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Iggy Pop Lusts for Life

More than four decades into his career as a rock mentor, Iggy Pop talks about getting back with the Stooges and finding a daily rhythm that suits him.

Credit: Lucio Carbonelli

“I wasn’t going to die until the fucking band made it,” Iggy Pop says when I ask about his recent reunion with the Stooges. In October, the Stooges completed a four-month tour of North America and Europe, enlivening packed venues with their volatile blend of Ron Asheton’s stabbing guitar riffs, Scott Asheton’s explosive drumming, and Pop’s bewildering on-stage repartee and dynamic vocal range. On his cell phone, the rock ‘n’ roll iconoclast sounds jubilant when he speaks of the Stooges’ long-awaited surge in popularity and an upcoming acting role as he bypasses Miami in his Maserati en route to meet the filmmakers. “I’m playing a used-car dealer,” he chuckles. “And I’m really excited. I’ve always wanted to do this.”

He spots a cop up ahead, apologizes for the disruption, and places the phone in his lap to avoid a traffic ticket. During this brief pause, it occurs to me that I am speaking with the man who transformed rock ‘n’ roll into performance art. Iggy Pop’s stage antics alone—from his horrifying acts of self-mutilation to his notorious dives into the audience—have been copied by generations of rockers ranging from the late Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious to Sid Wilson, the turntablist for the popular alternative-metal band Slipknot.

“I still remain a person who does not feel well whenever called upon to participate in normal activities,” Pop says in his folksy Midwestern drawl. And at 61, he exudes the same energy and intensity that have captivated fans since the late ‘60s. He still performs bare-chested, a fashion tip borrowed from the Egyptian pharaohs, and crawls on all fours while barking the lyrics to “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the Stooges’ signature tune. But after his sweat-soaked torso rolls across the stage and writhes spasmodically before the audience, he no longer requires medical attention. Nowadays, the Stooges’ performance space is remarkably free of the broken bottles, burning cigarettes, and dangerous projectiles hurled by fans in the early ‘70s, when neither the Stooges nor their audiences knew that their abrasive interaction had given birth to a cultural phenomenon—the punk-rock movement.

 

In August the Stooges worked a New York crowd into a frenzy at Terminal 5 in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. For nearly 90 minutes, their famed stacks of Marshall amplifiers spewed ragged melodies, jackhammer drumbeats, and honorary Stooge Mike Watt’s throbbing bass lines as Pop skipped blithely across the stage, bolstering songs like “Skull Ring” with his smoky baritone, then shifting to a rabid snarl on classic numbers like “TV Eye” and “No Fun.” At one point he dove into the sea of adoring fans, disappearing momentarily before bobbing back to the surface to shout the lyrics of “Loose,” buttressed by the enthusiastic chorus of the crowd. Once again, Iggy Pop had obliterated the barrier between the artist and spectator.

“I still remain a person who does not feel well whenever called upon to participate in normal activities.”

“I’m interested in being able to do that while maintaining the formality of the dinner engagement,” he says with a hearty laugh. “There has been a tremendous change in the cybernetics of rock and roll over the past 50 years. If you look back to the mid- to late-’50s, you’ve got maybe Elvis or Eddie Cochran playing on a flat-bed truck in a gas station parking lot with presumably 1,200 doomed teenagers dancing, chewing gum and knifing each other while religious leaders burn records and make racial slurs about the music. Now, you’ve got thousands of people obediently shuffling into these concrete civic centers to sponge up something in places where nothing really happens.”

Raised in small-town Ypsilanti, Mich., Iggy Pop started playing rock ‘n’ roll in junior high as the drummer for the Megaton Three, a duo with guitarist Jim McLaughlin. Back then, he was known by his birth name, James Newell Osterberg Jr. In high school, he and McLaughlin formed the Iguanas, a quintet that opened for the Shangri-Las and the Four Tops. Osterberg remained in the group while attending a semester at the University of Michigan, but he grew tired of the Iguanas’ trendy emulation of British rock and instead joined the Prime Movers, a freewheeling blues ensemble from Ann Arbor. His new bandmates called him “Iguana,” a caustic reference to his stint with a mainstream act. Over time, the insulting nickname was shortened to “Iggy.”

“Once I got tagged with ‘Iggy,’ I had to figure out how to make it work,” he explains. “One day I was walking through the student union, and slumped over, sleeping in one of the booths, was Jim Pop, a friend of the extended Asheton gang—delinquents, basically. Jim Pop sniffed a lot of glue and lost his hair really early. And right then, I thought ‘Pop would work perfectly.’”

The Prime Movers were exceptional musicians, but Iggy Pop wasn’t learning the blues fast enough. He moved to Chicago to accompany harmonica maestro Big Walter Horton, who exposed him to the nuances of the blues idiom, an experience that stoked his interest in fusing ostensibly divergent musical styles. On his return to Ann Arbor, he assembled a group with the Asheton brothers and bassist Dave Alexander. Calling themselves the Psychedelic Stooges, they enhanced their early work with fuzz-box distortion and took cues from composer and music theoretician Harry Partch by creating their own instruments from household junk and appliances—a vacuum cleaner, a blender with water, an oil drum—all amplified with contact microphones. They fueled these sonic excursions with LSD, DMT, and amyl nitrate and set up shop in a rural dwelling between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, where they could practice at full volume whenever the mood suited them.

“A producer will take a look at you and they’ll decide who you are and who you need to be. And they’ll do that better than you can.”

“Around 5 in the afternoon, I’d probably be the first one up and would try to get the group together for a rehearsal,” Pop explains. “I’d be knocking on everyone’s doors and having them give me the finger, frown at me, or try to make an excuse—basically, ‘I’m hungry or I’m not stoned enough.’ By around 8, we could have a little rehearsal—really, really intense full-tilt music that would only last about 20 minutes.”

Dubbed the “Fun House,” the Stooges’ living quarters would become a site of unmitigated debauchery and creativity. In that dilapidated country home, they cultivated the material for their first two albums, The Stooges and Fun House, seminal recordings that laid the groundwork for punk, industrial metal, and grunge. They released their self-titled debut in 1969 under the production guidance of John Cale, an illustrious multi-instrumentalist and founding member of the Velvet Underground. Accustomed to playing loud and working fast, Pop and his bandmates lugged all of their Marshall amplifiers into New York City’s Hit Factory studio and demanded that the recording sessions be conducted live, at full volume. A series of compromises followed, and Cale made every attempt to honor the Stooges’ requests whenever they seemed reasonable. The end product reflects the delicate balance between the Stooges’ grating minimalism and Cale’s polished production. The next year, producer Don Gallucci permitted the Stooges to record Fun House live, at ear-splitting levels.

“A producer will take a look at you and they’ll decide who you are and who you need to be,” Pop says. “And they’ll do that better than you can. [As an artist] you turn into a very small dog on a leash. There’s a push and pull, and you fight back a little. You think of obtuse things to do: ‘I’ll blow his mind today! I’ll come in with a theory so fucked up, I’ll show that cretin!’ You’ll notice a pattern with the finer, more interesting artists. They’ll get with a producer, have a hit, and then they have to go into the corner and throw up for a few years. And their next couple of albums are always either homemade or with someone really obscure who’ll let them do what they want. You find this pattern with Dylan, with Bowie, with people who are really special, really good.”

After the 1970 release of Fun House, the band fired Alexander when he blanked out during a show and stopped playing. Personnel adjustments followed: Ron Asheton moved over to bass, while virtuoso axman James Williamson filled the guitar slot. Loaded with talent, the Stooges had earned the respect of their peers, and their shows were always well attended. But Iggy Pop had acquired a taste for harder drugs, often ingesting copious amounts of heroin and cocaine before concerts. Adorned in glitter, baby oil, and silver paint, he behaved bizarrely on stage, routinely cutting himself, spitting and vomiting on the audience and goading spectators into assaulting him.

By late 1971, Williamson, Pop, and Scott Asheton had acquired full-blown heroin habits that interfered with rehearsals and live performances. Their label, Elektra Records, dropped them and ordered the return of a sizeable advance for their third album. When English rock star David Bowie stepped in and offered financial and production assistance for the next project, the band reconvened in London and recorded Raw Power. Released in 1973, Raw Power showcases Pop’s staggering vocal range, particularly on the ballad “Gimme Danger,” where his brooding croon subtly morphs into a wounded growl by the end of the song. Williamson’s savage forays in “Search and Destroy” and “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell” are a maniacal mix of rancorous rhythmic sequences and sizzling leads played with an unprecedented ferocity. But Raw Power was a commercial failure. The public just wasn’t ready for it.

Within a year, Raw Power could be found in record-store cut-out bins for 39 cents. The Stooges were finished and Iggy Pop wound up in Los Angeles, careening from one half-baked project to another until he ran into Bowie in 1976 and was invited to accompany his friend on a series of concerts to promote Bowie’s Station to Station album. After the tour, the two settled in Berlin and collaborated on new material. They did some traveling, too, and Pop rarely went anywhere without his cassette recorder, always alert and ready to capture instants of brilliance that could be crafted into songs.

“At the end of the tracking sessions for The Idiot, we were in the studio, breaking down all of the equipment,” he explains. “And don’t ask me why, but [Bowie] put on a rubber fright mask of an old man, went over to the piano, and it brought out the Hoagy Carmichael in him. He began playing piano music from that school, and I got very excited. At that point, you’ve given birth to a song and you must record it. You’re in the arts category now—a better place than somebody who is just producing pieces of noise for the music industry.”

That playful moment of free-form improvisation evolved into “Nightclubbing,” the second song on Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot. Throughout their tenure in Berlin, these two artists abandoned convention, open to inspiration whenever it arose. One night, while they watched American Forces television, Bowie adapted the station’s call signal to a melody he strummed on a ukulele. The resulting chord change would become “Lust for Life,” the title track of Pop’s next record. The Idiot and Lust for Life launched Iggy Pop’s career as a solo artist, a 30-year journey that would take him into the studio with renowned producers like Don Was and Bill Laswell. His single “Candy,” with the B52’s Kate Pierson, would crack the top 40 in 1991 and make Brick by Brick his bestselling album.

Iggy Pop’s commercial success has been accompanied by a sincere effort to take care of himself. For nearly 20 years, he has practiced tai chi and his vices have been reduced to an occasional glass of wine. He has also reached out to younger musicians and joined them in the studio. His 2003 release Skull Ring included songs with popular bands like Green Day and Sum 41, along with the single “Little Know It All” which made the rock charts, received considerable airplay and became a popular MTV video. Four of the songs on Skull Ring were recorded with the Asheton brothers, becoming the first music that these three friends had made together in more than three decades.

 

After a short break in our conversation, Iggy Pop calls back from Little Haiti. He has stopped to check out some hand-painted storefront signs done by an artist named Serge from Port-au-Prince. Pop has a devout interest in Haitian art and owns a nearby studio where he paints. In the parlor of that sanctum, he and the Asheton brothers developed songs for The Weirdness, the Stooges’ 2007 release. I am surprised to learn that they played toy instruments in those early rehearsals.

“You’ve given birth to a song and you must record it. You’re in the arts category now—a better place than somebody who is just producing pieces of noise for the music industry.”

“The core of an idea comes through stronger when there’s less noise,” Pop explains. “Toy instruments and tiny amps enabled us to play and sing hard in an environment with no rehearsal-hall vibes and no cops. And it’s a little easier on my hearing.”

It’s hard for me to imagine the Stooges jamming on toy instruments. It’s equally difficult for me to picture Iggy Pop, a long-time fixture in the New York City music scene, happily ensconced in Miami.

“Listen,” he says. “You get to a certain point if you’re a downtown New York musician where you can go into business, which isn’t me, or you can do sacred-cow duty—kind of what Ginsberg was doing the last 10 or 15 years of his life—which is fine, but that’s not me either. [Miami] is kind of a province of New York. I can get a little more light and space here. I’m better off right now. And frankly, life is easier.”

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