What struck me the most about this film was its uncompromising point of view about art — shared by Iggy and the director Jarmusch — that despite adversity one should not give in to the temptation to produce lame, commercial schlock. Iggy goes so far as to charge the record industry in the 1960s (and beyond) with “cultural treason,” for refusing to support the flowering of indigenous, local music, and instead seeking to impose a watered-down marketable version of pop. As an example, Iggy disdainfully mentions Crosby, Stills, and Nash doing “Marrakesh Express.” He doesn’t stop there, however, and goes on to point out that while we typically think of the “American Idol” sort of manufactured pop to be a contemporary phenomenon, it has been happening since the beginning of rock’n’roll, with the “replacing” of Elvis with Fabian, and was indeed also quite prevalent throughout the 60s, a decade many think of as a halcyon, creative time in rock music.
In a sense, this is the tension that has always been at the heart of rock: how to stay true to your own unique vision, your own art, in a world or at least an industry that seems only to value shallow hit-makers? The dichotomy can be summed up in the title of Joe Carducci’s 1991 book, Rock and the Pop Narcotic. It’s almost a cliché, the whole “authenticity” thing, and of course even the Stooges took influences from elsewhere — the blues, the Stones, free jazz, Harry Partch. Having ingested them, however, they discarded them once they got going in 1968, choosing instead to beat on 50-gallon oil cans and put microphones into blenders (okay, so they kept the Partch influence, and the free-jazz impulse came back in a big way on Fun House ).
All of this is entirely different from succumbing to record-label pressure to produce bubblegum, as so many do. Even by the late-1972 recording of Raw Power, although as James Williamson claims the band was actively trying to have a hit record, they were only capable of making the music “that [they] liked.” Iggy’s (and implicitly Jarmusch’s) argument thus still resonates — it is the artist who has the courage to suffer through the bottles being thrown at his head (as documented on the Metallic K.O. live album), or to find himself working a series of crappy jobs after the band has fallen apart (as Scott Asheton discusses in this film), who might nonetheless point the way forward and finally be recognized as having done the valuable work for all of our sakes. As a film, Gimme Danger revivifies the authenticity narrative, at least as it relates to rock, and posits the Stooges as one of the few bands of their period, like the Velvet Underground and the MC5, who refused to give in to the corporate machine, even to their own detriment. The results were not pretty.
Along the way of this nearly two-hour production, Iggy gets in a few responses to his critics, one of them being Johnny Ramone, who once reproached the Stooges for not wanting to please a crowd by playing the recognizable tunes from their previous album. As much as I love the Ramones, I’ve always loved the Stooges more, partly because of their desire to be continually challenging, and not to be crowd-pleasers, to try to bring their audience along with them into new realms of sound (and implicitly into new realms of thought), to evolve, to throw away the old stuff and write all new material about once a year. Think about it — in the course of their initial existence (1968-74), they changed at the speed of sound. They went from being an experimental noise band in ’68, to doing the garage-y material on their first album in ’69 (which would essentially become the template for the Ramones), to taking a quantum leap in 1970 for Fun House, to writing the dual-guitar, ur-punk-metal material of 1971 (which is glossed over in this film), to the “I Got a Right”/“I’m Sick of You”-type stuff of early 1972 (Williamson’s first recordings as sole guitarist), to the Raw Power material of ’72-73, to their further, final development of late-’73-74 (perhaps, you could say, their “baroque” period). That is a lot of evolving in such a short period of time, something worthy of Pablo Picasso or Miles Davis.
Yet, the Stooges were commercial failures. One thing I like about this film, though, is that it makes the assertion that it didn’t have to be this way. Jarmusch, through interviews with Danny Fields and Iggy himself, suggests that deliberate neglect by the record label (Elektra first, later Tony DeFries’ management and Columbia Records) was just as much if not more to blame than the Stooges’ supposed inability to appeal to the masses. The band was drawing large crowds in its Elektra years and with a little boost from the company might have sold a lot more, thus helping the label to help itself. The ultimate insult came in 1971, when Fields brought the label execs to hear the Stooges’ new material. The response was, “I didn’t hear a thing.” “That says it all,” Fields emphasizes, “I didn’t hear a thing.” You’ve got Miles playing in front of you, say, and you don’t “hear a thing”; or you’ve got a Picasso painting on the wall in front of you, and you don’t “see” a thing. As Iggy charges, cultural treason. And so the Stooges’ 1971 set (of quite amazing material, for those who know it) was never properly recorded and exists only as a latterly released box-set of muddy cassette concert tapes. Better than nothing.
There are a few flaws with this film. Too often, Jarmusch plays a song and it doesn’t match the photo in terms of the time period. Only a true fan would notice, I suppose, but why not try to be historically accurate in every instance? As I previously mentioned, the 1971 era is glossed over, though band members Jimmy Recca, Zeke Zettner, and Bill Cheatham (the latter two from the late-1970 period) at least get a mention. Iggy describes Ron Asheton as having “joined” The New Order after the Stooges broke up (instead of starting that band), but that could’ve been merely a slip in phrasing. And, while the Ashetons’ sister Kathy is a welcome — even key — presence, finally coming to the fore in the telling of this story (she did also appear in the Legs McNeil/Gillian McCain-authored Please Kill Me book), it might have been worth it to round out the documentary with some further voices. For that matter, I’d have liked to see even more of Ron, who did numerous on-camera interviews in his lifetime and is ultimately the soul of the Stooges.
Nonetheless, some of the archival footage that Jarmusch has accessed is invaluable — a show from 1970 in vivid, clear color, that I had never seen before, and a couple of clips from 1973 or so (including some very cool black-and-white film of James Williamson). There’s a clip of Steve Mackay playing with Carnal Kitchen (I think). The Stooges footage that was previously available has been cleaned up and looks great on the big screen, finally bringing to life a sense of the band’s live performances that so many (including myself, being too young) missed. Iggy’s feral movement and physicality is on display here in un-ignorable fashion. And while it may be a truism, it’s true — he invented the stage dive, and in the era of the big-time rock star, he was in among the crowd at almost every show. Not only that, but, as Iggy argues, the band lived a truly communist existence, sharing everything, practicing the kind of life that the MC5 in their own late-60s radical period espoused, but without the need for any set ideology, doing it all intuitively for the sake of their art, which was in itself revolutionary. Which in itself urges against easy formulas. Which in itself strikes against the forces of cultural conservatism and small-mindedness. Which in itself still points the way toward a mode of being that is needed now more than ever.