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Stooges 101
Professor Iggy instructs

When the Stooges were getting their start back in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1960s, they learned to improvise: Iggy Pop was known to play a Hawaiian guitar with the strings all tuned to E, and Scott Asheton hammered time on empty 55-gallon oil drums. On a raw, unseasonably cold evening last week, the improbably reunited Stooges found themselves improvising yet again, this time cramped in the back corner of a record store, on a stage not 10 feet square, nestled between kitschy lunchbox displays and shelves of horror-movie action figures. The occasion was the release, that same day, of the first new Stooges tunes in 30 years, on Iggy Pop’s latest solo album, Skull Ring (Virgin). "I feel like I’m hungover in my own little mall," Iggy cracked, surveying the 400 or so fans, many of whom had lined up as early as 8 a.m. to buy the disc.

They came to see an intimate set at the Fresh Pond Newbury Comics that ventured as close as the Stooges are ever likely to come to unplugged — which was still a long way from quiet. Scott Asheton sat on a stool and walloped full-bore on a cardboard box, an upside-down plastic bucket, and a suitcase for a kick drum, with the handle doubling as a hi-hat. His brother Ron Asheton played electric guitar with a wah-wah pedal at his feet, making up in the occasional wild, messy solo what he sacrificed in volume. And then there was Iggy, the most familiar face of the trio, graciously holding court as if he were conducting an episode of VH1’s Storytellers or, as punk-rocker/poster artist Ian Adams noted afterward, as if the band were subway-busking for change to get the bus back to Detroit.

In the years since Iggy last played with the Asheton brothers, the Sex Pistols flared up, covered the Stooges’ "No Fun," disappeared, and staged their own 25th-anniversary reunion. Only now, more than 30 years after Iggy and the Ashetons recorded their second and final album together, is there enough cultural steam to warrant a re-Stoogification. All in all, it was a little late in the game, Iggy joked, for the Stooges to be playing a free gig in a record store, but he told the crowd that he’d consented because, after all these years, "I want to hear the songs and see if the shit swings."

And — surprising for a band who are most often lauded for their animalism — it did swing. The Asheton brothers were outwardly stoic, but Ron sheepishly grimaced when peeling off his leads — with Iggy humming the bass line — and Scott’s caveman eloquence came through even while he was whacking on luggage. "It’s a drum beat with a certain savoir faire," Iggy remarked of the prototypical Stooges rhythm, "not just a gorilla with a mullet beating on a kid." And then they kicked into Fun House’s "Loose," on which Scott Asheton proceeded to whomp his makeshift kit precisely like a gorilla with a mullet beating on a kid.

Iggy was reserved by his normal standards — if he’d twitched the way he usually does, he’d have bonked his head on the ceiling — but energetic nonetheless, hooting and barking through a 10-song set culled mostly from The Stooges and Fun House, including "Real Cool Time, "1969," and "No Fun." He looked a bit like punk’s nutty professor emeritus, wearing two mismatched shoes, occasionally putting on his reading glasses, and sporting a noticeably aroused cock in his pocket on "I Wanna Be Your Dog." (Off to stage right, Iggy’s statuesque, much younger girlfriend sat playing with her dog, a small, well-groomed terrier-ish pup — the lyric never made more sense.)

After every few songs, Iggy would stop to offer a few words of wisdom on the history of the songs and the band — pointing out the African syncopation in "Down on the Street," remembering that "TV Eye" was inspired by the CBS logo glaring back at him from the screen (and declaring that Ron Asheton’s guitar part was one of his "two or three foundation-of-modern-rock riffs"), comparing the lyric of "Loose" to Beowulf. They played only two of the four new Stooges songs from Skull Ring, an album that’s rounded out by tunes with Green Day, Sum-41 (the disc’s commercial-radio single, "Little Know It All"), and Iggy’s solo band, the Trolls.

On disc, you’d be hard pressed to tell the Trolls tunes from the Stooges tunes — which is no rap against the Ashetons, just an acknowledgment that Iggy’s always had a knack for cobbling together a band of unknowns who do a damn good job of impersonating the Stooges. But the best Stooges song on Skull Ring, the leadoff track "Little Electric Chair," sounds as raucous as the original incarnation’s best, and its lyric, about eating pigeons and frying hair follicles, is as accurate a description of the sensation of climbing into the band’s music as any of the many tributes that’ve been scribbled over the past three decades. It wasn’t on the set list last week, since, as Iggy admitted, they hadn’t learned it yet. But there’ll be plenty of time for that later — or at least, having seen how much of a racket they can still kick up without a drum kit or a bass player, one hopes there will be.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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