Monday was the 67th birthday of James Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop. I can’t claim to be a fan of Pop’s solo career, and not till much later—this century—did I get around to hearing the albums recorded at the end of the Sixties and early Seventies with The Stooges.
But I also can’t claim to be unaware of his career and its influence.
When I first heard of The Stooges it was around the time of Raw Power (1973), an album that subsequently became very influential on punk-rock and lots of noisy bands with a bad attitude. What with rolling around on broken glass onstage and smearing his chest with peanut butter, Pop seemed a bit extreme, also something of a clown. Like: sure we can’t play well, but we can be outrageous. OK, yes, that would be the banner under which punk advanced, so that makes The Stooges prescient.
When I first really listened to Iggy was in 1983, after David Bowie—who was a major collaborative force on Pop’s two albums released in 1977, The Idiot and Lust for Life—released Let’s Dance, with its rather anodyne, but tremendously popular, versions of songs he had recorded with Iggy. “China Girl,” for instance, appears on The Idiot. And that’s the album that, belatedly, I got into, because, yeah, it was more of that “Berlin phase” Bowie celebrated on Low and “Heroes” particularly.
Still, there’s a notable time lag in my appraisal. And that’s because today’s song really bit me in the ass in 1983, possibly more than it would have in the late Seventies. In the late Seventies, I got enamored of the likes of Television’s Marquee Moon, and the albums of Patti Smith, and Bowie’s “Heroes” and Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and The Idiot fits right in with those, yeah. But in 1983, when I heard it, I had moved back to DE from Philly and so “Dum Dum Boys” gave me a feeling not of nostalgia and longing for the days of The Stooges, which is what it’s about, but rather a credo about a certain kind of strong negation.
Some people found that negation in The Stooges, some in The Sex Pistols, some in The Ramones, some in the Velvet Underground. I was finding it, c. 1983, in Joy Division and New Order and the early Cure. And “Dum Dum Boys” was somewhat like a statement of the vibe. “Looked as if they put the whole world / Looked as if they put the whole world / Down.” That was it, alright. The sense that somewhere between rebellion and denial is a state of mind that says “fuck it,” and says it with every fiber of one’s being.
“They just stood in front of the old drugstore / I was most impressed.” These guys are described like your usual bunch of juvies, or maybe your proto-punk band, or disaffected garage band, or dudes, like in the film Clerks, who just stand around hoping to score something. It’s easy to imagine a lot of ways of talking about these guys that would be rather dismissive or patronizing. But that’s not what Pop, in his best sepulchral rave-up (listen to how he goes up into screech mode for “where are you now my dum dum boys?”), is after, aided and abetted by Carlos Alomar’s grunged guitar and Bowie and Tony Visconti’s treatments to make the song sound like it’s coming at you from inside a tomb. The song is raising the dead, alright. The past that was The Stooges. And the future of negation: “People said we were negative / They said we’d take but we would never give.” What could guys like this give, other than attitude?
And it should be said that, at that point, whether 1977 or 1983, there was not much—outside of staunch fans anyway—in the way of “bring back The Stooges” ferment. They were a little blip of history that, like John Cale’s time with VU, mattered only to those few for whom it mattered. Commercially, all that stuff was under the radar. Which is why it was even more important, as time would tell. Iggy’s revisiting of his old band—mythic certainly—gave their purpose its necessary urgency: “Where are you now / When I need your noise?”
That was the key. Back again in those suburban environs, I felt myself something of a “dum-dum,” in a manner of speaking, or, leastways, I was in the vicinity of a certain kind of hanger-on and hanger-out that made the target of this song seem close to home. Granted the “dum dum” in “Dum Dum Boys” is not “dumb” but rather the “dum dum” of a “da da da dum dum day,” the mindless vocalizing of singers filling in sounds. Just making noise. But to me what the song crystallized was the odd genius of the “dum dum boy,” the guys who know how to make a sound that matters for what it is. A put-down of a whole other manner of making “noise” that just doesn’t cut it, that is a cop out and a sell-out, and lots of other things too dismal to mention—even though, of course, the boys sing “da dum dum day / And hope it would pay.”
I was most impressed.