Iggy Pop was punk before punk even existed. Channeling rock & roll and Chicago blues influences with his band The Stooges in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Michigan native created some of the most potent rock music the world had ever heard, influencing virtually every generation of punk, garage rock and grunge artists that was to come. Later on, his high-wire collaborations with David Bowie in the latter half of the ’70s are the stuff of legend and spawned some of both artists’ most enduring hits. But Pop’s personality and The Stooges’ musical tendencies first formed in the avant-garde enclave of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Pop was inspired by composers like Harry Partch and Robert Ashley. In this excerpt from his lecture at RBMA Montréal, Pop discusses the influence of the Ann Arbor scene on his nascent musicality and personality, and the evolution of the Stooges from the time he met Ron and Scott Asheton.
From the age of about 15 on, I became an informal student of music, the way you do when you find anything you love – if you love amps or fashion or anything. I obsessed on all different forms of it. I tried a little art-rock, I tried a little avant-garde. I was in a blues band for a while. I tried standard rock covers. But I wanted to start a band where we’d have something of our own. I realized I didn’t think I was going to get very far, long-term, as an imitative artist, because I’m not a skillful enough singer.
With certain gifts, you can imitate and get through life really well. That wasn’t going to be the case for me. I wanted to form something of my own, and the only people I found who would follow me were these wonderful delinquent brothers who were school drop-outs. They’d lost their father, [had] no discipline. But they liked music and they had a charisma, and they were called the Asheton brothers.
What happened was, really, I took on their problems and their personality. I became like a spokesman for, “There’s nothing to do, man. This is no fun. That sucks.” You know, the whole stoner [thing]... “Let’s just smoke some dope.” I thought, “Well, OK, if this is what we’re working with, let’s make art out of that.” You can articulate anything. I was on the debate team in high school, and I learned that. You can articulate any premise. So that’s kind of how that all started. I thought, you know, “Hey, delinquent blues. Yeah.”
Ann Arbor, Michigan was kind of a way station for working beatniks and avant-gardists between New York and the West Coast. I met Andy Warhol first in Ann Arbor. There was a female artist named Charlotte Moorman, and she never got her due during her life. She was a beautiful girl from Alabama who hung with the John Cage, Nam June Paik crowd, very avant-garde music people. I was, I think, 17, and I saw a picture of her playing the cello topless, bound. It made a big impression on me. It made a big, big impression. It wasn’t lascivious, but it was more like, in some way, she influenced me a lot. There was another man named Robert Ashley, who made screaming sounds through amplifiers. There were a lot of, kind of, loose cannons around, and that’s a great thing, you know?
There was a man, a kind of a gay hobo, named Harry Partch, who created his own scales and his own instruments and made his own music. He’s getting his due now, posthumously. His stuff’s being performed in the Lincoln Center. Some of it is beautiful stuff. But I would try to imitate the things he made. He had something called a cloud chamber. He’d figured out how to put different amounts of water into glass receptacles. When you hit it with a beater, it’ll go [makes high-pitched music sound] or [makes low, then high-pitched sound], etc... I liked that, so I got a broom handle and a couple of stools and tried to do that with spring water jugs, and it all fell apart one day. I’m an American kid. I thought, “Hey, wait a minute, what about a blender?” I just went out and bought a blender for 16 bucks. You’d put a little water in it and mic it up, it’s Niagara Falls.
Watch Iggy Pop’s full lecture from RBMA Montréal here.
I was mixing these sounds with some elemental riffs played by the Asheton brothers, and mixing that with what I thought was a kind of dance that really originated because the band were very inward guys, and I noticed that when I would dance around the room in rehearsal, up went the energy like fire. I started trying that out with audiences, too, and it became a nice exchange.
In Detroit you had a very hard rock, butch kind of a scene. It didn’t really affect us at all. We were welcome there. Three-quarters of the population hated us and a quarter was really, really, really interested, and that was fine, but it was later when we got our recording contract. We began to go a little more rockist, you know? I had the drummer playing a... He wasn’t using a normal drum kit. He was using beaters on oil drums that we painted up with Day-Glo obscenities and Hindu symbolism. Suddenly [he said], “I want to play a real drum kit on our record.” You know? At the same time, I thought, “Well, we have to have proper songs.” We didn’t have songs at the time. If you’d go see us, there would be a theme. I’d improvise doing all sorts of things... Maybe a rhyme, maybe a dance. It went along with a stream-of-consciousness, but at that point we began to articulate songs and we got the Marshall stacks, you know, things like that.
I think all human beings are subject to the other human beings around you. I mean, there’s almost a terrorism of environment that is usually unspoken in everybody’s life, but there’s a group of people for everyone about whom a party or consciousness is thinking, “What will they think? What will they do? What can I do?” There is all that, and you can flow with it or go against it, and in our case the aggressive approach was attractive. The early Stooges at that point were heavy, but it wasn’t aggressive, really. We were coming at you just by being different, but we weren’t trying to beat you over the head with it. It had a light touch. Later that changed, you know? Later it changed. Boys make mistakes.