TV review The Sunday Herald, December 5 2004
Where, in the shape of Imagine’s programme on Brian Wilson, a highlight of last week’s television was a portrait of a vulnerable 1960s pop star who barely made it through that decade alive, this week’s most unmissable hour is devoted to the artist who killed the 60s off – and who, despite his prolonged attempts at destroying himself with drugs, razors, drugs, angry Hell’s Angels, drugs and chunks of broken glass, you still wouldn’t bet against being sole survivor of any forthcoming apocalypse, left trying to form a garage band with the cockroaches. Ladies and gentlemen: the world’s forgotten boy, Mr Iggy Pop.
A way to measure the success of any mainstream arts documentary might be to gauge how much it frustrates, as well as how much it satisfies. If, as with tonight’s South Bank Show, it strikes a balance between the two, it’s probably getting it about right. The film, which disappointingly elides the quarter century between 1977’s Lust for Life album and Iggy’s decision last year to reform The Stooges – the avant-delinquent proto-punk gang-band he formed in Detroit in 1967, whose thick metal groove was matched in intensity only by their soul-scouringly sullen stares – could easily have stood being twice as long as it is. Part of the reason for this, though, is that everything that is here is of such enormously good value you just wish you could see more of it.
And I mean everything. One of the programme’s great delights is simply seeing the immaculately coiffed Melvyn Bragg sitting opposite Iggy and asking him things like, “Tell me a bit more about how you wrote ‘Search & Destroy,'” or nodding joyfully while Iggy reminisces about old days: “Marijuana came first. Psychedelics would be something you did on a Sunday.”
Iggy’s 57 now, and, beneath a mane of golden hair, the colour and tone of a dirty walnut. He both defiantly looks his age and yet, regularly flashing the beaming smile he seems to have stolen from the young David Cassidy, he still looks exactly the way he’s always looked. Watching him onstage with The Stooges earlier this year, back dancing his unique, fluttering Navajo cat dance in front of Ron and Scott Asheton, the hulking delinquent siblings who form the band’s monolithic heart, was like seeing the cover of their Raw Power album come alive after having been left out in the sun for 30 years.
As the camera cuts back and forth between the differently lined faces of Bragg and Pop, it’s almost like they become strange, road-not-taken mirrors of each other; like watching a more entertaining version of the Cate Blanchett segment in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes, in which she plays twin cousins, one of whom went wild. In a concession to rock’n’roll etiquette, Lord Bragg wears his top button undone. In a concession to British TV, Iggy wears a shirt, but doesn’t bother the buttons.
Their extended interview, conducted as the reunited Stooges toured Europe this summer, is the spine of the show. There’s the chance that there are still those who remain unable to discern the ravenous intelligence behind the possessed theatre of cruelty of Iggy’s performance art and his greatest writing, and who might wonder why Bragg is bothering. As should become clear to any doubters, however, this is not simply another manifestation of the condition John Huston expounded on in Chinatown: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
Whether recalling formative memories of his trailer park childhood (“some people from Tennessee up the row used to asphyxiate chickens on their exhaust pipe for dinner once a week”), describing how he was first seized by the will-to-art (“It began to dawn on me that any serious career was gonna be a continuation of what I was experiencing in highschool: I was gonna sit around in some oppressive room on a beautiful day and listen to someone talk about something sequentially logical that would just degenerate into a buzz in my head, and I thought: I can’t do it); or recalling the overriding sense of purpose that drove him into the 1970s (“I was on a mission, basically, to destroy the world”), Iggy banters with the erudition, descriptive eye and timing of a great raconteur.
Prodded by Bragg beyond usual rock journalism limits, he actually thinks his way through his answers. Their conversation ranges across the development of his music and its particular sense of space: teenage years drumming for the likes of Walter Horton in Chicago blues clubs; the days when The Stooges used to employ a microphone in a blender as support act; the year spent carving out the great novelistic, metronomic, future-moulding slabs of The Idiot and Lust for Life albums in Berlin with David Bowie. It’s candid and insightful, and the enjoyment the visibly hooked Bragg takes from listening to it all is infectious.
Best of all is the programme’s incredible archive. With the exception of Bowie, there have probably been more amazing pictures taken of Iggy than of any other performer of the past 45 years, and most seem to be here: black and white shots of The Stooges in action in 1969, images with a Dark Ages vibe; the famous peanut-butter and walking on hands 1970s concerts; those late-70s shows during which he seemed to have grown a horse’s tail.
One of the best jokes of the 1970s was how, in an effort to kick his own monumental drug habit, Bowie moved to the heroin capital of Europe with Iggy. Actually, though, the real punchline came when the pair returned to the US in 1977 to promote the records they’d made and, clearly gunned to the eyeballs, turned up on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talkshow, to chat about nihilism and perform ‘Sister Midnight’ (about sleeping with your mother) and ‘Funtime’ (about getting stoned and pursuing casual anonymous sex) for the housewives of America.
Thankfully, excerpts of that most surreal meeting of minds feature heavily here, and now look stranger than ever. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Bragg’s show is that Iggy seems far more at home here. I can’t recommend it highly enough.