Cult Heroes: The Stooges - the chaotic tale of America's first punk band
“We wrote the first rock opera. About a mouse. We beat The Who by a couple of years” - Iggy Pop and others tell the gonzoid story of The Stooges' early years
It was February, 1968. And it was a very weird day. Of all the bands I have ever met, interviewed, or witnessed, going to The Stooges’ digs still remains one of the most truly over-the-top and strange experiences of my life. I might have been better prepared had I witnessed The Stooges’ unholy debut on October 31, 1967 at a Hallowe’en party thrown by some acquaintances of the MC5. It was quite an honour, since the Five were the undisputed rulers of the Detroit underground music scene, under the tutelage of their manager, John Sinclair. Their patronage went a long way to help an embryonic band establish themselves in the cutthroat music scene of the Motor City, and this symbolic gesture meant a lot. But this invitation to play their bash had little to do with like-minded politics – or even with the fledgling band’s entertainment quotient. Rather, their manager, a devout and righteous vegan was John Sinclair’s hash dealer.
I met them shortly after that illustrious unveiling, when Peggy Carlson convinced me to accompany her to their dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Naïvely, I thought that rock bands lived in terrace houses like The Beatles in Help! but this was the furthest thing from that. Odd symbols and ordinary words that seemed to have no relevance 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. For the entire two days I was there only one person spoke to me. Bassist Dave Alexander would smile a big toothy grin and say ‘Hi’ when he would pass by me on the way to the bathroom, and that was it. Complete radio silence.
A traveling shaman had come to visit that same day, a large man in ceremonial robes with a peace pipe that extended three-feet long. We all gathered on the second floor sitting in a circle, as the pipe was passed around in quiet, as the shaman gave a blessing to the four elements and began a litany of incantations for all those in attendance. When it came Iggy Pop’s turn to take a hit off the pipe he inhaled too much of the tobacco-pot-herb substance and had a coughing fit, which dissolved into maniacal laughter, drawing an icy scowl from the shaman, which stopped everyone in their tracks. It was like something out of a movie.
“Yeah, he’d go to everybody’s house, Sinclair knew him and our manager Jimmy Silvers,” Ron Asheton told me years later, shortly before he passed away. “He was a wanderer across the United States. And his trick was he has a bag of like herbs and tobacco, and you always donate something to his pipe. So that way he’s getting stoned free all the time. He’d put on a little show and for his payment, he’d wind up with a little stash or something.”
The ceremony was unnerving. Or maybe it was what was in the pipe, but I decided to go downstairs and clean their kitchen. Their house was one of the filthiest places I had ever had seen – then or now. Dishes stacked in haphazard piles with fuzzy growth on them while the glasses were smudged with unidentifiable smears. Maybe they didn’t notice. Given the look of them, it was clear that none of the guys paid much attention to foodstuffs. They were lean to the point of anorexia. They seemed to exist on 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.
But I wasn’t just there to clean, or even observe. I wasn’t yet a journalist. Peggy was being romanced by Iggy, or as we knew him then, Jim Osterberg. I slept on their threadbare sofa in a huge living room that night while Scott and Ron Asheton and Dave Alexander serenaded me from their rooms in the upper reaches of the house, screeching Bonita in an ugly cacophony that kept me awake most of the night – all the more unsettling because none of them had even acknowledged my presence during the waking hours.
I didn’t know that they were destined to make history back when I first met them, even after an intimidating session when Jim (as we still thought of him) took the two of us into the practice room, stripping off his white Indian gauze shirt and jumping astride one of their amps and began riding like it was a bucking mechanical bull. When we looked askance at him, he stuck a bass in my hands, gave Peggy an air blower and commanded that we play. “Just do it,” he ordered. It took every ounce of strength not to laugh, but we jammed with him for the next 20 minutes – about the usual length of one of their sets. Afterwards he just bolted from the room, not saying anything. “Did that really happen?” I asked Peggy.
“No,” she said. “It didn’t.”
Back in those more innocent times, the self-flagellating, razor cutting, peanut butter smearing, Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Psychedelic Stooges (as they were then known) unintentionally laid the groundwork for what would become the first wave of American punk. Their ferocious, angry, atonal rock was astonishing. But it was their rather unwieldy name that said everything. It revealed their two main obsessions – drugs and idiot TV anti-heroes, epitomized by The Three Stooges. It was fitting.
It’s hard to say exactly how or why The Stooges were formed, and theories differ wildly. Maybe if future Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander hadn’t gone to London in the Spring of 1965, the musical canon would have been written differently.
“Me, Dave and my brother Scott used to sit on our front porch spitting tobacco and talking about starting a band. We all loved The Beatles and later the Stones,” Ron Asheton told me, shortly before he passed away in 2008. “So when Dave told me he was going to England I made a decision right there and then to go with him.”
He sold his motorcycle to finance the trip, quit school and booked travel to London in the hopes of meeting the Beatles. “We figured we’d meet them – thinking that we would see rock stars walking on the street. That wasn’t true, of course. We found that out the first time we asked somebody ‘Where’s Ringo?’”
Instead they settled with seeing some of the historic touchstones of Beatlemania, like the Cavern Club. But it wasn’t just the edifice that wowed the two friends, it was the local bands that they saw play there. “We figured if we went to these historic places, we’d learn something.” And they did. Most profoundly when they paid a pound each to see The Move and The Who perform on an all-night single show. “My Generation had just come out and Townshend was really feeling great,” said Asheton. “He broke his Rickenbacker on stage that night, and my friend ran up and got me a little piece of it.”
Much sooner than they anticipated, the two friends’ money ran out, and they were forced to book travel back to America. Packing his sacred talisman between his dirty T-shirts, Asheton returned to Ann Arbor with Alexander, even more determined to start his own band. Along with younger brother Scott, the three began to practise in the Asheton’s basement, playing along with records. The trouble was, once they turned the record off, they sounded like crap. “About 10 seconds in, there was really nothing. We had nothing,” said Ron Asheton.
Nothing except the naked desire and the right look. In their Beatle boots, leather jackets, tight jeans and eye-obscuring fringes lay the future of rock. But something was missing in their grand scheme. The missing link turned out to be Jim ‘Iggy Pop’ Osterberg, a classmate a few years ahead of them at Ann Arbor High. More importantly, he was already playing in a local blues band called the Iguanas. And, unlike the Beatles, he was very accessible, since he worked at the nearby Discount Records in town.
“I knew Ron in high school vaguely,” says Iggy. “We were two of the first guys to let our hair grow over our ears. I was a little straighter than him and he knew a crowd of people that I would loosely term the beatniks.”
Scott Asheton was elected to approach him, asking if he would help him to learn drums, and the two began spending time together.
More than a meeting of minds, it was a meeting of social equals – they just happened to be equal in different things. Jim Osterberg had the brains, but the two Asheton brothers had the looks.
“I have always had nice looking men in my bands,” Iggy told me in 1995. “Beauty confers great power. Unfortunately the more beautiful they are, the harder they are to control. Just like with women. Same shit.”
But he did control them. When they decided to start a band together, Iggy realised early on, that the only way he could entice the Asheton brothers was to bring copious amounts of drugs to their house.
“We formed a band and did nothing but talk bullshit for months and months,” Iggy wrote in his 1982 biography, I Need More. “I actually provoked the fellows into practising by, mainly, scoring a quantity of grass or hash – I was very serious about rehearsal. I was very ambitious, you know. I never wanted to be anything but at the top, the most noticed or the most famous… But these were the laziest juvenile delinquent sort of pig snobs ever born. Really spoiled rotten and babied by their mothers.”
Although Iggy’s charm allowed him to move freely in more elevated social circles, he was always conscious that he was a boy from the wrong side of the tracks – growing up in a nearby trailer park, while the Ashetons were two fatherless boys with little motivation, and less supervision. “Dave was a cipher,” Iggy explains. “He just had indulgent parents. They bought him a bass, a car which was a real plus for us.” Alexander, who could buy an amplifier or a bass, essentially bought his way into this exclusive boys club. The Asheton’s appreciated their friend and neighbour’s more esoteric talents, but Osterberg never did. Later saying, “Dave was too drunk to live”. [Alexander died of a pulmonary edema in 1975 after being admitted to an Ann Arbor hospital for treatment of pancreatitis, linked to his excessive drinking.]
Despite the disparity of personalities, once the foursome threw in together, they were a force of nature. At least for a few years, or until the drugs and the notoriety kicked in. “I don’t know, if my brother and Dave hadn’t gone to England, we probably still would have been in bands,” explains Scott Asheton. “Where did the Stooges come from? I don’t really know. But I do know that there was a point where people would come to see us because they hated us!”
A genius collision of high and low culture, Iggy insists that the germ of the idea for the band came one day while he was sitting in a library. “The Stooges were conceived in the University of Michigan undergraduate library. I got the idea to sing shirtless because I had a book open on Egyptology. I kept looking at the Pharaohs, and I thought: ‘These guys look bitchin’, they never wear shirts.’ Originally I had an idea to wear the loincloth, too. But that was going too far, so I thought I’d just take off my shirt. I had outlines, Roman Numeral One, A., B. C, subtext, 1-6, about what my band would be like. But I didn’t actually have the books around the house because once you start living with a gaggle of juvenile delinquents and smoking marijuana on a daily basis, it was hard to do anything but strum and pass out.
“My record collection took the place of books at that point. What was key was I was the only band member that didn’t watch TV. When they got tired at the end of the day, they’d all turn on the tube for four hours.”
While Osterberg, the son of a high school English teacher may have turned up his nose at such diversions; it’s lucky that the others didn’t. Because out of that tube not only came the inspiration for TV Eye, but also the name of the band. Asheton was a rabid fan of comedy trio The Three Stooges since he was a child, and one day he declared that their ragtag collection was just like them.
“We always went everywhere together, because we were our own little Army, so we could kind of buffer against all the jocks. I mean we got a lot of hassle from them. Would you believe in 1968 that in a normal restaurant you wouldn’t be served because you had long hair? Like, what the fuck? And then just be vibed out by the jocks, the frat boys. ‘Hey, get outta here, you faggot,’ they’d say to us. It was like we [Pop and the two Asheton brothers] were the real Three Stooges. That’s how I came up with the name the Stooges. I just added on the psychedelic part because we had just taken acid.”
“I have always thought that music should never be too good or too tight. It should excite you,” Iggy famously said. So excited, that often the singer would have a raging boner onstage – whether from humping the Marshall stacks, or on one memorable night rushing onstage, while pushing his still-erect penis into his pants. “I did screw a little chick in the stall of the men’s room backstage as the band was playing the first chords of the opening number,” Pop recalls. “I was still doing it and had to pull it out hard and sort of try to run onstage and work it down with my hand. And I just wasn’t ready for that – it was a bad move, you know. It was just really animal.”
“But it wasn’t just the need for experimentation. It was just hanging out, too,” Iggy counters. “We were buds, there were things happening. Everyone had done separate things and it was time just to find something different to do and something new. So that’s what the concept behind The Stooges was.”
“We just put aside regular music and starting from just zero. Iggy was an accomplished drummer. And I’d played in a high school band and I knew how to play normal stuff. But we didn’t want to,” recalled Ron Asheton.
Like the time Iggy locked himself inside his room and came up with a 47-minute rock opera loosely based on a mouse, and the W. Somerset Maugham book, The Razor’s Edge. “Yeah, it was based on a mouse. We played it a couple of times, but then I took some acid and decided it was crap,” laughs Pop. “It was the first rock opera, beating The Who by a couple of years. Except that it was never heard by anybody.”
“We really did just keep to ourselves and we enjoyed our own company the most,” recalled Ron. “It was only when the MC5 had moved to Ann Arbor that there was another place to go and hang out. We might make a little visit to their house when we were uptown, but pretty much we were inseparable every day we lived at the Packard house, the old ‘Stooge Hall’.
“We never thought we were anything special. We weren’t pretentious. We just thought, we’re funny, and we’re a little quirkier than other people. We were the oddballs that got together.” This insular band of beautiful misfits were unleashed on an unsuspecting world when they played their first “real” show at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, oddly opening up for the horn-tastic Blood, Sweat And Tears. Still billed as The Psychedelic Stooges, their show wasn’t much different to our impromptu jam. First they didn’t really have any proper songs, in fact what Iggy was doing wasn’t singing exactly, but emitting a series of syncopated grunts more fitting to the vocabulary of a caveman.
Iggy not only had smeared white clown make-up on his face, but was wearing a turn-of-the-century maternity dress, and had an extraordinary hatlike thing on his head. This chrome headgear consisted of starched pieces of aluminium foil that he had glued onto a rubber bathing cap – which stood out at alarming angles, the whole thing circling his bullet-shaped head like a warrior’s head-dress from some ancient tribe. A frightening vision, but not half so frightening as the discordant, feral music blaring out of the Stooges’ instruments.
“Heh heh heh,” barked Iggy. “I made my own Afro.”
And that wasn’t all. They played a variety of make-shift contraptions that Iggy invented because they couldn’t afford real instruments: from the oil drums that Scott Asheton furiously pounded on, to the Jimaphone, a mic that was dropped in a large conical funnel, to an air blower aimed at a low mic to create chaotic whirring sound, to an instrument of Iggy’s own invention aptly called the Osterizer – something he played by dropping a microphone into the cavity of a blender to add another chilling layer to their atonal mix of songs. Most of them without words in those days, I Wanna Be Your Dog and 1969 would come later.
Adding to the din was the discordant feedback from Ron Asheton’s guitar and the ragged stop/start bass that Dave Alexander barely played, an expensive gift from his parents – although it didn’t really matter what he held in his hands,when he got too high, he forgot how to play. At this early show nothing mattered that much. In fact, the band members almost didn’t make it to the venue.
“Our first show at the Grande Ballroom: that is probably my most vivid memory,” remembered Ron Asheton. “The worst part was driving to the gig in Dave Alexander’s Corvair. These greasers pulled up in a car beside us and when they saw what was inside they slowed down and tried to run us off the road. They kept chasing us, cutting back and forth and trying to force us to crash, until they finally gave up. We thought we were going to die.”
They didn’t even die onstage. Instead the audience was transfixed at the strangeness of it all. On that night, Iggy had arranged for an ex-girlfriend to be brought to the lip of the stage. He began his now-famous gyrations, shimmying to where she stood. Uttering a single guttural warrior’s grunt, he put an outstretched palm squarely on her forehead and pushed her to the floor. Shocked, humiliated and a little bruised, she picked herself up with all the decorum that a 16-year-old could muster, and fled from the ballroom’s main room.
You could hardly ignore this barbaric spectacle, this infusion of noise with its cadence shrill and punishing. These bigger-than-life proto rock stars, cool and unflappable, and certainly not like anyone else. Those early audiences didn’t know what to make of them. They were stunned into utter disbelief – if not by the unexpected violence, then by the brevity of the performance. “Yup, 18 minutes of pure dynamite. We got on, we got off. It was 18 minutes in all. That’s all we played, 18 minutes,” says Ron Asheton rather proudly. “There were sounds and riffs. We had three or four real simple riffs. Simple but quite effective. And then there were sound effects, and I would usually have three or four lyrics, one for each riff,” explains Pop.
What was going on was an angry atonal buzz that said more with its rudimentary words and primitive sounds than any baroque ballad ever could during that propitious summer of 1968.
“We liked all the bands that were popular, all the English bands, the MC5, Yardbirds, Kinks, all those bands, but we knew we could never be like them. So it was Jim’s idea from the beginning, we had to be totally different. We set out to accomplish that,” recalls Scott Asheton.
"We wanted to do something different, and we just went in our own pace,” remembers Ron. “We put aside normal instruments and then made up our own stuff. After a while we started picking up regular instruments and guitars. It was just simple music, just what came out of us naturally. We all listened to music all the time, there was always music on in the house.”
They listened to James Brown, Ravi Shankar, Dr John’s Gris Gris, Jimi Hendrix, the first Doors record, the first Mothers Of Invention, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and Harry Partch discs – a high concept experimental composer.
On stage, if the music wasn’t doing the trick, or if he felt he was being ignored, Pop would take his famous penis out of his low slung jeans, something he had been doing more or less regularly since August 11, 1968, when he was arrested in Romeo, Michigan for indecent exposure. He was fined $41 and $9 costs on a charge of being a disorderly person.
Now the incident seems rather quaint, but Pop would take nudity to a whole other more dangerous level. There was something feral and frightening about it. Why did he feel inclined to expose himself? “There was method to my madness. We were opening up for the mighty Jagged Edge [little known 60s rock band] and I wanted to take away some of their thunder. I have always been a ruthless motherfucker,” Iggy confesses.
With their clash of sound, culture and aesthetics, the Stooges did much more than just make records. Ron Asheton’s menacing and anxious guitar work and unexpectedly aggressive psychedelic excursions, Iggy Pop’s bellicose exhibitionism and sex yodels, Scott Asheton’s untutored trash can drumming and Dave Alexander’s blasts of bass rage 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.
Those dreams/nightmares took on greater importance on an unseasonably warm spring night in Manhattan. Shortly after being signed to Elektra Records (in the wake of the label inking Detroit’s revolutionary proto-punk avatars MC5), they were brought into New York City to show the label execs their live show prior to recording their album (for which they were given the princely sum of $25,000.) Unfortunately their repertoire only consisted of four songs: I Wanna Be Your Dog, 1969, No Fun and We Will Fall. After watching the blistering, yet rather brief display of primal noises, thrashing guitars and Scott Asheton’s brutalization of two oilcans, Elektra’s head honcho, Jac Holzman asked the group if they had any more tunes. Ashamed to admit they didn’t – and thinking it might jinx the deal if they told the truth, they replied: “Of course.”
And 24 hours later they did. Guitarist Ron Asheton and Iggy Pop stayed up that night at the infamous Chelsea Hotel and knocked out three more songs, Little Doll, Real Cool Time and Not Right. They only rehearsed once before taking them to the studio.
Everything about that period seemed to play with the time/space continuum – which according to Iggy Pop had everything to do with their copious consumption of a certain herb. “The tempos were a little slow because we were all constantly on pot,” he laughs.
Something that must have made the scant five days that it took them to record the album seem like a year – especially locked in the Hit Factory (then it was known as Jerry Ragavoy’s R&B Studio) with Velvet Underground art provocateur and classically trained viola maestro, John Cale – who didn’t suffer fools gladly nor give in to what he thought were musician’s unsophisticated whims.
Ron Asheton remembers that Cale kept chiding them about playing too loud, and made them turn down their Marshall stacks to ‘9’, much to their dismay. Iggy’s problem with the producer seemed to stem from what he called his “bizarre art mix,” of the record. Even though the album only made it to 106 on the US charts, it is remembered for laying the groundwork for what would become the first wave of American punk. It owed as much to Ron Asheton’s menacing, inspired guitar noise and his unexpectedly aggressive psychedelic excursions – and his brother Scott’s untutored drumming – as it did to Pop’s not actually audible confrontational vocals.
John Cale remembers the band as being professional, but initially he was most concerned with how to reconcile their live show with how he planned to record them.
“When I starting working with them,” he says. “I was thinking a lot about how do you preserve what’s onstage and put it on the record? But in the end it’s not about that. When you make a record, you make a record. You’ve got to focus on what you’re doing now. And eventually that’s what happened and it happened very fast, because they were really together. Another surprise was that Iggy handed me a sheaf of yellow note paper, and they were all the lyrics for all the songs. I mean, who bothers with writing lyrics out for their rock’n’roll band? Especially a band like The Stooges. But he was really together.”
So together that there were hardly any blips during the few days they spent together, save the sitdown strike the band members staged when he told them to turn the volumn down. Something that Cale doesn’t remember today.
“If there was sit down strike, it wasn’t because they were angry with anything I said. More likely they just wanted to have a beer,” he laughs.
“As for what I did, I knew it was more important for them to be them than for them to be the Velvet Underground. I mean the reason they [Elektra Records] thought that I would be good for it was because they thought the band sounded like the Underground. And they did. But I wasn’t about to turn them into us,” Cale says emphatically.
“When you’re talking about the Stooges, you’re talking about a unit. These guys had known each other for years and they hadn’t been in the band together for that length of time without knowing exactly how well they fit together. And it was all very tight, and everybody worked off each other. And you know, most of the criticism was not about so much the individual playing as about how well they played together. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I played a bum note over there.’ It was more like ‘We didn’t do that quite as tight as we usually do’.”
“We were pretty fearless and just went for it,” explains Scott Asheton. “That’s what we were about. We have to play something, we don’t know what we’re going to play, but we’d say, ‘let’s play it anyhow.’”
Throughout recording, the band claim that they weren’t aware of the impact this seminal album we would have.
“We really didn’t think we were making history,” remembers Ron Asheton. “We were like anybody that went in to make their first record, every band hopes that ‘something really good will happen for us, this might be something’
“We pretty much recorded it live. I can remember we didn’t do more than two or three takes. We only had five days. All three of us just did it at the same time, and we didn’t do it in pieces. It was all three just set up, and the music, and Iggy sang with us. Not everybody worked that way, but we liked the idea. We got off on it.
“We were a little nervous the night before we went into the studio – the fear of the unknown,” continues Ron. “It was kinda scary but we were anxious to do it and also excited in the fact that this was our chance to do it, and that this was actually happening to us. That’s what amazed me. I’d never been in the studio. My brother had never been. Dave obviously had never been. Iggy had been a couple of times. So it was pretty exciting, and you’re always a little nervous because it’s getting taped but you want things to go well, and you don’t want to keep going over and over stuff and then you get the lecture about time constrictions and we had certain parameters to finish this thing.”
But his brother Scott doesn’t remember it half so fondly. “I didn’t use the oil drums on the album,” he says. “The oil drums were gotten rid of because they told us that we couldn’t do an album the way the band was live. The band wasn’t anything like what came up on the first album. We didn’t sound like that, we didn’t play like that, and they wanted to get us on an album but they told us we had to write songs, and so we came up with those little drippy, dweepy little songs that were on the first album
“When I hear it, it sounds like a different band. Like I say, that album was not us. That album was forced on us. Sometimes I thought if we hadn’t done that album, just continued the way we were, it would have been a different thing altogether. And who’s to say, maybe for the better, maybe not. But we just were basically following orders.
“I remember mostly just sitting behind my drums that whole session. I don’t remember jumping up and listening, going back, doing it again, because we didn’t do it that way. But Little Doll, we played the very first time. It was a take. Real Cool Time, we played it for the very first time. It was a take. The word was, you don’t have any money, just hurry up and do it.”
And they did, clocking in that primitive masterpiece in less than a week. And what was the real effect of their debut besides influencing at least five generation of musicians, and providing a handbook for legions of disaffected outsiders? “I think our greatest influence was we put an end to the 60s,” Iggy Pop said in 1977.
And while he of course was right, more importantly, The Stooges provided a gateway to an uncertain future with no guarantees of anything. And while that might not have been comforting, it most certainly was honest. When no one else was.
The feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 130.