There's a Lizard In the House

And it's name is Iggy Pop. We climb inside Iggy's Miami cage and get to the bottom of what has driven him through his extraordinary life.
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And it's name is Iggy Pop. We climb inside Iggy's Miami cage and get to the bottom of what has driven him through his extraordinary life.

At the far end of Iggy Pop’s half acre of old Miami the scene is primal. Head though the garden past the lurid voodoo saints and classical statues and you come to a river that looks like it’s rolling through the dawn of time. The banks are thick with antique plant life, palms and ferns and drooping grasses. Fish jump from the black green water they share with the lizards that throw themselves in when you walk up unannounced, the iguanas that lent this plot’s notorious tenant a nickname that stuck more than 45 years ago, and who sits himself in the midst of all this, taught-skinned, lamp eyed, long haired and sublime.

That he is here it all he says is “awful fortunate,” but he has suffered his share of awful fortune in his time. Five decades of performance energised to the point of dementia played out against a soundtrack that collapsed convention and spawned genres with equal force are not without toll. He limps a little, has a bandaged knee and a built up sandal to offset it. Not bad, all things considered. If he pushed his body then he pushed his mind harder, a narcotic intake that, like his approach to music and seemingly everything else in life bloomed unhindered by outside opinion or thoughts of tomorrow, and all of which left him either moving too fast or just too messed up for commerce to either catch up or care.

Skim any of the books about him and there are tales of debauchery almost too warped to reckon, sustained degradation, fleeting glamour and self abuse of every kind. But alongside that and in the end way out in front of it came performances without precedent or parallel and a clutch of albums, three with his band The Stooges, another three or four as a solo artist that shrug off easy definition as surely as they shrug off time-something that he appears to do himself when he takes the stage even now in his sixties, and seems to explode all over again as if renewing his acquaintance with some secret power. Jamming his fingers into the socket of his soul one more time, deleting the clichés of ageing rock stardom as readily and as recklessly as he kicked the hinges off what was once rock n roll.

Down by the river he tells his story in a voice that flows from the resonant baritone of his songs to a higher pitched exasperation that often lapses into giggles. When necessary he will deploy the accents of various European nations as well as several variations of his native tone. He will speed up and slow down and shift from chuckling to sombre and sometimes leave a sentence incomplete having worked enough on its inflexion to dispense with the protocols of grammar. It is musical, though never at the expense of meaning, an eloquence that also embraces some of the most primordial barks and yells ever made by a human in the name of entertainment. He is a conundrum, I suggest. “Not for me,” he answers, “for I am he of whom you speak.” But for all that wit and feral power there are, he thinks, three other reasons why he sits before us today enjoying waves of belated reverence and fresh esteem.

“I hung around, and I hung around, and I hung around.”

In the early sixties when Iggy Pop was still James Osterburg he would listen to the radio and get annoyed. He recalls Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” as a particular source of frustration. “Maybe it was a clever pop song, but I didn’t wanna hear it. That was fake! That was wrong! That didn’t sound good. I felt bad when I heard that, and I’d have to wait. They’d be a top 40 and I’d like one song by The Kinks and one song by The Beatles and there were 38 things that made me feel the same. It was the same feeling I got later when Nixon’s president-a kid just knows-he’s a psycho, he’s a scumbag, I’m not gonna fight for this anymore and I laugh at it. Fuck you. So I really felt bad all the time.”

With an antipathy toward the mainstream that would turn out to be mutual he took his gut feelings and the things he admired, and set about making music that would make him feel better.

“Yes, well I started to make some of it, most of it I couldn’t make. ‘Cos Bob Dylan made music that made me feel better, say like Bringing It All Back Home, but I didn’t have those skills. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ by the Flamingos, now that sure as hell made me feel better, but I couldn’t do that. Didn’t have the licks, didn’t have the chops, didn’t have their vocal chords or Dylan’s brains but I figured I could find (+I)something(-I). I met people later who assumed that because I’d do a song like ‘Gimme Some Skin’…” He yelps out half a bar by way of illustration. “…swearing and cursing and spewing to a hyper driven emotionless riff, that I wouldn’t like Debussey, or girl groups, but I do, very much. But you do what you can, also, there’s something to that.”

What he did was give up drumming-his initial choice of occupation-start singing and form The Stooges. By end of the Sixties as the hippy dream waned The Stooges tuned in to a converse sensibility and pushed for something new. Their gigs included improvised instruments, vacuum cleaners, great squalls of feedback, a core set of half a dozen songs including ‘I Wanna’ Be Your Dog’, ‘No Fun’ and ‘1969,’ and at the front Iggy, giving his all. The band’s label Elektra hired The Velvet Underground’s John Cale to try and commit all this to record and their eponymous debut peaked in the charts at No 106. Nowadays this album and its successors are acknowledged and name-dropped as foundation stones of almost anything gutsy and guitar-led that followed from punk to metal and beyond. Then though, few were listening, but those that did had the pleasure of hearing music that wasn’t conceived to be sold.

“I never once thought any of it would be a hit or get on the radio. I looked around and there’s no apparatus for this, this is not going anywhere, but I know if really impresses me it’s gonna impress other people. Not everybody-but quite a few. I just didn’t think it would take 34 years. ‘Cos it did impress a few people, they knew the symbols, they knew what things meant. They scratched their heads and put it together, But very few, very, very few people. Now more people can decipher what was good about it.”

What was good about it, I suggest, what made unmarketable then and makes it so beloved now, is that it was real. He nods at this as if to say ‘well, of course,’ and when I suggest that its relative failure at the time must have been a source of consternation he tosses the word back as a bad fit. “Consternation? (+I) Consternation?(-I) I think that falls a little short . I was very, very angry, all the time.”

So a pattern emerges that informs The Stooges antics into the early seventies until their demise: explosive record-indifferent reaction-angry band-explosive record, and so on. They were a sight to see though, just as the records still demand to be heard. Discussion of these performances raises the subject of splitting one’s trousers on stage, something Iggy says most artists known for it did deliberately but in his case, he says, evolved from genuine sartorial oversight.

“What happened with me was an accident, they started ripping once and I looked at them and thought, that looks cool and those are my favourite pants. I have a little bit of what they call OCD or addictive personality. I get on something and I wanna do it over and over again and then I thought if they rip during the show, what about if I just come on with ‘em already ripped? One pair ripped more and more and more till there’s pictures from 1970 where the inseam, it’s just a flap, and this is the start of the show, and by that time I was also well out of my mind for every show, there were a lot of drugs involved so…”

Though those shows have slipped into folklore as the contemporary apex of outrage and driven rock n roll you have to wonder, given the length of time and the breadth of intoxication, just how much of them their protagonist can recall?

“ I remember once I discovered audience participation, some shows I would carry a a pen and a paper in my back pocket so if I dove into the audience and I liked a chick I could get her number while I was working, but not often. I remember bad moments, I remember when our amps wouldn’t work and I was on two hits of orange sunshine standing in front of a crowd that was waiting for The Cream, I was standing on a 200lb oil drum that I had rigged up-it was gonna be a percussion instrument-and they were yelling at me,  ‘We want The Cream! We want The Cream, booo,’ and it was my 21st birthday and I had to stand my ground. I thought, ‘don’t you give in now, don’t let them know this bothers you,’ that I remember. It did bother me. We didn’t have a great night.”

But you didn’t quit, either. You were determined to overcome the challenge?

“Fuck yeah, fuck yeah. There was never any question of that. There was never any question. There was only success or death.”

Speaking of success there’s a great picture of Iggy as a school kid, smiling in a library by stack of books with a studious looking girl, they are posing for the camera having been elected “Most Likely To Succeed,” at junior high.

“Oh yeah, Kathy Kimble! I remember nice things like her, I liked her a lot, had a crush on her. Yeah well, success…I was oriented that way.  I remember odd things. I remember how it felt. We played the Whiskey A Go Go and there weren’t so many people, Warhol and his group were lurking in the back booths. It took us half a minute to clear the dance floor-which was typical with us at the time-but this one girl came forward and she had on these hip hugger bell bottoms!” He beams at the recollection, “and she was dancing a California dance! All strange…”

I ask for clarification and instantly he’s out of his chair doing the synchronised arm and hand moves offset by a slight wiggle of the hips popular with backing singers of the time.

“Like go go dancing! Shimmy shimmy-a white dance,” I am enlightened and he sits down again. “I remember thinking. ‘I wonder what she’s like?’ But that was as far as that went. I think I pored hot wax over my chest at Andy Warhol’s table instead, for whatever reason. I remember some of the different dives we played, the small gigs I remember almost every one. And you especially remember when there’s 30 people in the audience and they’re all the way over (+I)there(-I), when they could be over (+I)here(-I). You could be close to the stooges! What’s your problem?  But that wasn’t everywhere, we had our places where people could go and people wanted to get down with it.”

When people got down with it something special happened. There is a photograph, perhaps one of the great live shots of all time, of the Stooges playing in 1970 in Cincinnati. Iggy has walked out into the crowd and they are carrying him along on their hands like some hero from antiquity, everyone is wide-eyed and smiling, especially Iggy, who points straight ahead as if aiming for some undiscovered land. It’s a stunning image, almost classical in composition. Seconds later he covers himself in peanut butter (you can watch this happen on the Internet). As career metaphors go it’s compelling stuff.

“Yes, yes and that was a very nice group of people indeed. And it’s not easy to get arrested in Ohio, let me tell you. I don’t mean get (+I)arrested(-I), I mean interested. Ohio people…that’s how Obama won the election, he won Ohio. You gotta win Ohio, they’re really tough.”

So how do you win Ohio?

“With me it’s cos I hung around and decided to meet society half way. I’ve done some very prosaic and not necessarily distinguished and repetitive activities for many years that I had to do-also known as shitwork”

Shitwork?

“Shitwork! I have vacuumed, I have shopped, I have gone to dinner with assholes, I have sssssaved money…”he really spits that one out,  “I have gone to bed early-I actually enjoy that-I’m an early to bed early to rise person. I picked up that habit along the way. I became more sober…and kinda stuck to some of my guns and the business changed and it got to the point where-and I knew this ten years ago-there wasn’t any real music business. It’s a sub department of showbiz, the movie business, that’s all it is, on a business level and that’s really good for me cos in Ohio now you could just be a person they like, and that’s ok. You don’t have to have the best record or be particularly successful at any particular thing, or sell a particular widget, if people know you and like you people will come and give you jobs and give you money, in the new world.”

Between the shitwork and the new world there were intervals of great accomplishment, most notably his alliance with David Bowie. The two enjoyed a symbiosis and recorded and wrote together in Berlin during the mid seventies. From it came Iggy’s best-regarded solo albums, The Idiot and Lust For Life. Whilst never losing touch with the stark energy of The Stooges era both records offer something else entirely, there are great synthesised slabs of introspection between the jolts of power, real poetry and real dirt. In real life though the dirt began to dominate, “and for a long time I was somebody that you really didn’t wanna be, ha!”

Somewhere along the way between the missing years and the recently touring, revived Stooges, he got sanctified. Young musicians are queuing up to get photographed with him and The Stooges are on every festival bill. “It flip flopped, and you can tell, suddenly I’m someone people would like to be. Then I wondered how that affects their thinking, if that actually relaxes them, does it change the quality of the goods?” He mimes shaking somebody by the shoulders, “‘Do you really fucking mean it when you say that Funhouse was your favourite fucking record?’ Or is it just because I can afford a shirt now?”

Shirt or no shirt his instincts are still commendably free of commerce. It’s rare these days to even interview someone who doesn’t have something specific to sell.

“No I don’t. I don’t give a fuck! So you don’t have to be kind about anyone’s new album. But I’m still on a mission with America, I don’t try too hard but I’m still trying to break through here, in business terms this country’s 20% for me or for The Stooges, it used to be ten, so it’s doubled.”

It’s a well-worn path though, American artists of certain kind being better received in Europe.

“Absolutely. I got the foot in the door three or four times over from that side, but I do not care to be an ex pat, I was very keen not to allow rot in the tree trunk and ultimately I’m one o’ these,” he points at the ground, “this is where I’m from, and I still feel like they can’t get rid o’me, I won’t give up.”

Like he said before, he hung around, against considerable odds, often generated by him self as much as any wider circumstance.

“Yuss, yuss,” he says, rolling out the word into a deep, emphatic hiss. “I mean it’s amazing, it’s so amazing I’m alive. I don’t know what else to say, it’s amazing. It’s been a little while now but even up to a couple of years ago I would still meet people who would just be incensed at something I did to them, or to their property, or to their relative, of which I have absolutely no recollection. Ha ha, ya know? I didn’t even know I was in town! Sorry, gee. I’m happy to say I feel lucky, I enjoy the river here, I enjoy my home life, I enjoy a lot of the things I do. I enjoy the sky and all sorts of things, it’s awful fortunate, ya know? I worry about it sometimes, you do when you hit my age I’ve seen what happens to people who get to the next couple of age brackets, some of them. And I don’t know if I would want to live, either being helpless, or hopeless. And so [the avoidance of] those require someone to be and something to look forward to, money won’t help you. You need identity and you need an interest. And then it gets tricky. The things in which we are interested to a large extent are dependent on our sensory and motor apparatus. I like the way the trees look here but my eyesight has already failed three times, ha!I had lasic before it was legal in America, now I’m having to wear glasses again, my parents had macular degeneration I’m starting to think, gee would I really wanna live as a blind guy? And then there’s my hearing and then there’s this and then there’s that so you start thinking, hmmnn?”

There’s a line in his commendably straightforward 1979 tribute to femininity “Girls,” where he sings, “I wanna live to be 98.”

“ Sure, the old, Maurice Chevalier attitude, as long as there’s chicks…”

But if you can’t see them…

“Yeah right, you can’t see em, exactly, and then you get to the point where you can’t talk to them. Well now I’m very happily monogamous, cos she fulfils all these things for me, I look at her and I go, ‘wow’. But things like that, you think about these things, you really do.”

As the afternoon goes by talk of human frailty moves to the frailty of our economic system and all its failure might entail. “I’m nervous,” says Iggy, “very nervous about it. My money’s in the bank, is that ok? I don’t know. What’s the alternative?” There’s an irony here though, the once itinerant, seemingly destructive spirit, fretting over the state of things. “It’s incredibly ironic, but I also think it makes a nice story arc, and I’m playing that hand, absolutely.”

He is on good terms with modernity but you can tell he’s still drawn to times and places where matters are less controlled. He says Miami was great, anything could happen there. He felt the same about Berlin, “scruffy, undervalued places,” and New York in the late seventies. “That’s when I thought it was the best, I always knew I could jay walk. Don’t fuckin’ tell me where to cross the street! They do now. One night, I’d been up all night with Chrissie Hynde, we had a bottle of Jack Daniels and we were staying in midtown and walked a few blocks at probably six in the morning, went into the Empire State building with the bottle in our hands, walked in the doors, pressed the elevator up to 77. Then another one, went to the top. You can’t do that now, the building’s only open certain hours, you have to stand in line and buy a ticket, you’re escorted up there’s a metal detector, there’s ID and all that. So I like places that have tremendous dependable structure but it hasn’t been fulfilled yet, places where people like me can kind of come in and wheedle around, Detroit had that.”

It might be too easy to be in a group these days he thinks. “People with any drive will say, ‘I’ll just get that beat done on a drum machine’. Oxbridge is the place to start your rock band now. The balls are not required-the mad will. ‘I don’t care if I die broke and a bum.’ No, it’s a straight up career opportunity now… My father, he tried to stop me because he cared, he was a good man, he said, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’ I was gonna quit school, he stood in the doorway and said, ‘you’re gonna have to knock me out of this door.’ And he could have kicked my ass ten ways, I thought I’m gonna get beat up, here we go. Then when he saw I was ready to get beat up he was ok about it.”

If he could go back to that moment and give himself a piece of advice what would it be?

“Oh boy, a piece of advice?” He thinks for a moment, then it comes to him. “Skip the blow.! I don’t do that well, never did. I never wrote anything very good with that particular substance. I recorded a couple of vocals that have done marvellously well, that were interesting, with that substance, but generally not. So that would be the single thing, off the top of my head. I blew it there…and watch the drink! Watch the drink, skip the blow.” He gives out a rattling laugh. “Don’t trust whitey!”

As evening comes to Miami and perhaps the whole American adventure itself you wonder what to make of this remarkable man who goes on to compare at length his country’s history to the fall of Rome, speaks of “mitosis” between Europe and America and who made his name cutting himself apart with broken glass and singing about how he’d like to be your dog. The default noun for rock stars in their seventh decade is “aristocracy,” but with Iggy that just won’t do. It has establishment overtones and he fed too many mainstream dreams to the guillotine to ever be a part of that. A better analogy, and one that’s been applied before is that of a character from a western, the noted gunman who after a long interlude in the saloon excels himself in the showdown and by some impossible accident of ballistics dodges all the bullets to make it through. “Westerns are fun, I have no quarrel with that,” he says as he stares across the river toward the highway you can hear but cannot see. “Well we are in the west. It’s still the same deal. ‘Specially in this town, there’s lots of strange people walking around…”