Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tribute to Steve Mackay

Steve Mackay (with Ron Asheton in the background), 1970
Many years ago, long before the transformation of the Stooges’ reputation and their election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stooges fans were rarities.  Aside from those with specialist knowledge of music history, or perhaps someone aware of the Stooges as one of the progenitors of punk, few people had heard of them.  You’d have to first determine whether a person had at least heard of Iggy Pop, and then explain that the Stooges were his band before he went solo.  So when you did meet a Stooges fan, there was a kind of immediate camaraderie, a mutual recognition of something important.

I remember in the 1990s, in San Francisco, there was this guy I worked with, a bit older than me.  I got to talking to him about music, and he told me this story about how, once, when he had this job working second shift at a factory or a warehouse or something, he’d get off of work late, after a long, tough night, get a six-pack of beer, go home, and put on the Stooges’ Fun House album.  Now, as many will agree, this album is the greatest rock album ever recorded, when all is said and done.  But it wasn’t simply the fact that it’s a great album and the Stooges were a great band — it was side two that this guy was really waiting for.  Because, halfway through the first song on side two (“1970”) is when Steve Mackay appears, blowing his tenor sax with the heaviest, most brilliant tone you could imagine.

Mackay plays out the album from there, on three tracks total.  “1970” is a hard-driving, up-tempo song of desperation, exhibiting the Stooges’ proto-punk qualities.  Mackay’s tenor comes in at the 3:30 mark, with a blistering solo riding over Ron Asheton’s expansive bar chords.  The album’s title track, “Fun House,” a groove based primarily on the rhythm section of Dave Alexander and Scott Asheton, has Mackay soloing throughout, to the frequent cries of Iggy Pop: “Blow, Steve!”  The last track is “L.A. Blues,” in which the band eschews linear time and Mackay’s presence further pushes their sound into the realm of free jazz.

“That squawk!” I remember my former co-worker practically shouting to me, and I of course was equally as enthusiastic about Steve Mackay, because that moment when his horn appears on Fun House is one of the best moments in musical history, on the greatest rock’n’roll album of all time.  And it never lets up.  I remember also telling him, “If you like Mackay’s playing, you should also check out John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp. . . .”  And certainly it is from these heavyweights of the free-jazz movement that Mackay must have gotten his sound.  How a young guy working in the Detroit rock scene in 1970 could produce a performance up there with these aforementioned jazz innovators, I don’t know.  But he did.

Mackay’s playing on Fun House is both brutal and magnificent, and added something to the Stooges that they would never be able to duplicate without him (though he did later appear on the more recent albums The Weirdness and Ready To Die by the re-formed band).  Mackay also played with a lot of other groups and put out his own material, which I certainly don’t wish to minimize, but for me his playing on Fun House is the equivalent of a “master work.”  And if any artist — a musician, painter, poet, or what have you — can create even one work as great as this, then, wow, he/she has in some way got it made.

Mackay’s work on these Stooges songs can be further heard on 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions and Have Some Fun: Live At Ungano’s.

R.I.P. Steve Mackay, who died 10/10/15.


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