(from 2013’s PUNK: Chaos to Couture at the Met Museum)
“There’s a new culture shaping up, and while it’s certainly an improvement on the repressive society now nervously aging, there is a strong element of sickness in our new, amorphous institutions. The cure bears viruses of its own,” wrote the incomparable rock critic Lester Bangs in his famous – but more tricky than it should have been to track down (you’re welcome) – review from 1970 for Creem of the album Fun House by Iggy and the Stooges, one of the American bands considered instrumental in the rise of punk rock and alternative music.
During their initial run from 1967 through 1974 (they later reformed in 2003), the band sold few records and their audiences were typically indifferent to downright hostile. “The Stooges,” continues Bangs, “also carry a strong element of sickness in their music, a crazed quaking uncertainty and errant foolishness that effectively mirrors the absurdity and desperation of the times, but I believe that they also carry a strong element of cure, of post-derangement sanity.” (image)
Hyperbolic and overwrought prose, certainly. But amazingly insightful and, given the drug-addled purple haze that characterized the era, prescient as prescient could be.
(In many ways, Bangs strikes me as the Anthony Bourdain of his day: a gifted wordsmith with a sneering (and searing) disdain of anything remotely pretentious combined with exquisite taste responsible for an almost worshipful awe of the authentic, no matter how unlikely the source.)
“However,” adds Bangs, “since conditions are in the present nigh irremediable mess, with innocent listeners led and hyped and duped and doped, taught to grovel before drug-addled effeminate Limeys who once collected blues 78s and a few guitar lessons and think that that makes them torch-bearers; a hapless public, finally, of tender boys and girls pavlov’d into salivating greenbacks and stoking reds at the mere utterance of certain magic incantations like “supergroup” and “superstar,” well, is it any wonder your poor average kid, cruisin’ addled down the street in vague pursuit of snatch or reds or rock mag newsstands, ain’t got no truck with the Stooges? So, to facilitate the mass psychic liberation necessary, it’s imperative that we start with the eye of the hurricane, the center of all the confusion, contention and plain badmouthing, Iggy Stooge himself.” (image)
What Bangs, so presciently, finds fascinating isn’t the Stooges “music” itself – which he acknowledges is “monotonous and simplistic on purpose” and “not for the ages” – but the way it’s presented by the circus-master-in-chief, Iggy Stooge (now Pop). Praising the way Pop “enters the audience frequently to see what’s what and even from the stage his eyes reach out searingly, sweeping the joint and singling out startled strangers who’re seldom able to stare him down. It’s your stage as well as his and if you can take it away from him why, welcome to it.”
So where are the takers?
According to Bangs, we, the masses, hide safely within our carapace-like cocoons of Cool, wide-eyed and awestruck. Mere pretenders to the throne. For to assume the crown of King of that kind of Mountain requires a frenetic level of energy, authority and personal charisma that most of us simply don’t possess. “In this sense,” notes Bangs, “Ig is a true star of the most incredible kind—he has won that stage, and nothing but the force of his own presence entitles him to it.” In the same way that the jokes we tell reveal our deepest fears and issues bubbling within the collective unconscious, so turning the audience of stage watchers into the subject now being watched on stage is amazingly modern. And way meta.
“This is where the Stooges work,” concludes Bangs in his amazing (on many levels) review. “They mean to put you on that stage, which is why they are supermodern.”
In this review, Bangs also made a throwaway remark about how he toyed with penning a letter to the British religious and moral campaigner Malcolm Muggeridge “telling him all about Iggy and the Stooges, but I didn’t because I finally decided that he’d just mark it up as one more symptom of the decline of Western Civilization. Which it’s not.” (Lester Bangs pic)
However, it was borrowed by the filmmaker Penelope Spheeris for her seminal 1979/1980 documentary about the L.A. punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, recently re-released to mark the 35th anniversary of its initial release. Looking past the liberty-spiked tresses, angry safety-pinned attire and eff-off attitude, Spheeris was able to shine a spotlight on the kids of the punk rock scene and their backstory. She deftly brought to life the then-burgeoning (and now all too common) trend of home lives veering between abuse and neglect that produced a generation of seeming dead-end losers who, upon closer inspection, were actually rebelling for just cause. “There was a shift in general human behavior, what the teenagers were doing [and] I wanted to know them,” explains Spheeris. “I wanted to understand where they were coming from.”
Although there is a fashion angle to the resurgence of the 80s punk aesthetic, the fact that the themes Spheeris was exploring still resonate enough today to warrant an earnest three-box set devoted to Decline is telling about the times in which we live. Sure, mohawks are fun, multiple piercings a style statement and tatts a common right of passage – but the important question (for me) is: why? And particularly: why now?
I came into this world
A puzzled panther
Waiting to be caged
But something stood in the way
I was never quite tamed
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection is available at ShoutFactory.com.
– Lesley Scott
The aggressively unstudied and deliberately “cheap” vibe is a signature of the Apocalytical fashion tribe which has a chic cloud of effitalltohellalready that seems to follow them everywhere. For more of my posts about the Apocalytical tribe, CLICK HERE. To learn more about each of fashion’s four mega-tribes that I track, START HERE.