By Pamela Zoslov
“I don’t wanna belong to the glam people, the hip-hop people, the TV people, the alternative people. I don’t wanna be a punk. I just wanna be.”
That is as close to a manifesto as you will get from Iggy Pop, the incomparable frontman of the proto-punk band The Stooges. The plain-spoken, seldom-shirted Iggy has never had any use for politics, peace-and-love music, or the “political-industrial complex” of the music business. He has followed, since his start as a drummer for high school bands in the mid-60s to today, as a still lithe, energetic 69-year-old, the advice of Paul Butterfield: “Play it like you mean it.”
Iggy, born Jim Osterberg in Muskegon, Michigan, is the central subject of Gimme Danger, an exhilarating documentary by Jim Jarmusch, the famous Akron-born director and music aficionado. Jarmusch allows Iggy to speak at length about his history and the tumultuous ride of the Stooges; the director calls them “the greatest rock and roll band ever.” (The film’s title is a song from the 1973 Stooges album Raw Power.)
That claim is fairly well supported by this fun and exhilarating film, which demonstrates, with archival footage, performances and commentary, that The Stooges were sui generis — authentic, original, primal, brilliant in their simplicity. The film also makes clear that their influence was deep, wide and long. Without The Stooges, there is no Ramones, Dead Boys, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Damned, The Cramps and countless bands channeling the loud, fast and primitive in original ways.
Jarmusch’s film, refreshingly, avoids commentary by rock critics, who back in the day were among The Stooges’ most devoted worshipers. Still, I thought it helpful to summon the spirit of Lester Bangs, a noted champion of The Stooges. Here is what he wrote in 1970:
“The first thing to remember about Stooge music is that it is monotonous and simplistic on purpose, and that within the seemingly circumscribed confines of this fuzz-feeback territory the Stooges work deftly with musical ideas that may not be highly sophisticated (God forbid) but are certainly advanced. The stunningly simple two-chord guitar line mechanically reiterated all through “1969:” [from their John Cale-produced debut album The Stooges], for instance, is nothing by itself, but within the context of the song it takes on a muted but very compelling power as an ominous and yes…”mindless” rhythmic pulsation repeating itself into infinity and providing effective hypnotic counterpoint to the sullen plaint of Iggy’s words (and incidentally, Ig writes some of the best throwaway lines in rock, meaning some of the best lines in rock, which is basically a music meant to be tossed over the shoulder and off the wall: “Now I’m gonna be twenty-two/I say my-my and-a boo hoo” — that’s classic – he couldn’t’ve picked a better line to complete the rhyme if he’d labored into 1970 and threw the I Ching into the bargain – thank God somebody making rock ‘n’ roll records still has the good sense, understood by our zoot-jive forefathers but few bloated current bands, to know when to just throw down a line and let it lie.
Jarmusch opens the Stooges narrative with its lowest point, 1973, when the band was falling apart: rampant drug use, failing to show up for gigs and, as Iggy recounts, “upsetting people wherever we went.” Audience members were throwing projectiles at the stage, prompting Iggy to quip, “Whoever threw the glass bottle that nearly killed me, you missed again. Try again next week.”
BORN IN A TRAILER
Osterberg grew up in a trailer in Ypsilanti, Michigan with parents who encouraged his musical ambitions, giving him the trailer’s master bedroom to give him a place to practice his drums. (He was thrilled when he saw the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz movie The Long, Long Trailer, in which the couple traveled in a trailer just like his one his family had. “I was so lucky to live in close quarters in a simple environment with my parents,” he says. “I got a lot of care. They helped me explore anything I was interested in.”
Like many kids growing up in the ’50s, he loved watching TV: Howdy Doody (“Buffalo Bob was like Timothy Leary for little kids”) and a kids’ show hosted by comedian Soupy Sales called “Lunctime with Soupy.” Soupy encouraged kids to write him letters, specifying “25 words or less.” Something clicked with young Jim; the songs he later wrote kept that credo in mind. Sample lyric: “No Fun/My Babe/No Fun.” The taciturn style is what Bangs called “a simplicty so basic it’s almost pristine.”
After playing drums in high school bands in Ann Arbor and cutting a Bo Diddley cover record with one, The Iguanas, he joined some blues bands, went to college, dropped out after a semester, and decided to “go where real people are doin’ the real deal — Chicago, not like white America.”
He soaked up inspiration playing black blues clubs, listening to Coltrane and Link Wray and the MC5 and the Doors, and formed The Psychedelic Stooges. He realized, he recalls drily, “that I wasn’t black,” and that he was “tired of looking at butts all the time He gave up the drums and became Iggy, the lead singer, fascinating audiences with high-concept performance art, wearing whiteface and a maternity smock and running a vacuum cleaner onstage, reflecting his immersion in minimalist composers like John Cale and Harry Partch.
To power his band, Iggy had enlisted the Asheton brothers, Ron on guitar and Scott on drums, and Dave Alexander on bass. In the unschooled but musically unbridled Ashetons, Iggy says, “I found primitive man.” Iggy channeled James Brown, Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison in creating a wild, antagonistic but mesmerizing stage persona, bare, sinewy torso (inspired by the Pharaohs in movies), stage-diving before that was a thing, and not always into welcoming arms.
Their name became The Stooges – “’cause we didn’t do anything wrong, but everyone’s picking on us.” There’s a funny anecdote about Ron Asheton phoning Moe Howard to ask permission to use the name. “I don’t give a fuck,” Moe reportedly said, in Moe-like fashion, “as long as it’s not The Three Stooges.”
Danny Fields, then doing publicity for Elektra Records, recalls first hearing the Stooges perform in 1968, while scouting the MC5, the famously loud, colorful, political band that was the “big brother” of The Stooges. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing,” Fields wrote in liner notes for the Stooges’ first album. “It changed my life.” After the show, he approached Iggy and told him he wanted to get the band a contract. Iggy dismissed him with a curt “Speak to my manager,” later revealing that he didn’t believe Fields. “Yeah, sure, you’re from Elektra Records,” he had said to himself. “And I’m Mr. Ed.” They were off to New York, where they were produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, wearing a cape, and advised by Nico, the German singer who told them, in her cool, Teutonic way, “you’re so much more talented than Lou [Reed].”
They later relocated to LA, released the 1970 Fun House , played larger and larger festivals. They were, Iggy says, “real communists. We lived in a communal house, we shared all money, and when we began to write songs, we shared all authorship.” They didn’t go in for the “peace and love” bands whose music, Iggy asserts, “still smells.” (I love Graham Nash, but Jarmusch’s use of “Marrakesh Express” here is pretty hilarious.) They avoided movements and declined to go with John Sinclair and the MC5 in protests at the ’68 Democratic Convention. “It was a ‘with us or against us’ moment. It wasn’t who we were.”
FORCES OF ANTI-ART
By 1971, psychedelics and heroin led to the members’ deterioration.“We were victims of our own lack of professionalism and other forces that were anti-art,” Iggy says. Elektra, over Fields’ objections, dropped them. Then it was off to London at the invitation of David Bowie, where things got complicated in the “big bad world.”
There’s a lot more to the Stooges’ story, well told in this film, culminating in a reunion, or “reunification,” in 2003, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Only Iggy and James Williamson, who after the Stooges moved to Silicon Valley and became an engineer and Sony executive, are still alive. (Ron died in 2009, and Scott in 2014. Interviews with both appear in the film).
Williamson said recently, “The Stooges is over. Everybody’s dead except Iggy and I. So it would be sort of ludicrous to try and tour as Iggy And the Stooges when there’s only one Stooge in the band and then you have side guys. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Let’s allow the also sadly dead Lester Bangs the last word about the lasting importance of The Stooges.
[B]eside the mawkish posturings and nickelodeon emotings of three-quarters of the duds foisted on today’s public, the earthy brilliance, power and clarity of Stooge music, though its basic components may resemble those ready-made musical materials lying around in the public domain like Tinkertoys for experimentation by every jerkoff group from Stockholm to San Diego, will nevertheless shine in the dark carnivorous glow of its own genius. Grade: A