When the reconstituted Stooges gathered in 2007 to perform on Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series, “The Weirdness” — their first album in 34 years — was imminent. Iggy Pop along with the rest of the band — Ron and Scott Asheton from the original lineup and former Minutemen founder and bassist Mike Watt — were reportedly a little daunted by the setup, given there wasn’t a host or audience to bounce off.
At times Iggy seems charmingly flustered as they run through “Trollin’’ from “The Weirdness,” “Little Doll” from their self-titled 1969 debut and “Loose” and “TV Eye” from “Fun House” (1970). But they get over that discomfort quickly once Pop flings a full water bottle at the crew, and finally strips off his black golf shirt and lets go on “TV Eye.”
It provides a glimpse of a more civilized, less feral version of the Stooges, and a rare look at Pop singing completely clothed for most of the set — something that almost never happened from the band’s very first days in Ann Arbor, MI. It’s fair to say he was one of the first rock stars willing to walk that precarious razor’s edge between art and madness. But never so boldly as when his two lieutenants, Asheton brothers Ron on guitar and Scott on drums, were with him. Even 50 years later.
The first time I saw the Stooges perform, I was a Stooge. Late in the afternoon on an overcast February day in 1968, I found myself in a dark, windowless room in the bowels of a rambling white frame farmhouse. It sat at the end of a long driveway, abutted by a cornfield, without any other houses or structures as far as the eye could see, despite being just a few miles outside of the sleepy little college town 45 minutes west of Detroit. A perfect setting for a horror movie, I remember thinking at the time. My best friend, Peggy Carlson, was being romanced by Iggy himself (friends knew him as Jim Osterberg). She had persuaded me to accompany her by bus to visit him and his band, the Psychedelic Stooges, in their dilapidated farmhouse.
At 16, I naively thought that rock bands lived in row houses like the Beatles in “Help” — but this was no idealized British crash pad. Odd symbols and ordinary words that seemed to have no relevance to anything were scrawled on the walls in black marker, including the words “Fun House,” while James Brown’s “There Was a Time” played over and over at an unnerving volume. I didn’t really have any purpose being there, other than being a wing-woman, so it was all a little awkward for me. So I did what teenage girls have done since time immemorial when visiting a band house: I cleaned the kitchen, taking great care not to get any of the smut and unidentifiable food crud on my High Street hippie finery.
They were lean to the point of anorexia, existing on a diet of brown rice and LSD, with a few alcoholic beverages thrown in to even things out.
I can say with perfect hindsight that their house was one of the filthiest places I had ever seen — then or now: dishes stacked in haphazard piles with fuzzy growth on them, glasses smudged with unidentifiable stains. Maybe they didn’t notice. Given the look of them, it was clear that none of the guys paid much attention to food. They were lean to the point of anorexia, existing on a diet of brown rice and LSD, with a few alcoholic beverages thrown in to even things out. Even the water was foul; it was rusty orange when you turned on the tap.
I hadn’t seen them perform. In fact, at this point, they had played only one show. I might not have been so surprised when Jim (as we still thought of him) demanded that Peggy and I accompany him into the band’s practice room, a small, windowless room behind the kitchen. It was once a parlor, or so I believed; it was hard to tell with only a dim lava lamp as illumination, along with two small pinpoints of orange light that indicated two Marshall amps were plugged in — shadowy behemoths, like twin slabs chipped off some electronic Stonehenge, that loomed menacingly in the dark room.
The walls were covered completely in grey egg cartons, and a dirty rug covered the dull linoleum. Once we were inside, Jim slammed the door with a resolute click and locked it firmly. He picked up a bass guitar that was leaning against one of the walls and shoved it into my hands. Yes, shoved it. “Play!” he commanded, turning his back on me as he set up a mic stand two feet off the floor. Then he bounded over to Peggy, pressing an air blower into her hands. She looked a little flustered, and when we started to protest that we didn’t know how, he retorted: “Do you think that fucking matters? Just play!”
Apparently it didn’t matter, as history would prove in the life of the other Stooges. There was something a little frightening in his face that afternoon, so that “no” did not seem like an acceptable answer. It was as if a demon took over and you could see the Jim persona retreating as Iggy came to life, like Bill Bixby when he turned into the Incredible Hulk on the ‘70s TV show. “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” Bixby would say through gritted teeth.
Jim wasn’t all that likable either after he stripped off his white Indian gauze shirt, threw his head back and let out a bloodcurdling war whoop as he jumped on top of one of Ron Asheton’s amps and began humping it maniacally. He was lost in some nightmarish revelry, emitting a string of low, guttural utterances as if in a trance. Every now and then he would seem to remember we were there, and would look over at the two of us fumbling with our instruments and hiss, “Play, play, play!” when we faltered or stopped, or worse, complained again. If he’d had a whip he would have lashed us. There seemed to be something psychically dangerous about the moment, as if time had slowed down as it does when you’re headed for a car crash.
The three of us droned on, making sounds that didn’t quite sound human. Even though we didn’t sign up for this, we were along for this strange, demented carnival ride. Fun House indeed. But there was also something laughable about the situation, and by some tacit agreement, the two of us avoided each other’s eyes; it took every ounce of strength and fortitude not to dissolve in peals of hysterical laughter as we jammed for the next 20 minutes — or had an “energy freak-out,” as he called it in Stooge-speak.
Then, as suddenly as it all began, everything stopped, like air being sucked out of a room. Jim-now-Iggy jumped off the amp and bolted from the room, not saying anything to either of us.
“Did that really happen?” I asked Peggy after it was clear he wasn’t coming back.
“No,” she said. “It didn’t.”
Soon enough, things did start to happen for the Psychedelic Stooges. And it wasn’t that much different from what we had experienced on that chilly February afternoon. With only that one show under their belts, a Halloween party hosted by the MC5’s manager five months before, the four fledgling Stooges piled into bassist Dave Alexander’s Corvair to head down I-94 toward Detroit, where they were scheduled to open up for the horn-tastic Blood, Sweat and Tears on March 3, 1968, at the city’s infamous Grande Ballroom.
Credit: Burton Historical Archives
With his hair freshly permed, Iggy was already ready for the stage. He not only had white greasepaint on his face for his band’s public debut, but he had donned a white turn-of–the-century maternity dress, pairing it with his golf shoes. He topped it off with a handmade corona of silver on his head — starched pieces of aluminum foil poking out at alarming angles from a rubber bathing cap. It was a frightening vision, but not half so frightening as the discordant, feral music bleating out of the Stooges’ amplifiers once they hit the stage. That first night they played a variety of makeshift contraptions, not just because they couldn’t afford real instruments but because they wanted to remake music as they knew it.
“If we didn’t make a complete break with the music that was going on, we were never going to make it,” Pop explained to me in 2006. You could hear the wild innovation and an incipient fondness for both Harry Partch and the Troggs in their sound, compounded by a pair of 55-pound oil drums that the black-gloved Scott Asheton furiously pounded. Then there was something they called the Jim-aphone, a mic dropped in a large conical funnel that was raised and lowered to generate the most harrowing noises. An air blower was aimed at a low mic to create chaotic whirring sounds, competing with something of Iggy’s own invention that he called an Osterizer — played by dropping a mic into the cavity of a blender.
The music was not much more than a primal scream — a horrible beast announcing its untimely arrival.
Most of the songs lacked words. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “1969” would come later. But the Stooges were never about hooks and melodies, they were about attitude — petulance, arrogance and sullen cool. The music was not much more than a primal scream — a horrible beast announcing its untimely arrival. It suggested the beginning of a cultural apocalypse or significant artistic watershed, depending on whom you asked.
More personally, the Stooges’ music was the means to express that painful division of Iggy’s character. Here was the former student-council vice president and member of the debate team, wellread and verbal, fighting with the shamanistic, primitive force of a discontented, troubled soul, struggling to self-express and in the process flirting with the dangerous extremes of his body and mind. You could see this struggle made material in the Stooges’ abuse of their audience even on that first night.
Iggy’s even more violent abuse of himself would come later, but on this first public unveiling he had arranged for an ex-girlfriend to be brought to the lip of the stage midway through their short set. He began his now-famous gyrations, shimmying to where she stood, in her corkscrew curls and blue satin dress. Uttering a warrior’s grunt, he put one outstretched palm squarely on her forehead and pushed her to the floor. Shocked, humiliated and actually a little bruised, she picked herself up with all the decorum that a 17-year-old could muster and bolted from the ballroom’s main room.
You could hardly ignore this barbaric spectacle, this collision of unrelenting noise and antisocial display. It felt pagan and dangerous, qualities that would only grow more pronounced and confrontational, soon provoking similar reactions in the Stooges’ crowd. But those early audiences really didn’t know what to make of them. It wasn’t even clear that anyone liked them, but you couldn’t tear your eyes from the stage.
“When we used to play shows at the Grande Ballroom, nobody would move,” Pop said during “The Weirdness” era 40 years later. “Nobody peed. Nobody drank. They enjoyed it, but they didn’t respond to the beat. Why? Because we weren’t like anyone else.”
“When we first started the audience was like a snake, they were mesmerized,” recalled Ron Asheton in 2008. “Then they enjoyed the participation. People would purposefully save their beers to dump all over him. He’d be laying all over the chairs all fucked up and the kids would be throwing beers at him. That’s what really cracked me up, and that’s when he really started refining it. He got ‘em goin’!”
And had them coming back to see more Stooges shows. Over that year, they played 41 more dates, including 22 at the Grande Ballroom. When they played at Mother’s in Romeo, Mich., the white maternity dress and white face paint were long gone, but Pop’s gyrations, backbends and microphone diving had becomeg more elaborate. Besides jamming a mic into his partially unzipped jeans as he danced around the stage that night, he exposed himself and got himself arrested. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and incurred fines totaling $50.
‘I have always been a ruthless motherfucker.’
“There was method to my madness,” Pop said in a 2006 interview. “We were opening up for the mighty Jagged Edge [a little-known rock band], and I wanted to take away some of their thunder. I have always been a ruthless motherfucker.”
And maybe he always was, but it’s hard to watch those early shows, like the Stooges’ June 13, 1970, appearance at the Cincinnati Pop Festival, and think they were scripted. Every bristling body movement, every grimace of anger, every confrontational finger point or hurled insult always felt spontaneous and deeply felt. Not to mention their shows had gotten much better: Iggy’s bellicose exhibitionism and sex yodels had become more unnerving, Scott Asheton’s untutored trash-can drumming no longer beat like an arrhythmic heart, Ron Asheton’s menacing guitar work and unexpectedly aggressive psychedelic excursions cut through the ether with an unexpected clarity, while Dave Alexander’s blasts of bass rage anchored the songs with a menacing, constant rumble.
That show was the apex of the Stooges’ titanic powers. “I’m always shocked when I hear back that little piece of footage of us at Cincinnati Pop Festival,” Pop later said. “It sounds so fucking good. I could never tell (when it was happening) because there were no PAs in those days, no monitor.”
As for the peanut butter jar handed to the singer in the middle of the show? “No, no, no I didn’t bring it myself. I was never so corny that I would. (Future Dead Boys singer) Stiv Bators told me he was the guy who brought it. I was out crowd-walking and a hand came up and thrust this jar of peanut butter and I go, ‘Oh, well, this would be interesting.’”
And it was, after he smeared the contents over his torso. Fans started bringing jars of peanut butter to the band’s performances as a sign of homage. “At least it was better than the raw meat they brought before,” Pop said. Things seemed to go awry two months later, when the band played at Michigan’s Goose Lake Festival on Aug. 9, 1970, a month after the release of “Fun House,” their second album. Pop had demanded that Dave Alexander not drink or ingest any drugs before this performance, since it was going to be their biggest crowd to date, as well as a hometown unveiling of the songs on the new album.
The reason for the caution was because Alexander had not lately been showing up for practices, staying at his parents’ house more often than at the band’s Fun House HQ and forgetting his parts at concerts.
“Dave would be too stoned to remember a song, couldn’t remember the bass parts,” Iggy recalled in 2006. “But for a guy who didn’t spend that much time with the instrument, the recorded sides were very well done.”
To be fair, all of the band members were fond of their inebriants, but Alexander seemed a little more susceptible, or maybe just more fragile. Insiders claim what happened at Goose Lake was the final straw for the band’s original lineup. Alexander had gotten dosed with some drug concoction that was making the rounds — filling the sick bay at the festival with fallen revelers. In Alexander’s case, after snorting the mystery powder, he forgot how to play his bass, or even that he was on a stage in front of 200,000 festival-goers.
The show became so raucous that the promoters pulled the plug on the group, after Pop evaded a two-man security team and waded into the crowd. He baited the fans and reportedly incited them to pull down a wooden fence that separated the stage from the crowd. What he was really doing was singing some lines from “Down on the Street”: “No walls! No walls!” But the bigger crime in Iggy’s estimation was that he thought it was a so-so performance (a live recording released in 2020 by Third Man proves otherwise), and after the last strains of “LA Blues” had died out, he told Alexander he was fired even before they got to the dressing room.
“I am never playing with you again!” he said. And he never did, that show marking the last day of the Stooges with the original lineup. But their art dream never died nor did their mission.
The Asheton brothers guested on Pop’s 2003 album “Skull Ring,” reformed with Pop as the Stooges the same year and in 2007, recorded “The Weirdness,” the long-awaited follow-up to “Raw Power,” released in 1973.
“We never broke up. We were just taking a break,” Pop said at the time. “A very long break.”
As the “From the Basement” performance demonstrates, they had grown in musical acumen. Yet amid the proficiency and sheer showmanship, there’s still more than a hint of that early bad attitude and transgressive fury.
“We’re still angry, we’re just angry about different things,” Pop said. And even if some of the raw power had been rubbed off, no one should ever forget that the Stooges paved the way for generations of musicians with more will than talent, showing them it was alright to follow their dreams, even if they looked more like nightmares.
The Stooges “From the Basement” Setlist