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Steve Mackay, the Stooges’ unforgettable saxophonist, dead at 66

🕐 5 min read

In the late 1960s, Iggy Pop had a problem. He was the frontman of a band – the Stooges – that would become legendary, but they weren’t legendary yet. Their debut album hadn’t sold well. And their labelmates – a little band called the Doors – seemed to be getting all the attention.

So the singer made what seemed like a crazy decision: In an attempt to bolster his band’s already notoriously brash, confrontational sound, he hired saxophonist Steve Mackay. Mackay’s marching orders: Channel the spirit of James Brown’s most famous horn player, but with a twist.

“I want you to play like you are Maceo Parker, but you took LSD,” Mackay, in an interview last year, remembered Iggy said.

Mackay rose to the occasion.

“I must say, ‘Oh, you should never take that,'” Mackay said. “But anyhow, I did. And so I knew what Iggy was talking about and it was just like … we are free, and we are crazy, and we are a little bit afraid when we play.”

Now, the anarchic horn player who pushed the Stooges’ “Fun House” (1970) – a proto-punk milestone that some call the best rock record in history – over the edge has died. Mackay, a longtime member of the Stooges, died of sepsis, a complication of his cancer, over the weekend, his family said.

“Steve was a classic ’60s American guy, full of generosity and love for anyone he met,” Iggy Pop wrote. “Every time he put his sax to his lips and honked, he lightened my road and brightened the whole world. He was a credit to his group and his generation. To know him was to love him.”

Mackay was born in 1949 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His father was a salesman, his longtime companion Patricia Smith said; his mother was a piano teacher who favored jazz (and drew the saxophone illustration tattooed on Mackay’s arm). He even claimed an ancestor was Queen Victoria’s bagpiper.

“Music was everything for Steve,” Smith told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “He always had music in his head.”

Mackay took up the sax when he was 9, and never really put it down. He studied art at the University of Michigan, but got more interested in music – jazz and pop, but mostly rock ‘n’ roll. Sometimes, the horn was a hard sell.

“Nobody wanted a saxophone in the band,” Mackay said of an early project. “But I was the only one who could improvise and play solo, so they had to keep me.”

Iggy saw Mackay play in a saxophone/drums duo that played “free music” – avant-garde compositions, often improvised and devoid of traditional rhythm and harmony, like those explored by cutting-edge jazz artists such as John Coltrane in the late 1960s. In other words: skronking.

But what some traditionalists may have blanched at, Iggy Pop loved. He invited Mackay to jam with the Stooges informally. Soon after came the invitation to play on the record that became “Fun House.” Two of Mackay’s contributions – on the title track and “L.A. Blues,” a chaotic, freeform mess – were unforgettable.

“‘Fun House’ is where Iggy Pop’s mad genius first reached its full flower; what was a sneer on the band’s debut had grown into the roar of a caged animal desperate for release, and his rants were far more passionate and compelling than what he had served up before,” AllMusic wrote. “… ‘Fun House’ is the ideal document of The Stooges at their raw, sweaty, howling peak.”

Punk icon Henry Rollins, a vocal Stooges fan and friend of the band, called “Fun House” the “perfect record.” When he joined the famed band Black Flag, Rollins said, he was given a copy of the record and told: “To understand us, you gotta understand this.” He didn’t envy any artist who tried to match it.

“It’s scarier and heavier than anything you’re going to make,” Rollins said in a telephone interview. “… You are never going to be as good as the Stooges.”

What seems like a landmark record today, however, didn’t make much of an impression in the popular consciousness at the time – “Fun House” sold even more poorly than the Stooges commercially underwhelming debut. The band broke up in 1974 – for almost three decades. And, like many sidemen, Mackay disappeared from view somewhat. He never stopped playing in his own groups, and would occasionally turn up on recordings of lauded bands such as the Violent Femmes.

“I never stopped learning how to play better and better,” Mackay said. “Or different and different.”

He wasn’t exactly a household name, though.

“One person contacted him because they heard he was dead,” Smith, his partner, said. “No, he was quite alive.”

When the Stooges reunited in 2003 for a decade’s worth of touring and recording, Mackay may not have seemed like a crucial component. After all, he only was heard on some songs on one of the band’s three seminal albums. But there he was – playing new material, blowing through “Fun House” again and again in front of thousands of people, or plunking the keyboard on tracks such as “I Wanna Be Your Dog” that he hadn’t played on the first time around.

Well into his 50s, he was more famous than he had ever been.

“I’m going to write a book, but I’m still waiting for more great things to happen,” he said. “And right now, these are the times that are becoming the best memories for me.”

Mackay is survived by his partner, his daughter and two grandchildren.

“He inspired us all to be freethinkers and to be creative spirits,” Celeste Neumann, his stepdaughter, said. “… And to make a little anarchy too.”

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