Happy Man: Iggy Pop At 75

“I got plenty of wounds and everything, but I am alive. So, it’s kind of cool, you know.”

Iggy Pop turns 75 today (Image: Discogs)

Iggy Pop is responsible for one of the most memorable encores – or maybe parting shots – I’ve ever seen. 

It was August, 1981, at the Metro club in Boston. Iggy and band had done this ferocious, but short, set – an hour, if that. It was the first time I’d seen him since the night John Lennon was killed. (Yes, he played the Paradise club in Boston and I was all set to write the review for the Boston Globe and then the news came over the radio, and the review went unwritten.) Anyway, in 1981 Iggy was, once again, at the top of his game. The punk godfather was in the midst of successful post-Stooges comeback, touring behind the album Party. 

 

 

The crowd is going wild, screaming for the (let’s face it, obligatory) encore. Iggy milked it for five minutes, all of us looking at each like “WTF?” Then, he came back to the stage. All of us, collectively: “Whew. More Iggy. Let’s keep rocking.” Wrong. Iggy calmly says, “Thank you, but fuck you, good night.” I’ve seen a sea of encores and I will not forget that one non-encore or parting shot. I gotta say, it was pretty punk rock.

This is also punk rock, though I suppose in 2022 hindsight it could be filtered through a different, or woke, lens. It was first interview I did with him, a phoner in 1979. We talked for about a half-hour and I was doing the polite-ish thing and saying, “Hey, this has been great” – and it was, truly – “and I appreciate your time …”  Iggy said, “Hey, I’ll talk to you as long as you want. I’m downstairs but upstairs in my hotel room, there’s this girl I’ve been fucking and I just want her to go away.”

We continued talking. (I do not know if or when she went away.)

Flashback to a memorable scene (not one I was there for mind you, but one chronicled by Danny Sugerman in his book Wonderland Avenue): It’s the wee hours, somewhere in the early ‘70s, the aftermath of one big party, and Sugerman – you may know him as the Doors’ attache and biographer – had to hose down one of his guests. That guest was Iggy, who was passed out, lying in a pile of garbage in his kitchen. 

“I sprayed as much of the garbage up around Iggy as I could,” Sugerman wrote. “Then using him as a sort of rotating stop block and mop, I got the shovel out of the service pantry and piled everything into the sink where the garbage disposal was. I hosed him down and poured the rest of the Ajax out and wiped up the floor, holding him by the ankles. I can still see those blue specks dissolving in that platinum hair of his. I was almost done mopping up when he began to come to.” 

Sugerman hailed a cab, handed the driver $100, told him to drive as far north he could with the money and dump the lump of Pop out, wherever that was. 

Two days later, Pop returned at 5 a.m., banging on the door – my image is of Fred Flintstone, locked out yelling “Wilma!” – screaming, “I don’t think it’s funny; I’m not laughing, let me in.” 

That’s pretty punk rock, too.

Nearly two decades after that little incident – and I’m sure it was little in the grand scheme of Pop-ish misbehavior – Iggy and I are talking about this.  

“I don’t remember any of that,” he says. “I don’t know if any of that’s true or not and it really doesn’t matter. The main point is somebody else is talking about me.

We are in a very different setting. A composed Iggy – who seems more like James Osterberg (his birth name) right now – is dressed casually, in a bright, multicolored T-shirt and faded black jeans. He’s looking a tad professorial – it might be the spectacles – as he leans back on his couch at the Four Seasons hotel, not a fleabag, mind you. 

“If I look at the things I did, the actual things I did,” says Pop, “on one hand I think, ‘Boy that really screwed up my career.’ On the other hand, I have a feeling of great pride. Like, once I did an interview in a guy’s office and during the interview, I wanted to pee, but I didn’t want to leave the room so I peed in his wastebasket. These kinds of guys, you’ve met these kinds of guys, they need somebody to pee in their wastebasket sometimes.” 

On April 21, Iggy Pop turns 75. And, yes, like the case with Keith Richards (at pretty much any of his birthdays post-40), no one would have placed good money on that happening.

I know it’s kind of silly to think this – as many people of all persuasions from nerds to contract killers wear glasses – but somehow, you just don’t envision Iggy Pop behind lenses. 

American Caesar era Iggy Pop (Image: Discogs)

And, he says, those specs have caused him some trouble. 

“Outside, in the real world, I have to face that a lot,” says Pop, about matching his madman public image. “They expect me to be that way. I even had a thing last night. I was eating dinner with some people and I was wearing my glasses and some guy who had a few comes up to me — ‘What’s with the glasses?!’ — and I got mad. I nearly choked the guy.”

Which is pretty comical, in a way, but you gotta hand it to Iggy: Say this for his impulse control. He nearly choked the guy. Nearly. But he didn’t. That’s discipline.

At the time of this interview, Pop was 43, He wasn’t doing drugs anymore – remember “Lust for Life”? “No more beatin’ my brain with liquor and drugs” – and he didn’t drink to excess. He was married to Suchi Asano – that lasted nine more years; he married Nina Alu in 2008 – and he had been lecturing at colleges. He made me think of the Rolling Stones’ song “Respectable.”

Iggy has mostly gone against whatever grain there was to go against, beginning when his proto-punk band, the Stooges, played songs such as “We Will Fall,” “No Fun” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” serving as a fist in the face of the hippie movement. Then there was his synthesizer-based “Germanic” period, when his steely, moody collaborations with David Bowie hit the artistic mark but missed the mainstream. There was his more straight-ahead, hit-or-miss, pop-rock of the late ’70s and ’80s. In 2012, he released Apres, an album of covers, many sung in French, in a mode you might call Iggy Suave.

“I think they were all running contrary to the fashion of the times,” says Pop, about his work. 

 

 

Pop remains rock ‘n’ roll’s pre-eminent performer — a cobra always ready to strike. He still writes gritty songs of both mean streets and redemptive possibility. He’s been an idol to several generations of on-the-edge rockers, from the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten to Joan Jett to Guns N’ Roses to Queens of the Stone Age to The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow. 

Pop counted David Bowie among his closest pals and occasional collaborators. (Also, his in the background pianist on a 1977 tour.) Bowie, in fact, popularized several of Pop’s songs, most notably with “China Girl” in 1983. This kept him in pocket change during the lean years. Bowie attempted to rescue Pop at several points in his career, first in 1973 when he co-produced Raw Power, then again, there was that aforementioned Germanic period that lasted roughly three years. 

Of this second rescue, Pop says: “The main thing was that we both escaped from LA. He was on top of the heap of LA, and it was ruining him, and I was on the bottom of it, the other end of the circle from him. We were so far apart we were together. If he walked out his door, they wanted to bend over and kiss his butt. He was absolutely the flashiest dude in Hollywood. And I was the most reviled street-scum in Hollywood of no fixed address. I was Top Cat with body odor. It was like, ‘Oh no, here he comes, excuse me, I’m headin’ out the door.’ ” 

Pop has been on the stage; Pop has been in the gutter. But not without pride. “I’ve been spit at, I’ve been slugged, I’ve been egged,” he wrote in I Need More, his autobiography. “I’ve been hit with paper clips, money, cameras, brassieres, underwear, old rags and with expensive garments and belts and things. I’ve been hit with, well, a slingshot. Yeah, you just get used to it after a while.” 

Action of that sort is documented on Metallic KO, a live album of the last Iggy and the Stooges concert in Detroit. Pop had gone to a radio station and, on the air, challenged a biker gang called the Scorpions to come to the show and do their worst. They took him up on it, pelting him with bottles and eggs. As you can hear on the record, Pop rises to the challenge. “You missed me!” he taunts, after an egg splats audibly. He and the Stooges stagger through “Rich Bitch” and endless “Louie Louie,” upping the annoyance ante. 

 

AUDIO: Iggy and the Stooges “Cock In My Pocket”

Pop knows the needle and the damage done. He’s shot himself full of heroin and speed, snorted mounds of cocaine, dropped acid, drunk himself into uncounted stupors, repeatedly cut his chest with broken glass, smeared it with peanut butter. He acknowledges the self-abuse was fueled, at least in part, by the drug abuse. In the late ’60s, the Stooges were making a big, squalling noise, ranting about boredom and ennui. But having fun, too, and getting a music career started. Things took a big dive in 1970, Pop says, after he discovered heroin. 

Part of the problem of being Iggy Stooge (as he was then known) was that fans wanted to party with the star; hence, they supplied the drugs. This is not uncommon in the rock world, at least of those days. 

Mischief is one thing; real self-destruction is another. “I remember being in the dark at 3:30 a.m. in South Dakota with a female truck driver I don’t know very well, if you know what I mean, and she’s like, ‘OK, listen, I’ll make another run and get an ounce and a half of speed.’ 

“A lot of crazed people now seem to be professionally crazed. You’ve got guys doing commercializations of my prior lifestyle . . . You hear these songs that codify and ritualize intoxication and quick-sex behavior, usually by guys who are living more like young businessmen. 

“I learned all the survival skills from Bowie,” Pop recalls. “The wild part of that wild life — it only lasts a couple of years. After that, it’s just self-crucifixion, where you’re not even wild anymore, you’re just so whacked-out you can’t get out the door anyway . . . I remember some dodgy bits, and it’s scary and weird. I keep thinking that’s why I’m in a good mood, basically, ’cause I go wow! I’m not without my wounds, you know, I got plenty of wounds and everything, but I am alive. So, it’s kind of cool, you know.” 

At this particular moment, Pop is cheesed off about hard rock bands shifting styles to chase the brass ring and, well, let him say it: “You hear these power ballads, I can’t bear them. They dress up in these clothes where the image is ‘We’re tough, we’re bad,’ and then what they do is a song where they basically suck up to radio. If the clothes really match the music, they should wear a little nursery-school outfit. Or maybe a leisure suit. I also get ticked off when it’s these political pronouncements and I don’t get anything personal from the singer, ’cause they aren’t going to tell me what’s personal ’cause they’re probably ashamed of what they’re doing with their time or they’re just too lazy to write about themselves. Yeah, war is bad. I agree. Now what?” 

For Pop, the answer has always been to keep writing personal songs, to rail against the complacency he sees around him. To assemble a band for a tour. To keep on keeping on. 

Jim Sullivan with Iggy Pop / Photo by Roza Yarchun

“The rewards you get,” he says, “feeling, like, wow, I’m gonna get up this morning and it’s gonna be a hard day, and we’re not in a totally secure situation here, but at least I feel like I’m living and I’m doing something that has some of me in it, learning from situations when you’re in your 40s, the same as I was when I was 18 . . . I’m not gonna be the person who goes through their life like a lot of people do, I think, feeling like, ‘They don’t know me at work, I have to put on a mask, they don’t know that my personality isn’t used in my job.’ I’ve always tried to fight against that. You know, in the House of Iggy, here’s the way we do things.”

Twelve years ago, there was a reconstituted Stooges gig in Boston. Iggy & the Stooges back among us! Howling and ranting and raving like was 1969 or 1973, or whatever, raw and visceral era you’d like to reference. What it meant was Iggy Pop, drummer Scott Asheton, bassist Mike (Minutemen) Watt and guitarist James Williamson would be doing that raw wild thing. Williamson was the guitarist on the Stooges’ seminal Raw Power LP, but not back in the re-formed Stooges until after guitarist Ron Asheton died in 2009. (His brother Scott died March 16, 2014.) 

We had a chat on the phone before the show hit Boston.

 

Rock and Roll Globe: Who’d have thought there would be a Stooges in 2010? Maybe who would have thought you would make it this far on the planet.

Iggy Pop: I always assumed I would. I wasn’t sitting around preparing for death, though a lot of people thought …

 

You did some fairly public damage.

We [Americans] are the still one of the most easily scandalized people on earth. Who better than me could carry the scarlet letter? It’s fine and eventually what happened was I waited long enough and didn’t die and it’s now become a plus.  In the mid’’90s, one by one large corporate groups wanted a little adventure in their lives and there I was. Everything changed at that point. When I had Don Was, an awfully nice guy, as a producer in the ‘80s he was trying to help broker what finally happened, that society and I have kind of met halfway. That’s what’s happened. One item in his scheme was to get me to play Farm Aid so did Farm Aid and I did interview for CNN and to the interviewer I crossed over into American society that day and he only had one thing to ask me. He stared at me and said, “So, are you gonna roll in broken glass today?” I politely didn’t answer him. I wasn’t gonna punk out on him, or say a mea culpa either, so there was some of that. Everybody has done fine and we’re all happy now.

 

I remember seeing you play the main stage at SXSW back in 1996 and it seemed like a watershed moment, Iggy Pop singing these primal decadent songs for kids, parents, everyone. Fun for the whole fucking family, as a Huey Lewis and the News tour t-shirt once read.

It’s a beautiful thing. I have the changing organization of the music business to thank for that. The advent of the music conference and of the festivals, especially in Europe, the advent of the Internet, the demise of the sort of record companies focused on a huge profit very quickly, and that are foolishly focused on the record business when it’s always been a branch of show business anyway which is a branch of corporate structure which is a branch of banking. That’s how it works. All that had gone down, and I hadn’t bitten anybody lately. I have songs about that, people can enjoy works of art without completely fearing or loathing me. That’s how I do it.

 

AUDIO: Iggy and the Stooges “Search and Destroy” (David Bowie mix)

Whenever I’ve seen you play, you’ve been so on. Amazing stamina.

There are some nights where the setup suggests that the show will be better if you use 75 percent. That doesn’t happen too often. Generally, it’s 100 percent-plus thing. It’s just the way I do it; I wouldn’t know any other way to go about it. It gets a little less physical with hen some of the songs. You want to portray the song correctly and try not to rip off people who came out to see you and paid some money.

 

At age 63, do you still relate to that destructive forgotten boy in “Search and Destroy”?

Well, yeah, sure. I’m the same person. I’m like a small house that has add-ons, a historic hotel that has a new wing and now has spawned franchises. But the original is still there.”

 

You were a punk rocker before there was punk rock.

I never went with any particular image or movement that was going on at the time. By never being of the moment, I didn’t perish either. I never really wore the entire leather suit with the little pins and needles. I played golf when it was something you weren’t supposed to do and then I dropped it when Mötley Crüe was doing it.

 

You did a lot of damage to yourself – lots of drugs, rolling around in broken glass on stage – much of it chronicled in your autobiography. What’s your take now on the Iggy of yore?

If I look back, I’m very fond of him. He’s good entertainment. But if you mean do I look now at a particular situation – say, somebody floats the party idea or asks me, “Are you tired? And if you’re tired, I’ve got something right here,” which happens all the time – that triggers a revulsion. Ee-ew. The opposite reaction that it would have had once in my life.

 

What happened?

Nothing that happens to anyone happens for one cause. We’re not binary beings. We’re not digital. I think you had a combination going on with me of rabid idealism mixed with incredible weaknesses. You add the two together and then some other things thrown in as well. I was never going to have a Huey Lewis hit or a Phil Collins kind of hit.

 

I saw you perform at a club on Lansdowne Street in Boston in 1981. You exited the stage and, after much demanding applause, finally came back only to say, “Thank you, but fuck you, good night.”

(Laughter) What a terrible person! Oh dear, the bleary ’80s! I was happy because perception and confidence problems didn’t exist and I didn’t realize how much they enjoyed the set.

 

But it was so punk rock. Of all the encores I’ve seen, that I remember best.

This is one of the unfortunate things about a good sensible idea. Everybody else has it, or if they don’t, it soon spreads around. It’s sort of like a real estate bubble where at some point the value of it just crashes. You don’t run into those problems when you’re me. It’s really hard to be scandalized. It’s not as if somebody’s waiting to come out of the woodwork saying Iggy Pop bled, did drugs, ruined my house and slept with my kids. Everybody knows that. I don’t have to be out there pretending to save the world.

 

At every point in your career, you’ve always been ultra-lean and fit. Your physicality and endurance are amazing. What’s up?

I do something called Qigong religiously, 40 minutes a day every day of my life. Qigong gives you tremendous energy and calm and it’s been good for my metabolism. I learned it from a Tai Chi master. It’s like Tai Chi for retards.

 

And then there was the show …

“Does anybody wanna take a trip with me?” a sweaty and shirtless Iggy asked the crowd.

“It’s a ‘Death Trip’!” he exclaimed, revealing the title of the hard, bluesy downward spiral of a song about to be played.

His introduction got to the nub of what Pop and his four mates in the Stooges mined for 75 hard, harsh, but celebratory, minutes at House of Blues on Tuesday. That theme became crystal clear during the last encore, “No Fun,” in which a declaration of ennui never sounded so exuberant. (To be fair, it always has. Seeing it live makes it more so.)

The way it began: Wow! A four-song opening salvo of “Raw Power,” “Search and Destroy,” “Gimme Danger” and “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell.” It was explosion after explosion. I felt like I was 16 again. On “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Williamson played wah-wah guitar licks and Pop got on all fours, putting the microphone cord in his mouth like a leash.

Iggy Pop (Art: Charles Burns)

Skinny and muscular, Pop was in constant motion. He was playful at times, inviting fans on stage to dance during “Shake Appeal” and saluting the folks in the plush seats with, “Hello, people in the balcony. You’re comfortable and I can’t smell you.”

He didn’t cut his chest with glass, smear himself with peanut butter or take out Lil Iggy for a dance as he did back at the Paradise in 1980 – that night Lennon was shot. But Pop remained quasi-dangerous. He mimed shooting dope during “Penetration” and dove from the stage several times. 

He maintained focus while conjuring up the most chaotic and beautiful mess you could ever want.

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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