The Stranger vs. Bumbershoot
It's probably true that the brainy, bookish types like the many indie and hiphop acts dotting this year's Bumbershoot are the artistic equivalent of the Stooges and Dolls in their day—bored, frustrated misfits trying to move the ol' guitar/drums thing out of the doldrums—that is if art were the only thing involved here. The Stooges and the Dolls crawled away from all that was happening to stultified corporate rock of the day—except for the gobbling of girls and goofballs, those traditional trajectories that still has a tangential connection to the hill jack blues originators of this whole American music thing.
Now, talking about sex when it's concerning a bunch of men denting their 50s, à la Stooges and Dolls, gets a little creepy. Or at least that's the common perception from the naysayers who jaw on about these old-guard punk reunions: that no one wants to see a wrinkly ass shake and scream about screaming ass. Though it's as much or more about all the "standards" that have been built around punk, when these two bands weren't even "punks" per se. They just birthed the baby and were deadbeat dads by the time the genre solidified (except for Mike Watt, who's pulling bass duties for the Stooges, and maybe bassist Sami Yaffa for the Dolls 'cause he was in Hanoi Rocks; the other new Dolls are Brian Koonin, keys, Steve Cone, guitar, and Brian Delaney, drums. Otherwise, it's all original members here).
The Stooges spent the 1975–'77 "punk revolution" prowling the Hollywood Hills for heroin, quickly breaking up and drifting. At least until early '75, the Dolls were in full gear, their gear being makeup, garter belts, and nut-hugging pink pants at a time when hippie mainstream rock was certainly not about swishy and fabulous. Not that the Dolls were going for the many lonely lads who would congregate in their dressing rooms. It was mostly 15-year-old female runaways. So says surviving Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. "When we first went out to California in 1973, [original, now deceased lead guitarist] Johnny Thunders hooked up with this young superstar groupie, Sable Starr, and Sable's sister was going out with [Stooges frontman] Iggy [Pop]. He was living off everyone at the time; he and Johnny became like brothers-in-law.
"At that point, Iggy was opening for the Dolls. It got crazy at times. Like one time, we were about to do a show in Memphis, and the vice squad was already quoted in the local papers saying, 'These New York Dolls are perverted and obscene!' And that was all true. So Iggy gets on, doing all his crazy stuff, and the cops were letting him go. Then we come on, and there were already officers in the crowd pulling people out. So [Dolls frontman] David [Johansen] just asked the audience to come up onstage. Then the cops stop the show and arrest David for inciting a riot! He spent the whole night in a Memphis jail. He was yelling, 'Would you do this to Elvis?!' And the cops were like, 'Yeah, we wish we could get him!'"
My favorite Iggy quip is from his 1982 biography, I Need More, about when, at 17, he met German chanteuse Nico: "Nico, she was great. I mean, well, see, well, I had never eaten pussy before." I've held onto this divulging of musical and sexual harmonic convergence like your granny pockets her St. Christopher coin. So you can only imagine when in 1994, after an Iggy solo show in Columbus, Ohio, I'm hanging behind the theater, and there's Iggy, in all his post-that-performance-would've-killed-anyone-else autograph-signing state, and someone yalps, "What do you think of Columbus?" "We always loved Columbus," shouted Iggy, "The Stooges always made sure to come down here 'cause they always had the best tasting pussy!"
The Dolls' sexcapades often included propagating aggressive androgyny. Sylvain told of dilemmas of how to hide soiled panties (others and their own), never mind the dope, in their "tour bus." "Oh there were never any buses for us back then, sweetheart!" he explains. "You were lucky if you had a Chrysler station wagon."
And lest ye think it's been all girls 'n' goofballs, it has, if all mixed into the prehistoric physical wallop the music provides. There's Iggy again in Columbus, just a couple summers back, diving off an amphitheater stage into the waiting legs of a bunch of general-admission folding chairs. A minute later he's back onstage, dislocated arm dangling, forehead slashed and gushing, yelping demands to the stunned band to keep going. Maybe his freakishly cut bod has helped this 58-year-old avert similar blood-letting so far on the Stooges reunion tours of the last two years, but it's not for lack of trying. Seeing the Stooges live these days is less revival than revelation that all that apocalyptic rage and stomping, atom-smash blues had more staying power than anyone could've figured back when Iggy was smearing peanut butter on himself in that infamous 1971 NBC TV special.
The Dolls' germ in the post-war musical petri dish is hard to overestimate, despite persistent putdowns. The press of their era usually denounced the Dolls as cartoon Rolling Stones. And most cultural custodians continue to crown the Sex Pistols as the Big Punk Bang. Fact is, Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren asked Sylvain to join this new band he was forming after studying the template by managing the Dolls in their waning days of 1975.
So there the genre "punk" codifies in 1977, and by the early '80s the straightedge backlash to all that decadence appears. And that is really the "punk" that most current indie rockers have derived their energetic edges from—straightedge-cum–pop-punk–cum-emo. And I don't blame them. It can be argued that all that free lovin' hastened the rise of AIDS and the conservative backlash. So we're left with Dashboard Confessionals and Ted Leos reclaiming pop hooks, adding tattoos, coy sideways glances, or factory-torn jeans—and that's the best you're going to get, girlies.
Now make no mistake: Musicians are still getting laid; they just don't flaunt it as well, which is sexy to the new broods who use Google and MySpace to decode the gossip. Which, oddly enough, is a much less romantic version of a story that begins, "Well, you can only imagine."