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Fun to look at, but not definitive

Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges/As Told by Iggy Pop

When the Stooges broke up in 1974, hardly anyone noticed. The band had put out three records in five years and none of them had sold well, and while they remained a decent draw in their home base of Ann Arbor/Detroit, national tours had been spotty and, increasingly, the performances they gave were sloppy and, at times, disasters, thanks to lead singer Iggy Pop’s increasing dependency on heroin. When they ground to a halt with the chaotic Detroit show documented on Metallic KO, few in the rock ‘n’ roll community paused to mourn: they had had their shot, they had done tons of drugs, and they had blown it. End of story.

But then a curious thing happened: the Stooges became legends – for their music, for their story, for Iggy’s stage antics, and because the band was doing a lot of what punk and metal musicians did ever since. They became a touchstone, a band that you had to know about, their records (especially 1970’s Funhouse and 1973’s Raw Power) legendary artifacts. A reunion that began with a much-lauded show at Coachella in 2003 and played for years around the world solidified their legendary status, even while original guitarist Ron Asheton died in 2009 and James Williamson – the band’s guitarist on Power – led the way on their second and final reunion CD, the dismal Ready To Die, and a final round of dates, which ended in 2013.

It only makes sense, then, that given the sense of reverence and wealth of tall tales of debauchery, excess and musical exploration that surrounds the band, that the Stooges would finally have a coffee table book to call their very own. Total Chaos – the product of two days of interviews with Pop by former Warner Bros. Records honcho Jeff Gold – is that book; it’s a handsome curio, filled with many previously unseen photos, magazine articles about the band, handbills for shows, record contracts and letters back and forth from the band’s management to its record company, and so on.

If you’re a fan, this stuff is often fascinating, and you have to hand it to Gold: it’s very cool – as the band probably would have put it – that all this material has been gathered in one place. Having all this material together gives us a better sense of what the band’s troubled journey through the festivals and clubs of America was like, as well as how they were covered and how they interacted with the music industry as a whole.

And that’s all fine, if that’s what you want. But what Chaos isn’t is a consistently excellent portrait of the band in its time. It doesn’t pass that sniff test for several reasons, a main one being that many of the stories here – about the debauchery and the drugs, the band’s dissolution after Funhouse and reformation with Williamson as guitarist to make and then tour to the bitter, drug-soaked end behind Power – have been told better, and in numerous places.

The problem is both the format – Pop is often asked to simply look at a piece of memorabilia and then comment on it, which isn’t necessarily that interesting – and the execution. Gold has a long history of working in the music business, and he’s obviously done a tremendous job of assembling all this stuff – his bio on the back flap says he’s one of the top five “collectors of high-end music memorabilia” and it sure looks like it – but what he’s not is a trained journalist who knows how to draw out an interviewee. And it shows.

The result is that he often doesn’t ask follow-up questions and really dig for information. He doesn’t ask for more detail. He doesn’t ask why. He takes whatever answer Pop gives him, and as a consequence we don’t get that much info on, for example, why Williamson was recruited, why the band decided to add a jazz saxophonist, Steve Mackay, for Funhouse, and other stuff that, it seems to this obsessive fan, would have really rounded out the story being told here. Also, hardly any space is devoted to the reunion – we aren’t even told what Ron Asheton and his brother Scott died of.

This is basic journalism, and it often seems, at least to this obsessive fan, that Gold is out of his depth as an interviewer, overawed by the chance to sit down for a couple of days with a legendary rocker. So while Chaos is something that just about every serious Stooges fan will probably get, and it is nice to look at, it could have been so much better and more informative. While it’s a bio of Pop, Paul Trynka’s Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed offers a far better history of the band, and there are other books, such as Brett Callwood’s The Stooges: Head On: A Journey Through the Michigan Underground, that add depth and detail to this most singular of rock ‘n’ roll stories. If you really want to know what happened, start with Bleed. You won’t be disappointed.