Wednesday, 27 September 2017
Prior to this interview, the last time I saw Iggy Pop was in October 1981 when he stayed at my flat in Kentish Town. He’d ended up there because he’d been having regular sex with a rather attractive New Yorker friend of my then American girlfriend, Holli, who was staying with us at the time. Iggy didn’t want to go to a hotel because he’d played a gig in Marseilles a few nights before and, after declaring on stage that all French men were faggots, was given a good hiding. Consequently, he simply wanted a place to stay that was away from all the limelight and the requisite hullabaloo. To add, you’d never get a gal like her on room service.
He arrived at mine in the early hours of Sunday morning having just played London’s Rainbow Theatre and waltzed in on his own carrying a small leather holdall that contained very little for someone who was on a European tour. A soon as he got in he took his shirt off, showed off his bruises – that scattered across his rather incredible physique, allowed him the appearance of Bruce Lee who'd taken on a gang of Irish labourers when sloshed and forgot his moves- had a few drinks and subsequently retired to bed with his paramour, only to keep us awake most of the night with the rhythmic and unabated sound of fornication
I must have dropped off to sleep at around 5am, only for the man himself to knock on my bedroom door a couple of hours later. ‘Hey, man,’ he growled, his incredibly deep tones hitting rock bottom. ‘Sorry to bother you but I need to get some Curve-wazz-eee-aye.’
Still half-asleep, I couldn’t work out who he was at first, let alone what he was saying. Eventually, I sussed that I was not dreaming and that this was indeed the great Iggy Pop, The Godfather of Punk and that he was in need of some strong drink ‒ Napoleonic brandy to be precise ‒ and needed it fast.
Now, getting hold of such a thing on a Sunday in 1981 in North London wasn’t easy ‒ indeed it was virtually impossible ‒ as back then it was illegal to sell booze before mid-day. But I got dressed and asked him how much he wanted.
‘Get me one of those small bottles, man,’ he said. ‘The ones you can stick in your pocket.’
So off I went to break a really stupid law. At that time even grocery stores were not allowed to open all day Sunday unless they sold horse feed. Strange but true. The only store that traded from dawn till dusk on this day of bullshit in North London was a shop on Upper Street that had a bag of hay next to it's doorway.
Luckily for the Ig, the Greek corner shop come off license down the road was open early for once and I was quite friendly with Kostas, the old rather deaf Cypriot proprietor. After much cajoling, coaxing and explaining that it was for a massively influential American rock star ('Iggsy Poppo ? What type of name is this for a bloody singer?' he enquired) he sold me the bottle but told me to hide it under my coat ‒ ‘In case those bloody cops peeps see you, innit.’
I gave Iggsy Poppo his brandy and went back to bed while he, again, tested out the bedsprings.
Half an hour later your man was knocking my door again, and I was soon back at Kostas’ shop. ‘Why you do not buy a big bottle?” he asked, to which I had no answer.
In hindsight, I guess I too would look on the bright side and optimistically assume that a little tipple was adequate of a Sunday morn and then, once slightly inebriated, realize the error of my ways, jump on the horse again and give a good old kick in the ribs and carry on regardless. Hi ho bleeding Silver!
Accordingly, by that afternoon, Jim (as he is known to his friends) after a fair few of these little bottles was well and truly sozzled and in maudlin mood.
‘I’m too old for this shit, man,’ he said sitting at my kitchen table. ‘I’m thirty-fucking-four and shouldn’t be getting the shit kicked outta me man!’
Evidently, he’d had his fill of getting battered and living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, something that he seemed perfectly created for. I suggested that a rather more sombre approach to life, coupled with an album of Sinatra covers, might be more appropriate for a man of his advancing years (I was 21 at the time) and that he should slow down.
‘But how can I, man?’ he answered incredulously. ‘I am rock n’ roll!’
A salient point that few would contest (although a few years later he did record a duet with Debbie Harry ‒ Well Did You Ever, the great Sinatra-Crosby number from the 1956 film, High Society).
That same night, a good friend of mine from the Blitz Club, Francesca Von Thyssen, was throwing a party in her palatial Seymour Road home (coincidentally just a few doors up from where the Stooges recorded Raw Power with Bowie in 1971). And so off we went.
Iggy, as was his wont, left for the party with only a shirt on despite it being really rather cold. Soon after, he’d lost the shirt too and, having been introduced to Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithful disappeared with them into the night, leaving his battered black leather holdall ‒ containing his passport and a spare change of clothes ‒ in my flat.
The next day I received a call from David Bowie, who came to my flat with his PA Coco Schwab to get the bag. And that was the last time I saw Iggy Pop in the flesh until this interview. Of course ,he has no recollection of me or his stay in North London when we meet.
‘Yeah, man…. weeeeell,’ he explains rather sheepishly when reminded of the episode, elongating the last word like a spoon out of syrup. ‘I’ve left bags all over the world. I didn’t start hanging onto anything until I became an old git. And I should remember that, man, but I can’t. Nothing.’
‘But there’s a lot I can’t remember from that period. As for the beating ‒ that’s what happens when you’re an intemperate person with a big mouth. Recently it’s been a bit smoother. It‘s been some time since I’ve been jumped.’
This chat with one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest living legends is part of the promotional trail for director Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Coffee and Cigarettes, a series of short films disguised as a feature (or vice versa).
In this remarkable series of vignettes scripted by Jarmusch, Iggy plays a version of himself as he chats with Tom Waits. They are one of many duos who gather around a table to drink coffee, smoke or discuss cigarettes and chew the fat over subjects that include, in characteristic Jarmusch fashion: Elvis, conspiracy theories, Paris in the Twenties, the inventions of Nicola Tesla, and the use of nicotine as an insecticide.
Other members of the cast include Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Steve Buscemi and Alfred Molina, to name just a small few.
‘We did the piece about ten years ago and it was one of the first of the series Jim did and it was hard,’ says Pop. ‘Jim is no pushover. He takes a pretty hard look at you when he lays out the script direction and it was a challenge. He didn’t show Tom or I the script until just before midnight on the eve of the morning shoot, and so we really didn’t have time to examine what we were doing, which was wise, especially in my case as I would have probably ruined it. There were some difficulties, but at the end of the day it makes for a more interesting piece.’
Many might be shocked to see the Godfather of punk eating humble pie, as served up by the abrasive Waits, but the thoroughly likeable, affable and charming Pop is even more amazed that his rep as a rabble-rouser lives on.
‘It was hard playing myself but not myself, and everything was scripted, but it’s still interesting that people still do get the wrong idea of me,’ he says. ‘And because I’ve been living in my butt for my whole life I tend to forget how I’m perceived.
‘I just worked with an older, more distinguished gentleman and he was really very non-committal and I was told it was because he expected me to chew his head off. Then I realised there’s still all that hanging around. I’ve never associated anyone’s on-stage persona with how they are in person, but some people are exactly fucking it ‒ the same on and off stage. [And you think], oh no! It’s the same fucking shit. But then again some aren’t. Some are completely different. It’s almost like Method acting.’
Pop has been at the coalface of rock ‘n’ roll for some forty years. ‘Music came naturally,’ he declares. ‘My dad loaned me the money to buy a drum kit as they were the least sedentary thing I was offered. I couldn’t see myself with a clarinet or a violin. If they’d have offered me a piano I might have gone for that, and, would have gone crazy if somebody had offered me a guitar when I was twelve.
‘But the drums were the best thing they had, so I went for that and I had a friend who had a guitar and an amplifier so we played as a two-piece, learned some Ray Charles songs and entered the school talent show. And right away my life transformed: people suddenly liked me! For the first time in my life something that I loved emotionally and physically started to look a little more plausible.’
They started a high school band called the Iguanas, at which point Iggy began to suspect that he might have some creative ability lurking in his subconscious.
He enjoyed what he was doing and was ‘seduced’ by the idea of making music that was fuelled by all the great bands around at the time.
‘We were hearing the Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan at the peak of their creativity and we also had the last wave of the very finely crafted American black music such as the Ronettes, Dionne Warwick, all the stuff on Stax. And later I got into jazz and Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. I was charmed and seduced.’
‘Then there’s also all the benefits, such as girls will talk to you,’ he adds after a moment’s contemplation. ‘And you don’t have to be at the office at 9 am. So I kinda dropped out of everything but music when I was in high school. Once you got out of high school it looked to me as if there was gonna be more and more high school until you die, and I wasn’t going for that.’
‘Encouraged by Jim Morrison’s example, Iggy (who started life as James Osteberg Jr) ditched the drums in favour of vocals and formed the Stooges in 1967 with Scott and Ron Asheton and bass player Dave Alexander.
‘Ron was someone who was a year ahead of me in juvenile delinquency and a year behind me in age,’ reflects Pop with a chuckle. ‘His brother and Dave the bass player and their friend Roy used to hang out in front of the drug store on the main drag right across the street from where I worked in a record store. I described all this in the song Dum Dum Boys. They smoked and always wore these very tight too-short pants that showed off their ankles.’
‘But Ron was in this cover band,’ he continues. ‘And he was the only guy in this band that looked kind of ill, kind of off-colour, unkempt and dirty. He looked like a lot of the good musicians I was seeing on the covers of albums I liked that were coming out of Memphis, Tennessee, or London, England, like the Rolling Stones.
‘In fact, I’ve never met a convincing musician that didn’t look ill and dirty, and Ron had those two things very well covered! That’s just the way he was. He could come out of the bath and look dirty and always looked a little unwell. So I said to myself, “Wow, this guy could go all the way!” And you had his brother [Scott], who looked like a teen idol ‒ athletic ‒ and I knew that one day he’d be one of hell of a drummer. So he kept bugging me to give him lessons and I’d say, “Well, someday, kid. One day!”’
That day eventually arrived and the band evolved into the Stooges, a name that came about after an LSD session. ‘We’d been up all night taking psychedelics together, mainly because that is what we did, man ‒ only because we didn’t know how to hang out any other way,’ explains Pop. ‘I, believe it or not, was the ambitious one who didn’t want to waste a trip without getting something out of it. So I said, “Well, what are we gonna call our band?”, because we didn’t have a name then.
‘After a lot of chat and a lot of throwing names around, Ron said, “We’ll be like the Stooges except we’ll be the Psychedelic Stooges.” Ron had already spent about a thousand million man hours watching The Three Stooges’ films since he was twelve so, it was inescapable that anything creative he did in his life was going to hark back to the Three Goddamn fucking Stooges!’
At first, they tried to emulate the blues and rhythm and Delta blues acts Pop had seen in Chicago, but soon moved on. ‘We were really influenced by a little vanguard of avant-garde musicians: John Cage and particularly Harry Partch [an experimental Californian musician and microtonal pioneer] who was very key. We wanted to create mayhem ‒ an assault of sound concept that would confuse and question what music was. I really could put my thumb on a vacuum cleaner and pull music out of it. Other than that we were into the simpler British groups: The Animals, the Stones, The Kinks, The Who ‒ those groups were very important for us, as well as American garage music like Count Five, The Strangeloves and The Sonics and Bob Dylan for the lyrics and the way he used his voice.’
Still, it took a while for Pop to get to grips with vocalising. ‘I don’t think I gave it real thought until we got a record deal, and then everything changed and I considered what I was doing a great deal.’
‘Still, it was some time before I opened my mouth and made noises that were something that was really exciting, and that I was ready to share with the world. When we started, I could never really hear myself sing, either at our rehearsals or gigs, so I just pulled together all the elements that I thought I wanted to sound like and practised in my room when I thought nobody was listening.’
One outfit Pop is sorely indebted to is MC5. ‘Without them, there would be no Stooges,’ he admits. ‘And of course, there’s their manager John Sinclair, an artistic ex-con – a sort of proto Suge Knight figure. He took a lot of not-so-imaginative lower-middle-class Detroit people and a lot of drifting, ignorant semi-suburban people like ourselves and turned us onto a lot of shit. Through him I first heard Coltrane, Archie Shepp and first rubbed shoulders with the [likes of] Warhol and Ken Kesey.”
Sinclair, using MC5 as his spearhead, went on to create his very own political party.
‘My favourite thing,’ remembers Iggy, ‘was that they published a purple postcard with a white panther leaping on the front, and on the back, it said, “White Panthers People’s Party – Our Platform: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll, Dope and Fucking in the Streets.”’
‘And they distributed these on the streets of Ann Arbor, this little bucolic college town. But you’ve got to hand it to them for sheer balls. Did he think everybody was going to drop what he or she was doing and go fuck in the streets? When they got to be the White Panther Party it became a bit silly. When I look back, it was something I was willing to support, but the rock band and John were not ready for political responsibility in such a puritan country. That landed John in jail with a ten-year sentence, man. It certainly was not the two joints he had in his pocket.’
For a while the Stooges played second fiddle to the rampaging MC5, supporting them in concert all over Michigan. One such appearance in 1969 attracted the attention of the Velvet Underground’s Welshman, John Cale, who, completely enamoured of their enigmatic frontman, went on to produce the Stooges’ self-titled debut album.
Yet even though the album contained the seminal proto-punk song, I Wanna Be Your Dog, it failed to sell due to an almost blanket ban by radio stations, who considered the band to be evil incarnate.
‘I always thought, when we put out our first thing, there must be about fifty thousand people in America who would be interested in this,’ explains Pop. ‘And we sold thirty-five thousand. I thought that was pretty good. That’s what I was told we sold anyway. Of course, that could have been a lie ‒ the whole industry’s corrupt, man.’
Consequently, the band were dropped by their record label Elektra and in 1971, burdened by, as Pop admits, expansive Class A drug habits, they split.
Two years later Danny Fields ‒ who had worked for Elektra and later managed The Ramones and MC5 ‒ told Iggy that they had been mentioned in Melody Maker, whereby David Bowie cited the band as one of his favourite acts. Subsequently, Bowie tracked the band down, dragged them back to the UK and produced the massively influential but commercially unsuccessful Iggy and the Stooges album, Raw Power.
‘Everybody wanted me to get rid of the Stooges and do something with sensible people,’ he chuckles. ‘So out of everyone who approached me, the most convincing and colourful and smartest people were David Bowie and his manager, Tony DeFries, who I met. They wanted me to work with some English musicians but eventually, they gave up and let me bring the Stooges over.
‘Then Tony pointed out that the album we were going to do wasn’t up to scratch, so as everything from Marc Bolan to Exile On Main Street to Led Zeppelin, Mott The Hoople and David Bowie was all recycled, Chuck Berry, we took Chuck Berry and Little Richard and filtered it through to who we were, and that’s kinda what “Raw Power” is.’
It was around this time that the band played their now legendary performance at the Kings Cross’s Theatre. ‘The audience were not wildly enthusiastic but were really stunned by this animal force on stage,’ recalls photographer Mick Rock who photographed the concert. ‘They were like, “What the fuck is going on here then?” No one in the UK had ever seen Iggy before and I was the only photographer there.
‘I met him through Bowie, which was amazing because this was the summer that Bowie really took off, but he still found the time to help push Iggy and Lou ‒ who were the godfathers of punk. In person, Iggy is kind of shy, modest and rather contemplative. He has all this art in his house and books, but boy, when he hit that fucking stage it was like, fuck everybody and everything!’
In certain circles, the Stooges were the cat’s pyjamas, a vivid portent to the future. But yet again the combination of drug abuse, poor sales, and financial pressure caused the band to break up ‒ this time for good.
‘The first album sold enough as far as I was concerned and by the second I was so into it I didn’t really care or pay any attention to all that sales crap!’ he snarls.
‘It never bothered me. My dream was just to do something really cool and really good. There wasn’t much million-selling music that I liked, and what I did like was by people who were much more accomplished than us, so I knew that wasn’t going to happen and that wasn’t our intention anyway.
‘And as far as all the trash that sold millions, we didn’t really pay any attention because we knew we were better and I always thought I’d rather just sell a few than create a pile of shit. But I knew we weren’t the Ronettes. They could sing better than I could, but I thought we sounded pretty cool. I listen back to it after all these years and think it’s better than I realised at the time. And that took a long while to sink in.
‘Since [then] I’ve seen that the whole music business is so corrupt. The record company owns the master and owns the right to massage the accounts in order to pay the artist as little as they can, so the artist gets zilch while having to fend off a whole panoply of crooks ‒ lawyers, agents, girlfriends, drug dealers, managers. It’s fucking criminal, man.’
With his band in tatters, Iggy lost himself in drink and drugs. Homeless on the streets of LA, he finally checked himself into the Neuro-psychiatric Institute in Los Angeles until his guardian angel, David Bowie, appeared again to help him kick heroin, drag him out of the shit and take him to Munich where together they produced two legendary Iggy albums, The Idiot and Lust For Life.
‘It’s very simple,’ clarifies Pop. ‘David saved me from professional and maybe personal extermination as he really liked what I did, was keen to get on board and was full of the best intentions. To be fair, he resurrected me. Back then he was more like a benefactor than a friend. Sorta like Professor Higgins in Pygmalion saying to you, “Young man, please, you are from the Detroit area of the USA. Now I think you should write a song about automobile manufacturing.”’
Undoubtedly one of the tracks that they produced together is one of the all-time great rock songs. ‘We heard this beep from the Armed Forces Network telecast as this was before you had all these channels in Europe. This beep that came on before their shows. So we took that as our rhythm and added a bit of Motown. David wrote the chord progression on a ukulele and said, “Let’s call it Lust for Life. You can write some lyrics for that.”’
Both albums are seminal. Nightclubbing, a song on The Idiot, was recorded with a cheap synthesizer and an early drum machine as that was the only equipment available in the studio after all else had been packed up. ‘David told me that he couldn’t put a record out with just that, but I told him I could and that was that.’
Since then, Pop has been cited as the godfather, perhaps even the creator, of that whole milieu known collectively as punk. Certainly, he influenced everyone who can claim any punk credentials.
‘Well, I thought it was good because it’s kept the Stooges alive,’ smiles Pop. ‘People say we influenced them and people are still listening to our stuff perhaps because of that. I thought the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were very, very good indeed. The Clash bettered us musically but their vibe didn’t get me quite as much. But they’re the three that I liked. Then there’s The Damned, The Adverts, The Minutemen. And The Buzzcocks were also an excellent band.
The Stooges reformed in 2003, finally making a good chunk of change. ‘Well, we finally did it and did the shows for a lot of money at last,’ he smiles. ‘So we all were able to buy houses and cars, get girlfriends and live well off of it. And it was all very emotional for me because it ha been a long journey for us and we were sounding really bloody good and got to the point where we could headline small festivals, support on big ones and do our own shows anywhere in the world.’
Lest we forget, Pop also has an acting career to fall back on. ‘David Bowie is to blame for getting me into acting,’ he bemoans. ‘He urged me to give it a shot. “You can be in the movies, blah, blah, blah.” When I lived in New York City, around 1984, I assiduously began to apply and promote myself, which is what people really do there, and actually did some acting classes for a year, which was not an altogether pleasant experience.’
After taking said classes, Iggy doggedly attended auditions and put the word out that he was available for work until finally, Martin Scorsese tested him.
That initial test failed to impress the Oscar-winning director, but he did get another chance. ‘I got a part in the Colour of Money because Scorsese said he liked the way I stuck out my tongue,’ says Pop. ‘For a while I, took almost anything, including American TV shows. The only thing I wouldn’t play is musicians or junkie dads. That’s where I drew the line. I usually get roles from someone who is a fan of the music or my book and wants to get a “character” in the film.’
Such was the case with Jarmusch.
‘I kind of fitted into that role because I am sort of the last of the coffee and cigarettes generation,’ he says. ‘When I started the Stooges there was a hippy coffee house called Mark’s Café that was very much a gathering place, and coffee and cigarettes were very important to us. And now we have Starbucks!
‘Originally Jim filmed these pieces for MTV, but soon MTV banned [on-screen] smoking and that was the end of that. Before that, cigarettes were all over MTV. This cigarette hysteria, this banning wouldn’t have happened if the Soviet Union hadn’t disintegrated, but once that was broken up this country needed a new Devil and it was cigarettes. And now we have another new one, with a moustache , a beard and a sheet over his head. It’s ridiculous.’
Since Pop filmed the Jarmusch vignette over a decade ago he has appeared in Johnny Depp’s The Brave, Tim Pope’s The Crow and was even the voice of a new-born baby in Rugrats The Movie. But it seems that acting is definitely not his bag.
‘Compared to music it’s hell work,’ states the renegade rocker. ‘You are not the boss. You literally have to speak when spoken to. You have to wait loads and loads. It helped me keep my music going and I learnt a lot ‒ such as good old-fashioned discipline and as much humility as I could stand. But there’s no immediate payback, no thrill of the sweat and the noise of a gig. It’s just the pits, dude.’
The pits or not, it seems that Mr Pop, as his performance in Coffee and Cigarettes illustrates, has just the knack for the job, but I can’t see him taking up acting instead of music as I have a feeling that we are going to see a lot more of Iggy and the Stooges live on stage in the next few years.
Maybe the last word should go to Iggy, Iggsy or Jim, as he prefers to be called.
‘Hey, man, I was made for playing live, man. It’s what I live for, dude. There’s no buzz like it.’