Stiv photo courtesy of Danny Garcia
Stiv - Photo courtesy of Danny Garcia

In his fifth documentary, filmmaker Danny “Looking for Johnny” Garcia takes a deep dive into the life and legacy of the Dead Boys front man. Included in STIV is some rare footage and lore about Stiv’s surprising career before and after the Dead Boys, as well as the hilarious stories and hijinks one associates with the punk legend who died at age 40 in 1990

STIV, the pointedly-titled second punk documentary from Spanish filmmaker Danny Garcia, focuses on a punk rock original. Garcia’s 2014 film about Johnny Thunders, Looking for Johnny, set his template for focusing on one main man from a famous band. This follow-up similarly concentrates on the wild, wacky, and all-too-brief life of one of punk’s premier frontmen, Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys, Lords of the New Church, and numerous solo fits, starts, and ends.

Considering the financial limitations Garcia faced while making the film, STIV is as emotional, even a little more melancholy than Looking for Johnny. This is a surprise, given the sullen halo that has hovered over Johnny Thunders as the years pass. Conversely, Stiv Bators’ rep has been mostly one of a laughs-inciting, loveable lout who you can’t help but hug after he whips it out and pees right next to you. The portrait painted in STIV is one of an unstoppable supernova who not only couldn’t be tamed by careerist expectations, but was quite literally just passing over, leaving a massive imprint on everyone he zoomed by, and implying maybe a few gear shifts down, here or there, were warranted, if nowhere near as fun.

Garcia includes some rare found footage that will blow away even longtime Bators fanatics; and pre-Dead Boys band information that further fleshes out Cleveland’s growing proto-punk importance. The editing is a little random at times, including the use of some confusing stock imagery. And there are the usual documentary travails of apparent music usage rights that were probably too pricey or convoluted to secure. Garcia wisely sidesteps some of that by often using no backing music at all, which adds a kind of reflective, cloudy mood that mimics the stormy, often lonesome life Stiv Bators led. But fear not. There are loads of hilarious stories and music clips that further secure Bators’ legacy as perhaps punk rock’s #1 guy you wish you could’ve spent one long-ass weekend with.

The too-brief coverage of Rocket from the Tombs – the legendary proto-punk band that Bators fronted at its end – leaves one wanting. As does the fact that – as per seemingly anything to do with the Dead Boys – not every member is represented. In a, shall we say, fervent answer upon my asking for his interest and/or involvement in the film, Dead Boys co-founder Cheetah Chrome replied, “No, I’m not touching it. I tried to participate… They badgered me for a couple months… I finally told them to forget it… I’ll talk about Stiv for days, just not to promote the movie. As Stiv’s best friend, my loyalty is to him, not a bunch of people trying to get facetime in a movie.” Ahhh, punk rock.

Stiv photo courtesy of Danny Garcia
Stiv – Photo courtesy of Danny Garcia

But even with that absence—and given the fairly solid dive into Stiv’s impressive batch of work after the Dead Boys—one is reminded again that this is a film about Stiv Bators, a seminal and inspiring character in the development of original punk rock who has deserved a good documentary for a long time. (Hey, Netflix! Go throw some money at Cheetah to make a doc from his amazing biography, A Dead Boy’s Tale!)

We caught up with filmmaker Danny Garcia on the eve of the two-night New York premier of STIV, March 29 and 30, at Theater 80, St. Marks.

PKM: When did you originally get into the Dead Boys and/or Stiv Bators?

Danny Garcia: Early 80’s. I was checking out my brother’s music videotapes when I came across a show of The Lords of the New Church live on Spanish TV. You could tell straight away there was something about Stiv. A couple of years later, I was listening to Young, Loud and Snotty, and Disconnected, which I loved because I was big into power pop at that time.

PKM: Tell me a bit more about yourself — mainly, how you started getting into music and punk in general?

Danny Garcia: I’m from Barcelona, and I started getting into the Rolling Stones when I was a kid. I must have been six years old when my dad bought me Aftermath, and I started collecting their albums from then on. After that I fell in love with London Calling first and then the rest of the discography of the Clash. First ever band I saw was Dr. Feelgood at the Communist Party’s yearly free concert in Barcelona. I think I managed to see them play a couple of tunes before my parents decided Wilko [Johnson] and Lee Brilleaux and them weren’t their cup of tea, and we left. But I do remember watching Wilko moving in that spastic way of his as he played, and Lee on harmonica. It was amazing. I lived in London in the ‘90s for a few years, and then I’ve stayed in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, etc. for months on end.

PKM: And how did you get into filmmaking?

Danny Garcia: I started collaborating with Barcelona’s local TV on some zero budget documentaries, and that piqued my interest. I had been writing for music magazines for years, so I had some experience already interviewing artists, which was something I really enjoyed.

PKM: Did making Looking for Johnny kind of lead you into this film?

Danny Garcia: You could say that, although at first when people started asking me, “When are you making a film on Stiv?” I wasn’t thinking that would ever happen. But then more and more people kept asking me the same question, so I started to consider it.

PKM: How did the making of STIV begin then?

Danny Garcia: I called Marc Zermati, who was close to [Stiv Bators’ last girlfriend] Caroline before she died. She had been opposed to making a film on Stiv forever apparently, but was now willing to participate. So before she died she said go ahead, and then it’s when slowly we got the ball rolling.

PKM: Where did you find that amazing Mother Goose footage? And/or the Frankenstein footage?

Danny Garcia: That’s thanks to Kurt Sunderman from Mother Goose and the Kierer brothers, Kevin and Bob, who filmed all that amazing Frankenstein and Dead Boys super 8 footage back then; and when Frank Secich told them about the documentary, they sent it over so we could put it in the film.

PKM: Are there any good stories of stumbling onto footage or images while making the film?

Danny Garcia: I met Thee Hypnotics in Paris just a few months before I had to deliver the film, and they gave me a copy of their documentary where they had the footage of Stiv hanging out with them on a boat during Stiv’s 40th birthday, and they let us use it, which was a very special last-minute surprise. Also, the footage of Stiv quitting The Lords onstage is pretty amazing. It doesn’t get more “Spinal Tap” than that, I guess.

PKM: Any other stories about the early Cleveland days that got cut?

Danny Garcia: So many… There’s a really good one in the “behind the scenes” featurette involving Stiv and his pubic hair (of course). I hope Jimmy Zero finishes his book soon.

PKM: Did Stiv’s early band, Atomic Bums, ever play any shows, or get any recordings done?

Danny Garcia: No, I think that band was just Stiv and Jimmy before they got Frankenstein together. As he says in the film, nobody was interested in joining them in Cleveland back then until they met Johnny and Cheetah.

photo courtesy of Danny Garcia
Photo courtesy of Danny Garcia

PKM: What were some of the obstacles to putting this film together? Can I assume getting some music rights was a pain in the ass?

Danny Garcia: A major pain that was. That’s the reason the film was shelved for almost a year. The rest happened gradually with the involvement of Frank Secich, Jimmy Zero, Cynthia Ross, Dave Parsons, etc.

PKM: Stacy was mentioned in the film as Stiv’s “soul mate,” but she doesn’t get much mention in the film. Can you tell me about any attempts to interview people in her life? Or anything else you learned about her?

Danny Garcia: Stacy, the girl he married while he was with the Lords? That didn’t end up too well for him. I never got much information on her.

PKM: As with Looking for Johnny, rather than making a doc on the whole band, you focused on an individual — why is that?

Danny Garcia: It was never my intention to make a documentary on the Heartbreakers, or the New York Dolls, or the Dead Boys. My idea in this case was to cover Stiv’s life and times, which is what I did.

PKM: I’m from Cleveland originally, so I must ask — did you spend much time in Cleveland while researching / making the film?

Danny Garcia: I didn’t travel to Cleveland. One of our producers, Mick Kniseley, who’s also from Youngstown, shot Jimmy’s and Frank’s interviews for us. I did the London and Paris interviews.

PKM: How long did it take to finish the film? Was there a moment where you knew you had all what you needed?

Danny Garcia: A couple of years, with a nine-month hiatus while we waited for the publishing rights.  I guess once we got the Hypnotics’ footage everything looked pretty much ready because every segment of the film had good/unseen footage and photography.

PKM: Not unlike the CBGB movie and almost anything involved with the Dead Boys, it seems some of the members talked, and some didn’t. I have already asked Cheetah Chrome why he wasn’t involved, and he said there was some miscommunication when trying to set up an interview in Cleveland; and he generally seemed quite mistrustful of you or anyone telling the story of someone he was so close to. Can you tell me about trying to wrangle the other Dead Boys, and why they did or didn’t talk?

Danny Garcia: The first one who didn’t respond at all was Jeff Magnum. But nobody seems to remember him anyway.  It’s a shame about the others but what can you do?

PKM: Did you try any of the current lineup of the Dead Boys? 

Danny Garcia: I was only interested interviewing people who knew him.

photo courtesy of Danny Garcia
photo courtesy of Danny Garcia

PKM: It has always intrigued me how Stiv was so into classic 1960s radio pop and garage rock, and how his post-Dead Boys work he was wearing like ’60s clothes and wanting to do more power pop stuff; and then with the Lords, the more goth thing. But then, as evidenced in the film, no matter the genre, Stiv just could not help himself going crazy on stage, and flopping around, and jumping into the crowd, and generally never pulling back from his innate desire to go nuts. So, did you get a feeling of how Stiv reconciled his desires to write more accessible music, but unable (thankfully!) to hold back his craziness? Or, am I just evading the fact that he did loads of drugs?

Danny Garcia: I saw Stiv in 1988, and to this day I’ve never seen another frontman like him. That guy would have been the perfect guest on a TV show like Jackass. Hanging himself, sticking his head in the bass drum, beating himself with the mic stand, jumping about like you’ve never seen before. He was fucking insane. I mean just look at the poster, the dude’s van surfing like it’s nothing! And then offstage he was the nicest guy you ever met. It was quite bizarre.

Stiv was big into the 60’s stuff because he was born in 1949. So, by 1969, he was already 20 years old. Which means all of the music that changed his life and that was really meaningful to him was ‘60s pop, R&B, and garage. That’s why he knew all the obscure ‘60s garage tunes and would love to cover them. The goth thing with the Lords was I guess the influence of what was going on in London at the time, with all that post-punk stuff, the Batcave, and so on. London was a lot of fun back then, and as Jimmy Zero says in the film, Stiv could infiltrate a scene very easily. So I’m sure he was loving it. Plus, he had to reinvent himself, all of them did. It was a new decade, the ‘70s were gone.

I think Stiv wanted to sell a bunch of records just like any other artist does when they release an album. Hence all of the commercial stuff like “Dance With Me,” “Live For Today” (another ‘60s tune), “M-Style,” etc. But all of those tunes have something interesting about them, despite the ‘80s production.

PKM: Jimmy Zero mentions in the film that, for all his craziness and reckless abandon, Stiv was actually extremely ambitious. From what you learned, how do you think Stiv felt towards the end of his life? Do you think he was at peace with where his career went? 

Danny Garcia: I know he felt betrayed by the Lords. That’s what his Parisian friends told me. And I personally think his last solo album was his best album ever, so I guess he felt pretty good about where his career was going. Although Zero told me he felt burned out and didn’t know if he had the energy to go on.

PKM: Which doc was tougher to put together — STIV or Looking for Johnny? What were the differences between making the two? And ultimately, which person do you think you learned more about?

Danny Garcia: With STIV, the response to the crowdfunding campaign was the opposite of Looking for Johnny‘s, which was a total success. So we had to get a lot more crafty with this one. And as I said before, this film was done thanks to Stiv’s real buddies who donated their time, music, footage, and photography to make sure this happened.