Monday, January 01, 2018

How Michigan is the Fifth Member of the Stooges – OR – A Cultural Cycling Through Three-Hundred Years of Bullshit Historical Anecdotes and Arbitrary Facts to Argue that Geographic Demarcation Can Be Personified as a the Embodiment of a Musician

Regardless of my job, I was asked to write an essay for the "Total Chaos" book with the suggested topic of "How Detroit Was the Fifth Member of the Stooges." I quickly clarified with main author Jeff Gold if I could change "Detroit" to "Michigan", he concurred, and it was with great excitement and sense of accomplishment I completed the piece below. It was the SECOND essay I had published in a book about the Stooges, an honor that is not lost on me.

At the party celebrating the release of the book, Iggy told me two things...

1) That I looked EXACTLY like the guy that threw a bottle (pie?) in his face at some show in Michigan back in the day.

2) That I'm a good writer

That's all I needed to hear. Enjoy.

The borders of Michigan are arbitrary…the survey lines of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, a southeasterly adjustment for a bloodless war with Ohio for the desirable international port of Toledo (the loss of which Michigan got its Upper Peninsula as compensation) and a veritable shit-ton of lakes cut a cute geographic form that can equally be called America’s high-five or America’s hand-job.

Despite this, the entire state of Michigan is incredibly average. There’s nothing of note that really makes it any different from Ohio or Wisconsin or just about any other boring state that doesn’t have mountains or an ocean or hieroglyphs or any sort of cultural accelerant.

So, too, with Ron, Scott, Iggy and Dave. They all came from an entirely average, middle class world. That is the only place from which they could emanate. To be more specific, Michigan is the only place a cultural roundhouse kick like the Stooges could ever be birthed.

As the birthplace to both Domino’s and Little Ceasar’s pizza chains (two of the top four pizza dispensaries in the world, both raking in BILLIONS of dollars every year), it is the unique incubator of Michigan that has a knack for taking what may have been considered low-brow or intended for the edges of society in the mid-1900s and perfecting it, simplifying it (the $5 Hot’n’Ready is marvel of modern economics) and making it understandable for a widespread global audience. As some of the first Western records pressed in the newly opened Russia after the fall of communism in 1991, the hand-illustrated, Cyrillic-bedecked covers of the band’s first two albums are proof positive that this is exactly what Iggy and the Stooges did with their brand of juvenile delinquent-inspired rock and roll. Which coincidentally, goes hand-in-hand with pizza.

And being birthed in Ann Arbor is fitting. With the University of Michigan looming large over the entirety of the town, everything in that city has an air of elitist self-importance. The classic joke goes, “How do you know someone went to the University of Michigan? Let ‘em talk for five seconds...they’ll tell you!” Coupled with the town’s overwhelming left-leaning politics (the Stooges were close friends with folks who bombed a CIA office in the city in 1968) and it’s clear the only place to birth the Stooges, wholly unconcerned with politics or elitism, is a town boiling over in it.

The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was educated at U of M, leaving the institution in late 1967. The possibility of him crossing paths with Iggy are nil, but it’s not too big a stretch to correlate that the anarcho-primitivism argued in Industrial Society and Its Future (“The Unabomber Manifesto”) is in some bizarre way in concert with the precisely sparse lyricism and uncluttered instrumentation of the Stooges’ self-titled album. That’s not to say “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is tantamount to serial killing...more like the absolute inverse. As Kaczynski and Iggy are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum, but both so completely laser-focused, so singular, so undistracted by the noise clouding around them that it’s clear the environment had to be somewhat instrumental in fostering those traits.

Jack Kevorkian went to U of M too, but I can’t find the connection there.

This cannot happen in socially-conscious San Francisco of the same era. It would not happen in the fading Village folk scene in NYC as it slowly transformed into glam and punk. Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the rural abuts with the avant-garde on a daily basis, was the only incubator that could birth these bozo geniuses. Michigan is not just where important and relevant moments of this band and its story happened to take place, it is a driving factor and overbearing presence throughout their existence, whatever the locale may be.

You see, Michigan is not a state where anything happens. Outside of Detroit, and a much lesser extent Ann Arbor, it’s all ho-hum humdrum non-descript bullshit. So of course, leave it to Halloween night, 1967, at a house party in Ann Arbor to be the moment this wrecking ball descends into public consciousness. Of course this primitive shit music is taking place at an “invite only” party. Of course John Sinclair and the MC5 (both already important leaders in the countercultural underground of the time) are there. Of course joints are being passed around liberally. Of course it sounded like the Melvins, (as Iggy himself would claim decades later). Of course, of course, of course. Because all roads of all these variables intersect in Michigan.

With the Grande Ballroom in Detroit acting as the de facto Fillmore Midwest, every major rock group of the era stopped in town. Out of sheer stubbornness, dumb luck, or not knowing any better, the Stooges (in tandem with the MC5) were able to act as the unofficial house band for 1968-1969, opening for just about anyone and everyone...Butterfield Blues Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Sly and the Family Stone, The Fugs, Blue Cheer, Love, Cream, the James Gang, John Mayall, BB King, The Who, Frank Zappa and on and on and on. No need for U of M, that’s a college education right there. You learn how to perform. Day in, day out. A working band. Imagine that.

Not only did the Stooges figure out how to play, while on stage, in front of a crowd, but also had an almost weekly opportunity to glean from whatever hot-shit or shit shit touring act was coming through town at that moment. The Stooges are not a band that made their bones on tour. They were by no means even “reliable” at home. Old-timers in Detroit took pride in relaying stories of HOW BAD the band actually was saying things like, “we would purposefully show up LATE to the Grande so as to AVOID seeing the Stooges for the umpteenth time.” Only in Michigan would you have the greatest band in the world playing weekly and folks bragging about avoiding it.

So for Iggy to expose his dick (purposefully or not) onstage in Romeo, bumfuck of a town if there ever was one, population just shy of 4,000 back in boggles the mind. This is a town known for a Peach Festival and being the home of Kid Rock. Nothing happens there and nothing will continue to happen here until the end of time. It’s the kind of town where someone would make the trip to the police station to let them know the lead singer’s dick is hanging out. Only in Michigan.

The Goose Lake International Music Festival of August 1970 took place in Jackson, Michigan a burg fittingly known for being the longtime home of the state penitentiary and the birthplace of the Republican Party. Before a crowd of upwards of 200,000 people, Dave Alexander fails to play a single note on stage. Be it because of nerves, chemicals, a combination of the’s irrelevant. This would be the biggest crowd the Stooges would see in any iteration (including reunions) and they utterly blew it. Dave was fired, probably rightfully so, but the fact that barely two years prior merely thirty miles down the road these guys were playing their first show in a living room with no prepared material...these guys traversed the entire gamut of a show business career, a musical lifetime, in the span of time it takes to potty-train a child, across a space that’d render as a speck on a map of the United States, Earth or the Universe. All self-contained in Michigan.

Sadness reigns outward from Alexander’s exit. Roadies, also rans and ne’er do wells filter through the ranks, pathetically culminating in a show at Wampler’s Lake Pavilion in Onsted, Michigan, population 555. In an embarrassing adherence to the contractually obligating dictum “the show must go on,” Ron, Scott and Jimmy Recca play the gig without Iggy or James Williamson. A fan (Steve Richards) sings with them for a portion of the night. There are recordings to evidence this. The jams are actually not totally shit. What happens in Onsted doesn’t necessarily need to stay in Onsted.

And Metallic K.O.? What a glorious implosion, swiftly aided by the menacing pressure of local biker gang the Scorpions, at where else...the Michigan Palace, the same spot in Detroit where Henry Ford built his first car back in 1896. It’s captured on tape and does kinda sound like shit. But beer bottles breaking against guitar strings is an apropos sound/image in a coincidental building at a time where the city and region are falling apart, as the domestic auto industry begins its freefall in the thick of the Oil Crisis.

Nigh-on three decades would need to pass for the band to wholly prove themselves to their Michigan brethren. In a way that belied maturity or progress, the Stooges performance at DTE Energy Music Theater (I die a little just from having to type such a bummer of a name) was proof-positive that the band had their shit together. One wouldn’t want them to become cerebral or philosophical and thankfully, the band understood that.

As my first live experience of about half a dozen with the band, it was not only the best performance I’d ever see from the Stooges, it is still the best performance I’ve seen by anyone in my thirty-four plus years. Sure, the show takes place in a huge embarrassingly-named shed, too far out into the exurbs to feel culturally like anything other than a blob of land, with $15 beers (watered down) and $10 parking (clusterfuck), but all the corporate grabby-ness of dollars could not sully the metaphorical boot mark the Stooges imprinted across the entire state of Michigan. America’s high-five has appropriately been met with a swift kick and it’ll never be quite the same.