From The Stooges to Iggy Pop: 1986 Documentary Charts the Rise of Punk’s Godfather

Now Lit­tle John­ny Jew­el,
Oh, he’s so cool,
He has no deci­sion,
He’s just try­ing to tell a vision

So go the first lines of “Lit­tle John­ny Jew­el,” the first sin­gle from bril­liant New York free-jazz punk band Tele­vi­sion, writ­ten in trib­ute to James Newell Oster­berg, bet­ter known as Iggy Pop. The song’s release in 1975 sad­ly coin­cid­ed with the final breakup of Pop’s ground­break­ing Detroit pro­to-punk garage band The Stooges, after which the self-destruc­tive front­man checked him­self into a men­tal insti­tu­tion to get clean. Maybe it seemed that the vision was spent, and might have been had David Bowie not stepped in, swept Pop away to Berlin, and helped him pro­duce his first solo album, 1977’s The Idiot, quick­ly fol­lowed by the return to raw form, Lust for Life (with its dement­ed cov­er art of a grin­ning Pop, look­ing for all the world like the high school year­book pho­to of a burned-out future ser­i­al killer).

By 1986, Pop had cement­ed his sta­tus as a solo artist, Bowie col­lab­o­ra­tor, and esteemed fore­fa­ther of punk and new wave, releas­ing the Bowie-pro­duced Blah Blah Blah, with its sin­gle “Real Wild Child.” It’s at this point in his career that the Dutch film above, Lust for Life, caught up with him. The doc­u­men­tary opens with a cap­ti­vat­ing live per­for­mance of the title song from an ’86 show in Utrecht. Pop describes his sound as ema­nat­ing from Motor City’s “indus­tri­al hum” and his encounter with Chica­go blues. Lat­er, Stooges gui­tarist Ron Asheton takes us on a tour of a Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan ball­room where Elek­tra records scout, rock jour­nal­ist, and punk impres­sario Dan­ny Fields dis­cov­ered and signed The Stooges in 1968. The late Asheton plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in the film, demon­strat­ing the Stooges gui­tar sound and open­ing up about the band’s rise and demise. From there, we’re trans­port­ed via some vin­tage, grainy footage to a Stooges gig, with a shirt­less Iggy emerg­ing from the crowd after a stage-dive (he gets cred­it for invent­ing the move).

The Stooges mate­r­i­al pro­vides cru­cial con­text for the emer­gence of Iggy Pop from the grit­ty Detroit garage-rock scene (which includ­ed anoth­er sem­i­nal pro­to-punk band, the MC5, with whom the Stooges often played). In one inter­view clip Pop explains in detail how he devel­oped his song­writ­ing with Asheton, draw­ing from John­ny Cash, the Rolling Stones, Vel­vet Under­ground, his own exper­i­ments with poet­ry, and the dull grind of Mid­west­ern life. These ani­mat­ed inter­views are price­less win­dows on the ear­ly influ­ences of the so-called “god­fa­ther of punk,” sit­u­at­ing The Stooges as emerg­ing direct­ly from late-six­ties psy­che­del­ic rock. In some ways, Detroit bands like The Stooges and the MC5 (like Black Sab­bath in England)—with their abra­sive noise-rock cacoph­o­ny, near-met­al crunch, and min­i­mal­ist blues foundations—provide the miss­ing link between six­ties rock and roll and punk. Strip­ping the for­mer of its excess­es and draw­ing on raw blues and coun­try sen­ti­ment and loads of late-20th cen­tu­ry dis­af­fec­tion, they took the nihilism in songs like The Stones’ “Street Fight­ing Man” to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion. That seems, at least, the under­ly­ing premise of the film, and it makes a good case.

While the documentary’s few min­utes of nar­ra­tion are in Dutch, the major­i­ty of Lust for Life is cut togeth­er from Eng­lish-lan­guage inter­views and old per­for­mance footage of Iggy and The Stooges. One rare clip has Pop in a black-and-white TV talk show inter­view com­par­ing John­ny Rot­ten to Sig­mund Freud, then stand­ing and tak­ing a bow to a guf­faw­ing audi­ence. It’s a clas­sic Iggy Pop moment, that allur­ing com­bi­na­tion of eru­di­tion, show­man­ship, unset­tling weird­ness, and sheer tak­ing-the-piss. Under­neath the seem­ing­ly unhinged chaos and mad­ness of Iggy Pop’s stage show has always lay a wicked intel­li­gence, uncom­pro­mis­ing work eth­ic, and pum­mel­ing dri­ve to “tell a vision.”

Near­ly thir­ty years after Tele­vi­sion’s nod to Jim Oster­berg, Hen­ry Rollins—another usu­al­ly-shirt­less, hyper­ki­net­ic punk frontman—vividly described the qual­i­ties above in his spo­ken word trib­ute to Iggy, the sur­vivor who still puts most rock stars to shame (from Rollins’ 2004 DVD Live at Luna Park). Rollins tells a hilar­i­ous sto­ry of how Pop blew his mind (and destroyed the stage) in a 1992 show open­ing for the Beast­ie Boys, which sparked Rollins many attempts to com­pete with his idol. After hear­ing the real thing, tell me what you think of Rollins’ Iggy Pop impres­sion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: How David Bowie Cre­at­ed the Char­ac­ter that Made Him Famous

Christo­pher Walken, Iggy Pop, Deb­bie Har­ry & Oth­er Celebs Read Tales by Edgar Allan Poe

Sid Vicious and Nan­cy Spun­gen Take Phone Calls on New York Cable TV (1978)

The His­to­ry of Punk Rock

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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