|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 . . .
You ain't gotta cringe when you hear Iggy's coming-to-terms-with-age stuff. He strews his manly black humor all over it; it's not just sentimental. Iggy's depth comes â from your knowing that he knows that what he's searching for probably isn't gonna happen. He's always worth hearing because he's resilient and witty and intelligent, and fragile, in his grand obsolescence.
Anyway. Recently, Iggy got the hell out of New York and moved to Miami. “It's real interesting,” he tells me over the phone. “It's like a fucking cultural collision here right now. Basically, it's the capital of South America. I like the jungle,” he laughs. “There's a lot of lizards and bugs and trees, and shit grows. I got a place down in Baja California, too. That's the spiritual home, and this is the American workstation, you know? 'Cause you can't be a Mexican and deal with shit like this.”
I can't quite picture the Godfather of Punk lying on a beach formulating plans for a concept album about growing old with dignity. “It crept up on me over three years,” he says. “I did the last record in Hollywood, and two days after I got it done, Johnny Depp approached me to work on a film score, which I know fuck-all about how to do. It was this film he made called The Brave, and it was about American Indians, and it called for some folky and ethnic shit, so I started working with acoustic guitar a lot. I'd always thought, Oh, I can't do this shit, it's too much trouble. And I actually sat down and started trying to master some craft that I had not heretofore really had access to in my work.
“And at the same time I was livin' alone for the first time in a long time, and my orientation became alone — I'd have friends for a while, and I'd double up at night once in a while, and then I'd end up on my own again. So I was spending more time with the acoustic guitar, which is warm, and songs started comin' out based on the things I was living.
“At the same time, I had this other little voice goin', 'You're not gonna get away with this shit! You better write some rock stuff now!'” But I knew that shit wasn't as good as this other stuff. I was havin' a period where you spend a lot less time with the lights on and more time with the candles burning, less time talkin' and more time thinkin'. And so I was listening to Sinatra's torch period, Astrud Gilberto singing Jobim, Dylan when he's simple and tells a story, like Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, those uncommercial albums where he just played the guitar and sang, and also Blood on the Tracks. And I was listening to some jazz, a lotta Coltrane, shit like that. So that stuff kinda influenced me to plug in less and less.
“And I was really impressed when I would clock, like, MTV, how much more vitality there was in the presentation of rap music. It's never just about the songs. There's an introduction where the guy says, 'Yo, I'm Biggie Smalls, helicopters are chasin' me, I'm comin' into your house to loot and burn!' Regardless of whether it's thuggy or overemphatic or intrusive, the point is that somebody's settin' up something where the character and the human person is more important than the song form. And so you get an empathy for the person talking. You feel like somebody's talking to you, and therefore you're ready to receive that song when the song comes.”
His delivery on these songs sounds so authentic, you wonder how much they draw from experience.
“It all actually happened to me. I wanted to describe other people, and inevitably what happens is when you describe other people, your own feelings come out. I'm not bein' chased by helicopters at this point in my life, you know!”
Iggy has developed an unclouded picture of his complexity and contradictions. He seems to be recognizing that in the women in his songs as well, as with the convoluted relationship Iggy describes in “Miss Argentina”: “All her emotions screaming at once.” “The song is about the person,” he says, “but it's also like a painting — if you're gonna paint somebody's portrait, you gotta put some sort of background in there, about different things, and about how I feel too, like wanting somebody to be human with me. In the end, I don't really care so much about what it says about her or me.”
Along with “Miss Argentina,” there's “Ya Yo Habla Español,” and the Spanish-speaking woman in “Motorcycles.” What's up with all the Latin references, Iggy?
“I'm Protestant, Anglo, Midwesterner, fairly worldly in a success-driven industry, so if I'm still standing, obviously I've been involved in some pretty cold bowls of chiles. I've found in my later years a great exit for me is the Spanish language. I learned to speak Spanish when I was about 48, and I got it together after a couple years. It's been a great pleasure.
“The biggest difference right off with what are loosely termed the Hispanic cultures is that the people are not gonna ask you what you do in the first five minutes you meet 'em, whereas here everything is about your work and what you got. There it is too, but they're a little more subtle about it.
“I just found a warmth in that side of things that has been a nice balance, an antidote for me, 'cause I was finding my life just really fuckin' empty, and really square and cold, kinda like a fuckin' Häagen-Dazs or something.
“There's a lotta conflicts in my life between the world in which I would like to be a human being and the world of work, in which you're sized up and judged by the quality and the success of your output. And basically, when the two butt heads, work comes first. I kinda feel like that's wrong, but on the other hand, that's who I am — I'm an American, dude! I mean, that's our culture, isn't it? I think so.”
A FEW TIMES A YEAR, IGGY VISITS HIS dad in Michigan, and they play a little golf — par-three-type stuff. “The other big thing I've been doin' with my time is visual arts and painting. I find a great comfort in it. It's an archaic form. I like portraiture, particularly, like Velázquez's Pope Innocent X — wow! Or Lucian Freud, or Joe Coleman.”
Does he do any self-portraits?
“Yep! A lot. It works out to about one every two years, when there's something on my mind. They usually look all tortured — there's a lotta red in the face.”
Meanwhile, there's plenty of work to keep him occupied. His acting career is coming along nicely (from The Color of Money and Sid & Nancy to the upcoming Snow Day), and there's a possible villain role in the new Drew Barrymore movie. He'll be in Paris soon to tape a TV show with Medeski Martin & Wood in which he'll do half material from the new album, the other half trying out a few standards. And right now, he's down in Florida, or in Baja, curled up with a book.
“I've got an autographed copy of the collected work of Allen Ginsberg. It's everything from 1947 on, and I went back to that, and I'm doin' one a day of those poems, and, gee, that fuckin' shit is really good. There's an English guy I like very much named Will Self, whose book is called Great Apes. And I've got works of de Sade that I read with affection.”
What does the Marquis offer the Ig?
“Well, de Sade, the language, the way he presents an argument, is thorough and beautiful. But what I really like is the way he stands up to all those people that are, like, blowin' their fuckin' hot air in another direction, and says, 'No. No, this is this, and this and this, and therefore this, and that's the way I feel.' And hey, you know, I like that.”