Perfect Sound Forever

STEVE MACKAY


Tribute by Alan Crandall
(December 2015)


I remember very vividly the night I bought Fun House. It was 1985. I was 19 years old I also bought Bruce Springsteen's The River. The River is a very fine album (it gets my vote for Springsteen's best). But it was Fun House that rocked my world like nothing before. I was not unfamiliar with The Stooges, having been a proud owner and big fan of Raw Power for a couple years by then. And my record collection was already starting to overflow with the major architects of "punk rock," if you will. I knew my Pistols, Dolls, Velvets. I'd seen Husker Du and Black Flag in the flesh, baby. But Fun House was something else. I'd heard this was one of the hardest, heaviest, most ferocious rock records to be found. And when I put it on and needle touched groove and "Down On The Street" kicked off, well, I'd have to say that was pretty much true. Fun House definitely rocked like a motherfucker. And I loved it, instantly.

I bet you know Fun House. I bet you know what it's like to hear it for the first time. Three charging, ever-more potent rockers, and then the long, slow, bluesy burn of "Dirt" closing out side one. And then you flip the record over, wondering how they could ever top that. And then the scream and crashing chords and the Bo Diddley-ing beat, and it's into "1970." This is the most intense yet, building and building into a relentless aural assault. And then, 3:36 in, as Iggy shouts "I feel alright" again and again, something new comes in - a blazing, burning sax that seems to punch up the drumbeats and guitar slashes into a whole new level of fury. That's the moment when the song goes completely over the edge. And the rest of the album follows suit. All of side two is a non-stop thrust-and-parry between Ron Asheton's guitar and that sax. While Scott A and Dave Alexander keep slamming away at those brutal, hypnotic grooves, Ron cuts loose with swatooth riffs and bursts of white noise, Iggy shouts O-mind-isms over the din, and, flying above it all, the sax howling and screaming and blasting away, carrying the music into all-new, unheard-of levels of intensity and power.

I'm tempted to say Steve MacKay's sax blowing on Fun House is the icing on the cake. But no, it's much, much more than that. It is essential. Without MacKay, Fun House would still be one hell of an album. With him, it pushes into total mindfuck territory. He completely takes over. No one else, even those who tried, however gamely (Black Flag, The Birthday Party) has ever even come close to matching this.

(I must digress for a moment, and tell you fellow Fun House fans that if you have not already heard it, the Have Some Fun: Live At Ungano's album on Rhino, run out now and buy or order or download it because, while the four Stooges largely stick to pretty much note-for-note renditions of all of Fun House, MacKay almost completely improvises, is even skronkier and crazier than on the original album, and takes over even more completely. He's also the star of the 10.5 minute noisegroove that ends the set – "Have Some Fun/My Dream Is Dead" which is NOT just another name for "L.A. Blues." He's also right out front, and you can hear him real good. Go. GO!)

I used to stare at that back cover while the album raged away on my turntable, and I'd stare at that name. Steve MacKay. Who was he? What happened to him? What did he look like? Remember, young ones, there was no internet accessible to us in 1985. You couldn't just type in "Steve MacKay"and have a wealth of info at your fingertips. It would be many, many years before I learned more of the Mystery Man. Nor did I know much of the fate of the other ex-Stooges. It was, in fact, well into the late ‘00's that I learned that both MacKay and James Williamson were not only alive and well, but living in my neck of the woods. At the very moment I was staring at Fun House, wondering whatever happened to the mysterious Mr. Steve MacKay, he was in fact living and working perhaps an hour's drive away (Williamson was even closer).

Now, I was very pleased to hear, after many years of rumors, that The Stooges would re-form and per-form. But I was out of the loop enough that it wasn't until I saw the Stooges Live in Detroit DVD from `04, and I got my big jaw-dropping shock of pleasure when, mid-way through the set – damn! It's HIM!!!

There he was – big as life (well, big as my TV screen, anyway), blasting his way through "1970" and "Fun House" with the rest of the gang! I kept reversing the vid just to watch him, again and again. The fact that they had MacKay on board, made the Stooges reunion jump from a cool thing to an awesome thing. This was legit. This was the real deal, baby.

And although fate conspired to keep me from ever witnessing the Asheton-led Stooges in the flesh, this was not the end. Of course, Ron Asheton passed. Of course, Ig and company tapped James Williamson to sign back up on guit. And Williamson, who'd been living the life of an exec at Sony lo these many years, said yes.

In September `09, JW held a coming-out party at the Blank Club in San Jose – right in my own backyard. Needless to say, I was there (oh man I was so there). When the show first got announced, I was plenty excited, thinking that maybe, maybe it might actually be a full-on semi-secret Stooges gig. That hope got quashed shortly before. But then, I no longer cared. Because I heard the thing that really got me going, the thing that really made my rock-and-roll heart throb with anticipation. MacKay was gonna be there.

And so, at around 10 o'clock that fateful Saturday night, James Williamson joined local roots-rocker The Careless Hearts, took the stage and roared through a set of Stooges music. And there, standing on Stage Left, sax in hand and reed in mouth, not ten feet in front of me, was Steve MacKay himself.

It was a great show. The Careless Hearts acquitted themselves well. That's not important. Learn for yourself. The whole thing's documented on a CD, a DVD and, to boot, I think it's all on YouTube in both official and unofficial form, for anyone who cares to check it out. You might even see me in the crowd – but I won't tell which one I am.

And after the show, as the folks began to mill around and out, and Williamson was signing things and The Careless Hearts friends and fans were patting them on the back, I saw MacKay standing off next to the bar, looking accessible. And I said to my friend "Hey – I gotta go meet Steve MacKay!"

So I walked over to him. I don't even remember what I said to him, now, other than it was along the lines of "thank you and it's an honor to meet you," but he gave me a firm hand shake and a friendly smile and thanked me back. He had kind eyes. He seemed genuinely flattered and pleased that he had fans out there. And it was surely for me the high point of what was a pretty high evening to begin with.

You know, the physics and the mystics say that there is no past or present or future as we perceive them; that all time is simultaneous. And if this is true, then even as I was sitting at home, age 19, cranking Fun House and wondering who Steven MacKay was and what happened to him, I was also standing in the Black Club in San Jose, age 43, and shaking his hand. And even as I'm standing in the Black Club shaking his hand, I'm sitting here in front of my computer typing out a tribute to him. Because Steve MacKay has dropped the body, as the mystics say.

Oh, I wish that I could write about the many other musical projects MacKay was involved in. I had no clue until recently that he had played on The Violent Femmes later albums (they lost me after Hallowed Ground, sorry). Nor that he had played with his own outfit, Carnal Kitchen (which his wife, Patricia, also participated in), both before and for many years after The Stooges, both in Detroit, and here in the Bay Area. Or that he'd played with Snakefinger.

In fact, in a 2009 interview with punk globe (well worth reading, by the way), Steve gave his resume as: Chaos Inc (early ‘60's), Billy C. and the Sunshine aka The Charging Rhinoceros Of Soul (late ‘60's), The Stooges of course, Carnal Kitchen before, during, and after The Stooges, all the way into the ‘90's, (there are several compilation appearances he had and at least one album, North Beach Jazz), The Mojo Boogie Band (`72-`76), Peter Gordon (he is credited on "Life Is Boring" from 1977's Peter Gordon), Blue Gene Tyranny (credited on 1978 album Out Of The Blue), Bill Kirchen's Moonlighters (one 1977 album which he is credited on), Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (credited on 1990's Aces High), The Ralph Shines Blues Band, Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88's, Snakefinger (Snakefingers History of the Blues, It Hurts Me Too), The Violent Femmes (The Blind Leading the Naked), Van Rozay, The Furlongs ("Name No Names" from 1988 album 2300 Ward), Andre Williams (credited on 2000 album Black Godfather), Grails (track "The Volunteer" from 2004 album Redlight), Smegma (04 Tour, 30 Years in Service), United Scum Soundclash ("For Ladies and Gentleman" from self-titled 2005 album), Rashit ?(credited on 2006 Her Seyin Bir Bedeli Var album), Mecanosphere (2006 Limb Shop album), Liquorball (Evolutionary Squalor album), Sikhara (Live in the United States 2007-2008 album), Temple of Bon Matin, Steve MacKay and the Radon Ensemble (aka The Blues Prostitutes), Steve MacKay (Sometimes I Talk Like This, En Voyage), U.S.S. (Machine Gun album), Steve MacKay/Mike Watt and ESTEL (2009 album, self-titled), Jarvis Cocker (Further Complications album), Black Bombaim (Titans album), The Gears (When Things Get Ugly), Sonny Vincent ("James Brown's Evil Son" on the Cyanide Consomme album and also credited on the Spiteful album), James Williamson (Re-Licked), Round Eyes (self-titled 2015 album), Girls With Guns, Bunktilt, and some association with offshoots of the aforementioned Radon Ensemble and with such names as Koonda Holaa, Sonic Suicide Squad, Solar Skeletons, oVo, and, though I am unclear as to how many of those he actually played with. But I can't comment further on all of that ‘cause I've never heard any of this stuff. Not that I don't want to. Now I have a hobby- to track it all down, like the obsessive music geek that I am.

This is the resume of a journeyman – a guy who loved music, period; who had the chops and the open-mindedness to play in everything from free jazz to blues to western swing to punk rock bands. In that sense, he's not that different from about a million other guys out there – axemen for hire. It's a living. Still, I think MacKay deserves a little more credit.

Listening to MacKay, I've got enough of a jazz ear to hear clearly that he was heavily influenced by Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and especially (to my ears) Pharoah Sanders. Was he in their league? I'm a rock and roll animal at heart. I always feel a little out of my league talking about jazz or jazz musicians critically. I suspect some bespectacled, pipe-smoking jazz connoisseur would look down his nose at me and tell me I was full of manure were I to suggest that Mssr. MacKay belonged in the same company. So I'll simply say that these ears he sounds both a lot like them and just as hot. Call me ignoramus, oh academician. I stake my claim.

Because if nothing else, MacKay was, for both a brief time (6 months or so, allegedly), and then a longer one (from the first 2003 reunion shows to, presumably, the last in 2013), a member of The Stooges, easily one of the four or five greatest rock`n'roll bands of all time (I will not debate this), easily THE greatest "punk rock" band of all time (I will brook no opposition) and auteurs of Fun House, one of the greatest of all rock`n'roll albums and THE greatest "punk rock" album of all time (don't even try arguing with me). And if that alone doesn't buy his way into rock and roll Valhalla then nothing does.

A toast to thee, Steve MacKay, saxophone colossus, he of the mighty horn riffs! Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways! "He inspired us all to be freethinkers and to be creative spirits," Celeste Neumann, his stepdaughter, was quoted in the Washington Post. "… And to make a little anarchy too." That is a very fine obituary.

And I am proud to say that I shook his hand.

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