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REVERENTLY I TRUDGED down the well-worn stairs to the basement of the sacred Rat. To Boston rockers, the beer-soaked carpet of the Rathskellar is hallowed ground: it bears the libations of scores touched by a wayward muse. This particular night, the faithful fixtures at the Rat included familiar faces. Musicians, regulars on the local scene, conferred in the dark corner near the mixing board; groupies, punks and curious bedazzled figures crowded the tables. At the bar a gauntlet of black leather elbows lifted steins in homage to the spectacle on stage.
The lead singer of the Dead Boys gyrated in a rent pair of blue jeans occasionally flashing one pallid cheek to the congregation. As he crooned in a raspy baritone, he slid one hand into his pocket and drew out an enormous Bowie knife, which he held to the guitarist's throat in a skinnyboned imitation of a hard-ass punk. After picking his teeth with the knife, the Boy tired of that toy, only to pick out a new one for the next number: a pink plastic pleasure machine, with which he caressed his bony pelvis in mock ecstasy between stanzas. As the set ended, the star slithered on his belly among the drums, to caustic chords and dimming lights, his death-throes ceasing as the audio-feedback whined and faded into applause.
Rock audiences are no longer stunned by such performances, and Iggy Pop has a great deal to do with acclimating the public into this easy acceptance of the sensational. Ten years ago, Iggy and his Ann Arbor band, the Stooges, launched their careers and the genre of punk rock with a blend of nihilism and unheard-of histrionics. Iggy vomited on stage, stabbed himself with pencils, burned his skin with hot wax, flung himself onto broken glass and even leaped off the stage to harass the audience physically. Like a modern Dadaist, Iggy's style was confrontation, and his musical and theatrical lead inspired many later rockers. The mania for the stage spectaculars of Alice Cooper and others of his ilk was engendered in part by the Stooges' outrageous antics.
Now, after four years without a record release, Iggy has turned toward greater musical sophistication and less emphasis on his once-anarchistic style. Collaborating with David Bowie (a close friend whom he accompanied on Bowie's 1975 American tour), Iggy has produced The Idiot, an album that blends the monotonic deadpan style of punk rock with electronic innovation. The same persona haunts this recording--an alienated soul tormented by nightmares and melancholy, ears buzzing with the constant drone of sameness--but the addition of Bowie as the chief composer gives this desolate voice a richer resonance.
The perspective born of a decade's distance from the Stooges finds expression in "Dum Dum Boys," Iggy's tribute to his old band. The song begins with a short finger-popping catalogue of the whereabouts of the boys since the band split up. A raspy but bell-like guitar melody launches a well-structured ballad of alienation. "What happened to James?" "He's gone straight." states the prologue. But Iggy (a.k.a. James Osterberg) has lost his voice with the demise of the band.
Times have been tough
Without the dum dum boys
I can't seem to speak
This theme of estrangement, from self and from others, is central to The Idiot. In some songs, the schism is complete. The vision is desolate, but Iggy sings with a knowing irony that rescues the lyrics from irrelevance. "Nightclubbing" manages to be ironic and sincere at once; the vacuous lyrics and monotonous melody, over an intriguing background of piano and synthesizer that creates a suitable cabaret mood, suggest self-ridicule and sorrow.
Nightclubbing we're nightclubbing
We're something to see
Nightclubbing we're nightclubbing
We're an ice machine
We see people brand new people
They're something to see
When we're nightclubbing
Oh isn't it wild?
The scenario of The Idiot is bleak. As Iggy sings in "Baby," "We're walking down the/Street of chance/Where the chance is always/Slim or none/And the intentions unjust." Iggy seeks escape in the arms of "Tiny Girls," but he cannot find innocence. He is tempted by death and unredeemed by love, entangled by illusions which prove to be not just one mirror of his desires, but a veritable Versailles of them, gleaming and arching to infinity. The peace of death lies only at the end of the passage.
The torment of that infinite reflection is strikingly evoked in "Mass Production." An ominous score by Bowie sets the scene, a sensitive juxtaposition of electronic machine-like sound in insistent rhythm with Iggy's plaintive vocals:
Before you go
Do me a favor
Give me a number
Of a girl almost like you
With iegs almost like you
I'm buried deep in mass production
You're not nothing new
The music evokes a futuristic, endless landscape of highways and smoldering refinery stacks. Although some of the instrumental passages could be briefer, the song represents a brilliant synthesis of Bowie's and Iggy's talents. A low sinister drone ends the tune in an effective, chilling fade.
MUSICALLY, THE IDIOT is irregular in quality. Some cuts, like "Sister Midnight," "Funtime," and "Tiny Girls" offer little melodic variety and feature complaisant, braying vocals. Though the use of dissonance departs from the usual rock modes, the novelty isn't enough to carry the songs. The device of monotony, appropriate to many of the lyrics, succeeds only when it is mated with variation in texture.
One tune emerges, though, as Iggy's musical and emotional salvation. The love song, "China Girl," shows off the richness and flexibility he can achieve. A tinny xylophone riff wraps around the lead guitar in beautiful counterpoint, and the use of electronic media is sensitive and restrained. Carefully punctuated, many-layered, "China Girl" unfolds to a solo guitar fadeout which mimics the beginning theme, in the most cohesive track on the album. As the China Girl soothes him at the end of the song, I began to wonder if she had the secret that Iggy, in the dum dum daze of the Stooges, was looking for all along.
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