gives this impression), and Scott Thurston’s boogie-woogie piano adds a crazy aspect to it. Ron Asheton on bass drives everything forward, and Williamson’s guitar sounds heavy. Iggy is full of rage, and at the end of the song a girl in the audience is heard to say, “I don’t think he likes us!” Then we hear Iggy shouting at someone, “Hey you wanna get your little fucking face punched out, little cracker boy? Come up here! Come up here little [word unclear, ‘bitty’?] boy, I’m sick of your shit!” It’s similar to the atmosphere on Metallic K.O., but here there’s more of a sense of musical cohesion. One of Iggy’s improvised lyrics in “Gimme Danger” goes, “And if I gotta live in danger, just to live a real way, then I’ll break the law and die tomorrow, but I’ll live my way today.” This pretty much sums up the Stooges’ attitude, from day one on through to the end.

The bonus tracks on Disc Two are “Doojiman” (an outtake from the Raw Power sessions and essentially a single blues riff propelled by “1969”-like tom-toms and Iggy’s screaming and scatting), and a rehearsal tape of “Head On.” There is a deluxe version of the Raw Power package which includes a further disc of rarities, outtakes, and songs recorded only live or in rehearsals. I didn’t get the deluxe version, but I have much of the material on other discs, and it is worth having. Like the 1971 collection, it makes you wonder at what might have been. It’s too bad the Stooges weren’t able to record a follow-up to Raw Power before they broke up in early 1974. Their new material was great stuff, as this package demonstrates. The post-Stooges Iggy Pop and James Williamson album Kill City, which I hear is slated for its own re-release treatment soon, is great in its own way, but it’s not the album that could have been made with the Asheton brothers in 1973 or ’4.

Post-script: A couple of nights ago I sat in Kelly’s Bar drinking pints of beer (and at one point a Pimm’s Cup), and suddenly the bartender went over to his iPod and switched the song to the Stooges’ “1970” (from Fun House). Then immediately after hearing those initial Ron Asheton guitar chords, he turned it up some more, and it was loud. And it sounded good, the bass thick and heavy, the drums piercing. And “1970” is the song in which Steve MacKay’s tenor saxophone first appears, when his soloing starts and Iggy keeps yelling “Blow!” and things on the album suddenly get even crazier. It filled the bar, and it felt good to drink beer to, and I was reminded once again that listening to the Stooges is a good thing. It is always a good thing. And aren’t these moments what justify living?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

We Are All Dead Pelicans

The above photo could almost be beautiful, if we didn’t know what it is — a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This catastrophe continues to get worse and worse every second of every day, and now that it has emerged that the pipe is apparently ruptured underneath the seabed, it is likely that the gushing oil will simply continue to spew out indefinitely — for months, perhaps years — further destroying the ocean, the marshlands, the beaches, the animals that inhabit these environments, and the fishing and tourist industries of the regions affected. Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know how awful it is.

The question now is what to do about it. I am far, far from being an expert on this, but a few things seem clear. One is that, as a basic first step, offshore drilling has to be banned permanently. If this is not a wake-up call to the dangers of offshore drilling then I don’t know what is. Almost incredibly, though, we now have Republicans like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and disgraced Senator David Vitter calling for the immediate resumption of drilling. Other right-wing Republican figures such as Rand Paul and Sarah Palin, as well as “independent” billionaire Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, have actually come out in defense of the BP murderers. In the face of such an enormous and unfolding catastrophe, their stances would seem nothing short of insane. Sadly, they are not insane. Quite to the contrary, they know full well what they are doing and why. To them, corporate profits simply rank higher than any possible concern for environmental destruction, animal suffering, or lost livelihoods. Vitter and Jindal, for example, claim that they are motivated by the need to save jobs in Louisiana’s oil industry, yet seem to care very little for jobs in the fishing or tourist industries. Palin’s husband Todd Palin has actually worked for BP as a production operator. So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here....

As always, it’s all about corporate interests. Can anyone really be surprised? No, but this shows how hard it really will be to accomplish any real change in regard to oil policy, even when we see so starkly the consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. It would be nice to think that, for example, a boycott of BP could be effective, and perhaps it is a good way to register one’s anger, but I suspect ultimately it will come to nothing. Remember how horrible the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska was (and still is to this day)? I remember hearing stories on the news of people cutting up their Exxon credit cards and boycotting Exxon, but that corporation is still going quite strong. A lot of people were angry about Shell Oil’s activities in Nigeria and its involvement in the execution of Ogoni anti-Shell activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, but none of the subsequent anti-Shell boycotts have really done anything to change things or to affect Shell’s massive profits.

As understandable and necessary as it is, boycotting only one oil company is short-sighted — those who drive cars will still have to buy their gas somewhere. All oil companies are just as bad as each other, and they’re all in cahoots, along with the Congress-people and government officials who enforce (or rather don’t enforce, as the ongoing BP mess is revealing) the regulation of the industry. President Obama initially seemed like a ray of hope with his touting of a clean energy bill and so forth, but before this BP thing he had come out in favor of off-shore drilling as a sop to the Right, and to the disappointment of many of his supporters. While Obama is clearly preferable as a president to any Republican one could currently imagine, his story is yet another demonstration of the virtual impossibility of effecting change through government, when government itself is in the back pocket of the industry causing all the damage in the first place.

So watching all these horrible pictures on the news of animals dying, of fouled beaches and marshes, while people like Jindal, Vitter, and Palin run around trying to defend big oil — well, things seem bleak to say the least. We can have no faith that even Obama will do much to change this fucked-up state of affairs. Real change will only come when enough people have made it known that they will not stand for it. It will only come when a critical mass of the people forces this country to change its energy policy, when we in a sense boycott all oil companies and change this economy from one dependent on oil to the green-energy economy that Obama pushed for as a candidate. That means there will be no quick solution to any of this, but rather an ongoing process of demonstrations, publicity, elections, more demonstrations. Thankfully there are some groups out there such as Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters, and many others who have been proactive in this regard. In New Orleans, a group called the Krewe of Dead Pelicans has been organizing protests in response to the spill. More of this, much more, is needed. Or we may all end up like dead pelicans, in one way or another.