The Stooges frontman discusses his legacy, what drugs did to his band and that Royal Caribbean Cruises commercial
Iggy Pop vividly remembers the tiny cutoff-denim shorts and moccasins he wore onstage; the way he repeatedly hit himself with a drumstick, raising bloody welts all over his chest; his headfirst dive into the crowd. The Stooges — Iggy, guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer Scott Asheton (Ron's brother) and bassist Dave Alexander — had issued their then-new, now-legendary 1969 debut, The Stooges, and were opening for Joe Cocker at the World's Fair Pavilion in Queens, New York.
After the Stooges' set, Iggy recalls, "I walked out to the middle of the floor, in my shorts with these welts on my body, to talk to the talent agent Frank Barselona about possibly booking the group. He said, 'Iggy, I think in twenty years or so, you're going to be a very important guy. But for now, no thanks.'"
Iggy laughs in a rubbery subterranean growl. Half of the fun of listening to him tell Stooges war stories is his vivid comic delivery. The other half is the survivor's triumph punctuating each tale like a power chord. Iggy Pop — born James Newell Osterberg in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1947, the mad lad whose kamikaze drug use and ritualistic physical extremism onstage almost killed him before the mid-Seventies — turns sixty on April 21st.
He is a Stooge again, too. "I'd been in an impossible band, living an impossible life," he says, referring to the notorious on- and offstage chaos that split the Stooges after 1970's Fun House and again following 1973's Raw Power. "But never, since I met Ron and Scott, has a voice been raised between us, a fist made. There was nothing in our way." The Stooges (with bassist Mike Watt replacing the late Alexander, who died in 1975) have been touring since 2003 and are now playing songs from their first album in more than thirty years, The Weirdness.
For eight hours over two days, at the small house in north Miami where he and the Ashetons wrote The Weirdness, Iggy spoke about his entire life: his Michigan origins; the wild birth and crash of the Stooges; David Bowie's role in resurrecting the band and the records he and Iggy made in Berlin in the mid-Seventies; and, of course, he cracks, "the list of thirty-two important transgressions — my stations of the cross."
But, he insists, before going deep into the mess, marvel and legacy of rock's first and still greatest punk band, "I don't think there was anything wired or weird about the Stooges when we started. We were just creative."
In "Trollin'," the first song on The Weirdness, you sing, "My dick is turning into a tree." Is that something even a Stooge should sing at sixty?
You write about things of importance to you. And it's gotta be for real. Do I think about my dick? Oh, yeah, all the time. If I think about it all the time, I got a right to sing about it. If I wasn't thinking about it all the time but thought, "It's time to write a rock song, I'd better mention my dick," then I wouldn't even be able to say "dick" right. Besides, it's an ecological line. It's not, "My dick is all bad, motherfucker, wickety wackety woo." It's nature-oriented. [Pauses, looking serious, then laughs] It is!
In another new song, "Claustrophobia," you sing, "My second mind is burying me alive." Is that Jim or Iggy? You've answered to both names for most of your life.
Jim has the second mind. I would call it the executive area. I'm wary of terms like "bipolar." But when I've read about that sort of thing, I've certainly seen my past in it.
Were your parents concerned about your behavior as a kid, to the point of taking you to a doctor?
You're asking, "Were there early warning signs of Iggy Pop?" [Laughs] Not at home. But in the third grade, I had a very stern teacher, Mrs. Bordine. I don't remember what I did, but in front of the class, she tied me to my chair with red twine. She tied it around my trunk, arms and legs — for a significant period. I must have been fidgety that day. But were my parents worried? No.
I always felt that in rock & roll, something's gotta happen. I liked that word — happening. If it wasn't going to happen in front of me, I was going to make it happen. I actually tried not to repeat myself. They say it was Stiv Bators [later of the Dead Boys] who handed me the peanut butter [during the Stooges' famous, nationally televised set at a 1970 festival in Cincinnati]. "He's strange, we'll give him peanut butter." That wasn't in the repertoire. But people started bringing it to the shows. I was like, "No, I'm not gonna fucking play with your peanut butter." I got involved with stuff that had some corny overtones. But I was never a corny thinker.
You have an unusual background by Detroit working-class-rock standards. You grew up in a trailer park, but your father was a college-educated high school English teacher.
My parents had been shocked and impoverished by the Depression. It made them careful and frugal. At first, as a teacher, my father made no money. So he got the idea of living in a trailer park. The rent was a dollar a day for the plot. I slept over the dinette, on a shelf. We were definitely the only college-educated family in the camp.
Once I hit junior high in Ann Arbor, I began going to school with the son of the president of Ford Motor Company, with kids of wealth and distinction. But I had a wealth that beat them all. I had the tremendous investment my parents made in me. I got a lot of care. They helped me explore anything I was interested in. This culminated in their evacuation from the master bedroom in the trailer, because that was the only room big enough for my drum kit. They gave me their bedroom.
Are there aspects of your father in you — as Jim or Iggy?
Yes. Nobody's going to tell me what the fuck to do. And I don't like bullshit. Also, I like quiet — less people around as opposed to more. He was that way.
And your mom?
She was unusually generous and nice to everybody, a person who sought harmony and equality in situations. I have some of that. I don't function well when there's conflict. I'm very nonconfrontational. People use "confrontation" a lot to describe what I do professionally. But that's one thing. Life's another.
When did your parents first see you play with the Stooges?
We did the Michigan state fairgrounds with the MC5. They sat in the grandstand. I had a fairly wild gig — things thrown back and forth between a couple of audience members and the band. I saw my parents later and asked them about the gig. My dad, who had played some minor-league baseball, said, "You remind me of young pitchers I used to coach — lot of speed, no control." But my mom didn't want me to feel bad. She said, "When everybody stood up, your dad climbed up a pillar, so he could get a better view." He was at least interested.
So they were aware of what you got up to onstage.
Oh, yeah. I did a show in the town where my dad taught. I broke a bottle over the mike stand — I thought it looked cool. One girl who was particularly demonstrative in the front got a couple of minor cuts from the glass. She was holding her arms up in the spotlight. Blood was dripping down; she was screaming. There was a little ruffle in the household over that, because it was written up in the paper: POP GOES THE BOTTLES — BRING BACK ELVIS. But nothing worse came of it. It was somewhere in the petty-infraction zone.
I've always been amazed that you ran for class president in high school. In the Sixties, that was the ultimate in straight.
From the moment I set foot in junior high and saw how the other half lived, I wanted nothing more than to be like them. Never could get it right. I saved my money and bought a pair of loafers. But they were red Hush Puppies. My socks were the wrong color. Nothing clicked for me, until I played drums in the talent show. People treated me differently.
Then, three years later, you're going psycho onstage at the Grande Ballroom. How do you account for the turnaround?
The day I got out of high school, no more haircuts. My haircuts had been enforced by my dad. I bought a bottle of Clairol Ultra Blue, dyed my hair platinum and started playing in a rock club full time: five sets a night, six nights a week, fifty-five bucks.
I started going wild — getting drunk once in a while. Borrowed cars, crashing' em. Got my first fingerprints and mug shot. And I was listening to two albums — Bringing It All Back Home, by Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones Now! And maybe Out of Our Heads, by the Stones too.
What was it about Dylan and the Stones that hooked you?
I was learning song construction. How to write, how to play. How to make it feel. Music should never be too good, too tight. It should excite you. The Stooges' music is supposed to make me feel good. And I've always had faith that if I feel good, others will. That faith has been tested [laughs].
What did you learn — and take — from Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison when you started singing with the Stooges?
From Morrison, it was the way to stand at the mike — the stance and the grab. He hung on the stand. Nobody else did that. The other thing was he might do anything — and he doesn't respect you. You don't get respect for ten bucks — sorry! From Mick Jagger, it would be his moving around while he performs the song. Also, the voice as an irritant. When he sang, it was the opposite of nice.
Did you feel that, as performers, they didn't go far enough?
They went as far as they needed to go. If I was going to work in the same direction, then I had to go farther. But it didn't necessarily mean more extreme. The Stooges went farther afield in our influences. We listened to [the acid-folk band] Pearls Before Swine and [avant-garde composer] Harry Partch. The drumbeat on "1969" is not a Bo Diddley beat. It's straight off a belly-dance record. Stone fucking Fertile Crescent.
How important was LSD in the birth of the Stooges?
I took too much. I really did. We were on LSD when we named the group. I was on it sometimes when we worked, particularly in the Fun House period. Also, I think it helped the other guys in the band. I was spending half my time talking everybody into the idea that we could do this. I was asking a lot — to follow this insane guy, to make this creation music. There was no reason to believe it was going to go anyplace. But when we took LSD together, there were creative moments when everybody believed we could do something.
You got the nickname Iggy from your first band, the Iguanas. Where did you get the surname Pop?
Jim Popp was a friend of the Ashetons and Dave Alexander. They were part of a gang that cut school and sniffed glue together. I always thought Pop was a cool name. And it goes good with Iggy. If it had been left up to me, I would have been Jimmy James. But we played one gig and immediately got long column inches in the Michigan Daily. There was a review of Blood, Sweat and Tears. They got a paragraph. The rest of it was about everything we did. And it said, "Ex-drummer Iggy Osterberg." I said, "Fuck, I'm Iggy. But I gotta ditch the Osterberg." Which is a shame. I quite like the name now. It's a good name.
Did people actually applaud at your early shows?
My memory of the original years was a transfixed, frozen attention. Few people wanted to be anywhere near the stage. They would just stare. It was as if the audience was a gigantic cardboard cutout, a diorama. Nobody moved. Nobody went to the bathroom.
Little by little, people started liking it. It was mostly high school kids — tenth graders. What we did didn't bother them. They thought the riffs were cool. The songs said something to them. And then there were the Ramones, sitting in Queens, going, "I can get with that. It's kind of simple." It didn't bother them at all.
You named the second Stooges album Fun House after your infamous band house in Ann Arbor. Describe daily life at the Fun House.
The idea was that it would be a place where we could live and rehearse and create. It was a lovely, three-story Michigan farmhouse with a stately lawn and what remained of a farmer's cornfield behind us. The farmer, Mr. Baylis, rented it to us for about $250 a month. It had nice woodwork and a lot of handcrafted things he had made. We weren't there a month before all the drains stopped working. You couldn't pee. You couldn't take a shower. You couldn't cook anything. Dave Alexander wore taps on his shoes, the kind greasers wore in schools to fight with. He tore up the woodwork on the floors.
But I remember a happy time — some fairly healthy guys smoking weed on a daily basis, growing our hair, having sex with as many young fans as we could get to come over, taking our laundry out to our various mothers. We were just carrying on as an area band.
How much songwriting did you get done? Your early shows were short — twenty, twenty-five minutes tops.
We had a few grooves. We had one that became the end of "Ann." I called that "I'm Sick." We had one not unlike "Little Doll" — that was "Dance of Romance." We had one that came along later — a descending chord passage that sounded like what the Sex Pistols did later in "God Save the Queen." We played that over and over, and I'd sing something.
Whatever came into your head?
Based on a prearranged phrase that would be the name of the song. And I would freestyle. I can rhyme quickly. I also had a series of hand signals — like James Brown — so we could switch from one riff to another, so the music never stopped. The main reason was I didn't want to give anyone a chance not to applaud: "As long as we don't stop, nothing'll go wrong."
We didn't have any songs. When we got a contract, then we had to write songs.
How did heroin change life at the Fun House?
We had a roadie living in the basement — he introduced the band to skag. The first time I took it, I laid on the hood of an abandoned car we kept behind our house, thinking it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I felt awful. Every time I moved, I would heave — for thirty-six hours. I thought, "I'm never going to touch this again."
Somehow, little by little, it crept in. It became a comfort — a blanket, a refuge. I was a local blues drummer, making the transition to a songwriter and frontman in a competitive business, very quickly. I was trying to forge ahead, and I burned out. People around me, who weren't as intensely motivated as I, didn't get jonesed as bad.
Did heroin break up the original Stooges?
That and economics. And the group did not have a strong work ethic. I would have liked to see a bit more elbow grease. Then, at some point, I went crazy. I proved too fragile to do what I needed to do for the group. Had there been a system of rehab, had the group had savings, we might have been able to stop and regroup sensibly later. Instead, I did that at home with my parents' help. I got kind of halfway stable.
Was it hard to go home in that state?
Yeah. I was in and out. I was good and bad. It must have been a terrible strain on my mother and a big pain in the ass for my dad. I was crashing once in a while — I'd get drunk or druggy for a day or two. But I was basically staying with my parents, taking a very modest and decreasing dose of a form of methadone — Dolophine, the only methadone I've ever seen in the form of cherry syrup.
I looked great, if I do say so myself. There's something about that drug, when you're young and untroubled, that gives you an Indian-summer kind of look.
Was it hard later to see bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper score big with a cartoon version of the Stooges' shocks tactics? Kiss opened for you in New York on New York's Eve, 1973.
Dude, it's etched in my mind. Kiss were third on the bill that night, probably getting fifty bucks, but they had a giant Kiss sign made of lights that must have weighed five hundred pounds. Obviously, someone poured money into this band. It was a business plan. Yeah, I remembered that later. And you have shared blame there. We had a cooler group, but I was too fucked up. I had become unsound, and no group with me in it was going anywhere.
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.
Do you ever wonder how much longer you can be a Stooge?
I am working at what passes for full metal jacket for a guy of my vintage — promoting, touring, running the band business, the whole fucking ball of wax. It's Ron Asheton's bloody fault [laughs]. We'd still be rehearsing if it was up to me. But he'd leave me these phone messages, usually between two and five in the morning: "Jim, you know when the commander tells the squad to take that hill? They just take it. They don't think about preparation. They just go, fast, now!" It's Pork Chop Hill for him.
I cannot keep it up forever. But I will work hard. These boys are hungry. And I owe them something. I was getting to a place in my career, before this hooked up, but I got here on their watch. My attitude is, I have the luxury and sanity to go out and see what happens. And when it begins to feel wrong in any way, then you withdraw.
Is that Jim talking — or Iggy?
That's an interesting question. [Pauses, then grins] We do these things together. Because Iggy knows a lot of shit. One thing about Iggy — he pays for Jim's life.
I'm saddled with a gigantic past to live up to, live down and generally live out. It has a humbling quality. It makes you realize, "Oh, I didn't always have this nice house." I wasn't always so shrewd. And it's not my favorite part of my life. I would rather be like a nice new penny that everybody loves [laughs]. But that is not my fate.
No, you are Mr. Pop.
And that's OK.