Posted June 6, 2010

The Official Stoogeologist tells The Authorized and Illustrated Story of A Most Powerful Band


Share Stoogeafficiandos have long bemoaned the lack of payback for Our Forgotten Boys. Slowly but surely, and many, many years late, it's all being redressed.

You can grumble about the appropriateness and belatedness of their Hall of Lame induction - and the lack of justice in Ron Asheton not being around to be part of it - but there's no denying the warm feeling that stems from wider public recognition flowing their way.

The fact that a publisher - and let's give them their due and name them: Abrams - has seen fit to print this handsome 196-page coffee table tome, "The Stooges: The Authorized And Illustrated Story" adds exponentially to the glow.

Robert MatheuIt took an insider like photographer Robert Matheu (pictured right) to get the job done. Longtime band fan and friend, the Detroit expat living in L.A. now wears the title 'Stoogeologist' with justifiable pride.

But first a little about the man. As the official bio notes: "Matheu’s photographs have appeared in Playboy, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Music Life, and Mojo. He acted as artist liaison and official photographer for the U.S. Live Aid concert...later, with camera in one hand and rings in the other, was best man at Chrissie Hynde’s wedding and inspired one of Billy Idol’s biggest hits by introducing him to a fine southern whiskey."

He has more than 200 album and 500 magazine covers to his credit. The musicians Robert Matheu has photographed include George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, Brian Wilson, The Kinks, Tom Petty, Pretenders, Beastie Boys, The Go-Go’s, Dave Edmunds, Johnny Cash, Stray Cats, Soundgarden, Steve Earle, Patti Smith, Adam Ant, The White Stripes and The Black Keys. See more here.

Photographers may be observers but the best are usually to be found deep in the action. So it was with Matheu who first crossed paths with the Stooges at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on a 1969 bill with Funkadelic or Alice Cooper (he can't recall which.)

From that point on, he was on the spot to document and experience the falls and rise of this extraordinary band. He was present at their Metallic KO death throes and (more happily) at their subsequent (two) re-births.

Asthma Attack: Stooges at the Grande Ballroom in 1969Asthma Attack: Iggy hits the deck at the Grande Ballroom in 1969.

Matheu has enlisted the right help along the way for his Stooges book (more on that later) and other projects like the Sony Legacy "Raw Power" re-issue, of which he was co-producer.

It's barely dawn in Sydney and I'm calling Kill City in sunny mid-afternoon California: Is that Robert Matheu on the Skype line?

Effusive and friendly, the onetime Creem photographer is about to head off to London to see the first Iggy & the Stooges gig in that city in nearly four decades. It's post Rock and Roll Hall of Lame induction and he and Iggy are putting in promotional hours for the "Raw Power" package with interviews and signings. Busy times.

"My wife is good in that she lets me plan family vacations around when the Stooges are playing!" says Matheu down the line - and you can almost hear him grinning.

"This will be my 20th time seeing the band since they reformed."

The Font of All Things Stooge reveals the roots of "The Authorized And Official" go back to his first book, "Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine", co-penned with Brian J. Bowe two years previously.

A lavishly-illustrated stroll through the late and legendary magazine's back pages, it's a wonderful tribute that did its subject justice.

"The Stooges book was a natural extension," he says.

Iggy with the Stooges in Detroit in 1973
Iggy & the Stooges in Detroit in 1973. Previously unpublished.

"After I did the Creem book - that was such a fun process - there was a void with me…'What can I get my hands on to do now?' It happened pretty quickly after the Creem book.

"I shopped it with publishers for six months and started getting reactions from editors at publishing houses."

There's where a certain juggling act begins. To call a biography "official and authorized" infers a command structure - even if only one drawn with dotted lines. What do you put in and what don't you gloss over when your subject is expected to give some sort of endorsement?

Surprisingly, there was little overt editorial control exerted.

"Putting it together was a fun three months. Iggy would call me randomly: 'Hey, I have a thought…I don't want to see it but how are you gonna address this and how are you gonna address that?' So we collaborated in that sense.

"He thought the book idea was very cool and told me to run with it. As things went on, I'd ask him different things.

"After compiling the Creem book, I knew what had to be in there. At some point, the book starts telling you."

Kicking off the project involved Matheu sending various published books to Iggy's Florida home to convey some format concepts. Thurston Moore's No Wave book and a glossy Led Zeppelin effort were among them.

Politics came into play when author had Iggy call a potential publisher and leave a charming message on her office voicemail. Matheu suggested he use his baritone charm.

"My editor said she nearly peed herself when she picked up the message. She called me to say she was just going into her editorial board meeting but, yes, I had approval for the book I wanted.

"At one point I said to Iggy: 'I'm thinking the Stooges are more of a vertical band. My best Stooges photos are vertical. They're not like the Doobie Bros or Lynyrd Skynrd, and all spread out. They're tight!'

"And he laughed: 'Yeah the Stooges are a vertical band'."

Stooges at the R n R Hall of Fame induction with Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day
The vertical band at their R n R Hall of Fame induction with Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day.

Hitting the stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in 2010
A Most Powerful Moment: Iggy hits the stage at the first Iggy & the Stooges show in London
since 1972.

Of course there came a time when the band had to see the final draft before publication. He really only knew it had been deemed Stoogeworthy in May 2009 when he shared a wine with a re-united Iggy and James Williamson at the 5th Annual MusiCares MAP Benefit concert, at which Pop had performed and they'd all attended.

"We'd driven back from the gig in the SUV and I was having a wine with Iggy, his wife Nina and James at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

"Iggy leaned over to me and said: 'I think you did a great job on the book.' James added: 'I think so too'.

"As far as I was concerned, that's all I needed to hear."

THe Asheton brothers in Toronot in 2008
A Matheu favourite: The Asheton brothers in Toronto, 2008.

The Authorized And Illustrated Story" pools the visual work of Matheu and a mix of professionals and fans like Mick Rock, Joel Brodsky, Leni Sinclair, Ron Richardson, Lee Black Childers, Seth Tiven and Craig Petty. The images are coupled with essays by a group of people with a connection of some sort to the band's music.

Matheu and key collaborator Jeffrey Morgan kick off the words with a incisive contextual piece, while people like ex-Creem editor Dave DiMartino, Ramrods singer Ivan Suvanjeff, Michigan writer Brian J Bowe and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell pen essays on landmark Stooges recordings. Each is masterfully written and the photos are presented in luxurious coffee table style.

It's not the only Stooges book around but it's the best. There's Mick Rock's photo essay of the Raw Power Stooges in London (his work adorns the album they recorded) but it only tells one chapter in the story.

When it comes to narrative, the pick of the predecessors is Paul Trynka's Iggy bio, "Open Up And Bleed". It wasn't about Iggy, not just about the Stooges, but added detail, context and - most importantly - accuracy that no-one had captured.

Given that Trynka contributed a foreword to Matheu's previous Creem book, how does he see the various publications sitting?

"This book puts them (the Stooges) in the proper perspective with everything in one spot. Paul Trynka's biography was really well done. Paul's a good friend and the only disappointing thing was I wanted to see the photos bigger or different ones.

"So I didn't want to address the history of the band in a biography sort of book."

Matheu gave his fellow essayists specific riding instructions.

"I said: 'Talk about the record from looking at it today. We're not writing record reviews'.

"The people I chose - Dave DiMartino was the longest on-staff editor at Creem.

"Ivan Suvanjieff - was with Creem when he was Mark Norton, and was also in a great Detroit band called the Ramrods. He and I were the same age and I knew he'd want to write about 'Raw Power'.

"Jeffrey Morgan, I knew, wanted to write about 'The Weirdness' because he's one of the people who liked it.

"Ben Blackwell is one of the drummers in the Dirtbombs, a friend of mine and Jack White's nephew - plus I love his writing. He just worships at the altar of 'Fun House'.

"Brian Bowe was the perfect choice to write about Metallic KO. When Iggy and I were kicking around liner notes for the 'Raw Power' re-issue, he nominated Brian to contribute because 'he was the dude who gets Metallic KO'.

Matheu portait of the late Les Paul. This pose took some coercement and proudly hangs in the Matheu
family home. At his request, a copy was given to James Williamson for his birthday.

"With all of us, we were all just coming from the same spot of Stooge fandom. It was interesting to see how nicely all of these pieces fit together without it being conscious.' "

Matheu's is a Cinemascope version of the Stooges story. While it doesn't dwell on the rough parts, it's more a celebration than a forensic analysis. Its author was taken to task by an LA Times reviewer for not turning over any rocks, he rightly says: "All the sensational stuff has been told so many times. I just didn't feel the need to go over it again."

As for the "Raw Power" box set, it's the latest in a string of CD projects he's had a hand in. First, there was Easy Action's stunning Sonics Rendezvous Band box plus "The Second Chance", both of which Matheu compiled. Next was his own "Live Masonic Auditorium" (issued through Alive.)

In the wings is an August 1970 recording of the six-piece "Fun House" Stooges line-up at New York club Ungano's ("that'll come out on vinyl, too.")

A career-defining photo book, laying out the very best of his best pictures, is being considered by publishers. Its working title, "The Perfect View", sums up the rock photographer's life and a sneak preview of the proposal confirms that, yes, this will be pretty special.

Matheu derives a lot of satisfaction from the fact that the "Raw Power" package made it into the hands of fans.

"I'm real pleased with it. We intentionally made the booklet different to what we have in the deluxe box.

"I wish had the luxury to spend more time on the documentary but being what it is, it's quite good."

All photos © Robert Matheu