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Wild child

Date

Luke Davies

He set out to be a bad, guitar-toting thug, and despite bouts of heroin addiction, microphone-gnawing and stage-diving, Iggy Pop at 65 is still in surprisingly good form.

Raw power … Iggy Pop performing with the Stooges in London in 2008.

Raw power … Iggy Pop performing with the Stooges in London in 2008. Photo: Picture Media

It's a winter night in Melbourne in 1979, and a posse of teenage girls is gathered to watch the weekly taping of Countdown. A shirtless Iggy Pop, in tight gold pants, writhes and prances along the walkway as he lip-syncs (badly) to I'm Bored. He swings the heavy microphone stand through the air with apparent careless abandon; at one moment, a girl raises her arms in an instinctive flinch, as if she's about to be hit.

Countdown cameraman John Tuttle remembers the night well. Rehearsals had gone smoothly; Pop was just "a pleasant guy", like countless performers on the show before him, as the studio crew worked out the camera moves. But a couple of hours later, when Pop started performing live, nothing went as planned. The cameras tried to keep up. The girls watched him, fascinated. Later, Tuttle says, there was a discussion between presenter Molly Meldrum and the producers about the possibility of apologising to parents for having put their daughters in danger. These were the dramas of a more innocent time.

After the show, Tuttle saw Pop in the green room, relaxed and friendly. "He went from normal to nuts and back to normal again." I remember the talk in the playground the next day: for a bunch of 17-year-olds, the most extraordinary moment had been when Pop shoved the microphone down the front of his pants as he continued to lip-sync. We'd had five years of Countdown by then, and we were used to the Daryl Braithwaites of the pop world playing by the rules. It was this transgression, this misbehaviour-as-performance, that seemed so exciting.

Shake appeal … performing in New York in 1977.

Shake appeal … performing in New York in 1977. Photo: Austral

Pop has clearly been thinking of the ritual aspects of performance for a long time. In his hilarious 1982 autobiography, I Need More, he writes of his propensity to wind up battered and bloodied. "[A] little prick here and there with a broken drumstick and maybe a little slap in the face ... I misjudged a little bit, maybe a little cut on the lip, from the microphone - sometimes you try to eat the thing - a nick here and there. You know what I'm saying? Nothing you wouldn't get from a crown of thorns."

Still on the subject of Jesus two decades later, Pop said in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview, "What your martial society really wants is blood. We need some blood. We need some suffering. Like, the individual must suffer for the good of the whole. I toy around with that. Early on, I wasn't looking at Jesus Christ, saying to myself, 'What an angle.' I wasn't trying to be Christ-y. But, after all, on one level, this is showbiz."

Thirty years earlier, in the early '70s, settling on the couch on the Tom Snyder Show, breathless after playing a number - his lip cut, mouth bloody, front tooth missing, and clearly very high - the singer riffs on matters Dionysian. "If you play music like the way I do - if I put as much into a song as I possibly can on your show, automatically for five or 10 minutes, it's very hard for me to speak articulately ... Because I've quite given myself totally to that. It's Dionysic [sic]. If you know the difference between Dionysic and Apollonian art?"

Bored no more … Pop at his Miami "allotment" with writer Luke Davies.

Bored no more … Pop at his Miami "allotment" with writer Luke Davies. Photo: Courtesy Luke Davies

"I'm not too good on that," says Snyder, deadpan.

"Dionysic art in Greek times is where, like, a bunch of people would get together, and they'd erect a paper phallus 50 feet long and carry it around and chant to some god that they believed in, right? And - how should I say? - conscious of the creation of an event. It's eventful art. Apollonian is when you just make a statue, and it's there forever, and it's set out very clearly." For a man so transparently off his trolley, and who hasn't yet had the requisite five or 10 minutes to become articulate, it's not bad going. "Right," says Snyder.

"There's a Dionysic element to my art," continues Pop. "I suppose a lot of people might be frightened to be me. But I'm quite happy to be me." And he beams his gap-toothed, bloodied smile.

Born James Newell Osterberg jnr in 1947 in rural michigan, Pop was raised in a trailer park in Ypsilanti, about 50 kilometres from Detroit. An asthmatic child, he was prescribed Quadrinal, a mixture of ephedrine and barbiturate. "I'll never forget the beauty, the beauty," he writes in I Need More, "the grandeur that I observed as a nine-year-old - the incredible shimmering, sparkling of the snowdrifts in Michigan at that time ... I could practically intuit the microscopic inner structure of the flakes. So that was the first time I got stoned."

His childhood name for himself was "The Atomic Brain". It was a perfectly apt description of the gregarious, eloquent man I sat with recently in a modest, comfortable, canal-side house in Miami, where he ranged with encyclopaedic ease over the history of 40 years of rock and his own place in and out of it, in a life lived harder than most.

Jimmy Osterberg was the drummer in a high school blues band, the Iguanas, from which he took the moniker "Iggy". As for the "Pop", he appropriated it from a kid at his school called Jim Pop, who "sniffed a lot of glue and lost his hair early". He formed the Stooges at 20 (they first played live in 1967 as the Psychedelic Stooges). "We had a sound and we always delivered," he says. "It was a sweeping sound, like Mongolian horsemen charging in, thousands of them, little Tartars with swords, frequencies only a geek can hear." The Stooges' first two albums did not set the world on fire, for all that they've come to be considered seminal records since; within a few years the band would disintegrate, largely due to Pop's heroin addiction. ("I had become 'unsound', like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now," is his own description of the reasons behind the break-up.) Yet the Stooges would instigate the great shadow soundtrack of the '70s, a stream of lava flowing beneath meadows of Eagles and Doobie Brothers and waiting to erupt. As legend has it, Pop would invent stage-diving and crowd surfing, too.

Out west, Scott McKenzie sang, "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair." The Stooges' music, defiant industrial thrash from Detroit, the Motor City, barely intersected with that world. "Of course we hated the 'summer of love' and all those pricks from California," says Pop. "It was phony!" He bounces up and down on his seat, laughing. "It was phony, phony, phony!"

What he did was a kind of theatre, but it was "real", too. "But boy, being real doesn't make you good," he says. "I have found late in life, being real is not necessarily a positive."

Being lithe is another matter. Grainy video of the Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival in 1970 shows Pop suddenly stepping off stage and dropping into the mosh pit. It's not a "dive", but the fact that nobody attempts to hold him up - nobody seems to know what to do - certainly supports the notion that this was a new kind of stage antic. "There goes Iggy, right into the crowd," says an announcer. "We've lost audio on him." The station actually cuts to a break. When they return, Pop is back on stage, but soon jumps back down again. "I feel all right! I feel all right!" he sings.

He tries to hoist himself up on the shoulders of those crowded around him. At first, they don't seem to know what he's doing. Three times he tries to gain traction; on the third time, they get it, and hoist him up. Suddenly he is standing, triumphant, a kind of emperor, walking on the crowd. And smearing peanut butter on his chest.

In Miami, Pop doesn't lay claim to being the first to get down in the crowd. "I didn't get it from anyone," he says. "I just thought it up. But later, I learnt [the late blues singer] Howlin' Wolf would put the mike down his pants, would get on the floor and shimmy like a snake on his belly. I think my refinement was the stage-dive. Definitely nobody had stage-dived before."

Pop was to pull through to the other side of his Colonel Kurtz period and embark on a long and fruitful solo career. Central to this transformation was David Bowie, whom Pop had first met in 1971, when the two produced the 1973 Stooges album Raw Power. Pop recognised the inherent theatricality in Bowie - "even when he was doing the Hunky Dory stuff, which is very non-rock, I still recognised his high quality" - while Bowie was attracted to Pop's ... raw power.

As Pop remembers it, Bowie's label wanted to sign him up and get him a good backup band in Britain. "I wanted to get out of Dodge, I wanted to get out of the US, I wanted to work with these obviously very theatrical, advanced people, who I also sensed respected my artistry. But I didn't really want to have an English backup band and ghost writers." After all, says Pop, he was busy: "I was halfway to creating the world's most incendiary and destructive rock'n'roll to date." Nonetheless, there was a moment that changed everything for Pop during the recording of Raw Power. "I sang one song in a baritone with somebody," says Pop, "and it was musically very good. And Bowie said, 'You know, Jim, you sound much more impressive when you sing in that voice.' " The word stuck with Pop. Impressive. Did a more melodic, less abrasive destiny await him? In 1977 his first solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life, would answer that question with a resounding yes.

I mention the infamous Countdown clip. Before performing I'm Bored, Pop, frisky and bouncing off the walls, sits with Molly Meldrum. "With David Bowie," says Meldrum, "he's had a lot of influence on you, I gather."

"Yeah, yeah," says Pop. "He taught me how to compromise."

"Compromise in what way?" asks Meldrum.

"Well," says Pop, "he taught me how to ... you know ... I used to ... "

"... be a punk rocker?" interrupts Meldrum.

"I used to be an outrage," says Pop, bringing it back on track, "and David taught me how to ... "

"You're not doing so bad," mumbles Meldrum, cutting him off again: "Listen, have you heard the new Lodger album by Bowie?"

I ask Pop what he might have meant back then, about Bowie and compromise. He launches into one of his many free-association monologues.

"Let me give you a small example. I'm working a lot with [Stooges guitarist] James Williamson, and James loves to blame Bob Dylan for getting him tossed into reform school when he was 16 because he grew his hair in school and they told him to cut it and he said no. And he said no because, 'I thought Bob Dylan wouldn't cut his hair,' so he's off to military school. Now I know Bob well enough at this point to know that Bob would have figured out how to get the right trim! So, for example, when you're a shit-faced little white clod from the uncivilised depths of the American industrial savannah in the '60s and you want to be in a rock band and you look at the Rolling Stones album covers and, 'Woah, look at these bad-looking guys! I mean these look like some tough, bad guys.' And you're inspired to actually go and be bad and to take pictures: 'Yeah, I guess if we want a picture of our band, we'll just go in an alley and take a picture and it'll look really tough.' You don't know at the time that those pictures were taken by [legendary photographer] David Bailey. I mean c'mon, dude! Slam dunk, game rigged!

"There were some of us that had to compromise. I wonder if Pavarotti ever had to compromise? Maybe not. Maybe he was just born one day the size and shape of the globe with the voice of a bird, and Opera said, 'Here it comes. Here's the next big thing.' And he slotted right in. Or - maybe it's more possible - maybe he spent too much money on a castle one year and got leveraged and had to give picnic concerts in America doing crap medleys and singing two times a week more than he should for his voice, because he needs the money. Yeah, compromise is sort of weird.

"All I ever wanted to be - my initial rush of intent - was just to be an evil, guitar-toting, screaming hillbilly thug. That was what I wanted to be: I wanted to be bad." He pauses. "But there are limits to just how bad you can really be."

Pop is 65 now, and surprisingly humble about ageing. "My nerves are edgy," he says. "I need lots of rest, I need lots of strings around my fingers. I'm doing a Stooges album right now, and just even tussling with the whole f...ing thing, I'm starting to crack up a little bit and I'm starting to make mistakes and I'm starting to get unreasonable and I'm starting to get tired. But as far as doing the gigs: I'm always able to do it ... It really helps if the band is inspiring. But even if they're not, even if I get roped into a charity gig with some awful pick-up band, I can still do it. It's something ..." He pauses, then seems to work it out. He leans a little closer, grinning. "Apparently I need to do this."

The relentless energy of Pop's monologues mirrors his live performances. Countdown cameraman John Tuttle's daughter Jayne was three that long-ago night when Pop sang I'm Bored. Eighteen years later, she saw him play at the Falls Festival in Lorne. She describes watching him climb the stage girders and hanging from one arm, like a monkey, as he sang. "He made everyone else look like amateurs," she says. "He was electrifying. His physicality just cut right through, hit you in the face. It's one of the best things I've ever seen."

How does he look, and keep, so fit? "i do about 40 minutes a day of exercises of Chinese origin called qigong," he says. "It's like t'ai chi. I try to go to bed early and I try to anticipate all my perversions and lusts and take care of them efficiently. That seems to work for me."

Last year, Pop released Après, an album sung in a laid-back, crooning style that includes a number of French covers - Piaf, Gainsbourg and others. How did it come about? "I get beat to shit and just get my psyche ruined rocking in general, but particularly with the Stooges, who are a mean and unreasonable group of savage beasts wrapped in a veneer of civility," he says. "And I was sick of f...ing trying to figure out how to make a song out of some rat-faced scumbag's four-chord buggery. I wanted to sing some real songs! Some nice songs! I'm at the age where ... Listen, I know how long my dad lived and I know how long my mom lived, I can draw a line in between the two and I can say when that's probably going to happen to me. And I lose points for everything that I did to myself, but I gain points because I had a life of certain ease and privilege. Basically, my Miami period here started about 15 years ago. I've got about 15 years left before I'm in that dying-vegetable position. So there's some things, you know, that I want to do!"

Later, while writing this article, I needed to contact Pop because there was a word in the interview recordings I couldn't decipher. I sent the audio grab, as well as the surrounding paragraph, to give context and jog his memory. It included the line about the Stooges as a "mean and unreasonable group of savage beasts". Pop emailed back, helpfully solving - and elaborating on - the problem of the missing word. Then he added:
"Gee, I didn't know I insulted the Stooges in so many different ways. I really just meant to say that working with the band kicks the shit out of me personally, emotionally, physically and musically. As you probably noticed, the house you visited is a lot like what they call in England an allotment. All I really want to do now is go to my allotment and be left alone. But meanwhile there will be another Stooges album and it's actually rather good. Oh Christ. Best, Iggy."

Iggy and the Stooges will perform in Melbourne on March 27 and Sydney on April 2.

Lead-in photo by Kai Regan/Corbis Outline.


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