Friday, August 24, 2012

The First Time I Saw The Stooges

I guess it had to be the autumn of 1969.  My online research tells me that The Stooges first album was released in August of 1969, so it had to be an autumn morning when my best friend, bandmate and overall musical mentor, Dave Blackburn (see Dave Blackburn blog, February 2012) met me at the doorway of Bishop Ready High School and told me, “The Stooges are playing Otterbein College in Westerville this Friday night.  We’ve gotta go.”  “Yeah, we do,” I said, then added cluelessly, “Where’s Westerville?  Will we have to stay overnight?”  “It’s Westerville, stupid, not Cleveland,” Dave said in the exasperated tone he so often found it necessary to employ in conversations with me.

That exchange points to a couple of the small-town aspects of growing up on the West Side of Columbus, Ohio.  The fact that I was 17 years old in autumn of 1969 and didn’t know where Westerville was (which, for the uniniated, is a northern suburb of Columbus, maybe 10 miles from the West Side) kinda illustrates the constraints of my travel and, perhaps, of my imagination.  Secondly, Cleveland (which is only 150 miles from Columbus) WAS considered an overnight destination, probably because no one in our little circle of rock & roll friends had a car that could travel more than 150 miles without breaking down and needing an overnight rest.

Dave and I had first heard The Stooges on, of all places, WOSU, the classical music station broadcasting from Ohio State University.  WOSU had instituted a Sunday afternoon “progressive rock hour” program earlier in the year wherein they would play two newly released records in their entirety, then the insufferably snobbish host would offer his oh-so-erudite comments on said records.  (It was kinda like CD-102.5’s Invisible Hits Hour if they only played two records a week, which sometimes, in fact most times, I wish they would.)  The week The Stooges were played they were paired with a Randy Newman album.  You can imagine the bloodbath that ensued when Mr. Grad Student In Music Theory Host praised Newman to the skies for his sharp, literate songwriting and wry sense of humor while deriding The Stooges for their puerile attempts at lyric-writing and pathetic guitar skills.  For Dave and me, of course, it was love at first listen.  (There’s a very (in)famous review of the first Stooges record where the reviewer says something like, “This album is loud, crude, tasteless, senseless, and infantile.  I kinda like it.”  If I had a better command of the internet I could probably find it to quote precisely, but the point is, that was Dave’s and my exact reaction to The Stooges.  Like almost every food product I now consume and cherish, we knew The Stooges couldn’t be any good for us, but damn were they tasty.)

Friday night arrived and we drove to Westerville in Dave’s mom’s car.  The gig was in a gym at Otterbein.  It was a junior/senior mixer but nobody paid much attention to the fact that we were obviously too young to be there.  There were maybe 200 kids there, the very large majority rather proper Otterbein college students, and a sprinkling of adult faculty chaperones.  (Otterbein was, and is, a pretty swanky school.)  The opening band was okay, some hippie conglomeration that the audience grooved to in a righteously mellow manner.  When The Stooges walked onstage, though, you could feel the entire vibe of the room shift.  The band moved like gunslingers.  They strapped on their guitars like they were six-guns, and just like townspeople in the Old West the Otterbein audience could sense that mayhem was imminent.  From Ron Asheton’s first Marshall-amplified Fender Strat chord the band was fucking DEAFENING.  You could almost FEEL the air move around you when Dave Alexander and Scott Asheton kicked in the bass & drums.  And when Iggy started to dance and spit out the lyrics to “1969” the crowd KNEW they were in for a long night, or a scary ride, or both. 

By the end of the second song there were 180 people at the extreme other end of the gym and maybe 20 of us left up front, leaning on the edge of the stage, staring up at the spectacle in front of us.  (And I swear a couple of those 20 looked like AWOL draftee servicemen.)  Iggy made a couple of half-hearted attempts to engage the frightened college students and faculty chaperones cowering at the back of the gym, leaping over the heads of those of us at the front, but the mike cord wasn’t anywhere near long enough for him to reach them.  I don’t remember how long they played, I don’t remember any specific songs other than “1969,”  “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and “No Fun.”  I know at least two songs lasted more than 15 minutes, with Iggy dancing and occasionally moaning out improvised lyrics, Ron sawing out wah-wah guitar leads and Dave & Scott anchoring the blitzkrieg, serving as gravity, holding everything down to earth.  Man, do I miss rampant displays of raw power like that these days.  (And Raw Power was still one James Williamson and four years away.) 

The following video is the best example I have for you of what Dave Blackburn and I witnessed that night in Westerville.  It was shot at The Cincinnati Pop Festival, June 13th, 1970, exactly one week after I graduated from high school, and chronicles five minutes of The Stooges’ set at that festival.  The Cincinnati Pop Festival probably deserves a blog entry of its own: In addition to The Second Time I Saw The Stooges, it was the first time I saw Mott The Hoople and also featured Mountain, Grand Funk Railroad, Ten Years After, Traffic, Alice Cooper (the original band when they were living in Detroit and still ROCKED) plus little-remembered but great down-the-bill bands like The Damnation Of Adam Blessing, SRC and The Mighty Quick.  (Also down the bill was The Bob Seger System before Seger got all dewy-eyed and Van Morrison-ized.)   

Some pertinent facts about this video:  The charmingly clueless commentary by, if I remember correctly, a guy named Jack Lescoulie, who was either a sportscaster or talk-show host in Cincinnati, is priceless in its, “What the FUCK is going on here?” naivet√©.  Epic quote; “Since we broke away for our message Iggy has been in the crowd and out again three different times.  They seem to be enjoying it and so does he.”  I can guarantee you, the audience was NOT enjoying it.  It was hotter than hell that June evening and NOBODY wanted Iggy splattering peanut butter all over them.  (And how precious is that bespectacled arty little hippie girl sketching Iggy at the 1:39 mark?  How very 1960’s.  I knew and dated those girls.)  (Also precious; the girl who asks Iggy, "Are you all right?" at the 3:25 mark.)

Plus let me try to put some of this in context: The Stooges weren’t big in 1970.  They were just another down-the-bill act like Brownsville Station (whom Dave and I also worshipped), Savage Grace or Bloodrock .  And there was no punk-rock club circuit for them to play on like there was later for The Clash or The Sex Pistols.  They had to slug it out for gigs, competing with the likes of Uriah Heep, Foghat or the Edgar Winter Group for their slice of the rock & roll pie.  I consider it a small miracle this video still exists and I thank my rock & roll God that it does.

© 2012 Ricki C.

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