The Fabulous Iggy Pop

Iggy PopWatching 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.

Lust for LifeThe 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.”

Iggy PopIt 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.”

Iggy and David JohansenLike 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.

Comments 7

  • I used to work for a sweat-shop like magazine publishing company in NYC. A man named JIm worked along side me in the Art Dept. and his two great musical loves were Iggy and Bruce. We listened to music all day long. I had heard the Stooges before but they didn’t fully click with me until I met Jim at work in ’92.

    I was hooked. We decided one day on a lark to send Iggy a package. I do not remember what address we used or how we got it. We mailed him black and white promo shot that was hanging around the office and a 6 inch thick package of the magazines we worked on. We highlighted all the mistakes made within our magazines such as misspellings on the cover. We ridiculed ourselves and wished him luck inenjoying the crap we were paid to create. (This included sci-fi, rap, wrestling, female body building, horror, car racing and a dozen other niche magazines.) We also asked him to sign the glossy and included two personal letters with two self addressed stamped envelopes.

    We waited. And waited. Months go by and we forget the whole thing. At the time I was engaged and by now my wedding day had come. The very morning of my wedding the letter arrived. It was a very short hand written note with the included glossy. I do not remember what he wrote because the note was addressed to Jim. The letters were switched. I put the note in my pocket and carried it to my wedding. When Jim arrived to my wedding we were both smiling holding each others letters. I immediately opened mine and it read: “Funhouse got me fired.” with a poorly drawn hand flipping me the bird and signed Iggy Pop. His letter was a response to my letter which only contained the words, “Funhouse is my favorite album.”

    (We later confirmed the handwriting against writings found on some of his albums and other soources.)

    So the moment I kissed my wife in front of family and friends I held in my tuxedo breast pocket a hand written personal letter from Iggy Pop giving me the middle finger. And to this day the letter is embedded within my wedding photo album falling chronologically next to the moment I became a married man.

    As much fun and mayhem I have experienced at his shows, this is my favorite Iggy story.

    I can not exaggerate the love I have for this man’s music. Nothing else sounds like it. Nothing else equals it in its pure energy.

    Great post Tom. Iggy however did reach top 20 once with Candy.

  • Slappy, that’s one hell of a wedding day tale…didn’t remember about Candy. You know he made his big money on Bowie’s China Girl hit…

  • Yep. And I think Iggy repaid the favor (so to speak) with Lust For Life.

    Iggy must now make a pretty penny off of commercials. I hear his music all the time on TV. Well edited of course.

    Why Tom do you call it a myth that there would be no Clash/Pistols etc without Iggy? Certainly Iggy was playing a new kind of music that inspired many, including the Ramones, Dolls and Pistols. And without Iggy, Ziggy Stardust would have NEVER been born. Much of punk and glam can be directly traced back to Iggy. Rock and roll would have been born without Elvis but it probably would have had a different sound. Why is this a myth?

    There are some artists who it is hard to exaggerate their influence. Iggy Pop is one of them I believe. James Brown, Black Sabbath, Beatles come to mind too.

    And another thought: Funhouse may be my all time favorite album cover. I’ve known people who had owned the album (vinyl I’m talking) for years and never saw the double image because they never happened to hold it wrong side up. And once you know its there, you can’t believe you ever missed it.

  • The only reason I say myth, per se, is because of the idea of Iggy as the singular force behind it all – in reality, he was part of something larger; certainly in terms of coming out of the Detroit scene in any case. He synthesized and reinvented, took rock to some different places. But I think the direct tracing back to the single kernel of Iggy Pop is mythical…

  • Killer review!! My ex-husband hung with Iggy and his crowd back in the day in Detroit/AA. He’s a huge fan & got me into him- Now I have a GREAT present for his b-day (April 18th) and to celebrate Iggys’ (April 21st).

    My favorite Iggy story? Saw him at the Cameo Theatre in Miami Beach (my first time live) around ’84. RIVETING. Just so feral & electric!!! I hadn’t gotten it until then, but man, it was something. I had my hand up when he came by (like MANY of the ladies- hey, we’ve seen the pic of him naked!), so he slaps it, laughs, bend down and makes kissy faces at me. OH MY.

    Killer, just killer.

  • I saw Iggy about 10 years ago at the American Legion Hall in Los Angeles, and it is still, hands down, the loudest concert I have ever seen, before or since.

  • I have to relate a story my wife likes to tell. Back in the early 80s, before I knew her, she worked in a small record store in a small town in western PA. She and her co-workers were punks and did not much care how much money the owners made – as long as they had fun! When the shop got crowded with bogus people asking after Toto’s new record, or if it was getting close to closing time, “Steve” would say, “Time for ‘Zombie Birdhouse’ ” and after a few short minutes the place would be empty…

    I remember reading a review of one of his records in the NY Times where they kept referring to him as “Mr. Pop.”