The Stooges. Fun House. Raw Power. Three seminal albums that, while dismissed by most as Neanderthal trash when they were originally released (despite luminaries David Bowie and The Velvet Underground’s John Cale as producers), have come to be recognized as the precursors of, and the foundation for, punk rock.
In The Stooges: Head On, A Journey Through the Michigan Underground, first released in the UK and now available across the pond in North America in modified form, Brett Caldwell spins the tale of four buddies from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Dave Alexander, Ron Ashemont, his brother Scott aka Rock, and Jim “Iggy Pop” Osterburg, that decided to form a band in 1967. Known for violent avant-garde live shows and a hypersexual energetic frontman (Iggy is widely recognized as the “inventor” of the stage dive). Their lyrics were crass, mostly about fucking and getting fucked up. The beats and guitar work were simple yet strangely effective. The Psychedelic Stooges (as they were known before their 1969 self-titled debut) had amassed a cult following in Detroit when they were discovered by a headhunter for Elektra Records in the Wolverine State scouting out the MC5, and the rest is history.
During the chapter concerning the band’s demise one discovers that it is the band’s guitarist (later bassist), Ron Ashemont, who is the focal point of Head On. The disbanding of The Stooges is chiefly seen through his eyes, and it is his post-Stooges musical endeavors that comprise most of the book’s second act. Iggy’s solo career is laid out in just a cursory summary given that much of it is public knowledge or already covered in previously published accounts of the singer, or, as Caldwell mentions in his introduction, he did not set out to “write another anecdote about what Iggy did with Bowie in Berlin.” Instead his intent is to shed light on the band as a whole, particularly its unsung hero, Ron.
Caldwell takes a mostly hands-off approach to relating The Stooges’ history, instead letting the band members, along with the men and women who knew them, do the heavy lifting via extensive interviews. In essence Caldwell becomes the curator and collector of the band’s oral history, only inserting his own words to fill in the blanks or to add perspective.
And it is this approach that becomes part of the problem; the author seems so in love with these guys, especially Ron, he seems reluctant to expound on important aspects of the story. Ron’s refusal to shoot up resulted in his isolation from the rest of the group and becoming “demoted” from guitarist to bassist. This later became a factor in the band’s break-up, along with Bowie’s decision to take Iggy under his wing and make him a solo star. Ashemont’s and Pop’s possible discomfort in discussing such topics is understandable, but if the men refused to speak of such matters Caldwell should have delved deeper through other sources. Too much of the story is glossed over and sanitized. “It’s about the music, damn it!” But it’s about The motherfucking Stooges’ music, damn it!
Head On sets out to pull back the curtain on this legendary band, and this mission is accomplished, but by showing The Stooges beyond their wild charismatic frontman as musicians and not as people its focus narrows its appeal. The casual reader, or anyone not a die-hard fan of the band really, will put the book down unfulfilled or even, quite frankly, bored. With the main body of the work at less than one hundred fifty pages, there is plenty of room to add some sizzle to this steak.