The Fabulous Iggy Pop
Watching Anthony Kiedis sleepwalk through the motions while the rest of the Red Hot Chili Peppers delivered a technically brilliant and emotionally spirited set last week in Tampa, the mind of this 44-year-old rock fan turned to an elder of the genre. There were times when the lead Chili (also 44) acted like Iggy Pop, but man, he didn’t deliver like Iggy. He didn’t sell it. He didn’t leave it up there. He didn’t bleed.
Of course, the irony was rich – there were Kiedis and Flea doing their best Iggy impressions and raking in millions, filling arenas, and putting up hits all over the chart for a couple of decades.
Iggy Pop, aka James Osterberg from suburban Michigan, never put up the chart-toppers, never filled arenas, never toured in an armada of tractor trailers, elaborate staging, and handlers. Yet, four decades into his long and often strange career, Iggy Pop remains as influential as ever. Iggy turns 60 this year, the reunited Stooges have an album in the wings, and Iggy is the subject for the first full-blown, fully-researched biography of his long life. Paul Trynka, former editor of Mojo, has crafted a superb reader that captures the manic energy of “Iggy Pop,” and the restless, intellectual wanderings of Jim Osterberg. Iggy: Open Up and Bleed (due on April 17 from Broadway) explores the depths of madness and energy that have always keyed the Iggy Pop personal, melding the hypersexual wide-eyed rock-and-roll man-child with a fascinating cast of characters that tells the story of rock from the mid-60s to the latest playlists on iTunes.
My first exposure to Iggy and the Stooges came long after they’d died an ignominious death on a Detroit stage, an event so central to the Iggy story that Trynka leads with it. My discovery came in the late 70s, when Jim Osterberg was well into his Berlin period at the side of one David Bowie, and only occasionally made the scene at the New York clubs and dives where I hung out. Even the, I was told by my instructors, Iggy Pop had well-earned the sobriquet Godfather of Punk, and his Stooges sides were amonst the most popular on that grand old jukebox just inside the entrance of Max’s Kansas City.
The world’s forgotten boy was an image stamped on my bridge-and-tunnel forehead, and his act could be seen in imitation most nights at CBGB. I heard and bought the myth: no Iggy, no Clash, no Sex Pistols, no Voidoids, no Senders, no Voodoo Shoes etc. (In succeeding decades, other skinny kids would hear and buy the same myth, about Guns n’ Roses, Nirvana, the Chili Peppers, Buckcherry, and Green Day).
By then, the original punk had moved on to explore new horizons in stream-of-consciousness lyrics and studio performance; like Chuck Berry, he’d throw together a backing band for live tours and play the old hits, but he was working on something different on the records. As Iggy recounts, the life of this pop idol is best seen in dualist fashion: Jim Osterberg vs. Iggy Pop, occasional success vs. frequent failure, periods of lucidity vs. the descent into self-destructive madness. But the reporting here is thorough, and much of the wild-boy myth is exposed. So often, it was the stage that created “Iggy,” the crowd that bore the path to madness, the applause that fed Jim Osterberg like Tokyo’s powerlines gave the rage to Godzilla. At most times, out of the public eye, Jim Osterberg came across as a friendly, curious fellow, almost laid-back, sometimes clever, occasionally conniving, and rarely serious. Despite a scary public demeanor, most people who met him liked Jim Osterberg – and he was the kind of young fellow that women always thought they could save.
Self-awareness came later, after his eighty-seventh fall from grace – the myriad record label droppings, band break-ups, arrests, broken relationships, and disastrous finances. Osterberg shows up in moments of super-fine self-examination that you’d never expect to find in the out-of-control Iggy Pop: “…there was a line I was crossing into picaresque behavior. I was becoming Don Quixote. There’s a fine line between entertaining flamboyance and being a prat.”
By the mid-80s, Iggy’s reputation was at an ebb. Punk was over, new wave a flat, dance-club drone, “alternative” was over the horizon, and a few old school rockers still sold records. Ian Hunter said at the time: “Iggy’s the all-time should have but didn’t – and it’s because he’s not quite good enough.” And Iggy himself admitted: “I had a terrible rep in the USA; terrible. Somewhere between Andy Kaufman and a serial killer.”
It just seems that Jim Osterberg didn’t care for the expedient, that at times, he deliberately took the self-destructive path to non-success. That he didn’t really give a damn whether people laughed at him. Trynka remains struck by Iggy’s “lack of self-pity and his obvious sense that there was always some historical destiny at work.”
On the musical side, Iggy Pop followed his instincts, even the bad ones (Trynka is rightfully careful not to deify Iggy’s recording career, which remains spotty at best) and saw himself as a leader in the musical sense: someone whose raw power directed the soundtrack, not the musical form or the marketplace. Says collaborator Clem Burke, drummer for Blondie:
“There is an analogy between Iggy’s music and someone like Hooker in the way it doesn’t have to be completely in time and meter – he leads the band with his movement and expression and being primitive. It’s a jazz ethic. And to work with the energy he exudes was amazing.”
Like a VH1 special on crack, the book traces the rise-fall-comeback-fall-rise-fall-fall-fall-comeback trail until it basically does a quick skim-job on the 90s. Enough is enough, and besides, the spectre of age is far more interesting now. The idea of Iggy Pop making the big-time festival scene along with the likes of the reconstituted New York Dolls and releasing a record at a time when the Stones, the Who, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen are the only rockers making any serious dough on tour holds some delicious karmic payback.
And today’s cool kids are enthralled. Jack White to Iggy: “I have always felt that the blood that runs in your veins is so much thicker than normal people that nothing can pollute it. That’s the vibe I’ve gotten from you.”
Or as Iggy might well sum it all up:
Well, I’m just a modern guy
Of course, I’ve had it in my ear before
Well, I’ve a lust for life
Cause I’ve got a lust for life.
Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed
by Paul Trynka
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Broadway (April 10, 2007)
Other blog sources:
Patti Smith makes rock hall, but where’s Iggy?
500 Greatest Rock Songs of All-Time – #438 The Stooges – I Wanna Be Your Dog
Lust for Life
The Stooges Get Hip Hopped
LISTEN UP: Nude & Rude
Teddybears vs. The World & The Historical…
“My idea of fun / Is killing everyone”
Iggy and the Stooges in Cincinnati in 1970 – dig the bizarre TV coverage, almost like a sporting event.