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Steve Mackay dies; saxophonist for the Stooges was 66

Steve Mackay performs at La Machine du Moulin

Steve Mackay performs at La Machine du Moulin Rouge in Paris on Dec. 17, 2010. Credit: WireImage / Samuel Dietz

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 label mates -- 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, at age 66 on Oct. 10, 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."

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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 and 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 Pop 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, free-form 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."

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.

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


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