Friday, March 30, 2012

Fieled’s Conceptions

Recently, I disagreed with the Philadelphia-based poet Adam Fieled in regard to his assertion of Charles Bukowski’s supposed “lack of formal skill.” But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like Fieled’s own poetry. Lately he’s been publishing excerpts of a series called “Conceptions” in a number of online journals. Far from the grandiose or religious connotation that the title might imply, these are down and dirty narrative prose-poems. I like his poetry-poems maybe even more, but these are worth checking out:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Brett Callwood, The Stooges: Head On

I was a little leery of the new version of Brett Callwood’s The Stooges: Head On, A Journey through the Michigan Underground (Painted Turtle/Wayne State University Press, 2011), since the original British edition of this book was, to be blunt, poorly written and rife with typographical errors. Happily, the editors at Wayne State have done wonders, and this edition is not only eminently readable but contains much new and worthwhile material, while the annoying “personal journey” aspect of the original has been cut.

To give Callwood credit, his genuine appreciation for the Stooges always shone through, even where previously it may have come across at times as a little cringe-inducing. He has also written a book on the MC5 which went through the same process: poorly edited and full of errors in its initial edition (in that book, for example, Callwood more than once referred to Pabst Blue Ribbon as “Pap’s”) but then given the revision treatment by Wayne State. Finally, however, he appears to be hitting his stride. It goes to show what a good editor can (at least in some ways) do for a writer still in the process of figuring things out. Now, it seems, he has.

And now that I’ve vented my irritation at the earlier edition(s), let me say that the new Stooges: Head On book is a valuable addition to anyone’s collection. And I say “anyone” because the Stooges were not merely a niche group, but in retrospect are just as important and innovative as an artist like John Coltrane (albeit not as prolific and obviously working most of the time in a different genre). Like Coltrane, they constantly evolved their sound, and that aspect of the band is captured here. Recognizing his role as band biographer, Callwood devotes a large portion of the book to interviews and quotation. His choices of what to include are insightful. He highlights Ron Asheton’s originality on guitar (see the first two Stooges albums) with this quote from Ron himself: “You move ahead…. Like anybody who keeps playing music, you always learn, you always get better every time you play up until the day you die.” Mike Davis, the recently deceased MC5 bass player, notes that
Ron didn’t have a musical background playing in bar bands and that sort of rootsy stuff – he taught himself everything. He knew there was a new world and he went for it. [….] It turned out to be something that was completely unique. It was a breakaway from the traditional way of playing guitar.
Further, Callwood includes this take on Asheton’s playing from Danny Kroha:
There weren’t any Chuck Berry licks in it; there weren’t any recognizable blues licks in what he did; it was something that he totally invented and came directly from his soul. There was no precedent for it. It was almost like John Lee Hooker where you can’t discern any influences. It seemed to have come from a primal place.
This accords well with my own view of Asheton as a guitarist and sets out the difference between his style and James Williamson’s on the Stooges’ third album Raw Power (1973), when Williamson had taken over on guitar and Asheton was “demoted” to bass. Williamson’s style is based to a degree on Chuck Berry licks. Not that that is a bad thing, yet as much as I like Raw Power, if I had to choose, I prefer Ron Asheton (I’ve written further about him here). I think it’s a good thing, though, that these two divergent styles exist within the discography of one great band. Callwood handles this tension well, providing commentary and opinion from both sides of what for some is still a contentious debate.

This edition of the book includes portions of new interviews with Scott Asheton, James Williamson, Scott Thuston, and Mike Watt, all of which add crucial details to the story. But someone who is missing here is Jimmy Recca, the bass player for the Stooges in their crucial but under-appreciated 1971 lineup. I’ve always wanted to read more about this phase of the band (Paul Trynka’s Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed [2007] is one of the few sources for this, along with the You Want My Action CD box set), and Recca (who was also in Ron Asheton’s post-Stooges band The New Order) does not appear to be too hard to track down. The Stooges: Head On gives us a mere few pages on that interstitial time between Fun House (1970) and Raw Power, when the band featured a two-guitar attack and toured with some of their best (though not properly recorded) material, before imploding due to heroin issues (Ron Asheton and Jimmy Recca excluded). Callwood touches on the drug stuff, but he might have gone further into the music, the tour, and the album the Stooges hoped to record before being dropped by Elektra.

There are a couple of other little nitpicky things to note. Contrary to Callwood’s claim, “Down on the Street,” the lead track on Fun House, does not “[continue] pretty much exactly where the first album left off.” Not only are there some obvious differences between that song and “Little Doll” in tempo and feel, but the two albums on the whole have vastly disparate sounds — not to mention that such a statement contradicts the idea of change and evolution that Callwood emphasizes elsewhere. The discography section lists Iggy’s solo album Zombie Birdhouse (1982) as part of the Arista catalogue, when in fact it was released on Chris Stein’s Animal Records. It’s great that Callwood includes excerpts from an interview with Scott Thurston (the band’s keyboardist on their last Raw Power-era tour), but why not also get Bob Sheff who played with them a little bit before? Like Jimmy Recca, he’s still around and would probably make a decent interview (he is listed as a source in the Trynka book).

Still, these are minor complaints about what is on the whole a very good book about a very great band. Most of the material here on the Ashetons’ post-Stooges groups The New Order, Destroy All Monsters, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, and Dark Carnival, and up-to-date discussion of the lately re-formed Stooges, will not be found elsewhere. The Scott Asheton interview sections where he speaks of his own ambivalence about playing with James Williamson again after his brother’s death are stark and moving. The Stooges: Head On is well worth the read and is a great overview of the band’s career. The best thing about it, perhaps, is that Callwood views the band and its members as eminently important in their own right, rather than merely being footnotes to a wider Iggy Pop career. Iggy is given his due of course (there could never have been any Stooges without him!) and contributes both an interview and a blurb, but this is one of the few books out there that is truly a Stooges book.