How did you end up in New York for your fateful meeting with David Bowie at Max's Kansas City?
I'd been given a ticket to Florida by the manager Steve Paul to explore the idea of becoming a singer for Rick Derringer, late of the McCoys. Steve had seen the Stooges at the Goose Lake Festival [in 1970] and found my performance frightening. Then he chimed in with the usual litany: "Let's get this guy out of the group and put some real musicians around him."
I knew I wasn't doing that. I weasled out of that deal and ended up crashing at [ex-Elektra A&R man] Danny Fields' apartment in New York. I was there one night, watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on TV and getting misty, because I identified with it. I felt and still feel the business I'm in is more corrupt than I am. Then the phone rings, and it's Danny at Max's. It took three calls for him to get me there to meet David: "Look, this guy could help you."
Everything Bowie did for you as a fan and friend is well documented. But what did you do for him?
One thing I can tell you for sure: For three years, I was a guinea pig. If he had a new idea and wasn't sure how to approach it, he would write or arrange something in a similar manner for one of my projects. He had a period where he worked with personnel and engineers with me first, until he got the lay of the land. Then he would do his album with them. That was just a practical part of him.
Honestly, I gave him an outlet for an overflow of talent and ideas he had. The more obscure and weird the idea, that's what I wanted. As for whether he got ideas from me, he was soaking them up from everybody. Everything was a source. We went to Bali years later. He bought a gamelan and shipped it to Switzerland: "I can play that." And he did – on "Loving the Alien" [on 1984's Tonight].
"Lust for Life" is the best and best-known song from your days with Bowie in Berlin. How much of it is autobiography?
It's William Burroughs, from The Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine. I loved that Dr. Benway line: "Love, what is it anyway? It's just like when you hypnotize a chicken." And there was Johnny Yen, the Venusian green boy – he's gonna sell you the love con. He'll go through your closet while you're staring into space. I was mixing that with personal experience.
The riff was directly lifted from Armed Forces TV. I wonder if they still use it. At four o'clock in the afternoon, the channel came on with this black-and-white image of a radio tower, going beep-beep-beep beep-beep-ba-beep. Exactly like that. We were watching it one day, and there was a ukulele nearby. David grabbed it, said, "Get your tape recorder," and knocked it out on the ukulele.
What was your reaction when Royal Caribbean Cruises wanted to use it in a TV ad? It's hard to imagine a more inappropriate song for selling romantic getaways.
I was thrilled. And the song sounds great in there. I always paid attention to advertising jingles when I started writing songs. The first commercial the Stooges were in was a radio ad for the Detroit Dragway. They used a loop of the riff from "Real Cool Time" [on The Stooges], while the guy's going, "See the motherfucking death-defying funny car! Big Ed Son-of-a-Bitch and his nitro-burning . . . !" [Laughs] I was like, "Yes, yes!" We weren't paid, but I didn't even think about it. I was so proud.
Look, blood, sweat and tears never got me or my music a fair hearing in the totally fake, nauseating, entirely crapola commercial-radio system – which is thankfully in its death throes. I hung out with those guys for years, doing horrible promo tours where you'd have to sit there and listen to the program director insult you if he wanted. You'd do an acoustic performance for his station, but he'd never play your fucking record. And he'd be laughing about it as you drive out of the parking lot. So am I happy to hear my music anywhere? Yeah. I don't like the art ghetto. I want a wider culture.
You are one of rock's premier icons of self-destruction. Do you feel any responsibility for those who died imitating your excesses, like Sid Vicious?
He was somebody who recognized destruction as a style, and I was one of many influences. I encountered him once, backstage at a Johnny Thunders gig. Sid was sitting with a beer in his hand, talking to somebody as normally as you and I are. In the split second when he saw me, he went [slumps down in his chair] – that "I am totally stoned out of my mind and cannot communicate" pose.
I thought, "Oh, he spotted me." Or maybe the guy was just shy. A lot of people who get stoned – they're just shy people. And there are people who hate what they are, who want to get rid of that part of themselves, to scrape it away. They look at me in certain periods, especially twenty years ago, as someone who did that – who managed to be fucked up and . . . [Long pause]
Totally cool at it?
Yes. Then they live that out for themselves. But they can get something positive out of it, too. They get hope. People ask me for advice all the time, everything from "I'm going through a bad relationship" to "How do I get my art out there?" I get a lot of respect now. On airplanes, regular family folk now call me "Mr. Pop" – with no irony. I like that.
Are there physical things you can't do onstage anymore?
[Points to the live "Raw Power"-era photo of himself on the front of his T-shirt] Can't do that! Can't bend over backwards and pick up an apple in my teeth. If I have to work two nights in a row, I'll jump real high on the first night. The second night, I'll get up about six inches.
I have a dislocated shoulder. I have a lot of cartilage lost in my right hip. Both knees are about to go. I have one leg about an inch and a half shorter than the other. When I was thirteen, I was run over by a big guy playing junior high football, and the right leg ended up a quarter-inch shorter. By my midtwenties, it was a half-inch. Then in the Eighties, I had no money and was taking packed economy flights everywhere, night after night. The combination of that schedule and a fall I took dancing on an amplifier left me with my spine twisted and a slight limp.
Aleve and tai chi brought me back. But as I began to lose unlimited use of my body, I had to start using my head. I'm a much more remarkable person mentally than physically.
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