Iggy Pop’s song The Passenger springs to mind now that Simon has launched another theme of the month.
In the great tradition of advertisers misunderstanding lyrics, Toyota chose Iggy Pop’s 1977 song to sell the 1997 Avensis, a car so incredibly uninteresting** that even I won’t be caught trying to discover its appeal. The external appearance is as close as you can get to a characterless vehicle while still being convincingly realistic. The theme Toyota were trying to get us to understand was that by being so incredibly relaxing, driving an Avensis was like being a passenger.
To get this across the controls are seen moving by themselves and the passenger (or driver) is seen nodding off in the back or just looking revoltingly self-satisfied. On that superficial level, the ad failed since it really said this is not a car you are ever going to be involved with. Certainly nobody believed the Avensis was going to be so sybaritic an experience as driving one would make you feel as if you’d been nursed to the rear of a Rolls-Royce in a haze of Montrachet.
What I find more interesting is the deeper meaning of the song itself. Toyota thought it was just about passengers. But there’s more. The credits for the song go to Iggy Pop for the lyrics and to Ricky Gardiner for the catchy guitar riff. Mr David Bowie produced it and sung the backing vocals. This happened in 1976 during an exceptionally busy period in Bowie’s career.
As is well known, Bowie was living in Berlin and Iggy Pop, for a time, shared a crumby flat with Bowie at Hauptstrasse 155 (I think Bowie asked him to leave). If Toyota had listened to the song carefully they’d see the text as being a sharp critique of the passenger. He’s sitting behind glass, looking indifferently at the poverty and deprivation outside. It’s not a pretty picture of long drives in the country but of mysterious night time rides in the city’s darker corners.
The implications are of sordid, seamy activities perhaps. Is this passenger collecting hookers? Is he out to score some cocaine? Is he just driving around, bored as only the rich can be, to see just how far he is from the rest of humanity? It’s a picture not of plutocratic luxury but of a person cut off from the rest of the world, imprisoned in some way inside the car, rich but not free. If he gets out he might be torn limb from limb by hungry zombies.
That’s one reading. The other is that perhaps Iggy Pop is singing about David Bowie. Bowie can’t drive and I could imagine the rather impecunious Pop experiencing some jealousy over Bowie’s more exalted position in the rock pantheon. Perhaps the passenger is Pop’s host in Berlin and the car is a Mercedes S –class (see above).
Of course, the text of the song refers to winding ocean drives of which Berlin is rather in short supply. But allowing for a little artistic licence, Iggy is just having a little stab at his successful host, or perhaps drawing attention to Bowie’s indifference to the Berlin world in which he is doing his social tourism. I have not read this interpretation elsewhere but it is possible that the song is a mix of all of these ideas. Personally, I can’t help thinking that there was more to Iggy Pop’s relationship with Bowie than just clubs and some song-writing.
Rather, there may have been a tension that came out in the song as a resentment of what, to Pop, might have seemed like Bowie’s easy ride and effortless rise to the top. Thus, we have now several reasons why Toyota’s PR firm might have thought again about using this song with these lyrics to push their sleeping pill: buy a Toyota Avensis and be a callous jerk. Now that’s a fantastic pitch….
**No, seriously. It’s dull. Did you imagine I had some snippet of trivia to reveal down here?