You and your band, the Stooges, are the subjects of a new Jim Jarmusch documentary, “Gimme Danger,” and a new book, “Total Chaos.” Is it a coincidence that these two major retrospectives would happen at once? I would call it karmic. I asked Jim seven or eight years ago if he would make a movie about the Stooges. The idea was to do something surprising with it, and I was surprised when I first saw it. Imagine my horror when the film starts out and we’re all living with our mothers.
Did the documentary remind you about anything you’d forgotten? No, that happened more when I heard the other fellows speaking. I was surprised that I was able to share some of the stuff I did — getting hazed over my trailer-camp residence, that sort of thing. I thought Jim found the humor in it all. My father, very late in life, said to me, “You know, there is humor in what you do.”
You did literally call yourselves the Stooges. That was Ron Asheton’s doing. We were all tripping on acid one night, which is sort of what we did. I was the boring, diligent one — like: “Wait a minute. Let’s get something done here! We don’t have a name for the group!” Ron, just off the top of his head, said, “We’ll call it the Stooges, man.” I thought, It’s a good name, and it’s got an “oo” in it.
The film features a representation of the mobile home where you grew up in Michigan, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. It was very … um. … Spit it out, Dave. Yes, it’s very, very small, and later I realized how much that did for me. I learned harmony with other people early, and that was absolutely vital and paramount. It was only when I went into the larger world that I realized the world isn’t like that.
I don’t want to bum you out or anything, but — Here it comes. O.K., I’m sitting down.
When you see your life laid out in this way, do you start to think about your own mortality? Well, of course I do. Part of the experience of being my age, and particularly in my corner of my field, is that — oh, gosh, I could click off the names, but all sorts of people I’ve had a drink with, and then all the people in my group, with the exception of one, are all gone. So, obviously, I begin thinking about myself.
What, exactly, do you think? Well, O.K., I’m alive. Great! So what’s good about that? That’s Question 1. Then: What is a reasonable amount of time that I can look forward to? You want to be sensible. For instance, I had a sports car, and a few years ago I realized it’s not cool for a guy over 65 with 20/40 vision to be getting ticked off when somebody’s driving less than 100 miles an hour in front of it. And so I traded it in for a dad car. A big one, though. I don’t want to become totally sensible.
Was the loss of David Bowie an especially difficult one? At first I didn’t process it. I thought, They must be talking about someone else. But then I got it. I went to a rehearsal, and when we ran through “China Girl,” there’s a guitar theme at the end of that, that was written by that person, with a guitar, with his hands. I can see the person, I can see the hands, I can see the guitar. And he’s not on this plane anymore. That came up several times that day.
“Lust for Life,” perhaps the most famous collaboration between you and Bowie, will appear in the coming “Trainspotting” sequel. What was that original collaboration like? He wrote the chord progression and beat on ukulele. The inspiration had come from the American Forces Network television station in Berlin that had a call signal that went “beep beep beep — beep beep beep beep beep — beep beep beep.” We were sitting on the floor, and I taped it on a little Philips cassette recorder that I used to carry around. David told me to call it “Lust for Life.” I tried to sing a character song and to conflate myself with the William Burroughs character Johnny Yen, who is a green Venusian love boy. Sounds like fun, right? Who wouldn’t want to be a green Venusian love boy?