By Ingrid Marie Jensen
Henry Rollins, who provided liner notes for the deluxe 2020 reissue of the Stooges’ Fun House, put the album in context with two modern jazz classics. “I compare Fun House to [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme or [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue. I can’t make any real comparisons in rock because [the Fun House sessions] appear to me more of a jazz thing, where, with Coltrane or Miles, there was just that ridiculous, perfect sculpture with every take. I can’t make any comparisons in rock where you hear a band that played live in the studio and got those results. There’s hardly any overdubs on Fun House.”
In fact, the Stooges had been conceived with a mind toward avant-garde jazz: the young band once requested Sun Ra as their opening act for a gig in Jackson, Michigan, a town 40 miles west of Ann Arbor where Iggy had attended high school. Its citizens were undoubtedly staggered by the flamboyant, multi-layered melodies of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and shocked by the runaway-horse chaos of the Stooges. In 2019, Iggy told SiriusXM that “…most of what you hear [on Fun House] was played really live with the same attitude of what I would say a very good jazz band. Just a more limited set of skills, but the ones we had were effective.”
The sway that avant-garde jazz held over the Stooges went beyond sonic influence. John Coltrane’s wild sax playing inspired Iggy’s dancing, as he described in a 1996 MTV interview: “One day I was at my manager’s flat, and he started playing this record…it was John Coltrane. It sort of scared me at first, and really annoyed me and little by little it took me some months to get next to that and then I listened to him play things like ‘My Favorite Things,’ which is a song with a beautiful melody, and he’d start with that and then he’d just, you know, turn it inside out. He was unpredictable…and it made other things sound very tame. And I thought, ‘Wow, how could I do that?’ you know, and I thought…I can’t play an instrument like that, but maybe I could do it with my body when I sing.”
Iggy’s dancing is urgent, wild, passionate, seemingly possessed and occasionally violent, all executed by a figure with the beauty of a Roman statue and an athlete’s precision of movement that makes doing something incredibly hard look easy, like a brushstroke in a painting by an old master. “L.A. Blues,” in particular, seems a sonic manifestation of Iggy’s dancing (he later called the track, “…my reaction to everywhere,” in Trouser Press.) It’s a kind of exorcism, six minutes of howling and crashing that alternately invokes anguish and delight, rips your personal perception of what music should and can be, into a snowstorm of shredded illusions and ultimately frees your synapses up for rewiring.
“I’ll play it for you first and tell you what it is later.”
In the spring of 1970, U.S and South Vietnamese forces launched an incursion into Cambodia, pulling that country even deeper into the Vietnam War. “Let It Be,” was number-one in the charts, Apollo 13 was limping earthward and Michigan protopunks Iggy and the Stooges were flying to Los Angeles to record their second album, Fun House. The watershed release of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew — an album of no-holds-barred experimentation, melding jazz, funk and rock n’ roll into a strange new revolution in sound that entranced some and offended others — in March was sending shockwaves around the music world. Davis’s use of synths and electronic instruments (he’d been inspired by Jimi Hendrix) offended jazz purists and divided the trumpeter’s fanbase in two.
A few months after Bitches Brew was released, Iggy Pop — freshly turned 23 and newly arrived in sunny California, was hanging out with the writer Eve Babitz. Eve had a copy of Davis’s record. She’d grown up listening to her violinist father Sol jamming with jazz greats such as Stuff Smith and Jelly Roll Morton; Igor Stravinsky was her godfather. She must have suspected the powerful effect the album would have on her new friend. (Another fine example of Babitz’s enviable knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right idea and the gumption to act on it.) Sure enough, Iggy was intrigued by Davis’s new sound and immediately noted the commonalities Bitches Brew held with the album that he was in the process of recording.
Davis and the Stooges both seemed to be creating music that reflected the tumultuous emotional impact of a decade of turbo-charged change. Both albums had sounds that defined the end of an era (or perhaps they were just appropriate punctuation for something that had ended long ago; a final crashing chord to alert that the Swinging ‘60s were well and truly over.) “Really good music isn’t just to be heard, you know?” Iggy said once. “It’s almost like a hallucination.” A lot of people, when hearing both Bitches Brew and Fun House for the first time, probably did think that they were hallucinating.
And what’s more rebellious and revolutionary—more purely punk—than “Bitches Brew,” a 26-minute track in a time when the airwaves were still mostly populated by 3:30 tunes? By the time Bitches Brew was released, musical genres had expanded to such an extent that Davis was cooling on the term “jazz.” “The more they use the word ‘jazz,’ the more people didn’t want to hear that kind of music anymore. It’s diminishing, because it don’t mean anything. It don’t do nothin’. I don’t know what it should be called. Maybe it should be called social music,” he mused. For his part, Iggy wasn’t too pleased with being labeled as a punk rocker: “Punk rock is a word used by dilletantes and heartless manipulators…it’s a term that’s based on contempt, it’s a term that’s based in fashion, style, elitism, Satanism and everything that’s rotten about rock ‘n’ roll.”
Certain Dionysiac aspects of live jazz, an ever-changing conversation in which the exact same combination of notes is rarely played twice, also existed in the Stooges’ live gigs. Improvisation and ad-libbing reign supreme in performances of a high emotional pitch. And if the Stooges had a jones for smack, so did Davis, who once acerbically quipped that, “jazz is like blues with a shot of heroin.” (Babitz bluntly called heroin “the most celebrated romantic excess of our time.”)
Both Bitches Brew and Fun House contain that special brand of revolutionary magic that transcends classification systems. It’s funny to think that after all this time (52 years now) we’re still trying to put music into a set of labelled boxes. So maybe punk is jazz, and jazz is punk, and does genre even matter at all? If the music’s good, it should capture the imagination to such an extent and hold the listener in such thrall, that the only certainty needed is the knowledge that the music sounds very fine indeed. It’s ok if it defies logic because it’s the best escape from logic we know. Humans, after all, are ultimately quite limited; music is not.