Not Quite Ready to Die: In Defense of Iggy and the Stooges

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Iggy and the Stooges, headliners of this year's Free Press Summer Fest, recently released their first new record under their current moniker since 1973. Titled Ready to Die, it's also the group's first record with guitarist James Williamson since then, following the death of guitarist Ron Asheton a few years ago.

Their previous record, Raw Power, is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock records ever recorded and the foundation for much of punk rock. How does Ready to Die stack up? That requires a little bit more thought and a lot more background.

In many ways, time has been both kind and unkind to the Stooges and their legacy. Their last record with Asheton, 2007's The Weirdness, was released as simply "The Stooges" and widely ridiculed as an embarrassment to their legacy. On the other hand, their reputation as one of the most important (and awesome) rock bands of all time has only grown since their intial breakup in 1974 and they continue to be one of many fans' favorite bands, regardless of their recent records.

Seems a contradiction, right? What gives?

Iggy and the Stooges are trapped in a peculiar position. By making new records, and being an active band in the way front man Iggy Pop demands they be, they're actively defying the very nostalgia that is the basis of their current career.

The band never made much of an impact when they first came out. They had industry support, including from David Bowie, a superstar even then who decided to produce their final record if they agreed to make it. That record would end up being Raw Power, that classic we all love so much today, but which at the time was a complete flop both commercially and critically.

Steadily, they built a fanbase, but it wasn't a base that was built in and wanted more. It was an adoptive base who came in after the fact, feeding off nostalgia for things they never experienced, wanting more than anything to have just been there when it was happening.

That kind of fanbase doesn't want new music. That fanbase wants a band to be exactly the same as they've seen in videos and pictures, and heard on recordings. They want the band to recreate 1973 for them as accurately as possible so they can pretend they were really there when it was happening.

That means the Stooges could release the best album of all time, but if it wasn't a note for note cover of Raw Power like they played at All Tomorrow's Parties in 2010, 75 percent of the fanbase would be disappointed and pretend it doesn't exist. When you build a fanbase entirely off the back of forced, false nostalgia, your legacy ends at the moment you broke up in the first place. For the Stooges, what they do post-1974 doesn't matter, and will be received tepidly at best.

But is it all really so bad? When viewed with a certain amount of distance, when viewed through the lens of 2013 where Iggy Pop is a real 66-year-old man, not a fictitious rock icon perpetually stuck at age 26, is it all really so very bad?

Your enjoyment of Ready to Die hinges on that notion, and which world of the Stooges you choose to live in. If you live in the one where the band are essentially cartoon characters from your childhood, existing today only to enact your fantasies before your eyes, then yes, all their new music is terrible.

For those of us who are separated enough from that intensely powerful and clouding nostalgia, it's better than it realistically has any right to be, coming from a proto-punk band forty years after their sell-by date and the peak of their relevance, featuring a guitarist who has hardly touched a guitar since the 1970s and lacking two deceased original members.

The idea that a band under those circumstances could make an album as good as Ready to Die, and one as true to the band's classic garage rock sound, is frankly stunning.

For what it's worth, many have been praising guitarist James Williamson for his contributions to the record, which are very reminiscent of his first stint in the band. In fact, from the perspective of Williamson's playing, a day has hardly gone by. His solos here are just as masterful as on Raw Power and his riffs are vintage post-Motown garage rock of the late '60s. Had these riffs come out then, no one would have batted an eye.

The criticism seems to center around Iggy Pop, who is once again up to his old tricks of being his real 66-year-old self rather than the 26-year-old cartoon character.

His voice is deeper now, like a crooner, and he doesn't yell so much or so harshly. There's three ballads on the record that sound less like Fun House and more like one of Iggy's recent French language solo records made up of foreign pop and bossa nova. The lyrics are juvenile, and hardly appropriate for anyone to be singing.

And I'll give the critics the lyrics. Iggy may be being honest by writing awful lyrics about being "down on his knees for those double D's," but it's no less gross or embarrassing. Then there's a problematic song like "Gun" which speaks of "having a fucking gun" and "shooting everyone," which is just frankly uncomfortable given recent newsworthy events.

Nevertheless, complaints over Iggy's voice or the ballads reflect an unwillingness to live in reality. They cannot accept that Iggy has changed his vocal style in the past forty years, or perhaps is simply no longer capable in reality of pulling off his harsh vocals of his early career.

The attitude refuses to accept that Iggy's mind and tastes may have expanded into realms beyond proto-punk in the intervening years as punk rose, died, rose, died again, and then rose again. Hell, the Stooges were on their way to ballads even on Raw Power with "Gimme Danger," which remains one of their greatest songs.

Taking away the complaints over Iggy, which stem not from an accurate appraisal but an unwillingness to accept change, and accepting that James Williamson and the rest of the band never miss a step on Ready to Die, what's to hate?

The only reason is that it's not as good as Raw Power. But then, let us all be honest with ourselves here, what could possibly be as good as Raw Power? Does anyone expect a band 40 years older to suddenly top itself after releasing one of the greatest and most influential recordings of all time?

The idea is ludicrous, and once again based in no version of reality. It's not that we should accept an inferior product from any band, but we should be willing to cut them some slack for not being able to match their greatest hits all these years later. Put into its proper context, Ready to Die is still better than not only recent works by their contemporaries, but recent works by the Stooges' descendents as well. If it's not Raw Power, c'est la vie, but that doesn't make it garbage.

As I said earlier, Ready to Die is far better than it has any right to be in Iggy Pop and the Stooges' careers today. We ought to be celebrating that, rather than criticizing them for not living up to an ideal we created in our heads of the fantasy version of the band that existed before many of us were born.

When the band plays these tracks at Summer Fest, I have no doubt many younger fans will confuse them with classics. If we could all let go of our nostalgia and preconceived bias, the very things those younger fans lack, we could also see this for what it is: a really good new album from a legendary band. Take away all that bias, and there's nothing to hate here.

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