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Published: Wednesday, 5/5/2010

Against all odds, The Stooges find themselves ... respectable

BY GARY GRAFF
NEW YORK TIMES

The Stooges were being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last March, and Iggy Pop didn't bother to hide his glee.

"Well, roll over Woodstock!," he shouted, brandishing two middle fingers above his head. "We won! We didn't win a lot starting out."

It was a telling moment. Pop and the Stooges are finally getting their due as rock-and-roll icons, but their underground sensibility remains intact.

The 2003 reunion of the Michigan-based group, which had spent nearly 30 years apart, was greeted with a level of attention that the proto-punk-rock band never dreamed of during its loved-or-loathed original run from 1967 to 1973. Even after the death of guitarist Ron Asheton in 2009, the Stooges live on thanks to the return of guitarist James Williamson and a concurrent celebration of "Raw Power" (1973), the landmark record that is a staple of most "Best Rock Albums of All Time" lists and in April was reissued in a pair of special, expanded editions.

Now the Stooges, including original drummer Scott "Rock Action" Asheton, longtime saxophonist Steve McKay, and Mike Watt, the group's bassist since 2003, is in the midst of a lengthy overseas tour, with some new music a distinct possibility.

"Something about the group has struck a chord with different people," the 63-year-old Pop says. "I've been noticing that, and then you get 12-year-olds who just found us and like us, and so do their parents and grandparents even. So something happened.

"I'm not sure what, but people seem to like us, and that's OK."

It has been a struggle to get to this point, however.

The Stooges were as often reviled as lionized when they released their first two albums, "The Stooges" (1969) and "Fun House" (1970). Formed in Ann Arbor by Pop, who was born as James Osterberg Jr., the Asheton brothers and original bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, the group had a sound that was brutal and, well, raw and powerful, distinctly out of place in the peace-and-love counterculture of the late 1960s.

"They symbolized the destruction of flower power," Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong said in his Hall of Fame induction speech. "The Stooges are like a battering ram. The name of the band reminds us more of a street gang. Their songs are like weapons."

Pop, whose sense of showmanship included smearing himself with peanut butter and rolling around in shards of shattered glass, doesn't disagree and, in fact, takes pride in that.

"I think we helped wipe out the '60s," he says. "We were very bad boys, and also maybe we were a little ahead of our time."

Time has caught up with them, however. The Stooges are routinely cited as forerunners of the punk revolution that exploded in New York and London during the late 1970s. "Search and Destroy" (1973) became a punk anthem, covered by Black Flag, the Damned, the Dead Boys, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, among others.

Their impact is still felt today: Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures calls the Stooges "the greatest rock-'n'-roll band ever," and Augie Visocchi of the Detroit-based band the Hard Lessons says that, "Whenever we tell people we're from Michigan, they're always like, 'Dude, the Stooges!" '

The Stooges were in something of a shambles, though, even before "Raw Power."

"Drugs were not our friend," Pop acknowledges, and the group also suffered from burnout and internal dissension that ultimately cost its first recording contract and led to a breakup in 1971.

But Pop, who had brought in Williamson - who had played with the Ashetons in a pre-Stooges band called the Chosen Few - as a second guitarist, was not giving up on his band.

"Everybody I talked to, from London, New York, Detroit or Los Angeles, all said the same thing: 'We like you. Get rid of the group,'" he recalls. "And I didn't want to do that."

Having befriended the up-and-coming David Bowie, Pop decided to sign with the British singer's management company, Main Man, which dubbed the band Iggy and the Stooges.

"They wanted a solo artist," Pop recalls, "and I brought them the Stooges. Little by little I snuck everybody in."

Ron Asheton shifted to bass for "Raw Power," which at the time was perceived as a slap - wrongly, Pop says.

"People underestimate his contribution on bass on 'Raw Power,'" the singer says. "What he had to say on our first two albums is continued on 'Raw Power,' and he said it through his bass. It's just updated and used more subtly."

"There were some sour grapes later on, I think," Williamson adds. "He always had that feeling that he got demoted or something, and that really wasn't the case. It certainly wasn't intended that way. He was a fantastic bass player."

Recording at CBS Studios in London, the Stooges went into "Raw Power" with some high-minded musical goals.

"What it started and ended with is that it's got to rock like a (banshee)," says Pop, who produced the eight-track fusillade. "But then, to me, it had to make a forward statement that exceeded any statement being made at the time by Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Jimmy Page or the Stones. They were all making good music at the time, but they were all recombining elements from Broadway to Bob Dylan or just falling back on Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Redding areas.

"And I saw an opening for our group," he continues. "If we were going to be an important group, we couldn't outplay or outsing those guys, so we needed to do something a little edgier and be indispensable (and) artistically necessary in this world on that date in history."

Williamson, who was making his first real record, thinks that the record company's preoccupation with Bowie gave the Stooges the leeway to make the album they wanted to make.

"They weren't paying any attention to us anymore, which was a good thing," he recalls. "Up until that point, everything we had run by them as demos was rejected. They just couldn't relate to us or our music. They didn't think we had the potential of making hit records, but we weren't about that."

The executives were right: "Raw Power" was not a hit. The album - whose sound, mixed by Bowie, was long regarded as too soft for the music it contained - peaked at No. 182 on the Billboard charts. The Stooges broke up later that year after a brief tour that included a stop in Atlanta, a previously unreleased recording of which is included in the new editions of the album.

"Raw Power" has cast a long shadow, however. Rolling Stone ranked it No. 125 on its list of the 500 greatest rock albums, and Kurt Cobain called it his favorite album of all time. So did the Smiths' Johnny Marr, while Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols has said that he learned to play guitar by playing along to "Raw Power." Former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins tattooed "Search and Destroy" across his shoulder blades and writes in the new editions that the album "captures the band at the peak of their destructive genius."

Pop and Williamson stayed together for a short time after the Stooges broke up, and some recordings they made with the Velvet Underground's John Cale were released, much to Pop's dismay, as "Kill City" (1977). Williamson also contributed to Pop's solo albums "New Values" (1979) and "Soldier" (1980), before creative disagreements during the latter led to a long rift between the two men.

Pop enjoyed a successful solo career before reuniting with the Ashetons for "Skull Ring" (2003). Williamson left music for a career in electronics, eventually becoming vice president for technology standards at Sony.

Ron Asheton's death spurred Williamson's return to the group, which had some shows booked for 2009.

"We jumped into it slowly," Pop says. "I think we both started out just by being fairly polite ... and that goes a long way, and we've become comfortable working with each other again."

Williamson, who retired from Sony in 2009, calls rejoining the Stooges "a very odd thing to have happening at this point in my life," but isn't complaining.

"It feels good, and right," the guitarist says. "When people die like Ronnie did, a lot of water that was under the bridge just gets pushed aside, because there are a lot more important things than some little, petty ... argument you might have had 35 years ago. We just talked and decided to do it."

This version of the Stooges started with what Pop calls a "warm-up date" in Brazil last November and will play mostly in Europe during 2010. The band is slated to play "Raw Power" in its entirety, however, on Sept. 3 at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Monticello, N.Y. After that Pop envisions a U.S. tour in 2011 or 2012.

"We'll give it a good, sharp poke for the next three years," Pop says, "and then step back and see where we are, see what we can do with it after that. After that we should step back and pick our shots once in a while. Hopefully we can be like something that convenes for certain occasions."

As to new music, that's a distinct possibility. Pop would like to consider formally recording some heavily bootlegged Stooges songs that were rejected by record labels between "Fun House" and "Raw Power," while Williamson is putting together a new version of "Kill City" and, according to Pop, "is already on me like a greased cat" with potential new material for the band.

"He's sending me riffs, so I did some vocals to a couple of them and it's starting to sound like something," Pop says. "Once I started working with Ron and Scott again, it was important to me intellectually that the group be resurrected, not just reunified. So that meant we had to be writing and releasing new material. Ultimately I'd like to get into the studio with the group and maybe have a couple old songs, a couple new songs and then a little time to just jam and see what happens."

Williamson would like that.

"I think we're playing well together and everybody's enjoying it," the guitarist says. "We'll keep doing it as long as that's the case. When it stops being the case, I guess we'll stop."

For his part, Pop hopes that never happens.

"It's just a nice feeling to be having some success with this group after all this time," he says. "I don't feel like someone who's had delayed validation, entirely. I think the world and us ... we met halfway. We came halfway, and so did the world.

"There's nothing wrong with that."

(Gary Graff is a Beverly Hills, Mich.-based freelance writer.)

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EDITORS: For further information on the Stooges, consult the official Web site at www.iggyandthestoogesmusic.com. And to purchase this article, or to subscribe to STARBEAT, please visit www.nytsyn.com/contact and contact your local New York Times Syndicate sales representative. For customer support, please call 1-800-972-3550 or 1-212-556-5117.



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