Tag Archive: Velvet Goldmine


Danger

Brian and Curt

David Bowie granted Iggy Pop (born James Newell Osterberg, Jr.) a second chance. He was simply enamored with Iggy’s style, energy and reckless flailing about. The movie Velvet Goldmine plays it as a jealousy; Brian Slade has a desire to possess Curt Wild’s uncontrolled flair for the animalistic, probably because his own style is so opposite. Slade is cold, nihilistic and near-sociopathic, things which are much harder to come by genuinely, but the grass is always greener on the other side. Velvet Goldmine also translates it into a sexual desire; Slade has lust for Wild’s body as well, and his sexual appetites are a big part of his undoing.

Now, Todd Haynes can make up any story he wants, but Bowie and Pop’s real relationship was much brighter and not wrought with nearly as much drama. It was a good partnership, mostly because while David and Iggy worked well together, they were also friends. When you look at their dual appearance on The Dinah Shore Show, it’s clear that they’re very chummy with each other, and there’s genuine affection there.

Like any friendship worth having, it must have taken work. For instance, shortly after the dawn of Iggy’s resurrection, he was left to his own devices to record his comeback album. He produced Raw Power on his own, and presented the finished product to his record label, like a 6-year-old with a finger-painting. It was a monstrous mess.

The issue with Raw Power in its initial form, as far as the folks at Columbia saw it, was that the whole thing was mixed on merely three tracks: the vocals on one, lead guitar on another, and the rest of the band on a third. In my opinion, this lends Raw Power a lot of rawness, an untrained quality that’s eminently appropriate. Sure, it doesn’t make for the most pleasant listening, but the Stooges weren’t the most pleasant band. You can’t dress a lion up in a tux and monocle and expect it not to eat you.

David and Iggy (and Lou Reed as the famous Third Wheel)

Nonetheless, the Columbia execs were shaking their heads in disappointment. But rather than just drop Iggy from the label and have done with it they called up David Bowie and said, “you convinced us to take on this joker; you deal with him.” So Bowie was given the near-impossible task of remixing Raw Power, polishing it to an acceptable level. When he put in the 24-track master tapes of the album, just three were used. When Iggy said, “see what you can do with this,” David responded with “Jim, there’s nothing to mix!” It’s kind of like being handed a paper clip and a stick of chewing gum and being told, “now get out of Russia.” Unless you’re MacGyver, it’s not gonna happen.

But because they were friends, Bowie took a deep breath and did it. With Iggy at his side, he spent a day going over the mix on an ancient sound board, doing little more than adjusting the volume up and down in places. For that, David Bowie enjoys producer credit along with Pop. Tracks 2-8 may have Bowie’s improved mix, but Iggy insisted that his original mix be used for “Search and Destroy.” Good thing, too, since it’s the most fire-powered song of the eight, and Pop’s messy mix really plays it up.

For the most part, the record execs left Raw Power alone, but they imposed themselves in one of the most horrid ways that exists. The only made one demand about the content of the record, and it was that it needed to contain two ballads, one for each side of the vinyl.

I can just imagine Iggy’s reaction. “Ballads? You want me to do ballads? Who am I, fuckin’ Andy Williams??” But from what actually ended up on the record, I think one of several things might have happened. Either Iggy doesn’t know what a ballad is, the record execs don’t know what a ballad is, or they came to some sort of middle ground – it might be all three.

The two ballads were supposed to be “Gimme Danger” and “I Need Somebody.” The latter has a slower tempo, but that’s the only thing ballad-ish about it, and that’s only if you use the pop music definition and ignore the classical poetry meaning of ballad. The lyrics of “I Need Somebody” are about a bad boy finding a good girl. In other hands, they might be seen as sweet and endearing, but Iggy makes them sound dirty and dark with his snarling whine.

“Gimme Danger” stands out on the record as being filled with exactly what its title implores for. The Stooges have always been a dangerous band, but “Gimme Danger” is the first place the danger ceases to be an accident; here, it’s downright malevolent. This is the perfect theme song for a classic villain, like Professor Moriarty or the Joker, hinting at a kind of evil that giggles maniacally, hunched over in the dark, unendingly amused at the depths of corruption it could bring about.

Iggy went on to a solo career, several hits and several million dollars. He now stands as one of the most respected names in punk rock, one of the success stories/cautionary tales of the genre. Where aspiring pop icons have Michael Jackson and Madonna to look up to, punk rockers everywhere have Iggy Pop.

Iggy: the Sequel

Before the late 2000s when I first started actively listening to the Stooges, my biggest experience with Iggy Pop was in commercials. They were for everything from cruise lines to diet plans to greeting cards to luxury cars. (click here to see a 90s ad for Carnival cruise lines). Iggy had granted blanket permission to any company to license his music for their use, regardless of what they were selling. He made a lot of money from it, but I don’t think that’s why he did it. He says the songs weren’t commercially conceived, so he doesn’t care how they’re used commercially; in his mind, those are two separate things. I imagine some shoe company was bugging him to use one of his songs on a TV ad, and Iggy finally said, “do what you want; I don’t care.”

Iggy’s thought process is similar to a lot of other artists’, but he ends up in the opposite place that most people would. Every artist out there would say (or pretend) that their art didn’t have any commercial element to it. Making money is looked at as somehow beneath people who make art, even though it’s always part of the goal. So many musicians would completely reject a thing like a song of theirs’ being used in an advertisement. If I were a musician, I’m not sure where I’d fall in the spectrum.

Iggy making lots of money off of corporate America is pretty ironic when you consider Iggy’s place in the punk music pantheon. If somebody came to Johnny Rotten asking for licensing, he’d probably do his best to defecate on them. Punk is all about disobeying the rules and not falling in line, so that includes a middle finger to big business. But give punk music just a little money and public exposure and it becomes a corporate brand, much like anything else.

Grrr… off-topic. This is supposed to be about Raw Power

Dave Alexander, died in 1975 at age 27

By 1971, the Stooges were effectively broken up. Rock and roll stardom is not the only thing that brings on decadence and drug abuse; it also comes when you have almost no success at all, like the Stooges. Bassist Dave Alexander was fired from the band in August of 1970 for showing up to a gig too drunk to play. Alexander is one of the many less-known members of the 27 Club, musicians who died at age 27. After leaving the Stooges, his alcoholism only got worse. He died in an Ann Arbor hospital from fluid in his lungs, admitted for pancreatitis due to his extreme drinking. In 1977, Iggy released “Dum Dum Boys” in which he talks about him.

They carried on, hiring James Recca to fill in for Alexander, and even adding childhood buddy of the band James Williamson as a second guitarist. But even apart from Alexander’s drinking, all the other members except Ron Asheton were hooked on heroin. Iggy’s addiction was particularly bad. Their live shows moved from wild and unpredictable to disappointing and dangerous. The Stooges were sick, like an end-stage cancer patient, and could not sustain itself for much longer. Elektra saw it coming and dropped then unceremoniously from the label. After that, there was nowhere to go, not even down. The Stooges were kaput a mere 3 years after they started.

you know you’ve been watching too much Velvet Goldmine if…

Enter David Bowie. A year after his band split, Iggy met Bowie and became good friends (not that kind; you’ve been watching too much Velvet Goldmine). Their friendship was based on Bowie’s admiration for Pop and his talent, and since virtually no one had heard of Iggy or the Stooges, his desire for Pop to get his due recognition. Iggy relocated to London, and Bowie’s management company agreed to sign him as a solo artist. Bowie also convinced his label, Columbia Records, to sign Iggy to his very own contract.

With this rebirth, Iggy contacted his old friend James Williamson, member of the Stooges in their last iteration. The two of them set out to record another album with British supporting musicians, but couldn’t find any good enough. This would become Raw Power. Since no suitable English studio men could be found, original Stooges members Ron and Scott Asheton were flown over. It’s not exactly the Cinderella reunion story you might have been expecting, but it worked… sorta. Ron Asheton was very annoyed with his and Scott’s “second choice” status, as well as his relegation to bass while Williamson took all the guitar duties.

There was also the unevenness of the new project being named Iggy & the Stooges; Ron had to be asking why Iggy was suddenly the top dawg. The answer is David Bowie; if Iggy hadn’t been resurrected under Bowie’s wing, we wouldn’t even be talking about him now.

Next: You can call me Jim… or Iggy… whatever you’re more comfortable with… Jim, Iggy… yeah, call me Iggy.

Velvet Goldmine

Director Todd Haynes has made his name on extremely stylized films that play around with the rules of linear plotlines and characterization, defying the normal methods of those things. His film I’m Not There features five different actors playing the same part, each in five segments of the story. Those segments even use different kinds of film in order to make them distinct from each other. That might sound confusing, but it’s helpful in the end since the segments are all jumbled together, one cutting in before the previous one was actually finished.

His movie Velvet Goldmine shows his willingness to experiment and to veer off into uncharted territory, some of which didn’t need to be charted in the first place. The setting of the movie is late 60s/early 70s Britain, as well as mid 80s America. In the 80s, a journalist for an American paper is assigned to do some digging and find out whatever happened to Brian Slade, a British glam rock superstar in the 70s who faked his own death on stage and faded into obscurity when it was revealed to be a sham. The film also tells the story of Brian Slade, his general anonymity in the late 60s until getting discovered, his rise to glory in the early 70s, and his extremely complicated relationship with wife Mandy Slade and fellow musician Curt Wild.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Brian Slade

This should sound familiar. Todd Haynes veils his historical accounts incredibly thinly, almost to the point of not veiling them at all. Brian Slade is in effect David Bowie, and Curt Wild is Iggy Pop. Curt and his band the Rats even perform “T.V.Eye,” an actual Stooges song. The origin of the band’s name is that rat is a synonym for stooge, meaning someone who gives away his fellow criminals to the authorities. Brian’s name is significant, too. Brian is an ordinary name, much like David, and Slade is the name of a slightly obscure 70s glam rock band. The name of Slade’s band is Venus In Furs, borrowing from the 1967 Velvet Underground song of the same name.

Also in the mix is a character named Jack Fairy, who serves as the originator of the entire glam scene. His name is rather like Brian Ferry, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist of the glam band Roxy Music, several of whose songs appear in the film. Even the very name of the film, Velvet Goldmine, borrows from a Bowie song of the same name, written and recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, but not released until 1975 as a b-side.

In the movie, a huge part of the glam takeover of both the music scene and the British youth is the shifting (and sometimes casting-off) of sexual morays. It was much the same in the real world; Bowie himself says that his declaration of bisexuality was a small mistake in hindsight, because it was much more about its social meanings and effects than actual sexual preference. As Curt Wild says in the movie, “you can’t just fake being gay.”

Toni Collette as Mandy Slade

If the similarities extended far beyond the names and circumstances, Velvet Goldmine would be downright insulting to Bowie, Pop and everyone associated with them. In the film, Slade and Wild have a sexual relationship, despite the fact that Brian is married to Mandy. At the beginning of his popularity, Slade announces that both he and his wife are bisexual, as well as indiscriminate with their sexual lives. Luckily, Velvet Goldmine avoids presenting history and takes a wild tangent into the fictional; the very suggestion of Oscar Wilde being a space alien is enough for us to take the whole movie with a giant-sized grain of salt.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ portrayal of Brian Slade is one of sinister defiance and cold self-advancement, almost sociopathic. Bowie, in actuality, is not like that at all. He broke from societal norms to be sure, but he treated it as natural and normal for him. He wasn’t vicious or belligerent like Slade is. In all the press interviews I’ve seen, Bowie is polite and even a little shy. Slade, on the other hand, makes statements designed to infuriate and cause controversy. “Rock and roll is a prostitute.” “Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner.” “I should think that if people were to get the wrong impression of me, the one to which you so elegantly refer, it wouldn’t be the wrong impression in the slightest.”

Slade purposely arranges himself to be in opposition to the establishment. He does what rock stars have been doing for ages, and it’s wholly unoriginal. Bowie, on the other hand, is told that normal people don’t do the things he does, and he shrugs and says, “No? Hmmm.”

Brian Slade’s relationship with his wife doesn’t really mirror Bowie’s, either. Brian and Mandy’s marriage had an over-abundance of infatuation but an utter lack of love. Bowie had lots of love for his wife Angie, and likewise a stinking ton for the son he had with her (of whom Velvet Goldmine makes no mention). David and Angie’s relationship didn’t really disintegrate until Bowie’s Thin White Duke stage, where he descended into extreme cocaine use. Slade’s connection to his wife becomes inconsequential by the time they get their divorce, but Bowie’s is clearly important to him all the way. He wrote and performed a simple and lovely song called “Be My Wife” on his 1977 album Low as a last ditch effort to preserve his marriage. It didn’t work; they divorced in 1980.

Ewan McGregor as Curt Wild

Curt Wild, played by Ewan McGregor in his pre-Obi Wan days, is much closer to his real world model, Iggy Pop. His first appearance in the movie, performing “T.V. Eye” to about 100 people in the middle of a forest, is spot-on exactly what a Stooges performance was like, complete with Wild defiantly dropping his pants. Curt Wild is drugged out, uncaring, chaotic and unpredictably dangerous. The name “Wild” is very appropriate.

Velvet Goldmine is one unholy mess of a movie. It has an incredibly sloppy plot structure and deplorable excess of visual flair that comes off as ham-fisted instead of beautiful. That’s balanced by its stellar performances by its principle actors and its devastatingly awesome soundtrack. But the reason I watch it over and over again – and felt it necessary to write this review – is that even though it’s extremely irresponsible with history and fact, the way it presents that history is infinitely fascinating. Being a student of music history, especially appealing to me is presenting an alternate form of it. Todd Haynes has created a behemoth of wonder and interest, but it will only be so for an extreme sliver of the movie-watching public.

Next: the fox on the rocks.

Tarted Up

While projections about planet Earth’s expiration date are fraught with peril, the fictional world that Bowie created has its time limit announced from the very start: five years. It opens on people crowding around a television set to hear a newscaster tearfully tell the world that it has “five years left for crying.” The ostensible reason is a lack of natural resources. In the face of impending disaster, human do what humans do. Chaos quickly ensues, complete with looting and other savage behavior, including killing over food.

It is against that backdrop that Bowie creates his most enduring character, Ziggy Stardust. The song “Five Years” has a beautiful restraint to it, slowly building and building until it’s a towering inferno, dwarfing all other work Bowie has done previously. A big part of glam rock is ironically trussing up rock and roll to accentuate its more ridiculous curves and angles. Hunky Dory did that to a masterful degree, but Ziggy Stardust is totally serious about its camp. I know that’s a contradiction in terms (“serious camp”), but the way Bowie sells it, you buy the contradiction, a spare, and the t-shirt that goes with it.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine

Brian Slade, the Bowie-like character in the indie flick Velvet Goldmine, said in a press conference, “Rock and roll is a prostitute; it should be tarted up.” “Soul Love” tarts up its musical motif to exaggeratedly point out that it really is a prostitute, from the nasally performed vocals right down to the alto sax solo. Story-wise, I’m not sure how it fits in to the Ziggy plotline, though it makes perfect musical sense for it to follow the achingly epic “Five Years.” Lyrically, it seems to be about the narrator being in love with love, with the concept itself. Even so, he’s aware that he can’t have a practical application of the concept ‘til it’s directed at a particular person.

Segueing right into it is “Moonage Daydream,” a slow rocker and Bowie’s strongest attempt so far to blow the listener’s brains out. This represents the birth of Ziggy Stardust on Earth, his triumphant arrival and the start of his mission/ministry. Ziggy is a sort of futuristic Christ figure, a being from outside this world whose sole purpose is to save it from itself. This parallel isn’t lost on Bowie, and he plays it to the hilt, if pretty subtly. Ziggy’s means of salvation are generally the same as Christ’s, too; Jesus atoned for us by being a perfect replacement, the Platonic form of a human being. All over “Moonage Daydream” are suggestions of Ziggy’s identical nature to human beings, divine entity though he is.

There’s also the closing words of “Moonage Daydream,” spoken over the killer Ronson guitar solo that ends it. “Freak out! Far out! In-out!” It reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, in which in-out is a Nadsat slang term for sexual intercourse.

I could speculate wildly on what this means, getting further and further from the point, but what still remains is that Ziggy likes sex. Maybe he thinks that sex will save the world. On an extremely general level, I understand that line of thinking; if people had more sex, there would probably be less war, for one thing. However, it won’t fix our planet, and it won’t fix Ziggy’s, either. So what will?

The answer: rock and roll.