Callin’ from the Fun House: Jim Jarmusch’s “Gimme Danger”




YOU’VE PROBABLY ALREADY HEARD that Jim Jarmusch’s new documentary about the legendary proto-punk band the Stooges is an unexpectedly conventional affair. [1] Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise: while Jarmusch has a longstanding friendship with Stooges vocalist Iggy Pop (who appeared in Jarmusch’s masterpiece, Dead Man [1995], as well as the throwaway Coffee and Cigarettes [2003]), the filmmaker’s usual deadpan aesthetic is just about the furthest thing from the band’s unhinged and incendiary music. One can imagine that Jarmusch was aware of this mismatch, and rather than impose his standard cinematic approach to the Stooges — or, conversely, attempt the impossible task of mimicking his subject matter’s anarchic energy — he decided to opt for a more traditional, talking head and historical footage-oriented method, letting the band speak for itself.

But it might be the “speaking for itself” part that is the doc’s biggest shortcoming, despite the fact that it is still pretty fun to watch — it’s the Stooges, after all. The film largely confines its commentary to that of band members: Iggy, Ron and Scott Asheton (guitar/bass and drums, respectively), James Williamson (guitar on the group’s third album, Raw Power), Steve Mackay (saxophone on the second album, Fun House), and Mike Watt, who played bass during their reunion tours in the 2000s. (Dave Alexander, bass on the band’s first two albums, died in 1975.) The only non-players we hear from are Danny Fields, the prescient Elektra publicist who initially signed them, and the Ashetons’ sister, Kathy. As a result, the film’s understanding of the band is basically the band’s self-understanding. And the Stooges were never big on discursive complexity.

As Iggy points out early in the film, he did not aspire to Bob Dylan’s lyrical intricacy, but was guided instead by one of his childhood television favorites, the comedian Soupy Sales, who implored his young viewers to write to him in “25 words or less.” Stooges songs rarely approach even this minimal word count. The world-historical greatness of the Stooges lies, though, in what they could not articulate directly in language, in what they instead signified sonically and performatively. Jarmusch’s doc provides a wealth of the raw data (and raw power) of the band’s work — clips from their not-extensive body of concert footage and a soundtrack filled with their songs — but, by restricting itself to the band’s reminiscences of this material, it provides little to no analysis of it. In what follows, then, I want to discuss two different but not entirely unrelated dimensions of the Stooges’s work that the film gestures toward but that it does not unpack: the band’s relation to 1960s radicalism, and their contribution to the queer genealogy of punk.

I. “It’s 1969”: The Stooges and Their Historical Moment

One could say that all you need to know about the politics of the Stooges is right there in the first verse of the first song on their first album. Entitled “1969,” the year in which their self-titled debut album was recorded and released, the song begins:

Well it’s 1969 okay
War across the USA [2]
It’s another year for me and you
Another year with nothin’ to do

If the first couplet names the song’s historical context, the second articulates an inability to establish a relation to it: there’s a war on, but it’s nothing to do with me and you. This apparent non-relation to the era’s social and political antagonisms is usually taken to be a sign of the Stooges’s “nihilism,” as a perhaps-scandalous indifference to these conflicts. Taking its cue from Iggy’s own reflections on this topic, Gimme Danger reinforces this reading of the Stooges as resolutely apolitical. Iggy notes that, living in the Ann Arbor area at the time, he didn’t directly experience any of the 1967 Detroit riots, a five-day uprising against racialized forms of state oppression that ended with more than 40 deaths, 1,100 injuries, and 7,000 arrests. The riots were, in this way, the most proximate instantiation of the war across the USA named in “1969.” Moreover, despite his friendship with and admiration for the MC5, with whom the Stooges played many times and who helped them land their contract with Elektra, Iggy thought that the radical politics embraced by the MC5 and especially their manager, John Sinclair (who founded the White Panther Party, which sought to ally with and emulate the Black Panthers), were “ridiculous.”

But Gimme Danger also presents telling details that work against Iggy’s dismissive claim that “we tried to avoid that.” In the first place, he describes how he tried to relocate the band to Detroit after the riots, so that he and the still-nascent Stooges could squat in one of the burnt-out houses abandoned in the aftermath of the uprising. If “1969” would later claim that they had nothing to do with the war across the USA, it is worth noting that the band contemplated situating itself in the literal ashes of one of that war’s deadliest battles. [3] Iggy also expresses pride in the fact that the band conducted itself, in its living arrangements and in its songwriting, as “real communists” who shared everything equally. Still, when the MC5 asked the Stooges to play with them at the Yippies’ Festival of Life in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Party convention, Iggy realized that his band was being presented with “a ‘with us or against us’ moment.” In the film, Iggy explains that neither answer seemed tenable to him — he did not want to say “yes,” but he also could not imagine saying “no” — so he responded by “somersaulting across the room.”

I submit that Iggy’s non-verbal non-answer to the “which side are you on” question constitutes a perfect metaphor for the Stooges’s music: unable to locate themselves in a coherent position with respect to the period’s antagonisms, the band produces a sound that figures this inability to move definitively in one direction or another. “1969” is a case in point: the song churns through a Bo Diddley–esque grind that keeps turning back on itself, somersaulting over and over again through its minimal chord changes. The song goes nowhere, because it has nowhere to go, even as Ron Asheton’s guitar and Iggy’s vocals escalate in intensity against the song’s non-development. The war across the USA finds its expression in this intensity, even if the lyrics pretend to have nothing to do with it.

Steve Waksman has argued that repetition in the music of the Stooges as well as the MC5 can be tied to Fordism and its discontents: these Detroit bands “reproduced the logic of repetition and standardization that undergirded Fordism” but also “stood as an attempt to turn that logic against itself.” Their music “signified the boredom and sameness of everyday life, but also counteracted this boredom by producing a disorienting noise that brought listeners to an ecstatic pitch.” [4] Waksman’s analysis here is persuasive, but it only tells part of the story behind the Stooges’s use of repetition, which differs from that of the MC5. The MC5’s musical aesthetic is more explicitly tied to African-American musical traditions: their songs drew on blues and soul even as they emphasized loud electric guitars and dissonance. They sought to use these elements to “free” their audiences from the repressions of civilization through the cathartic release achieved by rhythmic frenzy and amplified volume, driving through extended patterns of repetition into explosions of cacophonous noise. In “kicking out the jams,” to borrow their most famous song’s title, the MC5 tried to generate a musical version of the revolutionary break presaged by the Detroit riots.

But Waksman also points out that the MC5’s “longing to participate in the black revolution itself, and to follow an aesthetic and political path that black men had already charted” was heavily invested in a “primitivization of blackness, and of black masculinity in particular.” Sinclair’s “White Panther Statement” praised not just “the actions of the Black Panthers” but also “the black magical music that originally informed our bodies and told us that we could be free.” Referring to a series of black male musicians and activists, Sinclair claimed, “These are men in America. And we’re as crazy as they are, and as pure. We’re bad.” [5] This fantasized relation to an imagined “crazy,” “pure,” “bad” blackness was no doubt one of the reasons that the Black Panthers criticized the White Panthers and the MC5, calling them “psychedelic clowns” who were “making a joke out of the revolution.” [6]

The Stooges not only rejected the MC5’s avowed politics — with its claims to identification with a revolutionary blackness — but also their concomitant musical strategy. This is not to say that the Stooges were free of their own romanticization of a supposed black primitiveness. In Gimme Danger, Iggy recounts going to Chicago for an apprenticeship of sorts in the city’s famous blues scene, and he describes the black musicians there as “people in their adulthood who had not lost their childhood.” Still, Iggy also acknowledges that it was in Chicago that “I realized I was not black,” and that the musical path he would follow would not simply replicate African-American forms (although of course any mode of rock is inevitably structured by these forms).

I bring all this up because I think Iggy’s recognition of a non-identical relation to blackness helps us see how the Stooges differed from the MC5 in their response to the war across the USA. Fantasizing that they could claim the position of revolutionary blackness as their own, the MC5 deployed forms of musical repetition to generate an intensity that eventually breaks through into ecstatic noise — noise that figures the revolutionary break. The Stooges, by contrast, refused this fantasy, and thus used these kinds of repetition to retain the tension that the MC5 tried to release, signalling their inability to claim a musical resolution to the period’s antagonisms. “It’s 1969,” Iggy keeps singing, over and over again, until he’s screaming it, while Asheton’s guitar strafes the soundscape, wailing through its wah-wah pedal. But the song reaches no apex, no culmination, no climax. It just turns over the conjuncture of this historical moment again and again — “it’s 1969 / it’s 1969 / it’s 1969 / it’s 1969” — unable to work through its antagonisms, unable even to establish a satisfying relation to them, but also unable to let go of them and abandon them, either. The music of the Stooges is a sonic document of this impossible yet ineluctable position.

II. “I’m Loose”: The Queerness of the Stooges

Because of its resolute focus on the band members themselves, Gimme Danger gives us little sense of queer lifeworlds in which the Velvet Underground/Stooges/New York Dolls/Ramones genealogy of punk constituted itself. As Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s indispensible oral history Please Kill Me demonstrates, the emergence of punk is the story of sex workers, trans people, and a wide range of other subjects whose sexual orientations and life trajectories refused narratives of heterofuturity. Granted, Jarmusch’s doc is not about this genealogy, just one node in it. Still, even if it never explores this facet of the Stooges’s career, the film provides glimpses of the queer structure of feeling that subtends their music and performances, helping to explain their crucial role in punk’s resistance to normality of all kinds.

On the face of it, the Stooges, with their guitar-driven aggression and the wild, unleashed bombast of their rhythm section, would seem to belong to that category of musical heteromasculinity that has been dubbed “cock rock.” Simon Reynolds, in his review of the 2005 rereleases of the first two Stooges albums, makes just this claim:

The Stooges aren’t just rockist, they’re cockist. Like their obvious forebears, The Stones and The Doors, the Stooges surge and swing with a particular phallic energy […] Side One of Fun House is actually structured to mirror the male sexual trajectory, from the predatorial gaze of “Down on the Street” (Iggy the man-missile cruising for action), through penetration and orgasm (“Loose” and “TV Eye,” the latter climaxing with Iggy’s holler “now ram it”) to the tingling, tristesse-tinged afterglow of “Dirt.”

This reading makes sense only if you ignore all sorts of things about the songs themselves. Yes, “Loose” traffics in pretty direct articulations of penetration: the chorus begins with “I stick it / deep inside.” But the clause that concludes the chorus — “’Cuz I’m loose!” — would suggest that it is the speaker being penetrated (or penetrating himself), not a common trope of cock rock. Similarly, “TV Eye” is better understood not as a song about orgasm as male conquest, but about the pleasure of being beheld by a female desiring gaze. Kathy Asheton explains in Please Kill Me that she and her friends came up with the phrase “Twat Vibe Eye,” which they shortened to “TV Eye,” to describe this desiring gaze; Iggy adopted it from her, using it in the most repeated line from the titular song, “She got a TV Eye on me.” As the sentence structure indicates, the singer here is the object, not subject, of desire.

It is this song that Ewan McGregor performs, during four of the sexiest minutes of late 20th century cinema, in Todd Haynes’s queer counterfactual history of glam rock, 1998’s Velvet Goldmine. Portraying Curt Wild, a fictional mash-up of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, McGregor mimics the former’s performance style closely, embodying the defiant exhibitionism with which Iggy would court the audience’s desire and hostility in equal measure. In this sequence (which Gimme Danger briefly excerpts), Haynes’s restless and avid camerawork tracks and zooms across the visual field in pursuit of its object of desire. But Jarmusch’s doc, limited as it is to archival footage, does not admit this kind of desire, even if the performance scenes that we do get are plenty transfixing anyway. Indeed, the doc remains fairly mum on the specifically erotic and ambi-sexual appeal of the band’s lead vocalist (the other Stooges hardly move on stage). But revealing details are suggested along the way. For example, Iggy explains that once he “started jumping up and down, like baboons do before they are going to fight,” the other band members played more tightly and powerfully; he describes it in a telling phrase: “up went the Ashetons.” He also notes that the band was unable to lay down strong instrumental tracks while recording their debut album until the non-instrument-playing Iggy joined them in the studio to dance to the music. In other words, it is clear how energizing and necessary Iggy’s physical performances were for the other Stooges; these men were as compelled by Iggy’s body as we are.

But perhaps my favorite moment from Gimme Danger that speaks to the Stooges’s non-normative sexuality is that in which Iggy explains how he “invented” stage-diving. He recounts seeing two women (“big ones,” he specifies) lying on their backs near the front of the stage to take in the show. His motivation for jumping toward them, off the stage and into the crowd, is not characterized through the discourse of heterosexual conquest, though. He says that he decided to do something he had seen “little kids do[ing] when they want attention from their parents” — that is, fall to the ground on purpose, in the hopes that they will be caught. The desire behind the vulnerability and masochism of this act might be described in any number of ways, but it sure isn’t that of Led Zeppelin–style cock-rock domination.

Finally, though, it is in the Stooges’s music that we can once again locate their most profound achievement, here on the level of sexuality. I noted earlier what we might call the political unconscious of their use of repetition and noise. I would suggest that the Stooges’s rhythmic simplicity and concomitant intensity, which rarely, if ever, reach the point of cathartic release, also have a sexual dimension. Contra Reynolds, the music does not thrust or penetrate; it throbs. And I don’t mean “pulsate,” which implies metronomic regularity. I mean it throbs, when the heightened blood flow catalyzed by desire presses against one’s flesh until it becomes almost painful. This is what the Stooges feel like. And this is how they offered a sonic resource for the queer lifeworlds that took up their musical and cultural legacy. Because whatever one’s gender position and whatever one’s object(s) of desire, everybody throbs.

¤

I first saw Gimme Danger before Election Day; my second viewing came after. During the first viewing, Iggy’s insouciant account of somersaulting across the room instead of committing to the MC5’s program of “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets” seemed like a not unreasonable response. It was the second, post-election viewing that trained my attention back onto the bristling intensity of the Stooges’s music, an intensity that, I now realized, spoke to the insurrectionary situation addressed, however ridiculously, in John Sinclair’s “White Panther Statement.” But the sense of being unable to articulate a proper relation to one’s historical moment also resonated with me.

So while it would be wrong to claim the Stooges for any kind of politically instrumental purpose — to do so would be to misrecognize what they are about, and what their music does (and doesn’t do) — I keep coming back to the throb of their sound. It contains at once the tensions of a social order at war with itself, and the erotic vitalism that might circulate more freely on the other side of those tensions. It expresses the fight, and what is worth fighting for. This is what makes the Stooges such urgent listening now. Because the kinds of antagonisms that animated the Stooges’s sound have not left us, and the queer forms of life that found nourishment in that sound are facing renewed assaults. It’s 2016, okay. War across the USA. It’s another year for me and you. Another year: What are we going to do?

¤

Derek Nystrom teaches film and cultural studies at McGill University, where he is associate professor of English. He is the author of Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2009).

¤

[1] Thanks to Scott Saul and Rod Waterman for their help tracking down sources for this essay.

[2] This second line is sometimes transcribed—mistakenly, I would argue—as “All across the USA.” While I have been unable to locate an authorial statement by Iggy or the other band members as to the “intended” line, most knowledgeable commentators on the Stooges and their cultural context, from Suicide’s Alan Vega to the critic Simon Reynolds (Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 [London, UK: Faber and Faber, 2006] 459), recount the line as “war across the USA.” As my analysis above indicates, this reading of the line is crucial to understanding the song’s complex negotiation of its historical moment. The line “All across the USA,” on the other hand, would serve as an almost nonsensically empty placeholder, as it is generally the case that a calendar year obtains all across a given nation’s expanse.

[3] Iggy goes on to confess that his inability to renovate one of these abandoned houses scuttled this plan; the band remained in Ann Arbor.

[4] Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999) 216. Iggy also notes in Gimme Danger that the band wanted to recreate, in their music, the “mega-clang” of the auto factories.

[5] Waksman 217-8, 221.

[6] Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (New York: Penguin, 1996) 49; David A. Carson, Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock’n’Roll (Ann Arbor. MI: U of Michigan P, 2005) 182.


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