Forget the Stones, Johnny Rotten, Eric Clapton, and Ozzy Osbourne, the real medical marvel of golden-era rock music is Iggy Pop. Of the esteemed ‘60s musicians that soundtracked rock and roll’s most iconic moments, no one lived on the edge quite as Iggy did. That he is still with us in 2016 is nothing short of incredible, as he stands like a living relic of a lifestyle that has all but disappeared. Today’s rock stars cannot hold a candle to the debauchery, excess, and mania of Pop’s acclaimed tenure as Stooges frontman and later solo career, as both outlandishly experimental provocateur and compatriot of David Bowie. For 48 years, Pop has somehow eluded death and illness through miraculous genetic hardiness, and blessed fans over the world with some of the greatest music of its time. Here, we'll take a look at the most rock and roll rocker, the man who defined Raw Power, and the mad visionary who pushed early punk to its outermost limits.
James Newell Osterberg, Jr. was born and raised in a trailer park in Michigan, to loving parents of mixed English, Irish, Norwegian, and Danish heritage. In his early years, the boy who would grow to be Iggy Pop took a keen interest in drums, a hobby which his parents were supportive of. For a man with such a wild adult life, there were surprisingly few early signs of his signature eccentricity, as Pop told Rolling Stone in 2007, though in the same interview the singer brought up bipolar disorder and remarked: ”I’ve certainly seen my past in it.”
Perhaps the biggest polar-opposite shift in Pop’s life came during the twilight of his high school years, during which he attended an unusually posh school, as he sought to fit into the establishment before almost immediately rebelling against everything they stood for. In his words: "From the moment I set foot in junior high and saw how the other half lived, I wanted nothing more than to be like them. Never could get it right. […] Nothing clicked for me, until I played drums in the talent show. People treated me differently.” Soon, as Pop recounts, he was ”going wild — getting drunk once in a while. Borrowed cars, crashing’ em.” Arrests followed as Pop lived the madcap life he so aspired to, influenced by the some of the most cutting-edge artists of the time, especially The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
By the mid-‘60s, Pop had moved to Chicago to learn more about the blues. Taking direction from a curious mix of classic blues and the nascent proto-punk pioneered by groups like The Sonics and fellow Michiganians MC5, Pop sketched the outline of his alter-ego and started performing with bassist Dave Alexander and brothers Ron and Scott Asheton on guitar and drums, respectively. The watershed moment for their group came in 1967, however, when Pop saw The Doors in concert for the first time, when they were touring in support of their massive hit Light My Fire.
Performing in a gymnasium at the University of Michigan (the same university Pop dropped out of to pursue his musical career), frontman Jim Morrison left an indelible impression on the young Pop, and taught a lesson that would stick with the singer for the rest of his life and career. Pop recounted the experience decades later in an interview with Classic Rock Revisited.
It was following this performance that Pop renamed his group The Stooges and they signed to Elektra Records. The band’s John Cale-produced eponymous debut would go on to become one of the landmark records of its era. Caught between the classic rock of the time and the burgeoning punk scene, songs like I Wanna Be Your Dog and 1969 were intensely exciting and controversial hits that - while disavowed by many critics upon first impression - have gone on to become seminal entries in the punk rock canon.
Combining the stage eccentricities of Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, and James Brown, Pop had already reached a higher plane of performance debauchery. He single-handedly invented the stagedive at a legendary gig in Detroit, and would break bottles, roll around in the glass, expose himself to the crowd, and vomit - all in the course of one night. Pop had also taken an early liking to a the smorgasbord of illicit substances so beloved by his peers, developing destructive dependencies on both LSD and heroin, in particular.
As he twisted his lithe bare torso through shards of glass in the name of art, Pop’s guttural howl of a voice brought the lumbering viciousness of the band’s compositions to life. The sentiment alone of I Wanna Be Your Dog was enough to wake up a generation of young people all over the world, galvanising the musicians who would go on to make names for themselves under now-iconic names like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The New York Dolls. Yet Pop was a perfectionist at heart, boldly refusing John Cale’s mix of the band’s debut album and electing to complete the work himself. For Iggy Pop has never lacked purpose, and The Stooges certainly never lacked for guts.
They would play two twenty-five minute gigs a night to crowds that were alternately disinterested, alienated, or electrified. Pop noticed early on that it was the wilder youths who accepted The Stooges’ music first, and perhaps it was this endorsement from the next generation that so emboldened the band’s experimentalism on their legendary sophomore release, Fun House. Named after an infamous farm property in Ann Arbour which the band rented for a time, Fun House would arguably become the group’s defining statement. Recorded as their frontman eased slowly into full-blown heroin addiction, Pop later said of the time: “Somehow, little by little, it crept in. It became a comfort — a blanket, a refuge. I was a local blues drummer, making the transition to a songwriter and frontman in a competitive business, very quickly. I was trying to forge ahead, and I burned out.”
Yet in the same interview Pop also remarked of the Fun House recording sessions that "…when we took LSD together, there were creative moments when everybody believed we could do something.” And, to this day, the album stands as perhaps the most wild recording of the ‘60s/‘70s era - absurdly rough, tough, and unhinged, it was an odyssey into drug addiction and the slow onset of an erratic madness that has stuck with Pop ever since. Featuring a brief suite of abrasive punk songs that gradually devolve into a psychedelic free jazz-punk haze - replete with wailing saxophones and all - Fun House couldn’t help but change the way future generations of rockers viewed the outer limits of music.
Though contemporary reviewers all-but canned Fun House, as they had the band’s debut album, many rescinded their opinions over years of reflection. Acclaimed writer Robert Christgau, who famously referred to The Stooges’ music as "competent monotony” in his initial 1970 review of Fun House, later blamed his initial misreading on the album’s obvious inaccessibility, and remarked: "Now I regret all the times I’ve used words like ‘power’ and ‘energy’ to describe rock and roll, because this is what such rhetoric should have been saved for. Shall I compare it to an atom bomb? a wrecker’s ball? a hydroelectric plant? Language wasn’t designed for the job.”
Indeed, such was Fun House’s groundbreaking furiosity that it swiftly became one of the most influential rock albums of all time, and has since been named as an all-time favourite record by a host of musicians. Joey Ramone, Jack White, Nick Cave, Henry Rollins, and Steve Albini have all identified the album as their absolute favourite, and its influence shows in different ways through the music of each. Such is Fun House's singularity that even a casual listener will observe that the first 30 seconds of T.V. Eye sounds like what everybody hears in their head when someone mentions the word punk, and that Dirt ranks among the most dark, dirty, and sinister songs of all time, lurching forward to a traditional blues rhythm in an inebriated, suicidal daze.
Fun House was soul-crushing darkness and wild experimentalism committed to tape, yet it was initially difficult for producer John Gallucci to capture The Stooges’ potential in a recording environment. "[The Stooges are an] interesting group, but I don’t think you can get this feeling on tape,” Gallucci had remarked to Elektra Records head Jac Holzman after he saw the band perform life. After initially attempting to record the group in the contemporary way, using isolation booths, multiple takes, and condenser microphones, Gallucci’s fears appeared valid. Everyone involved in the initial recordings was unhappy with the progress they had made.
In the end, it was the unsatisfied band who provided an alternative solution. Stripping the studio equipment back to recreate the atmosphere of a small live stage, they set up all the instruments the same way they did live, even handing Pop a small handheld microphone to carry around with him. The resultant scrappiness of the recording quality was perfect for The Stooges, so much more primal than their contemporaries. In many ways, those recordings managed to be decades ahead of their time because they had the guts to do things the old-fashioned way in a time where technological progressiveness was usually prized above all else.
Pop later admitted to doing his best to imitate his hero Howlin’ Wolf during the Fun House sessions, and it shows. There had never been rock singing so stretched, so broken, so terrifyingly desperate. To hear the band in their intended space - live in the studio as they were when they played their most legendary shows, documenting what for all intents and purposes sounds like the end of the world - is a rare and beautiful treasure. Fun House deserves every accolade it has ever been given, down to the many listeners who have dubbed it the greatest rock record of all time. Certainly it can lay claim to that title, this loud and messy curio of an utterly inspired period in the lives of the world’s greatest punk rock group.
Sadly, Fun House would be the last album to feature The Stooges original lineup. The band disbanded soon after the album’s release, largely due to Pop’s worsening heroin addiction. At that time, Pop was living on Wonderland Avenue with Danny Sugerman - late manager of The Doors - and was just barely surviving the rough life documented in Sugerman’s brilliant book Wonderland Ave.
Pop was narrowly avoiding murder at the hands of jealous boyfriends, even as his drug habit took every dollar he made and shot it into his arms. A wreck of a man, he found comfort in a burgeoning friendship with David Bowie, who urged Pop towards productivity, direction, and a Stooges reformation of sorts. David Alexander had been ejected from the group by Pop, ironically over his uncontrollable abuse of alcohol, and would eventually die in 1975 of alcohol-associated illnesses. To make up the numbers, guitarist James Williamson joined the group, moving a grumbling Ron Asheton to bass guitar duties in Alexander’s absence. And so it was that this second iteration of The Stooges took to the studio with David Bowie in 1972.
"Very few people recognized the quality of the Stooges’ songwriting, it was really meticulous. And to his credit, the only person I’d ever known of in print to notice it, among my peers of professional musicians, was Bowie. He noticed it right off,” Pop wrote in the liner notes of Raw Power’s 1997 CD reissue. Mixed by Pop and Bowie in collaboration, Pop has also recalled that ”[Bowie’s] concept was, ‘You’re so primitive, your drummer should sound like he’s beating a log!’ It’s not a bad job that he did… I’m very proud of the eccentric, odd little record that came out.” In a 1991 interview with International Musician, Bowie called those sessions ”the most absurd situation I encountered when I was recording.”
Raw Power was another financial disappointment, though critics had begun to cotton on to The Stooges immense importance. Featuring greater musical complexity, a more unified sound, and a slightly less wild disposition, Raw Power was the first Stooges record that sounded like what might be called traditional punk rock. It has gone on to enjoy status as one of the most acclaimed albums of its era, and Kurt Cobain even handed it the coveted #1 slot on his list of his fifty favourite albums. "The album seems like it’s all done in one take. 'Let’s do that one, leave it, just try something else’,” said Cee Lo Green, who has also named the album as one of his favourites, remarking of Pop that “with his energy on stage, it seems as if the studio was just destroyed after that album - or at least you’d like to believe that.”
The Stooges broke up for real in 1974 after playing one final show that ended in a massive brawl with a gang of bikers, documented in the iconic live album Metallic K.O. Of their penultimate gig, Lester Bangs once wrote in his essay Iggy Pop: Blowtorch in Bondage: "So the Stooges played a forty-five-minute version of Louie Louie, including new lyrics improvised by the Pop on the spot consisting of ‘You can suck my ass/ You biker faggot sissies,’ etc. […] Iggy jumps off the stage, runs through the middle of the crowd, and [an angry biker] beats the shit out of him, ending the evening’s musical festivities by sending the lead singer back to his motel room and a doctor. I walk into the dressing room, where I encounter the manager of the club offering to punch out anybody in the band who will take him on. The next day the bike gang, who call themselves the Scorpions, will phone WABX-FM and promise to kill Iggy and the Stooges if they play the Michigan Palace on Thursday night. They do (play, that is), and nobody gets killed, but Metallic K.O. is the only rock album I know where you can actually hear hurled beer bottles breaking against guitar strings."
Following the band’s demise, Pop spiralled into a dark drug daze that eventually led him to the inevitable mad house, in this case UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute. Bowie continued to support Pop, and was one of the few visitors the singer had during these, his darkest years. In 1976, the two relocated to Berlin together and determined to wean themselves off respective drug addictions. They recorded Pop’s solo album The Idiot in isolation during that time, unofficially beginning Bowie’s Berlin period, and establishing Pop as a solo artist. In many ways, Pop was a sort of lab rat for Bowie in the studio, a means by which he could try things he wasn’t yet sure if he wanted to release under his own name. "Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound,” Bowie noted in the Sound + Vision liner notes. "I didn’t have the material at the time, and I didn’t feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else’s work, so that album was opportune, creatively.”
Bowie biographer David Buckley once described the Dostoyevsky-referencing album as "a funky, robotic hellhole of an album,” and he wasn’t far off. Employing the electronic wizardry of Bowie’s skillset, Pop’s music took a turn for the darker, the more refined, and the more intellectual, juxtaposing funk-influenced rhythms with lyrics that simultaneously referenced Jim Morrison’s writing on The End and the wider Oedipus complex from which he first drew influence. It says something for the extremity of the claustrophobic darkness of The Idiot that it was still spinning on Ian Curtis’ turntable when the Joy Division frontman was found dead from hanging suicide in 1980. Indeed, Pop had begun to appeal to a different breed of young musicians, capturing the imaginations of young industrial and electronic pioneers like Depeche Mode and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who has for years credited Pop’s work as among his biggest influences.
Bowie also assisted Pop on 1977’s Lust for Life, a significantly brighter and less experimental follow-up to The Idiot, and to this day the most commercially successful release of Pop’s career. It provided Pop with the hits that had long eluded him during his tenure with The Stooges, and which The Idiot so clearly eschewed. Yet it was with great irony that Pop's creative streak counter-actively diminished and slowly died away in the following years, as his relevance seemed to be shrouded by the shifting sands of time. Throughout much of the '80s and '90s, Pop was a mere chat-show curio or mildly-interesting musical outsider. He'd wisely tamed down a little off-stage, but his music had lost its unique edge, and the man appeared run-out for the first time in his life. Perhaps there isn't a single musician alive who could have sustained Pop's '60s/'70s-era unrestrained excess for as long as he did. As it turns out, even Pop had a stopping point.
In Pop's brilliant David Fricke interview for Rolling Stone that was quoted earlier, the conversation inevitably turned to Pop's modern day perception of his own past hedonism. When Fricke asked Pop about how he views his level of responsibility in inspiring youths like the late Sid Vicious to follow in his footsteps, Pop appeared reflective: "There are people who hate what they are, who want to get rid of that part of themselves, to scrape it away. They look at me in certain periods, especially twenty years ago, as someone who did that — who managed to be fucked up and… [Long pause]." "Totally cool at it?" Fricke offers, before Pop concedes: "Yes. Then they live that out for themselves."
Many of the young men Pop is describing have died, their painfully short legacies spread across a few years of rock history like blood splatter. It must be strange for Pop to think about that, painfully aware that he has survived where countless others have died, outliving by decades the young kids that followed unwittingly in his footsteps. Now 68, Pop is a touring musician with the same old fondness for shirtless stage antics, yet he can't get close to the unhinged ballet dancer grace of his performing past, let alone maintain the same endless routine of touring, recording, and partying. "I have a dislocated shoulder," Pop admitted in his Rolling Stone interview. "I have a lot of cartilage lost in my right hip. Both knees are about to go. I have one leg about an inch and a half shorter than the other. When I was thirteen, I was run over by a big guy playing junior high football, and the right leg ended up a quarter-inch shorter. By my midtwenties, it was a half-inch. Then in the Eighties, I had no money and was taking packed economy flights everywhere, night after night. The combination of that schedule and a fall I took dancing on an amplifier left me with my spine twisted and a slight limp."
To return to this profile's initial observation, we are blessed in many ways to be able to see Iggy Pop perform live and release new music in 2016. Any self-respecting rock fan understands the influence Pop has had on this wonderful genre of music; it's not hard to see where a renegade as ballsy and catalytic as Pop can function in changing the direction of trends and tastes through time. In the 2000s he has enjoyed the rock-luminary reputation he so deserves, respected equally by new fans and listeners who were around during The Stooges era. Collaborations have been an inventive way for Pop to get back some of the creativity that eluded his later solo career, and a reformed and lineup-adjusted Stooges have been a favourite of the worldwide festival circuit for the past decade.
This past month, Pop re-entered our lives with Post Pop Depression, a collaborative album featuring Josh Homme and Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age, along with Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders. The album's title is a witty and wry in-joke on Pop's part, a simultaneous reference to the changing tides of music in the years since classic rock has ceased to be synonymous with popular music, as well as a reflection on the artist's own mortality, perhaps in the light of his friend Bowie's tragic passing. Post Pop Depression is a fantastic album, of the calibre Pop has not released in years, QOTSA in the extreme yet possessing the signature Pop wit as he delivers sly and sleazy lyrics with drawling aplomb. It is perhaps Pop's most mature release to date, embracing conventionality in unexpected ways while never sounding like a lame commercial appeal in the slightest. And for the first time, Pop seems at ease in his own shoes, comfortable with the idea of sounding like a 68 year old rocker who has seen it all and then some.
It's great just to see members of two of today's best bands playing alongside one of their idols. One can only hope that in the process, yet more fans are converted from today's mainstream-leaning rock to the music-lore list of achievements that is Pop's Wikipedia page, his albums waiting there to be discovered by yet another generation of young artists-in-waiting. The Stooges will never be around in their original lineup again, not with the passing of David Alexander and Ron Asheton, Pop's self-proclaimed closest friend, who died of a heart attack in 2009. Following his death the only remaining member of the original Stooges lineup, Ron's brother Scott Asheton, passed away in 2014, leaving Pop as the sole and most unlikely survivor of the group today.
Now that David Bowie has left us, his indelible departure felt the world over, it must weigh on the minds of music lovers that Iggy Pop won't be with us forever. Not that he's going down without a fight: "I cannot keep it up forever," he says. "My attitude is, I have the luxury and sanity to go out and see what happens. And when it begins to feel wrong in any way, then you withdraw." My advice? Go and see Pop live if you ever get the chance. Musicians like him only come around once in a generation if we're lucky, and after the life he's had, it is frankly remarkable that Pop is still here to bring us so much joy. His every album is a gift to the dedicated music lover and the artist seeking inspiration, a missive from the wild side of existence that most never return from. Tellingly, Pop himself is aware of the weight of his legacy as he knowingly closes his Rolling Stone interview with the sentiment that he is "saddled with a gigantic past to live up to, live down, and generally live out." As a man determined to set the world alight with strobe lights and loud music, Pop has spark left in him yet. His inspired music is a testament to rock at its incendiary best, and the fires he set will burn brightly forever.
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