While it’s purely coincidental that we’ve reviewed them in subsequent weeks, it seems significant that the subject of last week’s Rumpus, The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, and that of this week, The Stooges: The Authorized and Illustrated Story, bear such striking similarities. As the titles indicate, these aren’t comprehensive retellings of the histories of these legendary bands, but rather glossy encapsulations of their subject matters. It’s telling that these two bands, once considered makers of some of the most dangerous and revolutionary music of the 20th century, have now been commodified to the extent that it’s acceptable for them to be covered in coffee table book form, and moreover, that such treatments are actually marketable. These books seem to indicate a cultural shift, not just in the sense that their original audiences have grown older and now own things like houses with coffee tables on which to place such tomes, but that the younger generation now discovering these seminal artists isn’t so much interested in reading the sordid tales that made them who they are, but rather just want to look at pretty pictures of their idols.
Even more than the Velvets book, this run through the Stooges’ ascent from Detroit losers to punk rock godfathers is purely cursory. (I read every word of its 192 pages in just a few hours.) Skipping over all the depravity in which Iggy, in particular, took part, all the juicy bits have been left out. Particularly glaring is author Robert Matheu’s purposeful omission of the scene at Ron Asheton’s house that finalized Elektra’s decision to drop the band. He flippantly dismisses his ever bring it up with “Well, it’s, it’s too horrible to describe.”
In place of any substantial writing, Matheu fills the book with a lot of fanatical hyperbole. Critical thought and commentary from unaffiliated sources are replaced with the narrative equivalent of hooting and hollering, which while mildly entertaining, is hardly a substitute for real storytelling. The book’s text is not entirely without merit, however, as essays on each of the band’s records—including posthumous live album Metallic KO, the eight-hour 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions and the Stooges’ reunion record, The Weirdness—have been outsourced to writers with actually something to say.
But such criticism of Matheu’s writing should be taken with a grain of salt as he is not a writer by trade, but a photographer. His work behind the lens is far superior to that with a pen, as shown in his many shots that grace the books’ pages. He is also to be commended for tracking down (from other sources) the many lesser seen photographs here, and for finding the actual negatives from which to produce the many vivid scenes.
As much as I can’t force the fact that Matheu’s photos of Iggy Pop’s gristly torso will be enjoyed over lattes and biscotti to jibe, there is obviously still a niche for a book like this. No doubt new homeowners and condo dwellers need more than just Ikea catalogs to peruse, and if this book somehow fills that void, then so be it.