When it came to The Stooges, you had to have been there – but it was probably better if you weren't. In the strangest era, they were the wildest bunch, led by Iggy Pop, a high-powered mutant (to appropriate a Hunter S. Thompson line about somebody else), too weird to live and too rare to die.
The Stooges did die, actually, in 1974. It was a "sputtering demise," according to Iggy, the central historian of the band's fall and rise in Jim Jarmusch's lively new documentary Gimme Danger. The film's prologue briefly covers the last drugged-out days – ugly concerts marked by bottle hurling and Iggy's outlandish behaviour. Gimme danger? The Stooges took it by the syringe-full and gave it back fierce and outside the lines, in the form of feral psychedelic rock, far-out proto-punk and self-destructive conduct. It was a wonder they got out alive.
Of course, James (Iggy) Osterberg is nothing if not a survivor. In fact, of the original group of Michiganites who called themselves the Psychedelic Stooges in 1967, the one-time irrepressible Iggy is the only one still above ground.
Mind you, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Iggy, 69, was less than spry when he appeared with director Jarmusch at an afternoon news conference. Limping heavily due to scoliosis, cartilage loss and bones battered by years of onstage shenanigans, the Raw Power rocker nevertheless was in high spirits, flashing the best smile modern dentistry can provide as he took questions on his early influences (from Clarabell the Clown to John Coltrane), on whose idea the film was (It was Iggy who approached superfan Jarmusch) and on Bo Diddley (who called Iggy "Ziggy").
Because the man is hard of hearing, questions from the small assembly of media were repeated to the long-haired Lust for Life singer. Not wanting that echo, I shouted my own question, about the Stooges' triumphant reunions in the 2000s, and how important it was to the band to finally receive the real-time adulation and critical recognition it had failed to achieve in its howling first go-around.jarms
Iggy replied quickly – "It was huge" – before pausing, sentiment getting the better of him.
"For some reason," he continued, his eyes welling up and his voice shaky, "it still dredges up certain emotions that had to do with the, I would say, the unprecedented aggressive rejection of the group in its early stages."
He went on to speak of the band's "allies," who were the stoned youth and the intellectuals, and "not very many people in the middle." He also mentioned the MC5, the politically conscious Detroit-based rockers who championed the apolitical Stooges.
If some did not appreciate the Stooges' early avant-garde adventures – oil drums, vacuum cleaners and general sonic overkill – or its regressive three-chord tendencies, Jarmusch adored them.
Before the news conference – nobody follows Iggy – the 63-year-old filmmaker spoke to The Globe and Mail, covering the Stooges, the film and his formative tastes in rock music.
As a native of Akron, Ohio, Jarmusch was drawn to the MC5. "That Detroit thing, that hard rock with politics mixed in, was very, very important to me when I was young," the adroit filmmaker says, sipping green tea in a downtown hotel suite. "And the Stooges, of course."
Jarmusch dug the Velvet Underground and he was cool with the Buffalo Springfield, but his soul was connected to the Midwestern hard stuff. "It's why I think the Stooges may be the greatest rock 'n' roll band," he says calmly. "For me, you know?"
A musician and composer himself, the white-haired indie-film icon has exploited his eclectic musical tastes often. Both Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer, for example, showed up as characters in 1989's Mystery Train.
In 1995, Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, used an improvised guitar-noise soundtrack from Neil Young, the subject of Jarmusch's 1997 documentary Year of the Horse.
And Iggy has popped up in more than one Jarmusch film, including (by way of a brief, sly mention) this year's meditative Paterson, a hit at both TIFF and Cannes, starring Adam Driver as a bus-driving New Jersey poet. (The film is set for Canadian release early next year.)
Seven or eight years ago, when Iggy asked him to make the Stooges doc, Jarmusch immediately began work and spent $40,000 of his own money on it before his financial senses – "I gotta stop this" – took hold. Eventually funding was secured; Gimme Danger, named after a classic Stooges song, was finally completed.
As indicated by its original working title (Long Live the Stooges), the documentary is a "fan film," according to the man who made it. "It's an open love letter to the Stooges," Jarmusch says. "Admittedly, it's not an innovative piece of cinema, nor was it meant to be."
Gimme Danger uses an upbeat art-house style and interviews with the Stooges and Kathy Asheton, a Stooges' archivist and sister to late band members Scott Asheton and Ron Asheton. The main voice, however, is the charismatic, elucidative one belonging to Iggy, a working-man's raconteur.
"Music is life and life isn't a business," Iggy said at the Stooges' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2010, crystallizing the band's anti-corporate philosophy. He refers to the music industry's commercializing of hippie-dippie youth culture as "cultural treason," and he believes he assisted in ending an exploited era: "I think I helped wipe out the sixties."
Asked if he'd given Iggy any direction, Jarmusch shakes his head. "I just wanted him to be himself. I mean, what an amazing creature he is, and look at what he did and what he's given us."
He, and the underdog Stooges, gave us thrills and hope (and probably a little communicable disease). As the film shows, they took the risks and paid the costs. "Now, if you will be my lover, I will shiver and sing," Iggy offered on the song Gimme Danger. "If you can't be my master, I will do anything."
Some took the deal.