Iggy Pop has a world famous torso. For over three decades, his chest, his ribs, his areola, and the deranged river of veins that pump the blood of dementia to his ever-flailing arms, are very rarely housed in a shirt. You can almost imagine approaching him with a carefully ironed Van Heuesen button-down and having him hiss and writhe like a vampire at the sight of a crucifix. Hissing and writhing and barking and pursing his lips in that punk-rock scowl, his Adam's apple always exposed, his head always tiltled back in that embrace of a dare--all these things say, "Take another step. Move a little closer." And you want to--you're less fearful of the impending sting and more seduced by the notion of release. And Iggy has never once taken a step back, or found himself drifting backwards towards the corner that he came from. No, he was never in a corner. His fight, his struggle, has somehow always come from the center--the middle of America, the middle of an arena, out from the center of a chest that looks ready to burst blood and fragments of bone. Iggy Pop has always looked wired to explode, but here he still is, 54 years from the day of his birth and the skin still trembles and his dare still taunts.
On the morning of Timothy McVeigh's execution, I get a phone call from Iggy Pop. Fitting, it seems, that Iggy and I should chat amidst the clatter of newsheads trying to make sense of a decorated war veteran from the middle of American that got mad and took revenge. Iggy'd built his own legacy on something similar. Pause and consider: Iggy Pop has a lot in common with Timothy McVeigh.
"You know, it's a funny thing," says Iggy when I ask him if he has any thoughts about this morning's events. "Probably the single biggest change that Nixon was able to effect in real American life, during his term, was the formation of the volunteer force. He stuck it in when nobody was looking. Historically, in every great imperial society, there comes a turning point when they get too big, and the army too soft, and the army changes from citizen to proffessional. It hasn't happened yet, but little by little what happens is the people who are actually in the army--the soldiers--begin to lose their allegiance to the society at large. They tend to become members of fragmented, quasi-political groups, or in this case, they become veterans who know how to shoot. They know how to shoot and group up for some form of banditry, or social communism within the greater union. I think that's what you're seeing here--you're seeing the cracks in that. Eventually, where you arrive with that, is the use of the military against the civilian populace and a civil war. It takes a long time. It's a big country." Iggy begins to laugh. "Yeah, so there you go. That's a mouthful early in the morning."
Iggy Pop used to call himself "the Atomic Brain." He could spell "anti-disestablishmentarianism" in the first grade. He thought there was no one inhabiting the earth who could claim that they were smarter. Iggy started out on the world from a classroom in Detroit and began to grumble and crouch, like a large dog left in a tiny yard. When he finally leapt, he cleared the fence by a mile and found pace with a frantic gallup that still shows no sign of fading into a trot. Witness his new Beat 'Em Up (Virgin Records). It's a fun-house mirror reflecting a world that, throught Iggy's eyes, seems no less false and full of shit than it did from day one of the first Stooges rehearsal.
"I imagine that McVeigh might have liked the song, 'Beat 'Em Up'" he says with a chuckle,"cause it's not that far off. It's basically looking around at people I know and saying, 'Gee, people are getting beat up. They're getting brutalized. Sometimes to fight back you almost have to close your eyes and get a little brutal yourself.' Maybe that's why you brought up McVeigh. You're trying to rope me in here! That's OK, that's OK," and his laughter trails off.
At age 54, though, his anger must be redirected and refined. After all, how long can you screech and complain if you can see the legions listening, but no one standing up to heed your call? Can you still stay mad at the same things when the remedy never blossoms from the seed?
"The facts change and the circumstances get bigger and fancier, but the basic equations are about the same," he concedes. "The big difference now is that I try to reserve my little outbursts for the tape or the live shows. I don't wake up in the morning mad at the world in general, I tend to have enough of my own problems to occupy me in a more balanced way. Life's exciting in that way. i guess if my life were a little more boring, I might be angry all the time at everybody. But as it is, I'm only angry at everybody maybe an hour a day. The rest of the time, I'm angry at somebody specific. I'm reallly actively pursuing that, 'cause it's cool. It's pretty nice when that happens. Membership has it's priveleges."
I ggy has finally found a way to nestle into the folds of society without always feeling hard-wired to wake the rest of us sleeping beneath the blanket. He's relocated to Miami from Manhattan and when i ask him how he spends his afternoons in what seems like a bucolic hamlet, I'm wondering if we were better off with him in the city, where we can keep an eye on him.
"I like to go to the beach, but I don't go to a boogie beach, I go to a real scummy little-used beach where somebody usually gets shot once a year." he says, without me initiallly realizing that he's shortened the word "bourgeois" to better serve his frenetic speech pattern. "It's dirty and I like it. I'm happy there. Nobody bugs me. The people there are so ignorant they don't even know who I am. Fools!"
He laughs and continues on with his new routines in Miami Beach that's an apocalyptic combination of Better Homes and Gardens and The Anachist Cookbook. I find myself picturing Martha Stewart adorned in dirty rags and serving hors d'oeurves on a hubcap to the cast of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderstone.
"I got an old house which is done in a style thing they used to call 'Mediterranean revival.' It looks Spanish. There's enough [walls] and [tree cover] that I can run around nude outdoors," he says with a laugh. "So I do that a lot and I enjoy peeing on my own property. That's like the big kick, you know? I live kind of quiet but lascivious--there's plenty of sex, bathing, eating, fine wine, listening to music, a little bit of TV and normal American culture. I've got one of those big American TVs. Stuff like that. Water the plants. Just weird things that people do, like we found this little bird two days ago, by the beach. It's kind of a nasty beach, so we have pigeons on the beach. And we found this little baby and he was hurt and we tried to nurse it back to health, but he didn't make it. He died this morning."
Despite the recent deaths of McVeigh and a nameless pigeon, the master seems comfortable in his mediterranean lair, so it seems the proper time for some reflection on kingdom and legacy--to look back, with or without the anger that he's recently reduced to a low-decibel growl. Oh, there's plenty of stuff about the band, the Stooges, but we've heard all heard the stories, and he's told them a hundred-fold. We'll get there. With the recent re-issue of records like New Values and Soldier, which were previously only available in Europe, it's interesting to coerce a reevaluation of music that Iggy himelf hasn't heard since he laid down the tracks some 20 years ago. It's that mid-period Iggy Pop that deserves some attention. I take Iggy off-guard when I tell him I've been listening to New Values recently and that I I can't believe the then-head of Arista Redcords, Clive Davis, wanted nothing to do with it.
"No shit? Cool," he says sounding genuinely enthused. "Yeah, Clive made the famous quote, 'There's no such thing as punk, but if there was, we would have the best in Patti Smith and Lou Reed.' And that kind of thing was about as far as he wished to go. He didn't really want anybody who showed their saliva in public or messing up his collection. He sat on those albums [New Values and Soldier] and they didn't see the light of day in the U.S. until he was nudged out. He didn't do anything for it and wouldn't come to a show, wouldn't shake my hand, wouldn't have lunch. That's all right. It's worked out well. The beauty of the situation, for me, has been that here I am, 54 years old, and so many new things are happening to me that are nice things for the first time. That's a beautiful feeling."
Steered back to the records themselves, Iggy reflects on New Values, saying "That record is clean and carefully done. There's a lot of quality and when it came out, there were two streams that were really going strong in popular, contemporary music--mostly coming out of England--and one was the sort of post-punk experimental thing: lots of air, lots of eclecticism, typified by Eno, Bowie, talking Heads. It was mid-Atlantic, it was a Euro-centric way of looking at things and New Wave was about to come in. [New Values] didn't really fit with that. And then there was the intoxication of good old snarling punk and it didn't really fit in with that because it was almost quietly done, precisely done. There were no tricks on it. It's a very particular sound on the record. A couple of people told me it's held up well.
About the recording sessions for Soldier, I can't help but ask him if the rumors were true, that someone actually punched David Bowie when he showed up to "help" the one-time Stooge, James Williamson, finish recording the album. "I don't think there were blows," he admits. "There was a lot of tension around that session. Bowie's visit played a good part actually. Williamson, who had begun production on that record, had gone a little overboard and was trying to harness absurd advanced technology. I wanted to make a punk record. He was trying to hook up the 24 track tape machines to make a 48 track capability in the Welsh countryside in 1979. I was sort of a hair-trigger and impatient musician then--ready, and dying to record. There was really no need for applied technology at that point, except to glorify a production career that he had in mind for himself basically. And into this came Bowie, who showed up at one session, drove a considerable way to get there, and wanted to get involved. He gets bored a lot and likes to butt-in to all sorts of situations--a true English rock star. You find him turning up here and there, wherever he thinks the salient point is,at that point, in rock history. I guess he thought he should come out and he came out and he contributed to a really good cut. Unfortunately for Williamson, it also contributed to our rift, and Pat Moran ended up doing the record. I was, uh, unsound at the time. I've been unsound for about half of my career, which is the bad news. The good news is that I've now been sound for more years than I was unsound."
Fast-forwarding to 2001 inadvertantly brings you back to 1969. This year, Iggy Pop has amade a record that recalls a lot of the sonic and lyrical restlessness of his Midwestern, disillusioned, and much beloved "dum dum boys," the Stooges. Beat 'Em Up even has a line-up comprised of a couple of brothers who stir up a similar dirge to the one that the Ashton's carved out over 30 years ago. In a poorly produced German documentary about Iggy Pop, there's an interview segment with Ron Asheton, the former Stooges guitarist, where he admits that he wishes the band had stayed together longer because they could have been even bigger than the Rolling Stones. I can't help but ask Iggy, especially on the heels of such a Stooges sounding solo effort, if he feels the band ever reached their full potential and to what degree he agrees or disagrees with his former bandmate.
"It was never formed to compete with the Rolling Stones, or with that sort of thing," he says after a long pause. "But I think if the band had gone on slightly longer, that could have been a good thing. One interesting thing about that band, is that if you listen to the first 10 minutes of each of our three albums, you'll see a tremendous stylistic jump on each album. From The Stooges to Funhouse to Raw Power--those are really quick leaps. It's not easy to do that. It's forward thinking. You've got to be thinking about this shit 24-7. You can't be like people today who are also doing that and their book tour and their promo tour and, you know, questing on To Save the Monks, and all that," he laughs. "Forget it! By the time we finished the first one--every riff on that second album, with the exception of the riff to 'TV Eye,' all the music on the whole album--it was written by me on my guitar. I shared credit with it, but it was written out of frustration that Ron was, frankly locked in a place musically that wasn't advancing."
"And I was not willing to point out--like the Ramones did later--I was not willing to wear the same haircut and put out variations of the same sound for eternity. I certainly never thought about the the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix very much. that was more than the guys in the band [in mock rocker tone] 'We wanna be rock stars!" Frankly the guys got a little too lazy and a little too midwestern and at some point I went haywire and gave up. I couldn't stand the heat and the next thing you know, you had drugs involved. And bing-bang-boom: explosion. But, you know, it could have been worse. Look at Nirvana! I could have been worse."
So here he is, with another of brothers, still trying to harness the sound of disaster and disallusionment, 30 years later. He speaks fondly and realistically about his collaboration with Whitey and Alex Kirst and his new record. "I had the Asheton brothers on my very early works. Then on Kill City and Lust for Life, I had the Sales brothers. Now I've got the Kirsts. I was an only child so i think that's something. that's one aspect, like Timothy Mc Veigh--you want to join on to some sort of a little organization, wear similar clothes, and go to something cool and feel righteous. I'm in a place where I still have an affection for that sort of thing."
He pauses and chuckles a bit before recounting, "I think it was Lester Bangs who angrily reviewed one of my albums by saying, [in Lester Bang's whiney voice] 'He's trying to manage the apocalypse! You cannot manage the apocalypse!' But why not? If Vivendi can buy Courtney Love, why can't I manage the apocalypse!"
Iggy Pop has always seemed to be the by-product of boredom. Beyond his lament in "No Fun," it's as if he saw the boogey-man of complacency hiding in the American suburb and his fear was borne out of the sleepy and pastoral--a yawning James Osterberg running into the arms of a screaming Iggy Pop.
"I was always coming from the fringe," he says after I press him about how he thinks the American suburb has evolved. "I was looking at the suburb from the outside. I was in the trailer camp, but i was trying to relate to the suburb. Probably, a lot of what's out there is still real similar, it just seems the natives are more restless now. In the 60's and 70's, if you look at the footage of a show--anywhere from a Stooges show up to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Alice Cooper or Traffic or Grand Funk--you see very few people moving and dancing. Most of them are just staring, or busy letting their hair grow. There's a relaxed, kind of bucolic, pastoral feel to everything."
"Take that right up to the last Woodstock. What do I see? I see more muscles, less hair--the hair has become more marshal. We're back to McVeigh here. It's more Timothy MVeigh on a heavy diet. There's a lot of violence with a lot of moshing and surfing and bobbing. So, I'm assuming there out in the 'burbs, the kiddies must be going a little more nuts. But there's still a beautiful, you know, American child. It's like a creation. What's beautiful about it is that they have an ability--at least some of them--to see truth, because they haven't got a hell of a lot else to cope with. They have pure and honest enthusiasms, which unfortunately are often gonna be tastelss, perverted, ridiculous and run the gamut from saccharine, right over to the dangerous."
"When I see Columbine and all those school shootings--that's one of the big reasons I became a musician. A key to my style was bullying and that sort of weird, stupid thing you go through in school in America. And I don't know, I don't think I would have shot a gun. But on the other hand, I'm glad they weren't around."
Iggy Pop seems nearer to contentment than he was 30 years ago, when he was carving up his torso less for entertainment and more for the relief from the itching desire to leap from his own rib-cage. Maybe you live to a certain age and something clicks. Maybe no matter how much rage you carry within your chest, the dam won't break if you channel it into something like passion, something like music, something like an ethic instead of an act of destruction. You can bark ethics and creeds for decades and instead of waiting around for legions to gather, you can gain strength from the notion that you're the only one who can spell "anti-disestablishmentarianism." There's perhaps a satisfaction that comes from being the only one who "gets it." Timothy McVeigh died thinking he was right and the less people sided with him, the more his conviction brewed beneath his scowl. In fact, the scowl even disappeared and his lack of a of a tangible expression seemed strangely mare like a Buddhist contentment than rage. Iggy Pop has made a career out of his anger, but where has it gotten him?
"I think you get about half and then, like anybody else, the other half is kind of full of shit," he laughs. "Really, if I'm gonna look at it dispassionately, then I'll say some of the stuff I'm really, really proud of. You try to do what feels right and what feels true and then sometimes, I mean, hell, everybody's human. I don't allow myself a large conscious regret thing. But it goes on in my dreams and usually in a cautionary way. When I'm getting a little too idealistic, a little too artistic, I have these terrible nightmares in which the shit all comes down and I am begging quarters on Fifth Avenue. But as far as actually regretting the direction in which I've gone--it's more like self questioning it and feeling like there really was no other way to go."
"No, I'm pretty OK. I suppose if I was really gonna sit down and think about it, where would I start? I'd say, 'Gee, I wish I wasn't an alcoholic three times. Gee, I wish...what if I tried...what if I...what if?' You know what I mean? 'What if I tried that other manager in 1972?' Blah, blah, blah. There's things, but I never think about that shit much. I don't feel like being a big old crusader all the time. I try to balance it actually, on a day to day basis., so I won't crash all at once. And I like a lot of bourgeois theings. I like a lot of bougie items. Once in a while, I'll go bouge down severely. And that's all right, you know?"
2001 concert reviews here, some of which are available, TRADE ONLY, at Dirt's Iggy Pop Tradelist