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Lust, Life and the Whole Crazy Thing--The Australian
Just shy of 60 and planning his first foray into bossa nova, Iggy Pop, the pants-dropping prince of punk, claims to be leading a quiet life these days. Iain Shedden goes in search of evidence to the contrary.
March 31, 2007
WHEN Iggy Pop tells you that he is, for the most part, a very straight, quiet dude, you begin to wonder to what extent he's pulling your leg. This is, after all, the patron sinner of rock'n'roll, the prince of punk, the street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm who searched and destroyed and carved his name in music by being loud and dangerous, not by hiding his light -- or anything, come to that -- under a bushel.
Even today, three weeks shy of his 60th birthday, moderate is not a term one would readily associate with James Osterberg, or Jim, as his friends know him. His renaissance performances with his band the Stooges over the past four years -- including memorable appearances at last year's Big Day Out in Australia -- have displayed just as much shirtless energy and ear-splitting rumble as the Detroit band's shows did back in phase one, during the late 1960s and early '70s. Grumpy and, in some quarters, lumpy old men they may be, but they can still buzz-saw your brain and slacken your jaw and leave you feeling grateful for the experience.
Sharing the Big Day Out spotlight with Detroit's relative young guns the White Stripes, for example, was a finger raised in the direction of ageist rock connoisseurs. White Stripes fans, a large percentage of whom weren't born when Iggy first threw his bloody torso into an audience, could only marvel at an old master.
Iggy has raised that middle finger many times in the past 40 years, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes he has done it from the gutter, at other times from the top of the world. Only the Weather Channel has had more highs and lows.
Today, however, Iggy's on a high that few observers could have predicted. And that's excluding the ones who figured, quite reasonably, that he would be long dead by now.
"Nya nya ne nya nya," is his half-sung response to that, at which point his compelling, rich baritone gives way to a laugh with devillish implications. "I'm a little more sensible, but it's still the same basic animal," he adds.
The life and career of this rock'n'roll animal are under great scrutiny. The Stooges have just released a new album, The Weirdness, their first in 34 years, which should help maintain their cult status as a live attraction across the world. This coincides with the release of a new Iggy biography, Open Up and Bleed by English journalist Paul Trynka, that documents in great detail the myths, misadventures and triumphs of one of rock's most alluring characters. There's also a movie, The Passenger, starring Elijah Wood as Iggy, in the works, although the singer has signalled his disapproval of the project.
Indeed, none of this fuss and celebration sits well with him, which is odd, coming from someone who has made a living from drawing attention to himself in a variety of ways, many of which you wouldn't want your children to emulate. That, of course, is the public side of Iggy: the prowling, sweating, swearing, ungodly creature who wants to be your dog and who doesn't mind showing his bottom (or worse) while he screams "I feel all right" repeatedly into the microphone. Perhaps, as he approaches his 60th birthday, the straight, quiet dude is coming out from behind the mask.
"The vocabulary changes slightly and you have a different body to serve you and a different mentality to guide you," he says. "I would prefer to be somebody who just gets along and has a great band and nobody really notices you, but that's not my fate." "Overemphasised" is how he describes the image that precedes him. "It never ceases to amaze me that people just want to hash it up," he says.
Perhaps the reason they want to hash it up is because there is so much of it. It's a long and complex story of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll that sits up there with the adventures of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Motley Crue.
It's a tale that begins with an innocent boy growing up in a small town in Michigan who finds escape in music, goes off the rails, is washed up in his 20s, gets saved by David Bowie, moves to Berlin where he makes his two best albums, gets sick, makes a lot of average albums, then emerges victorious with the Stooges, with whom he couldn't get arrested (actually he could, and did) 35 years earlier. That's the abridged version, of course. There are too many significant moments to list them all.
In 1970 Iggy had a son, Eric, with friend Paulette Benson. The boy was brought up by his mother. Father and son are not close, although Eric worked for Iggy briefly in the '80s. Aside from his music career, Iggy has appeared in a number of movies, including Tank Girl and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Coffee and Cigarettes. He plays golf.
Trynka's book goes into the minutiae of Iggy's life and times, concentrating as much on the excesses surrounding his music as the music itself. Even if only half of it happened, it's a legend that's impossible to ignore.
Among the many stories is the one from the '70s about how Iggy's girlfriend of the time, Bebe Buell, discovered him one night in the bath, asleep, holding two equally docile puppies with which he had allegedly shared some valium.
"I don't remember drugging any puppies!" Iggy shouts incredulously, before convulsing with laughter once more. "But I gotta say it's pretty funny. I don't believe that. I don't remember it. So I don't like it."
He's more accepting of another line from Trynka, however, the last line of his book's foreword, which reads: "How could one man be so stupid and so clever?"
"I'd say that is a very accurate ... that's me!" he says. "Why did he need the whole damned book? Why not just throw the whole thing out as a one-liner?"
IGGY grew up in the Michigan town of Ypsilanti and cut his musical teeth as a drummer in school bands in nearby Ann Arbor and eventually in the semi-professional outfit the Iguanas, from whom he took his name. He wasn't cut out to be at the back of the stage, however. His personality eventually put him out in front of his new band, the Stooges, with brothers Scott and Ron Asheton on drums and guitar respectively, and Dave Alexander on bass.
The Stooges were as rough as guts, blasting out a distorted, bluesy rock that won them few friends, a situation compounded by the fact that their singer was abusive and as often throwing himself around on the floor as he was on stage. The band's first two albums, The Stooges (1969) and Fun House (1970), sold poorly, not least because their nihilistic punk was ahead of its time. In 1973, the Bowie-mixed Raw Power did little to improve their lot. By that time Iggy was a heroin mess. At one point the Los Angeles police found him on Sunset Boulevard foaming at the mouth and wearing a mini-dress covered in vomit. That was surely a sign. The Stooges chugged along for a few more years, flirting with havoc, before a line was drawn under them for good ... or so most people thought.
That could have been the end of Iggy's rock career but the phoenix that rose from those ashes carried him through to the Stooges' resurgence of the noughties. It was aided by Bowie, who whisked his friend off to Berlin in 1976, partly to avoid drugs charges, and there the two embarked on a program of clean living. In the process, they produced Iggy's two solo masterpieces, The Idiot and Lust for Life.
Coinciding, as they did, with the British punk phenomenon, Iggy found himself a new audience. With a hot band behind him, he was finally getting the kind of attention that had been denied him during his more anarchic Stooges period. It didn't hurt either that his physical presence was so awe-inspiring. His body has always added a sexual tension to his performances and in the late '70s and early '80s, that physique was buffed to perfection. Perhaps it is this physical strength, I suggest, that has helped him survive his indulgences over the years.
"I never imagined I was a strong guy at the time," he says. "I've had some awful periods. I was particularly prone to illness in the first three years of the '80s. I was a more or less perennially sick guy: constant heavy drinking, rough living and that sort of thing.
"Nothing has stopped me but I have plenty of nicks. I'm very fortunate that my basic inner health is very good."
These days red wine is about as dangerous as it gets for Iggy and he has a relatively stable home life when he's not on the road with the Stooges. He has been with his partner Nina Alu for seven years, and they are happy, he says. Trollin', a song from The Weirdness about, as he puts it, picking up chicks, is based loosely on their meeting. Iggy the romantic. Who would have thought it?
"We're lucky enough to have maybe twice as much sex than is good for us but not so much that it's silly," he says, as if to prove my point.
Iggy hopes to make it back to Australia with the Stooges this year or early next year, because he enjoyed it so much the last time. The band, 40 years after it began, is his main concern. Now featuring Mike Watt on bass, the Stooges may well do another album.
"I'd certainly like to do another one," he says. "I really feel like I'm in the band. There's a good friction. Not everybody agrees on everything, but when everything settles down, we all like the same thing. We only get up each other's tree on matters of music policy. I'm high-strung and I'm a perfectionist, so when that stuff comes up it's the centre of myuniverse."
If we do see Iggy the solo artist here, it won't be as a rock performer. He likes bossa nova, would you believe, and is planning an album tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim, the king of thegenre.
"I've never trod on that yet and I like that kind of music, particularly Jobim," he says. "Sinatra did a great album, Sinatra Sings Jobim. That stuff takes a baritone pretty nicely."
The only problem might be whether he can keep a tuxedo on his back long enough to perform it.
The Weirdness is out now through EMI. Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed, by Paul Trynka, is published by Sphere ($35).