Paul Duane reviews Gimme Danger, eventually.
What sounds to you like a big load of trashy old noise is in fact the brilliant music of a genius; myself. (Iggy Pop on a Canadian TV talk show in 1977)
Many years ago, the glorious Detroit-based zine Motorbooty ran a special History Of The Stooges issue which seamlessly intertwined complete fiction presented as fact (a Stooges Wax Museum housed in a stately home that was formerly the home of the White Panther Party, and featuring such exhibits as the actual peanut butter jar from the Cincinnati Pop Festival incident) with factual-seeming articles which, God only knows, may have been completely made up, such as an oral history of the house in which the band lived during their most glorious, pre-heroin period, a place commonly known as Stooge Manor or The Fun House.
A pull quote from this piece embedded itself in my brain, a stripped-down seven word description of everything that drove The Stooges to become what they did, and equally, of the limitations that ensured they ended up eventually disappearing into oblivion. I can’t recall who said it, but it was probably guitarist Ron Asheton who encapsulated the band’s mindset at the outset of their journey.
“We just wanted to be rock guys”, he said.
Here I’d like to make it plain that while this piece is supposedly a review of the film Gimme Danger, which is a documentary by Jim Jarmusch setting out to tell the story of The Stooges (NOT, I stress, the story of Iggy Pop/Stooge, though of course his contribution is non-negotiable), I am not what anyone could call a disinterested or objective reviewer. The Stooges have functioned as both my religion and my ethnicity since I was about fourteen years old.
Growing up in the featureless midlands of rural Ireland, my only connection to the throbbing, veiny heart of rock’n’roll was via occasional issues of the British music press that accidentally ended up in my local newsagents. I thus spent years of my life imbibing the NME and its hipster code – Dame David Bowie, irrelevant; Kevin Rowland, hilarious; John Lydon, scary but ultimately pathetic – only to later find that most of it was nonsense which I would urgently need to forget if I was ever to find enjoyment in any music at all.
One of their many tenets was that the later achievements of Iggy Pop, songs like Nightclubbing and Lust For Life, cool tunes that sometimes might even get on the radio, were mundane when set beside the greatness of his old band, The Stooges. We were told that The Stooges towered above us all, both musically and in the gonzo manner by which they attained greatness and then disappeared. Their music, if you’d ever been lucky enough to hear any of it, was described as life-changing, epochal, even holy. But, of course, it was never played on Irish radio, not even by the ‘alternative’ DJ Dave Fanning who liked The Ramones and so on. This absence only heightened its allure.
Then one day in a record shop in Clonmel (the nearest large town to where I lived, and not exactly a haven of musical excess) a garishly packaged compilation LP appeared, one which featured most of the tracks on the first two Stooges albums. Then, as now, I didn’t have a lot of discretionary income, and I had to be careful – I’d been burned before, by terrible Lou Reed live LPs and the like. But this record, titled No Fun, seemed to be the real deal. So I brought it home and began an obsessive love affair that would last the rest of my life.
Listening, I heard a band with an intense understanding of the nature of teenage boredom, a central fact of life for a rural Irish teenager uninterested in sports. No Fun was a simple lyric modelled on Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line, about the Midwest, specifically the Detroit suburb of Ann Arbor, Michigan – a mysterious place on the other side of the world, maybe, but it was immediately clear that teenagers everywhere had a lot in common. So I sang along: “Maybe go out/Maybe stay home/Maybe call Mom/On the telephone/Well COME ON…”
To many, these lines will seem banal, pointless, even idiotic. But to a teenager steeped in the mundane beauties of underground science-fiction, psychotronic horror movies & satirical weekly comix featuring Judge Dredd, the meaning of life lay in the interplay between stoopid and smart, and nobody walked that line better than The Stooges.
The first, self-titled record, described by Iggy as “a neat, petite, good, well organised, sharp little poke”, was a statement of intent. But the second record, Funhouse, is best described by the critic Robert Christgau: “Now I regret all the times I’ve used words like ‘power’ and ‘energy’ to describe rock and roll, because this is what such rhetoric should have been saved for. Shall I compare it to an atom bomb? a wrecker’s ball? a hydroelectric plant? Language wasn’t designed for the job.
The songs on Funhouse – Loose, Down In The Street, TV Eye – drip with a sonic oil-slick of wah-wah and handclaps and screams designed to make parents uneasy. The lyrics were, luckily, too impenetrable for an outright ban to be imposed, or maybe I was just lucky and my parents were too repelled by the surface noise ever to listen properly to the likes of the band’s masterpiece, Dirt, a reptilian dirge about the thrill of finding oneself so far beneath contempt that the hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn’t raise one to the depths of depravity. A song that also included a killer lyric twinning the lines, “I’m in dirt/And I don’t care” with “I’ve been hurt/And I don’t care/I’m just dreaming this life.” Nobody could accuse these dirtbags of lacking a soul.*
It wasn’t punk, it certainly wasn’t metal. This music was and is nothing but rock, played by white rock guys who listened hard to black music, soul, blues and jazz, and it’s the reason I can’t take the likes of Led Zeppelin, with their stolen riffs (and what is Immigrant Song but a naked transposition of the theme from Get Smart?) and their lyrics about squeezing lemons and goblins and such, seriously. Zep stole from bluesmen, but Iggy learned from bluesmen and taught his drummer Scott to play the Stax/Volt and Bo Diddley beats. The Stooges, more than anything, were blues from the white man’s soul.
So why have The Stooges been pretty much forgotten, compared to the posthumous profile enjoyed by, say, the Ramones? Well, the Ramones had an edge on posterity via the prescient crypto-fascist graphics of Arturo Vega, for a start. But also, they – like Kraftwerk – propagated a repeatable, saleable vision, one where every song was pretty much the same, every record a re-run of the last. And that beautiful, pop art breakthrough caused the Ramones much suffering when nobody wanted them to do anything except play songs that sounded just like Blitzkrieg Bop, because nobody wanted them to grow up. That didn’t happen to The Stooges.
When it came to The Stooges, nobody wanted anything at all.
Lost, forgotten, wretched, damned, they became the patron saints of the unwanted and the unsung. You can actually hear them split up on a 1974 recording (later released as Metallic KO) of their final night as The Stooges. Lester Bangs called it “documentation of the Iggy holocaust at its most nihilistically out of control.” By then they had become the kind of band people go to see for target practice. Iggy, in a degraded state of drug-induced self-mutilation, would taunt the audience, singing obscene ‘songs’ like Cock In My Pocket, inviting abuse, and they would throw glasses and bottles and he’d just soak up the punishment like the pro he was. The band became a backdrop to his personal Golgotha, and eventually they’d had enough of it.
The Asheton brothers sold Scott’s drumkit, bought bus tickets and went home to Detroit, where Scott told his mother he was homeless and starving and asked for her help. He found work doing landscape gardening or driving taxis, while Ron became the guitar stalwart of local art/noise bands like New Order (the original ones) & Destroy All Monsters.
And that was the last anybody outside Detroit heard about them until ’77 when Iggy cleaned up and wrote a sort of elegy and epitaph for the band he’d left behind, a hymn to the dinosaur qualities that had drawn him to them in the first place, their antediluvian silence and toughness, their ‘rock guy’ stillness. In the Asheton brothers, Iggy said, he’d found primitive man.
The first time I saw
The dum dum boys
I was fascinated.
They just stood in front
Of the old drug store.
I was most impressed.
No one else was impressed.
Not at all.
“Now I’m looking for the dum dum boys,” he sang. “Where are you now when I need your noise.” He sang it over a slick New Wave backing track that made his point for him, whether he knew it or not. He did need their noise, and as far as I’m concerned, so did the rest of the world, and very importantly, so did I.
And now, forty years later, the eternal losers have become the subjects of a Big Hollywood Movie that premiered at, for fuck’s sake, the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a glorious redemptive ending, the kind everybody loves, when the guys who got their faces shoved in the muck in Act One get the girl and the car and the kingdom in Act Three.
But losers lose all the time. That’s why they’re losers. They can’t turn around and win, that’s not in their nature. By the time the film came out, all of them – the Asheton brothers, Dave Alexander, Steve Mackay, every original Stooge that ever stood on a stage – all of them were dead**, and only the astonishing, possibly immortal, hellborn angel that is James Jewel ‘Iggy Stooge’ Osterberg walked on that Cannes red carpet to the fancy premiere, Stoogeless and alone.
On the day Scott ‘Rock Action’ Asheton died in 2014, I walked along a dark rainy street listening to Iggy’s song Dum Dum Boys, and I thought about how it must have felt to be washed up and written off at 28, back home in Detroit driving a cab, and then hearing your friend, the guy who led your group, has a record out and there’s a song on it about you. So you get it and you listen to it and the spoken word intro dismisses you and your whole life with one throwaway line. “What’s Rock doing?/Oh, he’s living with his mother.”
And Iggy was drinking herbal tea in Berlin with David Bowie.
No wonder it took The Stooges so long to get back together. They finally, belatedly reformed in 2003 but I am painfully aware that by now I am very, very deep into this overlong review and I still haven’t addressed the subject at hand, the documentary Gimme Danger written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, so instead of trying to describe what it was like to see the reformed Stooges, I will simply refer you to these two photographs of me, one taken immediately before and one immediately after the 2004 show where they played their second record, Funhouse, in its entirety.
Once you’ve recovered from the above, let’s briskly move on to a discussion of the documentary Gimme Danger, written (it says here) and directed by Jim Jarmusch. I suppose he did write the explanatory intertitles. Anyway, the film is a brisk trot through the career of Our Heroes, driven principally by a couple of lengthy interviews with Iggy (one of which seems to have been conducted in his laundry room), one with Iggy and a taciturn Scott Asheton sitting together, and others including saxophonist Steve Mackay and Ron’s replacement as lead guitarist, James Williamson (by far the healthiest looking of the bunch, though you wouldn’t have bet on that if you’d seen him in 1974). There’s also an archive interview with Ron from an excellent 1987 documentary about Iggy. These are held together in fairly conventional style by a bunch of terrific pieces of live footage, some of which I’ve never seen before, and some witty but kinda dopey animated segments that play more to the Dum Dum Boys scenario than they do to the image of The Stooges as a great force in the history of rock music.
And it all motors along conventionally enough, starting (as seems sensible) with the band’s violent dissolution under a hail of broken glass, and then telling the story from more or less Iggy’s point of view right to the end. Despite making the most bizarre use imaginable of two photos of Brighton’s West Pier, it makes sense, it hangs together, it’s a story many out there have never heard, and it’s great that it now exists for a mass audience to see via the business acumen of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
And yet. One of the most touching scenes in the film is the surviving Stooges at their induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame, and Iggy’s speech (which, charmingly, he seems to have written with a glitter pen) allowing him to gracefully settle old scores with the record industry, saying at one point, “Music is life and life is not a business.” But too much of this film is the business. Not just the shabby deals The Stooges got from Elektra and Mainman, but the business of being Iggy, the great survivor.
Among the incidents skated over here is 1972, when Iggy was offered a recording deal in London by Bowie, and brought the brothers with him, but demoting Ron to the bass role in his own band – he’d been replaced on lead guitar by James Williamson (whose musical style Iggy brilliantly likens here to “a drug sniffer dog running into your house, finding every place, putting himself in every nook and cranny til there’s nowhere left”). That must’ve stung, but here it’s passed over in silence.
The record that resulted, Raw Power, was ‘executive produced’ by Bowie and it’s beautifully monstrous, but it was made under awful circumstances by a band desperately unhappy with their situation, sliding back into drug addiction and far from home. It was the last studio work the band were to do until 2007, when they returned to the studio and created an awful record called The Weirdness, whose low quality Iggy later blamed on the Asheton brothers’ intransigence.
Again, none of this makes it into the film, which understandably prefers to go out on a legendary high rather than try to investigate the dynamics of how these same men could make both the best and the worst music heard by humankind.***
So, yeah, Gimme Danger never really puts its subject, Iggy, under any real emotional scrutiny, and that’s understandable. Like the Big Star documentary that came out a few years ago, its main function is to grab people and say, listen to this! What about these guys? Aren’t they unbelievable? And that’s fine, in fact that’s great, if this film introduces a new generation to The Stooges the way Nothing Can Hurt Me allowed Big Star a posthumous shot at fame, what could be wrong with that?
But the troubling thing for me is the lack of what Iggy, in a brief interview excerpt here, calls the Dionysian influence. This is a sunny, straightforward tale of a story you’ve pretty much heard already – pretty faces, all going to hell. But the meat of what The Stooges meant to people is in the records and in the live experience.
If Jarmusch had brought some of the stillness and patience that are the trademarks of his drama work to this documentary, if there were moments when we could just sit there and wallow in the sonic overkill of Loose, or LA Blues, or Dirt, the film might have found a way to capture the beast in the music that climbed inside my head, and so many people’s’ heads, when they first heard The Stooges or Funhouse or Raw Power.
They – Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, Dave Alexander, Steve Mackay, James Osterberg – just wanted to be rock guys. And in the end that’s what they became. Inflamed pancreas rock guys, dying young rock guys, no health insurance rock guys, world changing rock guys, Hollywood Hall Of Fame rock guys, rock guys who will be revered by some of us til the day when we ourselves die of some mundane, non-rock-related illness and pass unremembered into that vast empty forever place where nobody cares about peanut butter or dog food or heroin or guitarists or wax museums.
Gimme Danger is released in the UK on Friday 18 November.
*If you suffer a severe allergy to rock, you may find your way into the beauty of this song via Neneh Cherry’s sublime cover version.
**Some will say that I’ve forgotten the guitar player from their later incarnation, the mercurial James Williamson, who is thankfully still around, and the bass player in their final incarnation, the superb Mike Watt. But I am a purist and this is my article and I can define Stoogehood however I like within its bounds. And for me, only those who contributed to the first two Stooges records can really be called Stooges. Claro?
***There is one other final Stooges recording that, to me, is a fitting addition to their earlier work, but it’s so horrendously problematic that I find it troubling and almost impossible to frame for an audience in a way that will prepare them for its content. It’s on the compilation album Sunday Nights: The Songs Of Junior Kimbrough and it’s a cover of bluesman Kimbrough’s song You Better Run. As produced by Bruce Watson of the great Fat Possum Records, the music they played here shows what might have been possible for the reformed band if they’d chosen a different tack.