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The Stooges Do Madonna


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Why the Stooges performed for Madonna

Even band's guitarist knows rock hall pairing is odd


Don’t be too worried, Stooges fans: They haven’t sold out to the other side.

So proclaims guitarist Ron Asheton, who Monday night joined band mates Iggy Pop, Scott Asheton and Steve MacKay as the Stooges to play a pair of Madonna songs — “Ray of Light” and “Burning Up” — during the latter’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Asheton was reacting to online reports that have described the band’s scheduled performance as a “tribute” to the dance-pop star, whose music is a far cry from the Stooges’ own gritty, primal Detroit rock.

“The Stooges represent everything that’s against what she is,” Asheton told the Free Press from his New York hotel Monday afternoon before the show. “I don’t wish her ill. I don’t hate her or anything. But I’d never even heard of these songs until I had to listen to a tape and figure out what’s going on with them.”

In reality, Asheton said, Madonna asked the Stooges to perform as an act of protest: The group, widely considered a linchpin of early punk, has yet to be inducted by the rock hall, despite six appearances on the nomination ballot. By inviting the group on stage, she sent a message, said Asheton.

Last year’s rock hall ceremony featured a similar demonstration, when the night’s inductees performed the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” during a jam session finale.

“Basically she was upset that we’ve been nominated so many times and never made it, so she asked us to play in protest. And it was under those auspices that I thought we were doing it,” Asheton said. “At first I went, ‘Whaaat?’ Then Iggy said, ‘Why don’t you think about it?’”

It came together quickly: Madonna reached out to Iggy Pop just two weeks ago, Asheton said. The band, which had not performed together since closing out its latest tour in December, worked on the songs long-distance, with the Ashetons in Ann Arbor and Iggy home in Florida.

“Iggy said, ‘We’re gonna rock them up — just play ‘em like Stooges songs,’” Asheton recounted. “They actually sound pretty cool. We just rock ‘em out. You wouldn’t even recognize them as Madonna songs. I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve actually enjoyed playing them.”

On Monday afternoon Asheton had yet to meet Madonna, who was an elementary school student in Rochester Hills when the Stooges started shaking up the Detroit rock scene in the late 1960s. He said if he encounters her during the rock hall’s afterparty action, he’d be sure to be polite.

But he can’t help feeling a little cynicism about the whole ordeal: He probably wouldn’t be in the Stooges without it. With Madonna’s entry into the hall of fame drawing criticism from some diehard rock corners — and with the star’s new album due in April — he figures she may have more than one motivation for handpicking his band.

“I thought that right off the top — that, gee, I just heard she’s got a record coming out, and she’s trying to get a little Stooge shine. She’s a savvy businesswoman,” he said. “I think she actually does like the band. She wouldn’t have asked for us if she didn’t. But she’s also using us for business purposes.”

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Does Madonna belong in rock hall of fame?


The sneering started as soon as they announced Madonna's name.

Madonna? Glittery, poppy, Hollywood-beloved Madonna? In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Rock and Roll?

It's all about semantics.

As the Michigan-born superstar readies for her induction Monday night at a swanky Manhattan ceremony, furrowing the brows of certain rock-music devotees, the perennial question is once again on the table:

What is rock 'n' roll, anyway?

The enticing answer for cynics is that it is whatever Jann Wenner thinks it is. The Rolling Stone magazine founder, who led the rock hall's founding more than two decades ago, has been the most common target of ire, loosely accused of playing personal favorites in a secretive backroom operation.

But beyond conspiracy theories, the question gets to the very heart of the mission for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its Cleveland museum.

We've heard the carping before: when Michael Jackson was inducted in 2001, for instance, or when hip-hop's Grandmaster Flash was honored last year. Madonna's hall of fame selection was announced in December, her name unveiled alongside those of John Mellencamp, the Ventures, Leonard Cohen and the Dave Clark Five. She was among a rarefied cast of inductees -- chosen in her first year of eligibility, or 25 years after the release of her first record.

In Detroit Rock City, any hometown allegiance fell by the wayside as some Freep.com users immediately kicked into attack mode.

"Rock and Roll Hall of LAME!"

"Since when is that crap rock and roll?"

"The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a joke. All you have to do is be around for 25 years and you're in."

Of course, it's not actually that easy, or supporters of overlooked groups such as Kiss, Rush and Detroit's Iggy Pop & the Stooges wouldn't feel perpetually slighted by the rock hall.

So what is rock 'n' roll? Is it amplified guitar, bass and drums? Is it a specific attitude? Is it a certain strand of culture as defined and decreed by the baby-boom tastemaker set?

For the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, here's what it is: an era. The rock era, to be exact -- a term commonly used to signify the past six decades of popular music, a period that began in July 1955 when Bill Haley's "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In that sense, "rock era" is simply shorthand for the period that began when American pop music became inextricably bound up with youth culture.

"We define it pretty broadly. It's somewhat about the influences, somewhat about the attitude. But more than anything it's about a cultural phenomenon," says Jim Henke, curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "It's certainly more than just four white guys playing guitars, bass and drums."

Henke says museum visitors arrive with wildly differing definitions; he's heard some argue that even such bands as U2 don't fit the rock 'n' roll mold. Others are more open-minded: Henke was gratified when rapper Chuck D, on hand for the opening of a hip-hop exhibit, told reporters that his music was a natural chapter in rock's ongoing story.

As rock 'n' roll as they come

You won't persuade Blain Klein that Madonna doesn't deserve induction. Klein knows his Madonna: The Kalamazoo resident helped start the Madonna Fest, a global fan convention staged annually in the 1990s. On Monday, he'll gather with about 20 friends for what they've dubbed an induction party.

Madonna's song catalog may not be packed with gritty three-chord numbers, Klein says, but in spirit the Bay City native is as rock 'n' roll as they come.

"Madonna put in her time: She started as a nobody with a garage band, played the club scene in New York, got noticed, and evolved into the queen of pop icon," he says. And her antiestablishment credentials are impeccable, Klein points out: "She's the only person I know of who walked off David Letterman after telling him off."

Perhaps the situation wouldn't be so ripe for debate if this had always been the obvious standard by which the hall operated. If the early years had included inductees such as Connie Francis and Bobby Vinton next to the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, the precedent would have been firmly fixed into place: We're using the "rock era" definition of popular music, folks, and that means eventually, yeah, we're gonna get to disco.

But then again, maybe it quietly did. The hall is well stocked, for instance, with acts from Motown's golden era -- Detroit groups such as the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Temptations, who certainly don't fit the rebels-with-guitars definition that many observers now insist on applying. They operated in an era when "rock 'n' roll" might as well have been synonymous with "Top 40": a repository of common tastes.

That held firm until the post-Woodstock era of the 1970s. Rock 'n' roll had morphed into "rock," and a gulf had opened up between rock's subculture and the wider pop-music world. Invariably, the traits and sensibility of that subculture -- the long hair, the loud guitars, jeans and tattoos -- are what many rock fans have in mind when they blast Madonna as an unwanted guest.

Perhaps the hall itself could snuff out this whole brouhaha -- which is only set to intensify as the eligibility period chugs into the neon-pop 1980s -- with a simple, clear statement of purpose. Let the public intuitively understand what's meant by "rock 'n' roll," set the record straight, and we'll all move on to arguing about the annual nominees for other reasons.

Or maybe not. Rock's factional loyalties are part of a tension that has marked popular music for decades, perhaps most memorably symbolized by the infamous Disco Demolition Night in 1979. That's when thousands of beer-fueled rock fans wreaked havoc at Chicago's Comiskey Park, turning a Tigers-White Sox baseball game into a boisterous anti-disco rally. Disco slipped to the sidelines within a couple of years, but popular music's fragmentation continued, splintering to the point that the traditional Top 40 concept no longer exists.

Those who can't be convinced Madonna belongs are only destined for more angst as they become dimly aware of their real nightmare: In just 11 years, the Backstreet Boys will be eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or mccollum@freepress.com.

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