When the Stooges split up in 1974, they had every reason to think they'd be completely forgotten by history. Their debut LP peaked at Number 106 in 1969 – and that was their best seller. They spent their final shows dodging beer bottles hurtled by angry bikers that had little interest in seeing a wild, shirtless singer named Iggy Pop screaming out songs like "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" and "Open Up and Bleed." Soon after splitting, guitarist Ron Asheton and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, moved back in with their parents. Iggy checked himself into an insane asylum. To many, they were nothing but three failed records, stacks of photographs, some of the worst-sounding bootlegs in rock history, tiny bits of live film footage and a lot of crazy memories.
With each passing year after their breakup, however, the reputation of the Stooges slowly increased. When they finally reunited in 2003, they were able to headline massive festivals all over the world and pull in millions of dollars, all to play music that was completely ignored when it came out. So in 2008, when the Stooges were still going strong, Iggy approached filmmaker Jim Jarmusch about creating a Stooges documentary. Neither of them had any idea the project would end up taking seven years to complete and that, one-by-one, nearly all of the living members of the band besides Iggy would die while it was still in production. The end result is the highly moving documentary Gimme Danger, which opens up October 28th and tells the story of the band through archival video, unseen photographs and new animated sequences that fill in the gaps.
On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Iggy headed down to South America for a tour, we sat down with Jarmusch and the Stooges frontman in a midtown New York hotel suite to hear how the movie came together, what Iggy plans on doing next and whether the Stooges will ever rise again.
Jim, what's your first memory of hearing the Stooges
Jim Jarmusch: I think I first heard the first album when I was about 16. I'm from Northeast Ohio, a suburb of Akron, and there was a kid in my class whose older brother had a secret stash of stuff under his bed. I had [John] Coltrane, the Mothers of Invention and some books like Naked Lunch and Candy. He also had the first Stooges record. It was our secret trove of stuff.
What was it about the music that captured your attention?
Jarmusch: The primal thing of it – we were, of course, hearing British stuff like Cream and Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane from the West Coast, but this was something closer to us. Not quite postindustrial, but from the Midwest.
Iggy Pop: It must have sounded like a tire factory.
Jarmusch: Yeah. It wasn't like most of our high school class even knew who the Stooges were. But it was very moving.
What sparked the idea for this documentary?
Pop: I asked him. I think it had gotten to a point where I just felt the group needed and deserved to be the subject of a film by somebody who actually made films. I thought, "I know somebody. I'm gonna give it a pitch." I guess I didn't pitch him; I just said, "Would you make a movie about the Stooges?" He thought about it for a couple of minutes.
Jarmusch: Ten minutes. The next day I was figuring out how to approach it, because I love the Stooges.
How did you get the ball rolling?
Jarmusch: Well, I started writing down a chronology of the Stooges. Then I started re-reading things I had read, like Paul Trynka's book [Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed] and [Iggy's] I Want More. There were some incredible quotes in there.Then I thought, "OK, the best way is to interrogate Jim Osterberg and have his oral history be our kind of structure."
Pop: Ten hours in one day. Then he came back the next day and mopped up what was left.
Jarmusch: That was maybe five years ago. See, the problem is I started making the film with no financing, so I spent my own money. Then my colleague Carter Logan said, "Jim, what you've spent is up to almost 40 grand. You're running out of money. What do you want to do?" I said, "Oh shit. Well, let's try …"
Pop: Try to get some money!
Jarmusch: We made Only Lovers Left Alive, so we had to stop for a while. Then we came back and got these Independent guys in England to start looking for money, and found Mister [Fernando] Sulichin, our investor. I made another film, Paterson, but we were pretty working hard on Gimme Danger. It took almost a year and a half just to get clearances for all the stuff in it.
There just isn't a lot of footage of them from back in the day.
Jarmusch: There's not. And most of the great stuff that exists, Stooges fans have seen, of course. So we hunted and hunted. We found some great stuff that no one's seen, photographs nobody has seen.
Back then, you weren't thinking much about anybody filming your shows, right?
Pop: No, of course not. But someone else was: Leni Sinclair, who was married to [MC5 manager] John Sinclair. She was filming all these MC5 concerts and she started thinking, "Hmmmm, these are interesting boys. I will film them."
We were very non-tech. We wrote and rehearsed without a recording process of any kind. In other words, if Ron wanted to write a riff, he had to play it over and over for five hours and hope he'd remember it the next morning. I'd be listening and I'd say, "Oh, I better remember that one." And then, if I was gonna make a song out of it, I'd do it over and over again until I remembered it. We only recorded when we went to the big city.
I've heard so many Stooges bootlegs, and nearly all of them sound just horrible.
Pop: Yeah, I know.
Jarmusch: Stooges fans didn't have very expensive equipment.
Pop: And also, Stooges fans were probably in a certain way like the Stooges. "So … I got a cassette machine …"
Jarmusch: "Which button do I press?"
Pop: We didn't get the kind of people who come in with a stereo setup and a blanket over it.
It's amazing any exist at all. You weren't playing very big places.
Pop: We'd play tiny places or theaters, but they'd rarely be respectfully full. Usually, there would be like a third of the house there. And then you'd hear this recording and it would just sound cavernous. There was this one boy, I think his name was Michael Tipton. He was an early predecessor of today's lost American, from the Midwest, drug and social problems – but not aggressive or strange in any outward behavior, just a passive guy. And he loved the Stooges. He's the original source of a lot of our worst [bootlegs]; people strong-armed the tapes out of him.
Jarmusch: You told us recently that Stooges fans were, on one side, burn-out stoners, and on the other side, intellectuals. But nothing in between.
How did you figure out the structure of the movie?
Jarmusch: Early on, I knew that we only wanted to interview the inside family. It was hard for me because I kind of wanted to interview [David] Bowie and John Cale. But I wanted only the Ashetons, Mike Watt, James [Williamson] and Danny [Fields.] Then I realized I wanted to start in 1973 after they made three of the best rock records that ever existed, and here are the Stooges going home to their moms. Scott said, "Yeah, I was sleeping on a floor. I sold my drum kit and I got a bus ticket back to Ann Arbor." I thought, "I gotta start with that because its heartbreaking." And then we sort of rebuilt how it all came about, what were the inspirations, where did this come from? Really, it grew from [Iggy] finding them.
That footage of you and Scott Asheton being interviewed together was clearly shot near the end of his life.
Pop: That's right. I had to make him an offer he couldn't refuse to be in the movie.
Did he not want to do it?
Pop: No, it's not that Scott doesn't want to do it. He doesn't get around to it. You can't get Scott on the phone for a month.
Jarmusch: We were in Ann Arbor for Ron's memorial [in 2011] and we really wanted to talk to Scott, but all we'd see is the back of his truck and then: Oh shit! He's driving away.
Pop: We filmed that in May of 2013. He came down to Miami and basically, we went into a studio to jam for a few days. I have the tapes. I played guitar and he played drums. He advised me as I tried to put some vocals on some really nice guitar jamming material of him and Ron. We did that, and on the extra day I said to him, "Come be in the film!" He was happy to be in the movie. But it just takes a while with him.
It must be emotional for you to watch the movie since so many of your friends in it aren't with us anymore.
Pop: It was. I've only seen it twice. Right now, I'm still on tour and going to South America in three days. So once I'm done, I'm going to sit through it in Detroit with the audience. When I watched it the first time, I was like, "Oh no! We're at our mom's house! This is gonna be terrible!" [Laughs] Then I realized the genius of that. I always wanted it to be where everybody tells the story their way. He tells it his way. I tell it my way. Kathy [Asheton] has her own take. Then, as the thing went on, it starts to gain power and humor. I loved the use of the other visuals to tell the story, like the stick figures with the Caravaggio heads. All the shots of Marlon Brando, Elvis and Lucille Ball.
How do you feel being the last surviving member of the original lineup?
Pop: Well, I would like to make it to 80. [Laughs] That's probably stronger than the romantic or sentimental part. But I'll tell you the truth. There's this song "Delia" that goes, "All the friends I ever had are gone." It started in 2005 with my longtime manager Art Collins. In 2007, it was my father; in 2009 it was Ron. There's been [Stooges saxophonist] Steve [Mackay in 2015.] There was Scott [in 2014.] My business manager of 30 years died a few months before Scott. Then there was David Bowie, who I shared some close time with during a three-year period.
After a while, there are some effects. I haven't figured out what they are yet, but they're ping-ponging around. There are certain things, goddammit, that I want to do before I conk out. If I'm gonna stay around longer, what am I gonna do to make my time worthwhile?
I had dreams about Ron after he passed away. In the dream, he never moved or would say anything to me. He would just be there, sort of like Fernando Rey in The French Connection. That figure you can't quite … And with Scott it was more upsetting because he was a real charmer. He could charm the skin off a snake while he was hitting it up for a $50 loan [laughs] that he was never going to pay! That's the kind of guy Scott was. He was one of these people you just throw your hands up like you gotta love him!
Is the band done? You and James Wiliamson aren't going to play any more shows as the Stooges?
Pop: I don't think either one of us wants to do that. We did that with Mike [Watt] and my longtime drummer Larry Mullins, on and off, for almost three years. One of the reasons we did that was Scott was still a full-on partner, so he got a great deal of support even though he wasn't out there doing the work. So I kinda feel like everything comes full circle in life, even though that's a cliche. I thought, "You know what? It's not a circle. It's a spiral and it either spirals up or it spirals down in life. So I thought, "OK, here we go again. Everything is still the same. You still have to threaten Scott to get him on the phone." [Laughs] But it spiraled up. This time everybody had a home. Everybody realized there were people that liked their music. Everybody was able to enjoy the hard work that we did.
I feel like the thing has been done and done right. It's not like we're two old bums who are like, "Ok, well, I guess to get lunch money we'll shake hands." Nah. I think it's better for the group to have ways that people can hear our recordings. There are several good concert films of Mark 1 and Mark 2. And now there's a film. I think that's the best thing for that group right now.
You're still playing a lot of the songs in your solo show.
Pop: I play about a quarter of the show from the Stooges before I wrote them to play. I had a big part in the co-writing and it's a part of my life.
Are you gonna keep touring in the coming years?
Pop: I don't want to. [Laughs] Give me a break!
So why are you doing it now?
Pop: I did double duty this year because I did my own tour with Josh [Homme] and Dean [Fertita] and Matt [Helders], and then my own little thing with what I call the Kevin's. They're a great little band. I'm not the kind of person that likes to be dependent, so I didn't want to suddenly become dependent on Josh and the boys. So I've done a lot of work this year with both bands. I'm gonna finish up in South America. After that I said to my manager, "What we wanna do is just wheel me out for special events." There's something I can't tell you about it, but it's a punk gig that I've wanted to do for years and I couldn't fit it in, but now I can. I'll probably do that one next year and maybe somebody wants us to play a film festival or something. Assuming I get through this year, it'll be 51 gigs. I don't want to do anything like that next year.
The film really puts the group in the context of their times.
Jarmusch: They really don't diminish over time. The context is fascinating, but somehow they're not just of the context. I've been thinking a lot because I love the MC5 and they were truly revolutionary, but in some way the Stooges are even more revolutionary by not being didactic about politics. That's really interesting in the long run. They're timeless.