By John Duncan Talbird.
Soupy Sales, on his legendary children’s show in the 1950s, encouraged his audience to write letters to him, but in twenty-five words or less. One member of the television viewing audience, James Osterberg, Jr., was a devoted fan and he saw that word count as liberating not a limitation, so when he became Iggy Pop in the late sixties, he took that lesson to heart and always tried to keep his lyrics equally succinct. This is one of the many revelations that comes out in Jim Jarmusch’s new documentary, Gimme Danger, about the iconic rock band that Pop fronted, the Stooges, from 1968 to 1974 – their heyday, though they labored in obscurity to all except the few enlightened. They’ve occasionally reformed in various configurations to play reunion gigs as recently as just a few years ago.
These may not be revelations for the diehard fan. I only ever had one Stooges album though I saw Iggy Pop live solo in the 1980s opening (?!) for the Pretenders and have always considered myself an appreciator of his music. Although not a superfan, I can’t vouch for the obscurity of the other revelations in the film. For instance, Iggy was a drummer in doo-wop and blues bands before he became a singer. Even early in his music career, he recognized the importance of the performance and once created a “monster” drum riser that positioned him ten feet above his bandmates. Iggy talks about his experience playing blues in an otherwise all-black band in an all-black nightclub and says that what he loved about that milieu and that music was that “here, in adulthood, were people who had not lost their childhood.” You can see that in the writhing performances of the still-performing sixty-nine-year-old rock star. Despite the wrinkles webbing his always-bared torso, he has the pleasure of the small boy playing, the kid who doesn’t care about “being cool” and, as a result, is much cooler than any of his classmates.
Perhaps that’s the thesis of this film: That being cool is more important, much more than making money, that coolness in its ineffable state – being, not fashion; attitude, not accomplishments; authenticity, not who you know – is more important than anything as tenuous as “success,” whatever that is. At the Stooges’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, excerpted in the film, he said, “Music is life and life is not a business. Ron Ashton [co-songwriter and guitarist for the Stooges] knew this and Ron was cool.” He goes on to list all the other cool people: his wife, the poor people who actually started rock and roll, and the two or three Stooge fans who could afford the pricey tickets to the induction ceremony.
It’s probably appropriate that Iggy’s friend and sometimes-collaborator Jarmusch directed this film. If anything, Jarmusch has been a spokesman of cool in its cinematic manifestation since the tail end of punk rock in 1980 with his debut, Permanent Vacation. Many of his best films are profiles of cool: Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Night on Earth (1991), Ghost Dog (1999), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). He even managed to make a western, that genre of staid conformity and rigid genre boundaries, exploring coolness with one of the coolest of contemporary actors, Johnny Depp (at least then, in the 1990s) in Dead Man (1995). Iggy Pop appears in a brief scene in that film, in drag to boot.
Jarmusch has done a good job of presenting an unpretentious and honest portrait of Iggy and the Stooges. He interviews all the living Stooges, including Iggy, guitarist James Williamson, drummer Scott Asheton, and sax player Steve Mackey, the last two who both died before the film’s release. Iggy is interviewed for much of the film in a laundry room, Williamson interviewed with his guitar and amp in what looks like a bathroom. There’s much playfulness in the film as we cut away to classic and kitschy film fragments, animated reenactments, and interviews – on The Dinah Shore Show in 1977 Iggy claimed his biggest accomplishment was that he “killed the ‘60s.” But the main reason to watch this film is the live performances which Gimme Danger bountifully offers, especially the early shows. In addition, Jarmusch lets Iggy talk about the music and the performances and he discusses it with incisive specificity, describing, for instance, Jim Morrison’s influence or his years working in a record store and how he was turned on to jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. It’s moments like these which help you to see how much more complex the Stooges were than simply nihilistic partiers performing proto-punk rock. In fact, Iggy has obviously thought a lot about why the band made the choices it did and he’s generous in sharing. Whereas I had always thought that his stage persona was an expression of his awkwardness – an awkward dance for an awkward psyche – Iggy describes a dance more primal like a baboon preparing to fight his competitor or just to take a big shit. He writhes and flings himself into the audience, sometimes covered in blood, and all the while, that roiling, repetitive, noisy music plays, bandmates standing still as statues.
In one of the last scenes, the screen is filled with raining record albums – by the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Damned, the Minutemen, the Dictators, the Buzzcocks, and many more. It’s a reminder than none of this music would sound the same if the Stooges hadn’t existed first. As Danny Fields, the Stooges’ manager, says about the other big punk band he would represent: “Four guys in Queens started a band called the Ramones for the simple reason that at their high school they were the only kids who listened to the Stooges.” Gimme Danger is a fitting tribute to a band who spent their early years living in the dark, then were suddenly thrust into the light and iconic status. Jarmusch’s film finds the middle ground where they actually lived.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.