Published Nov 01, 2003Rock and roll has produced many unique individuals, but few are in the same class as Iggy Pop. Like Keith Richards, he has come to embody everything that's pure about the music, not only by surviving everything the lifestyle has offered him, but by revelling in all its danger and glorious dumbness. While many others succumbed to the decadent standards he set, or ultimately embraced more pretentious artistic pursuits, Iggy remains Iggy after three decades, unaffected by his mammoth accomplishments. His overall recorded output may not live up to such an image, but there's no denying that at least the three albums he recorded with the Stooges have continued to inspire each succeeding generation. Even the common 80s identity crisis couldn't diminish his iconic stature, although it forced him to conquer his demons and emerge stronger than ever. With a new album, Skull Ring, that finally finds him cleaning up the Stooges' unfinished business, both on record and on stage, Iggy is approaching the end of his 50s as ungracefully as ever. He is the great rock and roll martyr who happened to live.
James Jewel Osterberg grows up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, near Detroit. Although the city is one of the affluent hubs of the area, Osterberg lives with his family in a trailer park. Starting off a good student, Osterberg's working class background eventually alienates him in high school, leading him to gravitate toward Detroit's black community, and specifically, blues musicians. He decides to quit school to become a drummer in a blues band, and forms the Iguanas with some fellow young, white blues aficionados who dream of sharing stages in Chicago with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
While working in a record store, Osterberg meets fellow dropouts Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander, who hang out in the store every day hoping to hear the latest releases. Ron and Dave have recently been in England hoping to somehow break into the music scene there, but now back in Ann Arbor they are more determined than ever to form an original band. Inspired by the British Invasion, Osterberg also seeks a move away from the blues and sees this trio as his ticket. The four rent a house near Osterberg's new job as a waiter and start rehearsing as the Psychedelic Stooges. With Ron on guitar, Dave on bass, and Scott on drums, Osterberg handles vocals, taking the name Iggy Stooge as a nod to both his new and previous bands. He later changes the surname to Pop in tribute to Jimmy Pop, a mentally challenged kid who attends all their shows.
Fuelled by a constant supply of cheap drugs, the Stooges' early days are marked by many wild musical experiments that eventually get boiled down to a half-hour set of loose pieces that fall somewhere between the Rolling Stones and John Coltrane, punctuated by Iggy's untamed howling. As they develop their live reputation around town, the Stooges forge a close alliance with Detroit's best-known underground band, the MC5, becoming the regular opening act for most of MC5's local gigs. When the Five are signed to Elektra Records, the label's young talent scout Danny Fields catches the Stooges' opening set at the next Detroit show and immediately pleads to his bosses to sign them too, which they do, sight unseen. Now with a record deal, Ron and Iggy have to set about turning their live show into a cohesive album.
To record their debut, the band is teamed with John Cale, recently departed from the Velvet Underground and hired by Elektra as a staff producer. The label assumes Cale's experience will anchor the project, but few realise at the time that the end result is in essence the birth of punk rock. Key tracks on The Stooges "No Fun," "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "Real Cool Time," and "1969" will in the coming years directly shape the sound and attitude of everyone from Patti Smith, to the Sex Pistols, to Sonic Youth. On the other hand, most critics and other musicians see the band as utterly juvenile, with Iggy's onstage antics their chief gimmick. Taking a cue from Jim Morrison, Iggy gets into the habit of going to any lengths to get a reaction, from baiting audiences to self-mutilation. He also makes a point of dropping two hits of acid before shows, resulting in many not last lasting longer than 40 minutes when Iggy's hallucinations get too intense.
After bolstering their prospects (and chops) on the road for a year, Elektra brings the Stooges to L.A. to record their second album. The sessions for Funhouse turn out to be just that, with producer Don Gallucci allowing them to return to their even more primal roots. Adding to the maelstrom is saxophonist Steve Mackay, whose atonal solos push the band into avant-garde dimensions that few others aside from the VU and the MC5 had previously ventured. That aspect, combined with strong material like "Down On The Street," "Loose," "T.V. Eye," and "1970" will lead future critics to regard Funhouse as the seminal precursor to punk. Yet, just as the band seems to be hitting its stride, several members, including Iggy, begin using heroin.
With most of the band, except Ron Asheton, now full-blown junkies, Stooges live shows become even more chaotic and dangerous. It's almost mandatory for Iggy to crawl offstage cut by broken glass or burned by cigarettes. In a notorious offstage incident, Scott Asheton nearly kills them all after driving their tour bus into a low bridge, taking off its roof. Musically, Ron Asheton feels the band could sound even heavier and requests a second guitarist. When word gets out, an acquaintance from Detroit named James Williamson turns up for the gig and quickly usurps Asheton's role as Iggy's right-hand man. This wedge, compounded by the hard drugs, proves to be unmanageable and the Stooges effectively break up. Iggy looks to get clean and enjoy the comforts of living the low-rent jet-setting lifestyle of an early 70s rock star.
While plotting his next move in New York, Iggy is sought out by England's latest sensation David Bowie, who has placed him among his pantheon of American influences. Bowie and his manager Tony Defries duly sign Iggy to their MainMan company and set him up in a London flat to work on new songs with Williamson. The pair rehearse with a range of British rhythm sections, but none seem able to convey the kick they are looking for. Iggy is forced to call upon the Asheton brothers to complete the dark picture he and the guitarist are painting. In between recording with Bowie, the band (with Ron Asheton on bass) plays one show in London, a legendary night later said to have been attended by the city's future core punks, including Sex Pistol John Lydon.
Raw Power, credited to Iggy & the Stooges, is released early in the year and is a masterful middle finger in the face of glam rock and self-obsessed singer-songwriters. By now the band has relocated to L.A. and slipped back into their old habits, spending many lost nights at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco on Sunset Strip. Just before setting out on tour, the band breaks its ties with MainMan after Defries tries to fire Williamson for being a disruptive influence. The band plays a long string of club dates; both Iggy and Scott Asheton get more and more out of it with each show. A Philadelphia gig is stopped after three songs when someone slaps a jelly sandwich on Iggy's chest, causing everyone to think he's been stabbed. At Max's Kansas City in New York, Iggy collapses on some broken glass. Out of his mind with pain, he attempts to slash his neck, but thankfully cuts his chest instead. The coup de grace comes at a gig at Ann Arbor's Michigan Palace where the band finds themselves playing to a roomful of hostile bikers. Through a hail of bottles, Iggy never lets up taunting them; the entire chaos is preserved on the legendary bootleg Metallic K.O. This is the Stooges' final performance.
1974 to 1975
Now at their lowest point, Iggy and Williamson retreat to L.A. and hole up in a small, drug-infested apartment building. With seemingly the entire music business having written him off, Iggy entertains vague offers to front a reformed line-up of the Doors, but instead checks himself into a UCLA psychiatric institute to detox and sort his life out. (Original bassist Dave Alexander recently died of substance abuse-related causes.) Iggy and Williamson record some songs, released three years later as Kill City, but there is little spark left in their partnership. Iggy continues to binge and purge for the next year, finally gaining some direction when Bowie re-enters the picture with an offer to record an album together.
1976 to 1978
Signing with Bowie's label, RCA, Iggy accompanies him to Berlin where Bowie has found new inspiration amid the city's divided culture and emerging electronic music scene. The first fruits of the collaboration are heard in March, 1977 with The Idiot, a daring departure from guitar rock that flies in the face of all the new bands that are hailing Iggy as the chief forefather of punk. Yet, buried under the synths and programmed beats of "Nightclubbing," "Funtime," and "China Girl," the familiar menace and sneer remains. Six months later comes Lust For Life, a more rocking affair powered by a band featuring Bowie on keyboards and the Sales brothers rhythm section. This band will accompany Iggy on a world tour, and even a few television appearances. These include the memorable spot on The Dinah Shore Show, where Iggy is on his best behaviour during the interview and Bowie knowingly smirks in the background. A live album, TV Eye, is released the following year to fulfil the RCA contract. Although the Berlin albums re-establish Iggy as a significant artist, sales of both are disappointing.
1979 to 1981
Iggy signs a new deal with Arista and records New Values. Despite the contribution of Williamson, it is Iggy's first truly "solo" album and therefore predictably erratic in its combination of Berlin-style funk and traditional garage rock. Yet, if that album hints that Iggy was finding his footing on his own, 1980's Soldier is a misstep. The backing band of Williamson, Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock and Patti Smith Group guitarist Ivan Kral does little to boost some of the deeply personal messages Iggy tries to get across; instead they are buried under a bland, mechanical production. The album does include "I Need More," also later used as the title of Iggy's autobiography. Things don't get any better on 1981's Party as Iggy resists every attempt to turn him into a full-fledged new wave artist. This doesn't affect his live shows, though, as they continue to be as rowdy as ever, taking an obvious toll on his body and psyche.
As if to deliberately break out of his rut in the studio, Iggy works with Blondie's Chris Stein on Zombie Birdhouse, an album that is both musically adventurous and finds Iggy once again in a caustic mood. Its use of African instrumentation is certainly an unexpected move for Iggy, and the album divides his fan base into those who support his right to stretch out creatively and those who just want him to rock. What it clearly reveals is Iggy's well-placed disgust with the emerging consumer-driven society of the 80s. Surprisingly, it will be his last musical statement for many years. He enters into a period of semi-seclusion, living in several cities (including Toronto) in an attempt to find a new direction in his life.
1986 to 1987
Although out of the spotlight, Iggy remains in the public consciousness with Bowie's hugely successful new recording of "China Girl." Iggy also contributes lyrics to Bowie's Tonight album; all his earnings help to pay off some mounting tax bills. Bowie's encouragement eventually does get Iggy back into the studio, and the pair make Blah Blah Blah together, hailed as Iggy's comeback. Singles "Cry For Love" and "Shades" are both moving assessments of his missing years, while a slick cover of the rockabilly nugget "Wild One" is also a surprise hit. From this point on, Iggy hits the road again, refreshed and confrontational as ever.
1988 to 1990
With guitar rock coming back into vogue, Iggy teams up with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones to write harder material. However, the potential of Instinct to be a return to Stooges-like glory never comes to fruition; the guitars are watered down and the overall production by Bill Laswell is too linear. Still, standout tracks like "Cold Metal" hold up well over time. Iggy's love-fest with the L.A. hard rock scene continues with Brick By Brick, produced by Malcolm Burn and featuring members of Guns N Roses. However, its folkier numbers are better received, the standout being "Candy," a duet with the B-52s' Kate Pierson. He continues touring the world regularly, now tour-managed by his son from a tryst in the early 70s whom he has met recently for the first time.
1993 to 1995
The new grunge movement joins the hard rockers and the punks in regarding Iggy as one of their prime touchstones. This sets the stage for American Caesar, an album designed to be a knockout punch in showing up the new generation. While it doesn't accomplish this, it is one of Iggy's strongest efforts in balancing his all-out rockers and dark poetic ballads, getting in some biting social commentary along the way. His stature among the new alternative crowd is solidified when "Lust For Life" anchors the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh's junkie opus Trainspotting. Iggy appears looking remarkably buff in an accompanying video. "Lust For Life" will subsequently be licensed for many other commercial campaigns, as will the Stooges' classic "Search & Destroy."
1996 to 1997
On the heels of the Nude & Rude compilation issued to cash in on the success of Trainspotting Iggy releases Naughty Little Doggie, a nasty album that echoes the Stooges more than anything else to this point. While songs like "Pussy Walk" make him sound like a dirty old man, others like "I Wanna Live" are gloriously invigorating. He recommences touring with a loud four-piece band, including Calgary native Whitey Kirst on guitar, even though rumours abound that Lollapalooza wants a reunited Stooges to headline. Unfortunately, the festival goes on hiatus before such an offer can be accepted.
1998 to 1999
Iggy once again enters a dark period; he gets a divorce and moves to a neighbourhood in Harlem. There he records Avenue B, a quieter, reflective album featuring jazzy arrangements from Medeski, Martin & Wood, and several spoken word pieces that fully exploit the connection he has always shared with Beat poets like Ginsberg and Burroughs. It is once again a departure from Iggy's perceived image and appreciated more by fans of his lyrical approach, rather than his on-stage persona.
2000 to 2002
Now over his mid-life crisis, Iggy relocates to Miami with a new young model girlfriend and resumes writing and recording edgy hard rock. Beat Em Up is a tempestuous record that is hard to take in one sitting but songs like "It's All Shit," and "Go For The Throat" again show that Iggy still stands head and shoulders above the pretenders to his throne. Along with this album comes a flood of official CD issues of famous bootlegs, including Metallic K.O., Heroin Hates You, and many of the aborted final Stooges sessions. Iggy also undertakes to remix Raw Power, fixing what he deems are the shortcomings of Bowie's original mix.
After recording several tracks with his touring band late the previous year, Iggy calls the Asheton brothers to the Miami studio in January to work on some new material. The trio promptly writes and records four songs "Little Electric Chair," "Skull Rings," "Loser" and "Dead Rock Star." On April 29 they play the Coachella Festival in California (with Minutemen/Firehose bassist Mike Watt filling in) and plans are made for more shows that summer. In the meantime, Iggy records tracks with Green Day, Sum 41 and Peaches (including her theme song "Rock Show"). All of these sessions are collected for Skull Ring, an album that could easily become another of Iggy's defining moments; it successfully bridges past and present. If there are any remaining doubts of Iggy's stature, they are erased when on June 21, France's Ministry of Culture names him an Officer of Arts & Letters. It's a long way from the trailer park in Ann Arbor.
The Essential Iggy Pop
The Stooges - Funhouse (1970)
This sophomore effort trumps the self-titled debut just barely, mostly due to the even more unhinged performance the entire band gives throughout. Arguably the single most influential post-Beatles album.
Iggy & the Stooges - Raw Power (1973)
More a collaboration among Ig, Bowie and new guitarist James Williamson, it still can't be beat for pure, well, raw power. Iggy's recent remix job has made it more palatable, but Bowie's original ham-fisted mix remains strangely charming.
Iggy Pop - Lust For Life (1977)
The title track is everywhere now, but the rest of this second Berlin-era release has held up surprisingly well too. Along with The Idiot, it foreshadowed post-punk in much the same way the first two Stooges albums foreshadowed punk itself.