I stole my first Stooges record from a mall in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in, what? 1983? Something like that. It wasn’t this Stooges record, though. The Stooges record I stole was the first Stooges record, The Stooges. I might’ve stolen Fun House, too, another time. I don’t remember. I stole a lot of records.
We needed records back then. They weren’t optional. They weren’t in the background. Especially in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I don’t know what it’s like there now. When I see pictures of the neighborhood I grew up in I think, what a nice place! I could live there.
But in 1982, 1983 I hated it.
I was hungry for beauty, for glamor, for excess. Not even drugs yet: I had been drunk a couple of times by then, but I wasn’t full on. I was hungry for what drugs promise but don’t deliver. I felt oppressed by the dull stupidity of my hometown, the ugly sameness of it, the terrible music, the worse TV. People forget, they don’t know what it was like. Now we have instant access to almost everything: back then you had too seek it out, hunted by the guys in jean jackets and Kodiak boots. You stole the record, you made your own clothes. You devoured every word in the NME, even the classified ads. Especially the classified ads. You imagined yourself practicing in a Camden Town basement, then opening for someone above a pub, making a record, going on tour. And then everything: victory, magic, the World.
And if you listen to just the first three seconds of “Down On The Street,” it’s all there.
Go back. Play them now.
Really: you could just play those first three seconds over and over again and that would be the history of rock and roll, why it exists, why it is so addictive, why addicted people need it, why it is so powerful. The snare shot and the descending, muted, overdriven guitar. It’s all in there: “Rocket 88,” “Rip it Up,” “Twist and Shout,” “Satisfaction,” “White Light/White Heat.” The door opening, the engine roaring to life, the drugs taking hold on the outskirts of town: here we go. We’re going now. Fucking hold on.
It’s mid-tempo, like all really heavy songs, and it swings. It’s the heaviest song ever recorded by someone other than Swans, it’s the heaviest party song for sure. But it’s a pretty fucked up party. Not everyone wants to go to this party, and not all those who go will be glad they went. It’s a heavy party. It’s not a party for bastards, but there are some bastards there. Because even though Iggy wore gold lame and makeup and feather boas, he might end up at a biker party full of bastards—and somehow hold his own. Not like a tough guy. He’s not that kind of guy. It’s why chicks love him. He’s a shaman. He has news from the other side. So even tough guys respect him.
There’s true love here but it isn’t personal. It’s the love of dissolution, the love of the acolyte for the destroyer god. There is true transcendence, true ecstasy, but at that moment of union the goddess eats your soul.
It takes a certain type of person to hear this kind of thing and really embrace it. Not just to party hearty but to get this shit in their bones, to see past the fun bits into the spooky undergrowth, and think, “Yeah: I want some of that. I’m going to do that.”
I’ve played this song live, so I know how “easy” it is. If you play it in an open tuning you only need the first three frets of the guitar, and a couple of times you just hit all the open strings, fretless, and let them ring. It’s the basic, primal, unvarnished power of the guitar. The electric guitar.
Do you see? It took electricity to summon this sound. It’s the sound of being on the edge, of being ready for anything, of not giving a shit, of taking a handful of whatever someone gave you without even looking to see what color they were.
The problem with this anarchic world view, this spiritual chaos, is that you can’t build anything out of it. There’s no comfort, no safety. And yeah, that’s the attraction: “Fuck safety: I want to burn!” But even though sometimes the flames will be bright and furiously beautiful, the fire doesn’t care what we want. It doesn’t promise to be beneficent, it makes no compact with human desire. And humans only contain so much fuel: we burn up, we’re broken. All that’s left is greasy ash and bits of bone.
You push further and further and eventually things start to lose their shape. The universe isn’t kind the way we want it to be: it won’t cuddle us. It won’t always be nice. Sometimes the way the universe makes everything all right is to tear us apart, to split us into our constituent molecules and spread us on the wind, so we’re nothing but a memory. Not even that.
Just nothing at all.
Some of you have felt that profound desire to go beyond, to disintegrate, to get past your Self and merge with whatever lies outside the human shell. You can feel its presence, it’s there all around us.
We know that this tinny thin tape unspooling in our heads is not the whole story, that our transitory selves are illusory. We understand the urge to transcend, to destroy, because we want to destroy that illusion of Self. We know we’re part of something infinite, and being bound in this human form is a terrible, unassuageable torment.
Anything that cracks the ego can act as a portal. Drugs work. Sex works. Music works. Meditation works. Well, wait a sec: step back. Drugs can work for a while. Until they don’t. Sometimes the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom, but you go by bus and you end up sitting next to some illuminated dummy who just won’t shut up. And he’s got the aisle seat.
My advice? Just meditate, and listen to the Stooges. That’ll get you by.
You can’t build a civilization if all you have is “Down On The Street,” but I wouldn’t want to live in one without it.