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Loco Mosquito 

Iggy Pop, time and the American Way

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
Photo by Blake Little
IGGY POP WAS BORN JAMES JEWELL OSTERBERG in 1947, the son of an English teacher. An only child brought up mostly in a series of trailer parks near Ann Arbor, Michigan, James was an inquisitive, sensitive child, not a troublemaker -- he even became student-council president of his high school and a member of the debate team. He liked to read.

Come puberty and graduation time, though, James had developed delinquent tendencies -- petty theft, vandalism, public intoxication, general teen-running-wild-type stuff. All in good fun. Then he got into drumming. His band, the Iguanas (whence "Iggy"), got good enough that they eventually backed Motor City bands such as the Shangri-Las, the Four Tops and the Marvelettes. But that fell apart.

Inspired by the dramatic howls of Jim Morrison and the Detroit noise of the MC5, Iggy formed the raw, "bluesy" Stooges, who couldn't much play their instruments but shared a passion for the ugly beauty of the industrial Michigan landscape. At the first Stooges gig, they quickly emptied the house; Iggy's friends were terribly embarrassed for him, put their arms around him and asked if he had mental problems.

Before going onstage, Iggy would often ingest, say, 2 grams of biker speed, a few tabs of acid and as much pot as possible; this relates to his favored stagewear at the time, such as an aluminum Afro wig, whiteface, maternity smock and golf shoes. Iggy would strip to the waist, jerking and twisting his zero-body-fat torso and dyed-blond mane, hurl himself at the floor, leap into the audience, slice his flesh open with jagged drumsticks, roll around on broken glass, smear his body in peanut butter. At one Stooges show, Iggy tore his pants and tried to cover up the ripped crotch with shaving cream; at another, Iggy got hit on the head with a flying beer bottle. The Stooges punished the crowd by playing a half-hour version of "Louie, Louie."

It was the late '60s, early '70s, and the Stooges were setting the mold for what was later termed punk rock with such metallic carnage as "Search and Destroy," "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "Down on the Street" and many more from their albums The Stooges, Funhouse and Raw Power. Hippies were frightened by what they saw, and who could blame them? It wasn't very nice.

Iggy and the band eventually made it to L.A., which -- along with the PCP, DMT, MDA, LSD, methamphetamine, Quaaludes, pot, cocaine, heroin, Valium and haldo-lithium Iggy was scarfing down -- destroyed them. One time Iggy hooked himself up to an electric transformer and put two wires to his temples; he tried smoking spider webs, too, but it just made his throat burn. The nadir was probably the night the Stooges played an aborted set at Rodney's English Disco in the summer of 1974, when Iggy repeatedly slashed at his chest with a serrated blade as bassist Ron Asheton lashed him with a whip. Soon afterward, Iggy checked into Los Angeles' Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, where his only visitor was David Bowie. Bowie encouraged Iggy to clean up, and took him to Berlin, where they recorded The Idiot and Lust for Life in 1977. Comeback time: Both were critical smashes, and did some decent business as well. Iggy went on to record a series of albums in the '80s and '90s, including the essential New Values, Brick by Brick, American Caesar and Naughty Little Doggie.

Through it all, Iggy Pop has remained the ultimate icon of rock cool. And unlike Morrison, Hendrix and Cobain, Iggy isn't dead. He survived, probably not owing to shrewdness or guile, but because he's tenacious, and angry. Why? Who knows. Call it a lust for life. For more info on the Stooges, read Iggy's autobiography, I Need More, recently reissued through Henry Rollins' 2-13-61 Press.

SO THE OTHER DAY I HAD A REAL WILD TIME TRYING to get a word in edgewise with an icon: Iggy Pop. The Stooge. Godfather of Punk. Blah blah blah. And after about an hour, I came to the conclusion that he's one of the greatest orators of all time.

Iggy's got a new album out, Avenue B (Virgin), wherein he takes a hard look at himself at age 52, having made it thus far and wondering how he's going to best occupy the time he's got left. Thus, the songs aren't rock & roll per se -- mostly, they're quieter, reflective, kinda sad but overall pretty hopeful. The production is spare, guitar-bass-drums, with guests Medeski Martin & Wood throwing down some loungy Hammond vibes here and there. Iggy does some spoken interludes, too, in that Midwestern snarl that always makes me think about Iggy and the Stooges, and about rock music itself -- how they all just wanted to know how to be normal, somehow, like there's a core impulse to fit in, to trust and feel love and love back . . .

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