Tuesday, November 8, 2016
It was back in the 1980s when I attended an Iggy Pop concert at the Orpheum theater in Boston. The sound mix was terrible - he sounded like he was singing from under a blanket - but I still have vivid memories of the night. Most have to do with him jumping around like an orangutan; at one point he used his microphone stand as a battering ram on some kids who were too close to the stage.
Iggy was still a young man at the time, but he didn't resemble any rock stars I'd seen. He looked like a fisherman who'd spent a long day hurling nets into the sea, perspiring and broken and gnarled. His band was unmemorable, faceless journeymen hired to provide background noise. It was hard to figure out what songs they were playing; I remember 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' was a highlight, and 'Lust For Life'. Near the end of the show Iggy unbuttoned his pants and threatened to expose his fabled hog. That brought the house down.
I'd brought a friend of mine who knew nothing of Iggy Pop. I'd said, "You'll love him. He's just like Ted Nugent." I don't know if my friend had a good time or not. But by the end of the show I'd made up my mind about Iggy. He was not a towering talent. He had a unique presence, but he was less a great artist than a sideshow attraction. He's always reminded me of some second-rate contortionist who had pushed aside the rat-eating geeks and fire eaters to become the main star on the midway.
Iggy rarely entered my mind after that, though his popularity climbed. (The IMDB lists more than 200 soundtracks that feature Iggy's music, which is rather astounding.)
When I listened to him at all, it was usually the first Stooges album, which to me was a beautiful mix of early Rolling Stones, late 1960s guitar fuzz, and something like Neanderthals pining from inside the cave. It saddened me to hear that Ron Asheton, and then his brother Scott - the Stooges' guitarist and drummer - had died. They'd been the pillars of an interesting sound. They didn't get enough credit.
And that's how I felt this weekend when I traveled several miles out of my way to see Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch's respectful, if strangely reserved, tribute to The Stooges.
There was the Iggy Pop of today, looking leathery but healthy, telling the story of his early years; his eyes are still frighteningly blue and mesmerizing, his teeth look suspiciously large and too white. He's no longer the Alfred E. Neuman of rock 'n roll; he's stately now, like an old gigolo who fell into some money. But it's still a shock
when he talks and that farmer's voice comes out.
The story of the Stooges is not a particularly fascinating one, and only proves that all bands have more or less the same origin: A few guys meet; they share an interest in music; they let it rip. Then they're taken down by drugs, or clashing egos. For The Stooges, it was the former. "We all started to look dirtier and thinner," says Iggy about the heroin days. He ended up living with his parents, while they supplied him with methadone.
Jarmusch is an avowed fan of Iggy's, and put him in one of his previous movies, Coffee and Cigarettes. Nobly, he felt The Stooges deserved some attention and spent years putting this documentary together. Fortunately, there was enough footage of Ron and Scott Asheton that their deaths didn't hamper production. James Williamson, who joined a later incarnation of the band, is still alive, having traded the rock lifestyle for a CEO gig in Silicon Valley.
Jarmusch also interviews Mike Watt, the great Minutemen bassist who once used Stooge music as a way to regain his bass chops after a serious illness had nearly destroyed his ability to play. He'd later be part of a Stooge reunion in the 2000s. And Danny Fields, the Stooges' manager, is interviewed here like an old sugar daddy.
The movie is watchable, and at times entertaining, but Jarmusch reveals little that is new or thought-provoking. Mostly, it's just the usual Stooges' story, which we've seen elsewhere, including a surprisingly good episode of VH1 Behind The Music. He doesn't dig up much dirt, and keeps the more sordid stuff vague. There are references to the fellows behaving badly, and Iggy admits to being a heroin user, but it's as if Jarmusch is too polite, or too reverent, to go all the way down the rabbit hole. Perhaps Jarmusch felt too much detail would distract from the mission at hand, namely, to pay respect to the Stooges.
There is a lot of music here, but it doesn't pound our heads in as I'd hoped it might. Much of it sounds tired, and watching old footage of Iggy prowling around a stage like a spider-monkey loses its charm after a while. Much better is the bit where Iggy talks about growing up in a trailer, and being picked on by local hoods. Iggy is near 70, and to call him a survivor is an understatement. But I think he's survived more than drugs and a heartless music industry. He's endured some sort of sadness and anger, feelings that show up in that scene where he talks about the hoods; Jarmusch only turns away from it, too polite to linger on the more painful memories of this aging rocker.