Iggy Pop: The Last Of The One-and-Onlys
[Originally published on TIDAL Read]
The year is 1970. Writhing about the stage, an emaciated performer with little or no control of his body jerks abruptly, as if at the mercy of an epileptic seizure.
Facing the crowd, sweat dripping down his bare back, yet another primeval urge comes over this howlin’ beast of a man in heat. Lunging head-first into the swirling mass of punks, his person is swallowed while his harsh voice continues to carry with an vicious, unyielding tenacity. And right when it seems as if he may never re-emerge, the crowd spits him out, hoisting the mad king high as his cacophonous rock and roll band plays on uninterrupted.
Cut to 2012. Shirtless and covered in tattoos, a rawboned hip-hop tornado storms back and forth across the stage, seething and reeling with each step. Under the blaring lights, the semi-possessed MC is in a constant state of violent movement, his unchecked virility bordering on lunacy. In his harsh, hungry and unfazed gaze something animalistic occurs, and suddenly he too is immersed in a swelling crowd, sweat-drenched and deranged, bouncing around like some coked-out kangaroo from hell, dropping verses with the crackling intensity of an overdriven loudspeaker before retaking the stage.
The two individuals are Iggy Pop, playing Cincinnati with The Stooges in 1970, and Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly performing at a South by Southwest showcase in 2012. Despite a seemingly unthinkable comparison, the similarities are startling.
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In a recent interview published in The Guardian, Iggy Pop and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme express their mutual admiration while discussing Iggy’s new album, Post Pop Depression, which Homme produced and played on with fellow QOTSA member Dean Fertita and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders.
When Iggy leaves the building, the generally stoic and heroic Homme sticks around to further profess his deep, fanboy-level endearment of the 68-year-old punk rock icon:
“Lemmy is gone. Bowie is gone. He’s the last of the one-and-onlys,” Homme says. “It took balls to be him: a little guy with a big dick scaring people in Detroit. Everyone should take a knee for Iggy. He deserves it. He never got [the respect or the acclaim], mostly by his own hand, but he made the shit that’s spawned more bands than any other person, ever. Bring on the statues, you motherfuckers!” For those who don’t know, Josh Homme is not one to speak in hyperbole.
On even standing with those recently-lost legends, few living artists have had as profound an effect on rock ‘n’ roll or culture at large as Iggy Pop.
Take the unlikely connection with Machine Gun Kelly. Whether or not the rapper is fully aware of the influence, everything he is doing on that stage, from his bare-chest, thrashing movements and repeated stage dives (an act Iggy in fact invented) to the inescapable punk rock atmosphere and attitude. Even the song’s title, “Wild Boy,” resembles the Iggy Pop classic “Real Wild Child.”
Iggy’s incredible influence dates back to basically the beginning, when, inspired by the crazed antics of Jim Morrison in The Doors, he and the Stooges practically founded proto-punk in 1967. The ripples of those early albums and shows were similarly instrumental in perpetually inspiring and informing hard rock, heavy metal, alternative rock and beyond over the last half century.
Nearly a decade after The Stooges had formed and subsequently faded, just as Iggy and David Bowie were laying down tracks for his 1977 solo rebirth, the Sex Pistols and others were bringing punk rock to the masses with the same rage and insanity of their forefather. The Pistol’s cover of The Stooges’ “No Fun” went a long way in exposing Iggy to a new wave of young punks, and following the Sex Pistol’s own dissolution, Sid Vicious frequently performed Stooges songs as part of his solo set and on his debut album, Sid Sings (1979).
In the early ’80s, Nick Cave’s first band, the Birthday Party, recorded covers of ”Loose” and ”Fun House” and performed entire sets of Stooges covers on multiple occasions. Alternative pioneers Sonic Youth released a studio cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in 1983.
In the ’90s Jeff Tweedy’s pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo played a country-folk rendition of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which R.E.M. and Patti Smith would later perform at the Stooge’s indiction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In his numerous “Favorite Albums” lists in his journals, Kurt Cobain repeatedly listed Raw Power as his absolute favorite album of all time.
And those are just examples of acts influenced by Iggy’s first chapter. In the decades since, the rock and roll chameleon has done everything from garage rock, hard rock, new wave and art rock, jazz, blues, film scores and experimental, frequently to great acclaim and imitation. So what is it, then, that defines Iggy as Iggy?
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Many have divided the man we know as Iggy Pop into two separate individuals.
On one hand we have “Iggy” the persona, the gimmick, the shirtless savage of legend. And on the other there’s the real Iggy, the man behind the curtain, the man born James Osterberg Jr. While the former is an unbridled wild child, the latter is a friendly, well-read, semi-intellectual cosmopolite. Just watch his Coffee and Cigarettes cameo opposite Tom Waits and witness the other Iggy — not the bull of the stage but a meek, insecure and thoughtful Iggy who Waits insists on calling Jim. Iggy’s career has always been a balance between these personas, to varying mixtures. At his most early and essentially “Iggy” he’s known for rolling in broken glass, exposing himself, crowd surfing and even vomiting on stage, whereas more recent endeavors have increasingly favored his more sophisticated and composed Osterberg side.
In 1970, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, working then for the Village Voice, wrote the following of Iggy’s sophomore effort with The Stooges: “Fun House is one of those rare albums that never sits still quite long enough to actually solidify into what it previously seemed.” The same might be said of Iggy, a weathered, leathered, drug-fueled maniac who can sit down and analyze his own art using the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy outlined in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. ”There’s a Dionysic element to my art that does… that I suppose a lot of people might be frightened to be me. But I’m quite happy to be,” Pop said in a 1980 television interview with Tom Snyder, ultimately revealing a prominent tooth gap behind the same boyish, shit-eating grin that graces the cover of Lust for Life (1977).
In this insightful self-evaluation, the Apollonian is characterized by reason, rationality and repose, while the Dionysian is characterized by chaos and irrationality. Thus, while the latter aptly encapsulates the “raw power” of Iggy’s infamous stage persona, the former seems to embody the character who first appeared on “Nightclubbing” and has since become as regular as his counterpart. Nietzsche himself saw music as the foremost form of Dionysian art, one characterized by constant change, of becoming rather than being. Iggy’s continuous evolution as an artist supports this truth, for nature too is constantly changing. He embodies our primordial desire to live and kill, to create and destroy. Like a ball of clay, he never sits still quite long enough to harden into his previous form.
And although Iggy Pop is unequivocally a true original, he’s cut from a crucial cloth of artists.
He’s very much a singer and “entertainer” in the traditional sense embodied by performers like Frank Sinatra and his early idol Jim Morrison, who he has directly credited for inspiring his own stage persona. Unable to produce, arrange or even write music himself, Iggy’s art lies in his lyrics, vocal delivery, stage behavior and leadership. For that reason, his long and diverse career has been largely steered by the musicians he’s collaborated with, from The Stooges and John Cale to David Bowie and Josh Homme.
Iggy’s second album with David Bowie, Lust For Life, features a song called “The Passenger.” In the Guardian interview, he revealed that the track ”was partly written about the fact I’d been riding around North America and Europe in David’s car ad infinitum. I didn’t have a driver’s license or a vehicle.” But in a sense, Iggy Pop has been a passenger for the entirety of his career.
One of Iggy’s less recognized intimates is Stooges guitarist James Williamson, who wrote and produced the music for some of his finest albums: Raw Power (1973), Kill City (1977) and New Values (1979), which have grown in esteem in recent years. Whereas Bowie put Iggy in touch with a modern, European proto-/post-punk sound on the more talked-about The Idiot and Lust for Life, the Williamson records are more authentic and true to their shared Detroit origins and their deep roots in the blues, the Rolling Stones and the Doors.
For his part Josh Homme and the gang blend equal parts Berlin artyness and Detroit hard rock, which was exactly what Iggy was looking for this time around.
“There was a unique set of skills that I heard in [Josh's] stuff,” Iggy says in another recent joint interview with NPR. “He can compose, which is different than songwriting, but he can also write a song. He knows his way around a memorable lyric and then there was some ‘emotive music,’ I would call it, on the last Queens album … and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Speaking about how they approached the new record in the same interview, Homme said:
“Iggy’s in The Stooges, which is, in my opinion, the greatest rock band of all time, and I’m in Queens, so there’s no reason to try and out-heavy the memory of these bands. It’s silly. And, in fact, what Iggy’s been doing in the last number of years in these French albums is emphasizing what I always thought was wonderful about his voice and his way, was this crooning aspect. And that really, the most important thing to do would be able to put the proper frame around the artwork; around the piece of art that is Iggy. I keep going back to the Van Eyck brothers, [the] Flemish painter and frame builder duo.”
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Post Pop Depression is an almost too perfect title.
An album deeply concerned with age-earned wisdoms and a looming sense of one’s own mortality – almost certainly influenced by the recent passing of Iggy’s famous friends and the recent tragedy in Paris that struck Homme’s other band, Eagles of Death Metal – it reminds us of how we will one day have live in a world dated post-Iggy Pop; a depressing reality indeed.
If Iggy Pop has a proven formula, it is to find a trusted cast of players and make the record that needs to be heard in that moment. Like Iggy himself, rock ‘n’ roll ain’t getting any younger. Once synonymous with popular music and youth culture, rock exudes the qualities of adolescence, but with the Golden Age receding and legends starting to drop like flies, it’s becoming increasingly hard to not talk about rock in the past tense, even when there’s incredible new rock all around us.
Post Pop Depression is not as visceral or youthful as Iggy’s most emblematic work, but it’s deeply referential of it. Singles like “Gardenia,” “Break Into Your Heart” and “Sunday” are sonically akin to the Bowie records, and Iggy’s lyrics are timeless enough to match into any moment of his career, but the delivery is decidedly set in the present. It’s Iggy Pop performing at his own living funeral for rock ‘n’ roll.
On ”American Valhalla” — referring to the Norse hall in heaven where battle-proven warriors hang up their hats – Iggy wonders “Where is American Valhalla?” Singing “death is the pill that’s tough to swallow,” he repeats the declaration, ”I’ve nothing but my name, I’ve nothing but my name,” which he continues to grumble for seconds after the music has stopped. If indications that this may be Iggy’s final album turn out to be true, it will stand as a firm and dignified swan song from a man they broke the mold with — the last of the one-and-onlys.
[Written by Ryan Pinkard and Trey Zenker]