Listening to Iggy Pop in 2016

With Lou Reed and David Bowie gone, Carl Wilson muses on what it means to listen to the punk godfather in 2016

The first time ever I saw Iggy Pop’s face, he was slamming back drinks and barking at Jeanne Beker, an interviewer on my favourite TV music program out of Toronto. Iggy was jawing on about how much more talented he was than she could even imagine – strongly implying that he was referring to not just music, though I wouldn’t have picked up on that then. They cursed at each other till she walked out on him.

Iggy Pop - Early 80's Much Music Interview
Iggy Pop - I'm Bored

I think so, that is, except that I was too young to have watched that 1981 clip when it first aired. It must have been on some kind of rewind, best-of broadcast, since it was one of the more infamous moments in The New Music show’s long run. (Reportedly, when Beker next met Iggy, they got on swimmingly.) So maybe I had already also seen “Chairman of the Bored,” an older video that got fairly frequent rotation when the Canadian MTV-clone MuchMusic started in 1984. Strictly speaking it’s second-tier Iggy, but at 15, I thought it was hilarious. I didn’t get the wink to his identification with Frank Sinatra. I just saw a guy yelling “I’m bored!” like I wanted to do in the middle of school every day. What? That can be a song? He was lurching his skinny body around the screen with an edgy-goofy grin that reminded me of my older best friend Tommy, whom I was in the process of losing to his newer, cooler stoner buddies in another town. (Not forever, thankfully: Today, Tom is middle-aged and still seems a smidgen Iggy-like to me.)

It’s like we didn’t know jack about him, and then we couldn’t conceive of rock without him.

Most of my founding Iggy memories are fuzzy that way. Which fits. When you read books about him and the Stooges, including his 1982 memoir I Need More, most facts seem up for grabs. The retelling of events from all sides are filtered through clashing resentments and damaged neural connections, as if Iggy generates a kind of fog of war – a cloud of half-knowing that steams out of the fissure between the real person, Jim Osterberg, and his Mr. Hyde-like invention, Iggy.

For the world at large, too. It’s like we didn’t know jack about him, and then we couldn’t conceive of rock without him. Most of his best moments – the late ’60s Stooges albums, the late ’70s Berlin years with David Bowie – took place at the outer ring of the cultural radar but drifted over the years to dead centre. A lot of his less-enticing moments, like that Beker interview or many of his ’80s and ’90s albums, were way out in public. Not his very worst moments, though. Those I don’t even want to picture. Maybe part of his elusiveness is down to an act of collective repression.

Iggy Pop - China Girl

At about 17, I drove with some friends – again, not sure who – to the nearest college town and caught his band on the Blah Blah Blah tour. This was in the midst of the Iggy revival prompted specifically by Bowie’s hit version of “China Girl” (originally sung by Iggy on the Bowie-produced The Idiot) and generally by the accumulated genuflections in his direction by punk and post-punk rock stars. The band was playing a shed-like Ontario dance club, tarted up with too many lights and awash in drunk college kids. I was uneasy and underage. Then, of course, Iggy exploded into the space and reshaped its atomic structure, howling and contorting his rippled physique, unmoored from either gravity or civilization. He was a human amplifier, blasting the crowd with screeches of feedback and machine-gun rhythm right out from his solar plexus. It seemed a perversion of nature for such an old man (he was nearly 40!) to exert such physical force – does this famous junkie work out, or was he just somehow made that way?

Little did I know that when I reached the same age I would find him still at it, pirouetting and jack-knifing in the air over the heads of thousands outdoors in downtown Toronto with the reunited Stooges. But as a teen, it felt to me like a singular, once-in-the-universe event. No one could possibly be like this all the time, could they? I was awestruck, aroused and unnerved. From then on, whenever a concert blew my mind and I wanted to say I’d never seen anything like it, I would have to add, “Well, except for Iggy Pop.”

This isn’t really a band from Detroit so much as a band from the trailer parks and pool halls up the road from the semi-bohemian enclave of Ann Arbor.

This is the most straightforward way to pin down Iggy’s meaning – as one of the greatest frontmen in the history of rock. When Jim Osterberg is feeling expansive and articulate, he talks about his performances in Nietzsche’s terms of Dionysian art: the creation of a ritual Event that transfigures performer and crowd alike, uniting them in an experience of emotional and physical ecstasy outside the boundaries of everyday reality. The performance itself is the drug. Iggy also has been described often using Antonin Artaud’s image of the artist as divine martyr, showing the world its inner truth by “signalling through the flames.” Certainly in the most extreme years of the Stooges, when Iggy would stab his bare chest with drum sticks or gouge it with a broken champagne stem until it ran with blood, he seemed to have St. Sebastian-like human sacrifice on his mind.

But his appeal has endured well beyond that phase of mob bloodlust, whether holy or profane. I prefer to consider him more in the light of a later theatrical thinker, the 1960s Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. In his writing on “the Poor Theatre,” he said that in a modern world full of media spectacle, the actor in a live performance needed to be able to demonstrate for the audience a glimmer of undreamt-of human potential: That this person, physically here with you in real time, can do something more expressively than you thought possible. That side of Iggy Pop’s existence, the miracle worker striding out on top of the audience’s hands, only becomes more striking as decades pass.

Yet even the gargantuanness of his shows is dwarfed by the size of Iggy and the Stooges’ influence, not just as sound but as model. “Godfathers of punk,” yeah, yeah, sure, but what’s affected me more over time is how often I’ve heard them referenced by artists not only for their willful primevalism and transgression but their sophistication and intelligence. After all, this isn’t really a band from Detroit so much as a band from the trailer parks and pool halls up the road from the semi-bohemian enclave of Ann Arbor. Their earliest stuff was mostly freaky jams without song structure, played partly on self-invented instruments, inspired by the maverick composer Harry Partch, trance music from Asia and free jazz as much as garage rock and blues. (In short, punk always was, and also never will be.)

Coming myself from a rust-belt town in Southwestern Ontario, I’ve noted that the fiercest Stooges devotees were not the ones in London or New York but those in Cleveland (Rocket from the Tombs/Pere Ubu) or Manchester (Joy Division, et al.) who received them as a sign that pale nobody kids from nowhere could band together and make their unassimilable not-ness their claim and their cause. That Iggy and the Stooges would then fail so flamboyantly, over and over, yet still get the last historical laugh, makes Iggy the apotheosis of that fantasy.

Iggy Pop - Success

I love the Lust for Life track where Iggy keeps crying “Here comes success!” all the more because, in 1977, success was about to slip from his grasp again so disastrously. And his reunion late in life with the survivors from his original doomed brotherhood has been an improbably touching kind of closure, though maybe not redemption.

That last issue nags at me, now that I am older than the “old man” I marvelled at in that dilapidated disco in the 1980s. As I write in 2016, his friends and rivals Lou Reed and David Bowie are both dead. Their deaths shocked us because they’d seemed to be somehow eternal incarnations of abstract qualities, as much ideas as human beings. With Iggy, it’s that he’s still alive that’s shocking, not just because of the absurd trials he’s put his system through but because the idea he manifested was martyrdom, that cycle of perpetual failure and destruction. And here he is the last man standing. The disturbing puzzle that remains along with him is the division between Jimmy and Iggy, the persistent angel-devil wrestling match between the artist and the character he created nearly 50 years ago. Bowie took on multiple personae and then cast them aside. Jim Osterberg stuck with one.

Jimmy is the poet, the one whose lyrics are so often smarter and more surprising than the songs need them to be.

Jimmy is the poet, the one whose lyrics are so often smarter and more surprising than the songs need them to be. He is the one with the charming shyness, humor and kindness that shows up in interviews or in his published writing, the one whose grin reminded me of my friend Tommy. But Iggy is the sacred monster, the Ziggy Stardust, all appetite and libido and arrogance, the thing that steals your friend away.

In Paul Trynka’s fine 2007 biography, Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed, friends say that the switch between personalities could be triggered simply by which name they used to address him, and repeatedly wonder at which times Jim himself had lost not only control of but even awareness of the difference. What happened next are the things I don’t want to picture. Of course this is a classic syndrome of addiction. The junk takes over. But the treasure is also the junk. It’s not just the standard problem of the virtue of the art versus the vices of the artist. There are also the many not clever-stupid but stupid-stupid Iggy Pop songs, the lazy, wrong-headed ones we’d rather forget, whether they’re offensively predatory (toward women, or, more frankly, girls) or just offensively and opportunistically crappy.

What does it mean to go on loving Iggy Pop in the face of all that? By this point in my life, his allure also summons up my own trespasses and regrets. Perhaps the latest station in the Passion of Iggy is to wonder how Jim Osterberg reckons with remorse.

Iggy Pop - American Valhalla

His story has no easy moral, and it would cheapen the art to seek one. But it does finally seem time for a sense of reckoning. And it’s there in the album he’s made with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age this year. The title, Post-Pop Depression, nods to the toll of life-after-Iggy. Based on a couple of weeks of listening, I think it’s his best in a long, long time. He’s suggested it also will be his last. In the song “American Valhalla,” referring to the feasting hall Viking warriors were supposed to ascend to after death, he sings of “lowly, lowly deeds / that no one sees” and questions if he’s worthy of that kind of reward. He admits, “I’m not the man with everything / I’ve nothing but my name.” And he asks, “Can I bring a friend?”

These bittersweet notes of vulnerability make me aware of the ultimate loneliness of being Iggy. And of being Jim Osterberg. He is the larger than life. He is the fuckup and frequent exile who must drag behind him the countless hours he’s laid waste and the casualties he’s caused. And he maybe, kind of, sort of changed the world (unless that would have happened anyway). It’s a life like almost nobody else’s. Save for the ways that, like any mythic journey, it is anybody’s. And that is the answer he’s chanted to his audiences at shows, sinewed arm outstretched, reaper-like finger pointing, for at least a decade now: “I AM YOU I AM YOU I AM YOU!”

This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail.

By Carl Wilson on December 1, 2016

On a different note