The Break is Over


April 13, 2007


When James Osterberg (better known as Iggy Pop) and brothers Ron and Scott Asheton sat down with Rolling Stone's David Fricke for an interview at the Austin Convention Center during the recent South by Southwest Music Festival, a thousand devoted fans listened to the three musicians recall the years they spent in one of the key bands that laid the foundation for punk -- the Stooges.

Originally completed by bassist Dave Alexander, the group came together in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1967. Iggy had been a drummer, he told the SXSW crowd, and a year earlier, he'd moved to Chicago to gig in the blues clubs and study under the great Sam Lay. "I'd play five sets a night, almost every night of the week, and I'd get paid like 50 or 60 bucks a week, cash. But the first time I set foot in one of those blues clubs, I was blown away by the openly sexual nature of blues dancing. ... That had a great influence on my later stage presence. Blues dancing, belly dancing and Native American ritual dancing -- I'd say those are the three main ingredients of who I am on stage."

Iggy returned to Michigan determined to bring that raw sensuality to the role of frontman. The sound of the group that initially called itself the Psychedelic Stooges stemmed from the fact that the four musicians shared a series of communal crash pads -- one of which would be dubbed "the Fun House" -- living together, eating macrobiotic food, smoking pot, dropping acid and listening non-stop to music ranging from raw '60s garage rock to the Velvet Underground (whose John Cale produced the band's debut), James Brown to Motown, and Indian ragas to free jazz.

All of it went into the mix -- "Creation often comes when you don't have to do the pedestrian things that people expect of you," Iggy said -- and although the group had no expectations of stardom, it signed to Elektra as part of a package deal with its "big brother" band, the MC5. "We just sort of walked in the door when nobody was looking."

Loud, abrasive and notoriously confrontational, the Stooges alienated more listeners than they impressed. One was influential concert promoter Frank Barcelona.

"We're up on stage, and I grabbed one of Scott's broken drums sticks and started making marks on my skin, and these little specks of blood start coming out," Iggy recalled. "By now, I'm getting p---ed at the total lack of reaction in the crowd, so I jumped them. Then, after the concert, I walk up to Frank Barcelona -- he had this 'Goodfellas' look about him -- and I'm covered with specks of blood, wearing hot pants and moccasins, and he says to me, 'Kid, I can't do anything for you, but I'm sure in 25 years, you'll be relevant.' The man was a pro; he knew his business!"

Indeed, the "The Stooges" (1969) and "Funhouse" (1970) made little commercial impact at the time, and aside from a few visionary critics like Lester Bangs, the band was universally panned. "I never got upset," guitarist Ron Asheton claimed. "I thought bad reviews are better: More people will come and see the Elephant Man." But starting with the punk explosion of the mid-'70s and continuing to the present, the Stooges would increasingly be viewed as one of the most influential and powerful bands in rock history.

The group never really split up, Asheton maintained -- "None of us ever said, 'F--- you, I quit!' We just needed a break... a long break" -- and now, 34 years after their last album, the Stooges have reunited, with former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt filling in for Alexander, who died in 1975. And they are touring behind a new album, "The Weirdness," recorded in Chicago with producer Steve Albini.

Whether or not fans embrace the new disc, the band's catalog cannot be denied, and few ever thought they'd have the chance to hear "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "Loose" and "Funhouse" performed live. "Success to me is when people know your songs," Iggy said. But he made it clear that the group hopes to add to rather than coast on its legacy.

"I don't think people will like us if we're not as good as history." We'll find out Sunday night.



'Raw Power' absent from Stooges' gig

In addition to the late bassist Dave Alexander, an integral part of the Stooges' history is missing from the current tour: The set list focuses on songs from the new album, and the group plays a handful of favorites from its debut and "Funhouse." But don't expect anything from the 1975 album "Raw Power."

Swamped by debt, drugs and exhaustion, the Stooges broke up -- or took their first break, if you prefer -- in 1971. A year later, Iggy Pop signed to MainMan Management, which handled David Bowie, who was a big fan. Swept up in the glam movement, Iggy decided to reform the Stooges, though this time, he co-wrote most of the songs with guitarist James Williamson.

Ron Asheton clearly resented this new partnership, though not enough to pass on the opportunity when Iggy asked him to play bass beside his brother Scott on drums in the studio and on tour. Now, with Asheton back in his original role as guitarist, the group is essentially writing "Raw Power" out of the Stooges story -- even though the album is every bit as essential and possibly even better than its predecessors.

Originally produced by Bowie, who seemed to just turn every instrument up until it peaked the meters, "Raw Power" was remixed by Iggy and remastered by Columbia Records for a new CD edition in 1998, though I'm not alone in preferring the original. "I personally think it sucked," Williamson said of the new mix in a 2001 interview with the Web-zine "I like the idea of what he tried to do, and I talked to him about it... but [Iggy] didn't have a lot to work with. Bowie's not my favorite guy, but I have to say that overall, I think he did a pretty good job."


 7 p.m. Sunday
 Congress Theatre, 2135 N. Milwaukee
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