Part 1: The Stooges
I discovered Iggy Pop because of a record review. Specifically, Lenny Kaye’s review of Raw Power in Rolling Stone. Kaye said, “The Ig. No one does it better. No one does it worse. No one else does it, period.” I said, “I need that album.”
I’m trying to put myself back in my living room that afternoon, as I first listened to it. I was 16. It was certainly something I had not heard before, hard rock pushed to a level I had never experienced. There was a level of danger and aggression that even Blue Oyster Cult didn’t come close to. As a committed guitarophile, James Williamson’s guitar grabbed me as much as Iggy’s screams.
And then, that was it. The album existed in a vacuum. The first two Stooges albums were out of print (I could only imagine what a song called “I Wanna Be Your Dog” could possibly sound like). The Stooges never came close to Rochester, NY (although I remember almost drooling over an ad in the New York Times for a New Year’s Eve double bill of Iggy and the Stooges and Blue Oyster Cult at New York’s Academy of Music). The only way I could get any more Iggy was to read about him.
Which, in fact, was not such a bad way to experience Iggy Pop. Especially in the Stooges days, his reputation was built more on his antics than on the music he produced. I read about the peanut butter and the broken glass, the fights with the audience. Alice Cooper might play at danger, but it was just a performance; with Iggy, it was reality. I memorized a couple of quotes about him, which I would repeat to anyone interested (limited primarily to my best friend Greg). One particular quote gave Iggy credit over other practitioners of shock rock because “Iggy liked to make himself bleed on stage.”
The other went something like, “And then there were the Stooges. They were the ultimate. Total nihilism in a band. And when they learned to play their instruments, they were even better.”
And here we run into the same question as with Blue Oyster Cult -- why did this maniac appeal to me? The answer is similar, but deeper. With BOC I knew, deep down, that they were play acting. They weren’t evil Satanists, they were clever middle class white boys writing fantasies.
Iggy, on the other hand, was unquestionably the real thing. Not evil. Just unrestrained Id.
Let me tell you something about myself. If my personality is out of balance, it is weighted too heavily towards the superego. My id is almost always kept under control. But don’t think for a second that I don’t feel the tug of that id, even as I, again and again, don’t act on it. So how I could help being, not just attracted to, but totally fascinated by a rock star who was the exact opposite, who’s id seemed to win out every time?
I could argue that Iggy Pop is the ultimate rock star. For isn’t rock’n’roll all about releasing the id? Unleashing those animal passions? Without a doubt, Iggy took that notion farther than anyone else.
Of course, our great-grandparents said the same thing about jazz. There was even a time when the waltz and the minuet were considered too sexually suggestive. It’s not just rock’n’roll which releases the id, it’s all music. More than any other art, we react to music through our emotions (id), not our intellect (superego). So it should come as no surprise that music sometimes stimulates extreme emotional reactions, awakens our “animal” passions.
Which raises a question: If music taps into our animal nature, why don’t animals react more to it? In my experience, animals mostly ignore music (or are bothered by it, but that seems to be mostly a question of volume). I would propose that it’s because animals are always in touch with their “animal” nature. It’s only when you have a well-developed intellect that you need tools to help you short-circuit it, or perform end runs around it (or whatever metaphor you choose).
So, does that make Iggy Pop a truly great artist? If that were the only function of art, he’d be the greatest. But art serves many other purposes; art does interact with all sides of human nature, emotional, intellectual, philosophical, spiritual. I would be the first to admit that, at least in his Stooges days, Iggy’s art worked primarily on the one, emotional level.
If one subscribes to the cathartic theory of art -- that art is a way of working out and through those emotions and desires we don’t want to enact in real life -- then Iggy is, at the least, a very useful artist. He certainly gave me a way to explore sides of my personality I wasn’t going to unleash on the world.
However, since I only had the one album to listen to, my Iggy induced catharsis was limited. In fact, I didn’t so much experience the catharsis as intellectualize it. I could ponder the idea of unrestrained id, but not really see, hear, or feel it. Which, again, says a lot about the kind of kid I was.
Part 2: Solo Career
I finally saw Iggy Pop in the fall of 1977, a much longer wait that I’d endured for Blue Oyster Cult. By that time, much had changed, in my life, in music, for Iggy.
After the Stooges disintegrated in 1974, Iggy disappeared from the public eye. (Turns out he checked himself into a mental institution for part of that time.) But rumors abounded. Primary was the rumor of an imminent solo album, with David Bowie at the helm. That rumor first surfaced as early as the spring of ‘76, and persisted for the next year, before that album actually appeared.
But, first, there was one last hurrah from the Stooges. In the spring of ‘77 I saw a review in Creem magazine for an album called Metallic K.O. Metallic K.O. was a recording of the final Stooges concert, in their hometown of Detroit, complete with Iggy taunting an angry crowd, “You pricks can throw everything in the world, and your girlfriend will still love me, you jealous cocksuckers!” “You might as well wrap your car around a telephone pole,” the review raved, “because after you’ve heard this album, you’ve heard it all.”
I was amazed. I needed that album. But it was only available as an import, and there were no copies to be had in Rochester, NY. In fact, I soon began to doubt that it existed at all. It would not have been the first time Creem reviewed an album which did not exist (they once ran a deadly serious review of Pete Townsend’s version of the Bible).
Then the rumored solo album, The Idiot, finally came out. Over heavy industrial music (years before such a genre even existed), Iggy examined his previous nihilism with a jaundiced eye. Harsh and unrelenting, the album actually scared me the first time I listened to it. “There is something I haven’t done in my life,” I wrote in my journal, “that makes me unprepared for this album.”
That summer, punk rock broke. (Relatively speaking, of course. It didn’t break into the big time, or even the charts, but it broke enough to overturn the world of underground rock.) Punk rock was everything Iggy had been doing five or more years ago. Iggy was crowned the “Godfather of Punk Rock” and his career was given another chance.
That fall I was back in college (Hampshire College, in Amherst, MA), punk rock all around me. I was in heaven. Punk rock excited me like no music had in years. And Iggy was a big part of it. His second solo album, Lust for Life, had come out, and the first two Stooges albums had been re-released, as well as a handful of Stooges outtakes. And there were people I could talk to about Iggy who actually knew who he was.
Also, Metallic K.O. had surfaced, in all its glory. It is truly one of the most amazing records in all rock’n’roll, especially if you take the word “record” to mean not a piece of vinyl, and not an artistic creation, but the record of an event. In this case, the event of Iggy facing down a crowd of angry bikers and calling their bluff. The story is that Iggy had made some disparaging comments about bikers in a radio interview, and every biker in Detroit showed up to pelt him with anything and everything. It is the only live album I know of where you can hear bottles hitting the stage. Truly amazing.
Another thing about being in college was that I had much greater access to concerts than I had had in Rochester. Many of the punk bands came through town, playing the colleges. New York City was only four hours away, Boston was only two. So when Iggy played the Orpheum in Boston, I was there.
I had mixed reactions to the show. First, I was amazed and excited that I was actually seeing him live after all these years. Still, I found his performance both frightening and disappointing. I had never seen a performer who looked so close to the edge on stage; he seriously looked like he could barely keep himself under control. Yet he never went over the edge, and we knew he wouldn’t. This was the new Iggy, barely under control, but still, under control.
I’ve seen Iggy many times since then. I saw him three times in a year, between late 1979 and late 1980, in New York City, Hartford CT, and Denver. (Coincidentally, I hitchhiked, more or less, to all three shows). By that point, Iggy had developed a stage persona, playing up on his bad boy image, but totally under control at all times. He would lean out into the audience, but he never left the stage. He consistently insulted his audience. One favorite schtick was to check his watch about half way through, and say, “We’ve done our contracted hour. We could just stop playing right now.”
He played similar, but by no means identical, sets at each show (according to my journal, he didn’t play any Stooges songs at the Hartford show), drawn heavily from Soldier (which came out in January 1980). He had a top notch band with him, changing from show to show, but including at times Brian James of the Damned and Ivan Kral of the Patti Smith Group on guitar, and original Sex Pistol Glen Matlock on bass. They rocked hard at every show, nothing flashy, but a consistently solid underpinning for Iggy’s antics.
Iggy on stage was no longer a madman. He had turned himself into a consummate performer, putting on consistently high energy shows for a loving audience, while keeping up his punk rock image by repeatedly insulting that loving audience.
Actually, everything I have just said I have to take back for the Denver show (except for the quality of the band -- which had changed some of its personnel by then, but was still whip crack tight). Iggy put on no show that night. I don’t know if he was junked up, genuinely ill, or just not feeling it, but he barely moved for the entire concert. No leaping around, no contortionism, no leaning into the audience. In fact, he could barely be bothered to insult them. Since it was my third Iggy show in less than a year, I was able to find it “interesting,” but had it been my first, I would have been severely disappointed.
The next day I was in the Denver airport, and there he was! I went up to him and said something like, “What happened last night? Were you bored or tired or what?” He, not looking at all well, scowled at me and growled, “What are you, a critic?” Rather than saying something sensible like, “No, just a disappointed fan,” I mumbled “Kinda.” So he snarled back, “Why don’t you just fuck off!” So, although I now feel pretty stupid about the whole thing, it does sound fitting to be able to say, “I met Iggy Pop, and he told me to fuck off.”
For a while I bought every Iggy solo album as soon as it came out. I continued to do so long after it became obvious that, at least as far as albums go, he was quite inconsistent. Or perhaps I kept buying them because of their inconsistency -- through much of his solo career, Iggy continued to be musically adventurous. On each album he seemed to be trying out a slightly different musical style, all based in hard rock, but some harder, some poppier, some tame, some extreme. Some of the styles worked for him, some did not.
My favorite of his solo albums is Soldier, often dismissed by critics as a throwaway, but which I find to be an artful try at a new style of pop music (no pun intended), anchored as much in Barry Andrews' bouncy keyboards as Ivan Kral’s snarling guitar. Other favorites are his two mid-80’s stabs at commercial success, Blah-Blah-Blah and Brick by Brick, almost for opposite reasons: Blah-Blah-Blah has a solid, consistent sound throughout, whereas Brick By Brick plays with a number of different styles.
Some sort of honorable mention must also be made for his most adventuresome disc, 1999’s Avenue B, which is essentially a spoken word album. Which is not as surprising at it might seem, for Iggy often played with spoken word. Cuts such as “Turn Blue” (off Lust for Life), “I’m a Conservative” (Soldier) and even “We Will Fall” from the first Stooges album, were all spoken word pieces, long before such a notion existed in pop culture. Iggy again proves himself to be ahead of his time.
But by the early 90’s, more or less with American Caesar, Iggy pretty much settled into a basic hard rock groove, and his solo albums started to all sound the same.
Something similar happened with his live shows. Don’t get me wrong. Even today, Iggy puts on one of the most high energy shows you will ever see. I saw him just a couple of years ago with the reformed Stooges, and it was an amazing concert. But the sense of danger has vanished entirely. Iggy is totally in control.
Which maybe means that Iggy has learned to control his demons. That whatever drove him such extremes early on still burns within him, but he’s learned to control it. Which means, I guess, that he’s no longer pure id; that even Iggy Pop has a superego.