If you think an over-sized, hardcover coffee table book about The Stooges seems like a contradiction in terms, you’d be half right. Anyone who knows anything about the band’s history knows that it was often total chaos (as the book’s own title suggests). On the other hand, the line between high and low art has long been obliterated, and the few brick and mortar bookstores that still exist certainly have shelves full of glossy tomes waxing nostalgic about the origins of punk rock, one of the most misunderstood and appropriated genres of music. Since The Stooges helped create punk, it seems only fitting that they join the ranks with a fancy book of their own.
A few years back, music historian (and Stooges fan) Jeff Gold came up with a great idea that he pitched to his fellow music historian (and Stooges fan) Johan Kugelberg. Why not consolidate their considerable collections of Stooges memorabilia, scan a selection of items and document Iggy Pop’s direct feedback? That’s just what they did over the course of two days at Iggy’s Florida home. The result is this book.
Unlike your typical coffee table book, however, Total Chaos is far more than a collection of pretty photos. As Stooges fans well understand, the band’s career was frequently as far from pretty as one could get. This makes the book’s hi-res scans of old newspaper clippings, reviews, flyers, legal documents and photos that much more vivid. Reading Iggy’s reminiscences gives the accompanying images a new kind of vitality and also reveals the man’s incredible memory. Despite years of substance abuse, there are very few things that Iggy Pop does not recall about his career with The Stooges, and that includes a hell of a lot of fascinating insights into that career and the music industry in general.
Iggy Pop is not only a smart and insightful person, he’s also terrifically funny. His commentary is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious (on a 1966 technical snafu: “the sound was that of a very limp penis”) to heartbreaking. About the original incarnation of The Stooges, which included Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander, he notes:
“These guys were the closest I’ve ever had to having what are traditionally called friendships in my life. A very wise man with a bigger career than me once said truthfully, ‘There are no friends in showbiz.’ You’ve been around. You know kind of once you get over to the serious performers, you know that’s kind of true, but these guys were as close as I got.”
As the book points out, one of the things that kept The Stooges’ flame alive when their albums were out of print (and any kind of a reunion seemed like an impossibility) were the fans. Gold mentions that in the late 1970s:
“The Stooges legacy begins to grow. As punk evolves in the US and England, The Stooges begin to be cited as a critical influence. Rock zines and the English music press start to write about the band more.”
“Iggy: And as I told Ron, as lot of the pictures helped it stay alive.”
In that respect, then, Total Chaos is a perfectly appropriate tribute to this band, chock full as it is with both pictures and clippings from established outlets like Creem, Circus and Melody Maker to Gay Power (“New York’s First Homosexual Newspaper”) and Stooges fanzines like Iguana.
Iggy’s responses to the documents are, like many fanzine interviews, extremely candid and enjoyably conversational. Gold and Kugelberg have smart, informed questions, but this is Iggy Pop’s show and they know when to hold back and let him keep going.
The last section of the book has interviews with musicians that have been influenced by Iggy Pop (Johnny Marr, Dave Grohl, Jack White, Joan Jett) and/or have worked with him directly (Josh Homme). It’s a nice bit of lagniappe, but the real treat is Jon Savage’s discussion with Iggy Pop about the importance of style in rock and roll.
Total Chaos is that rare thing: a good idea whose final product far eclipses its original premise. It’s a riveting read and provides pages of fascinating, if not downright educational, visuals. Though I’ve read several biographies on The Stooges and Iggy Pop, this one is definitely my favorite.
Total Chaos is available from Third Man Books.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.