Poppin' Fresh

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When proto-punk and original-era punk acts were in their prime, I was either too young or too far from the various scenes to catch them in action. As a result, my only chance to see such groups perform has been in reunion formats -- and my experiences at such shows have been extremely mixed. During the early '90s, I caught a reconstituted Buzzcocks at a small Denver club and was pleasantly surprised by their vigor. In contrast, I witnessed a Red Rocks gig by the surviving Sex Pistols later the same decade that was pathetic in the extreme. Between virtually every song, John Lydon/Johnny Rotten staggered to the rear of the stage area to suck on oxygen, looking like a sad, decidedly unlethal version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

The April 17 gig by Iggy and the Stooges, who headlined at the Fillmore Auditorium, fell somewhere between these two extremes. Don't know if I could quite classify the appearance as "good" in the most common sense of the term -- but it was a bizarre spectacle I'm very happy to have witnessed. And most of the credit is due to a certain Mr. Pop.

The show, which was witnessed by a slow-building crowd that eventually filled approximately two-thirds of the house, didn't start out on a promising note due to the performance of the opening act, Bay Area-based Sistas in the Pit. Their presence on the bill smacked of an attempt by Stooges management to make their aging clients seem ahead of the curve, and giving an opportunity to an all-female, all-African-American power trio would have done the trick if the group had been interesting. Unfortunately, the act's playing had no sense of dynamics (it was pretty much at one level for the duration); its slack rhythm section kept slowing down -- a fatal flaw in rock; the anthemic nature of many lyrics didn't translate to the music; and during a slack power ballad called "So Afraid," guitarist Anita Lofton's ax was painfully out of tune. It was the Pits, all right.

The Sistas were probably less than half the vintage of the three main Stooges; substitute bassist Mike Watt, of Minutemen fame, isn't quite as venerable as his current employers, but his full head of gray hair helped him fit in perfectly. These dudes from Detroit sure didn't act their age, though -- especially Iggy. Despite being just four days shy of his sixtieth birthday, Pop entered the spotlight in a crazed burst that left the younger musicians who preceded him figruatively eating his dust, and they kept choking on the stuff for the duration.

Wearing no shirt and the tightest drawers imaginable, Pop was a study in contrasts: long, stringy hair suitable for a wicked witch with a fondness for blondness, the grisled visage of fist-shaking curmudgeon, and a body like no other. He's incredibly muscular, but the muscles themselves have an old-man texture about them, making him look like an Adonis sculpted from cottage cheese. The sight of him shaking and twisting this figure from one side of the stage to the other while braying the opening number, "Loose," was patently absurd in the best possible way -- a different kind of freak show that Pop put on during the '60s and '70s, but a freak show nonetheless.

Musically, the Stooges were just as manic. Rather than presenting mature versions of favorites such as "TV Eye," "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "1970" (which, frankly, would have been a terrible idea), Pop, Watt, drummer Scott Asheton and Scott's brother, guitarist Ron Asheton, ripped through them like a pack of jackals. The results were edgy, spirited and unapologetically stoopid in ways most veteran combos refuse to be.

As expected, Pop led the charge. At one point, he dove from the stage, and when he emerged from the maelstrom, he wore an expression of bemusement and satisfaction -- maybe because he didn't break a hip. He also spent plenty of time bellowing from the floor, encouraging those around him to shout into the microphone with him, and many of them obliged. The same thing happened when Pop shouted, "Fuck all these boundaries" and invited as many attendees as possible to join him onstage for a fractious take on "No Fun." The performance area was flooded with young people (for the most part, the boomers in attendance wisely chose to stay in their proper place), and when a set of speakers on the side of the proscenium began rocking back and forth, there seemed a danger that the chaos might get out of control. Yet once the number ended, the mob disassembled, thrilled and shocked to have been given the opportunity to mingle with a madman.

Predictably, material from The Weirdness, the Stooges' new album, constituted various low points: Even Pop didn't seem all that excited to sing "Trollin'," and the decision to belt out "My Idea of Fun," whose central couplet reads, "My idea of fun/Is killing everyone," may not have been especially wise just one day removed from the massacre at Virginia Tech. Still, what constituted lulls at this concert would have seemed like the height of activity at most other gigs by musicians from the Stooges' original era.

Iggy and company are devoted to the idea of growing old disgracefully. And more raw power to them. -- Michael Roberts


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