The Stooges: The Apotheosis Of Every Parental Nightmare

THE BIGGEST TREND on the rock circuit this year is decadence.

Go to any concert, and you’ll be amazed at the sudden change in American youth, who are now as far from last year’s organic coveralls and bushy hanks of hair as they are from the madras shirts and slacks of 1963; teenagers of both sexes are piling on clots of make-up and swaddling themselves in flashily indeterminate glad rags. Boys with rouge and glitter on their eyelids, girls with the stark white faces and rinsed-out blonde hair of the Marilyn Monroe look they picked up from the drag queens in Andy Warhol movies – all of them seem to be a mite confused as if they’d just seen Cabaret and decided that whatever all that was, they wanted its trappings. But they’re working very hard at it nonetheless, and embracing as well a whole new set of pop idols consonant with this all-out sprint toward chic degeneracy: the actually rather tame showman Alice Cooper, David Bowie, the fey mime with a brilliant publicity machine, and rafts of kohl-eyed stragglers mincing in their wake. Somehow, though, it all comes off as synthetic and as ultimately emotionless as the audience’s gingerly experimentation with their own sexual identities. And every bit of it is missing that essential spark, that certain urgency that is at the root of all great rock-and-roll.

Shake hands, then, with Iggy and the Stooges, the latest and last word in shock-rock. You may find yourself repulsed by them, you may not be able to abide a single note of their music, but they are undeniably the sound and look of the future. The Stooges surpass their competition in this murky area of pop by taking all the elements that have made the Bowies and Coopers suddenly (and transitionally? Potent – glitter, sexual confusion, sub cultural shock, a sense of the garish and lurid – and adding to these a staggering dose of bone-scraping rock frenzy straight from the heart of adolescent darkness.

Another reason the Stooges loom so large among nascent glitter rockers is that, like Lou Reed (who has influenced them greatly), they were shoving this sort of thing at the world and the rock audience long before either was ready for it; they were the originators. In 1968 the Stooges were putting on shows in which lead singer Iggy Pop would fling his scabbed body to the floor of the stage in a truly convincing display of the self-destructive impulse at its purest, whereupon he would proceed to perform fellatio on the microphone while his lead guitarist jabbed him brutally from behind with the neck of his instrument. It was crude, even disgusting, but the Stooges were innovators of a sort, and both Bowie and Cooper have freely looted Iggy’s stage act for gimmicks to beef up their own highly controlled but rather cold shows.

Iggy claimed that he taught everybody else in the band to play their instruments, and when their first album came out I believe they had all been playing for only about two years. It was, as was observed at the time, a reductio ad absurdum of rock-and-roll, but it was also music that was totally impossible to ignore and successful on its own aboriginal terms: hypnotic repetitions of a single thunderous chord at a volume that would reduce dogs to agony, over which Iggy would croon and bark and shriek improvised gut-level ditties about adolescent torments in a voice rather like some henbane mutant shade of Mick Jagger. They were songs about being lonely, shy, and awkward; they were fidgety, self-pitying rants about having No Fun; and, most of all, they were about sexual inadequacy and in-experience, with a strong accent on the ultimate confusion of the two. Identity-crisis music on a perhaps too-basic level, it was as extreme in its aggressive neurosis as everything else about the Stooges. If ever there was a band predicated upon extremism on all levels, this was it – they ended up wasted on drugs, dropped by their record company, their instruments repossessed.

FOR better or worse, though, time has vindicated the Stooges, and 1973 will see them making a comeback of major proportions. They are possessed of a monomaniacal fury so genuine that it makes the posturings of Bowie and the cheery, beery Alice Cooper seem like something from a Ross Hunter production. Their new album is called Raw Power. And that’s exactly what it delivers. Raw Powermay be too much for many listeners to take. The by-now banal words “heavy metal” were invented for this group, because that’s all they’ve got, and they’re brutal with it: rampaging guitar lines hurtling out or colliding like opiated dervishes, steady, mindless, four-four android drumming, Iggy outdoing even his own previous excesses with a ragged tapestry of yowls, caws, growls, raspy rants, epithets, and imprecations. The song titles tell the story: ‘Search and Destroy’, ‘Death Trip’. The ferocious assertiveness of the lyrics is at once slightly absurd and indicative of a confused violently defensive stance that’s been a rock tradition from the beginning: “I’m the runaway son of the nuclear A-Bomb/I am the world’s forgotten boy….”

It’s the essential terror and pain of growing up, and nowhere in rock-and-roll has it been rendered more vividly – or more energetically – than by this bunch of acne-ridden social reprobates who seem to have made a career out of not growing out of their teenage traumas. Whether you laugh at them or accept their chaotic rumble on its own terms, they’re fascinating and authentic, the apotheosis of every parental nightmare.

© Lester Bangs, 1973

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