Auto-Affection, Disdain, & Abandon: Or Baring Bodies in The Stooges’ Funhouse by James Belflower

I heard the call much too late, and so I’ve always been in the position of returning. The first time I heard the riff it was incessant and torqued. Crawling over that riff was a voice screaming even further outward, far past me. I listened, a bit fearful, and after some time, wanted more, not sure why. I don’t know that I would initially call it “like” but there was some lurid fascination, the sheer abandon in The Stooges Funhouse shook me…“Caaawwlin’ frum thuh funhouse, baaaaabay…!” And it took some time to realize that it is that unnerving defamiliarizing fire in our mental house, where an anxious lust (for life) usually begins to smolder.

There were many bands stretching, and in some cases, ripping the envelope in the late sixties and early seventies, yet for me, there is an uncanny aural and physical feralness to the performance of The Stooges on the album Funhouse that invites me to keep luvin’ its unstable meeting of disdain and abandon, after all these years. “Invites” may sound odd if you’ve heard the album, but after listening to it repeatedly there is an invitation, though it’s sealed with a wipe of sweaty chest glue! But it’s more than just melancholic nostalgia for the fact that the original Stooges came and went immediately before I was born (so close!). There’s an attractive and politically viable risk in this abandon, a risk that The Stooges fully and raucously embody and perform. A risk that many critics used to rip the LP’s release, ignoring the effort taken to record the complexities of a “live” album.  The enigmatic instability of this risk isn’t reducible to the drugs, simplicity, aggression, wartime tension or ambivalent sexuality of the album. Iggy claims, “I want a lot out of life, and I want a lot out of an audience,” and there is a resonance at the far edge of Funhouse’s sonic horizon, some collective enfolding, that yearns to reach us with the reflective fingertips of those silver gloves.

I’ll skip harping on the antics usually associated with the band (general insanity and drug use) since the timeline of substance abuse is fuzzy—some arguing that it coincided with, or began shortly after, Funhouse—since these stories overshadow their incredible revision of the blues. I return because I love to hear the raw limits that these antics in some ways concealed: the indelible musical forces stretching and overextending not only the recording equipment of the time, but the performative body itself, stammering a disjointed commentary on the rampant commodification of every aspect of music, and to a larger degree the utopic dreams dismantled by the war machine of Vietnam. In fierce opposition, the album becomes an aural limit that lengthens the moment between exhaustion and collapse, and in some sense suggests a communal experience. In other words, I’d like to sketch what keeps us (or perhaps just me!) returning to that silver-gloved-hot-peanut-butter-smearing-across-sweaty-chest-pointing. For me, it’s the visceral quality of disdain.

The Stooges’ disdain for genre norms seems evident on first listen. Blues is mixed with noise, screaming and grunting with intelligible words, and all this flows over a punchy bass line that momentarily collects, revises and releases these influences. There are even mixtures of James Brown, as MacKay’s Avant jazz licks rip apart funkified motifs. The announcer at the beginning of the video below, where The Stooges perform “T.V. Eye,” understates it wonderfully. His description is impressively innocent in its estimation of their live performance, “They do not go about this in a show business way…the kids don’t mind this at all.” One of the best parts of this video is that the audience doesn’t know what to do with them either. The lethargic crowds many of us have stood in, here appear dismayed, but strangely welcoming, even supportive (literally, as when Iggy is hoisted above the crowd around 4:00 in the following video). There is even a woman sketching the event (1:45). What I would give to get my hands on that sketch! What an amazing confrontation of mediums!

Long before Lady Gaga’s hypersexual code (and outfit) switching, and distinct from the heightened androgyny of David Bowie, Iggy accomplished something uniquely transgressive, through a much different mode of dissidence. Recalling Caroline Schneemann’s “experiential erotic body,” he performatively (and in later years physically) abused the body itself, stripped it down to breathtakingly tight leather pants (making him an excellent candidate for Frank O’Hara’s “Personism”), baring a chest as smooth and chiseled as a superhero’s, in the process supporting her defense, “If I am a token, I’ll be a token to be reckoned with,”[1] Later on he began cutting himself, and other on-stage abuse, distorting his influences (Morrison and Jagger) and adding an element he seems unable to articulate even now, “From Morrison, it was the same way but with the elements of surprise. Here you have surprise, you have poetry and you have a further violation, [emphasis mine] a little different take on this sort of thing.”[2] On first listen the music and video seems to affirm these trumped up hyper-male sexualities, thrusting its way through all sorts of “manly” abuse, rock riffs and such. Yet, if this were where Funhouse stopped, it would have disappeared like many other albums of that period. What The Stooges’ music makes visible, and what Iggy’s stage presence amplifies, is a disdain for this normative macho embodiment. Though his body appears classically proportioned, his movements violate a masculinity cut from these postures. There remains something incredibly sexual about his presence on the stage, yet the gestures and movements of his arms, legs and torso don’t contribute to the guitar/brain-between-the-legs rock or watered down “anarchist” punk that followed. Instead, there is something scarecrow-like (as Spicer might say, “The scarecrow nevertheless, quite naturally resents the confidences.”), something loosely connecting the pivotal 7th chords of the guitar with the joints of his body. Songs like “L.A. Blues” force us to re-cognize rhythm, not as nominal repetition but as exhaustive reiteration of difference. Sexual, yes. Auto-erotic, absolutely. But phallocentric . . . more difficult to say.

Either way, The Stooges’ Funhouse performs and embodies the contradictory but affirmative frontier between disdain and love, which I find inextricably intertwined in the imaginary of Derrida’s auto-affection. His concept describes the necessary auditory and visual separation from self that spaces and “bodies” oneself and the Other—the experience of the same (myself) is also and at once, being the experience of the other. To some this theory shuts out the world, but it seems to me that the sheer force in Iggy’s auto-affection, must manifest in an outside. If so, this suggests a social relationship: the self is not content with only imagining another but must correspond with this outside in a different way. The relationship draws into relief, it questions resolution in exclusively imaginary acts extended into the real, in this case through Funhouse’s various embodied questions: are you happy with spectatorship…do you recognize your body?…notice, it is not like mine…who are you touching in this crowd…what touch is this…which touch is someone…do you feel it when you touch me…is there someone, or just touching? Arguably then, auto-affection is relational and in the citations Iggy performs, love is shared as insufficiency-made-visible. It is a transgressive disdain for the real/virtual and self/other divide. One that requires an audience to participate, one that relies on another to respond, though this response may be silence, or drawing! And yet, its effacement is not a sacrifice, but through Iggy’s invitation, it instead becomes a shared violation of exclusionary individuality, an ecstatic and gritty exposure that blurs boundaries of audience and performer. With what sounds like an inhaled kiss, the addition of drums and the slow crawl of the bass accompany the lyric’s from “Dirt” exhuming this relationship:

Ooh, I been dirt

And I don’t care

Ooh, I been dirt

And I don’t care

Cause I’m burning inside

I’m just a yearning inside

And I’m the fire o’ life…

…And do you feel it?

Said do you feel it when you touch me?

In Iggy’s wild gesticulations, his double-jointed pirouettes, disdain emerges as this exposed fire, as this burning room in a city. There is a flummoxing abandon (or love?) of the corporeal, and it is a corporeal ambivalently sexed due to its repeated refusal to don suggestively normative shapes. A citation of gender that distorts a simplistic phallocentric image. Though argued to be proto-punk, the event between Iggy and his audience clearly differentiates Funhouse from later bands like The Sex Pistols, whose nihilism lacks the possibility for constructive transgression. I am caught up by this difference in The Stooges’ music, fascinated by the battered relation of masculinity and sexuality, the rhythm given to materiality, to dirt and dirtiness. I find myself in unique awe, in large part due to the refraction of the music through Iggy’s body. What is the connection? Obviously there is one, refreshingly, it is never what I predict. It breaks my learned senses of movement, of limb shape and of my capacity to remain only a spectator. At the same time, it bodies forth a paradoxical and incredibly erotic attraction to the viscerality of abandon, and the dance of raw matter.

As you can hear in the recording of the self-titled song “Funhouse” below, disdain also occurs in The Stooges recording techniques—augmenting and further distorting contemporary musical norms—through their willingness to overextend current recording technology. Funhouse was recorded with very few overdubs, but take after take after take … in some cases more than one hundred. The intent was to capture the group’s live intensity and interplay.  The sessions were arranged as if onstage, avoiding headphones and baffles, instead bringing in P.A. speakers, short stacks and having Iggy abuse a hand-held microphone. This caused an incredible amount of sonic bleed across the recording spectrum. Iggy used the microphone exactly as he did in live performances, distorting its amplification by practically swallowing it. Every song was recorded communally, and complete. This creates what I’ll call controlled ravaging, a meticulous tearing apart of something already laid bare. Like Iggy’s chest, the instruments sound raw, chiseling into each other’s sonic flesh, folding their disdain back upon themselves forging the limitations of the mixing board and microphones into instruments. Ravaging requires a certain (self?) lust and implies brutishness, and these qualities are a large part of the albums appeal for me. The Stooges take it upon themselves to brutishly disdain a climate: the bitter war in Vietnam and the rapidly growing shopping list of recipes for cultural repression taking hold in the 70’s. The album flails at the despair blooming in the culture wars, and the bewildering technological globalization. Following the logic from the aforementioned self-titled song, Funhouse the album responds both to and with “li[f]e in division in a shifting scene.”

Controlled ravaging requires abandon, and the album is soaked in it: a flinging outward of every manner, guitar riff, arm, torso, drumstick, gender norm, fashion norm, lyric, and the list goes on. A flinging somehow channeled through the microphone, through the inadequate audio equipment, as if the speaker cones had flipped inside out and the perfect storm pushed that cone into new waters. The concern is not so much with what will be hit, but that something out there needs to be hit, needs to be jarred into response. It resonates with The Stooges’ struggle to stand in as recorder of the limits of disfunctionality. Though the vocals are poorly synced, this video shows the initial lure of that short bass phrase, Iggy’s mysterious movements, and the very first proto-human call, from “Down On the Street:”

Yes, definitely there are elements of a word there in those first seconds, but it contends with a sharp squeal whose dual purpose is immediately mimicked, then transformed by the bass and guitar. Each instrument overextends itself, and more importantly its recording technology, mimicking the cameraman desperately trying to frame the flashing hieroglyphs of Iggy’s body as he almost disappears from view both onstage and in the crowd. At the same time, you can watch a certain element of engagement with the audience. That of a reaching, not entirely in a specific direction, but a reaching nonetheless; perhaps a reaching without grasping, an evasive foundation vibrated from the bass line? As Iggy asks in Dirt “Do you feel it when you touch me?” It seems that they do.

This “singing-of-the-electric-body-overextension” is what each musician touches on Funhouse. It’s the clash of encroaching tech upon squirming life we’re invited to hear and participate in. It’s a cataclysm of noises: Iggy’s shouts distort upon meeting the microphone; Steve McKay’s sax squalls as it slaps the mic; Ron Asheton (guitars) saws like a whip through the tangled cords across the floor unable to precisely align itself with the other shifting rhythms; Scott Asheton (drums) pounds the skins and Dave Alexander precisely hammers minimal bass lines, tattooing the phrase across any exposed body. The audience is particularly tattooed, begged to join in the event, as Iggy rolls across the floor where they are sitting, and in the above video of “T.V. Eye,” is lifted above the crowd momentarily, pointing toward the future. The musical field in which they call and respond to each other is turbulent, fluidity abutting fluidity, and the hand points anywhere: out, out there, targeting anticipation, arching its back, bending a bow, its crumpled silver glove shaking. This multifaceted abandon weaves a community from disdain, weaves a collective response to the overwhelming loss caused by the ongoing war machine called Vietnam. You can see it in the crowd in the first video above, as Iggy weaves his way, not looking for a path and disappearing for long periods and then… the spectacle has changed, he seems to be saying, “It’s out there and only our collective abandon will take us there.”

So there are political, physical, social, and a host of other bodies responding in this Funhouse, and within these mirrors the limits of musical reproduction echo their loss. The scream of “Looooooooooooooooord!” that opens “T.V. Eye,” is a plea, which upon close listening carries another voice on its back, a passenger of sorts.

It’s another extended guttural sound, stretching to become a reflection of the human, a voicing of the question, “What are bodies capable of?” Though the song below doesn’t come until years later, the band begins to formulate responses to this question with Funhouse, carrying a limp Iggy toward the incapable microphone. As the video continues the body disdains its initial collapse, pirouetting around 3:00 minutes in.

So, rather a long way of saying that I return because Funhouse is delicately poised: poised in vibrant disdain, in hot exhaustion, in the strained cusp of a rung out decade; poised against the Janus-like tension of cultural flailing, and in defiance to the reifying juggernaut of recording techniques and autotuners to come. I find myself at the end of this album, shouting out, “I feel awl-right, I feel awl-right, I feel awl-right” aware that “alright” has changed, that “awlright,” now is a passage, beginning with particular disdain and leading through abandon. Not to some transcendent moment, but to a paradoxical “failing better.” I think of it as a recording of the irrecordable, an arm that stretches from the confining dark circle of the record, or the silver reflection of ourselves in CDs or ipod screens, “to stick it deep inside.” A recording suspended in/as crackling air, a moment before the needles dropped…


 

~~~

From Johnny Cash at Folsom

“…

right

sound

proves

elusive

…”

Consider the amplification needed for a mess hall. First, you must shove the sound far enough into the room that those in the back hear. Second, those in front must be able to withstand the decibels that those in the back, are comfortable with. Third, you must remember that most of these men are prisoners and so should be treated as such. You might have moral dilemmas that cause you to attempt to find the frequency that, if you’re in the front row, will damage your eardrums, and if you’re in the back, would rattle the tin mixing bowls in a highly irritating manner. Of course, both these ideas are rather subtle. You could just make it so the scum in the back couldn’t hear anyway since it was they, them who caused the…

“This is part of your punishment,” you joke.

James Belflower is the author of Commuter (Instance Press), which was voted 2009’s “Best Book Length Long Poem/Sequence by Cold Front Magazine; Bird Leaves the Cornice, winner of the 2011 Spring Gun Press Chapbook Prize; and And Also a Fountain, (NeOpepper Press) a collaborative echap with Anne Heide and J. Michael Martinez. His work appears, or is forthcoming in: New American Writing, 1913, EOAGH, Denver Quarterly, Apostrophe Cast, Greatcoat among others. He is pursuing a PhD in Contemporary Poetics at SUNY Albany and cocurates the Yes! Reading Series in Albany NY.

Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.