Interview: Iggy Pop

Iggy's inner artist

The heroin addiction, the public self-flagellation and penis-baring, the rumors of bisexuality...these are only the more infamous elements of Iggy Pop's status as a living legend.

Unlike many of the casualties that the rock lifestyle left littered by the roadside, Pop (b. James Newell Osterberg Jr.), not only survived the '70s but soldiered on, his ripped physique an indication of the mettle that allowed him to live to tell the tale.

But the uncompromising American singer, whose latest album is last year's Skull Ring, has lately revealed an artistic side in an exhibition of paintings held recently with Ron Asheton (the Stooges guitarist) in Detroit.
"Sometimes I paint my way into it," Pop explained by phone in response to a question about the relation between his painting and his song craft, as he looked out over the Rolls Royces parked in front of his Miami bungalow. "Once you get in the music business, you start feeling like an accountant or a prostitute, and then you wonder, gee, am I still an artist? Painting is a great way to convince yourself that you're still capable of creating something intriguing."
Choosing to debut his art away from the glare of the New York art world, Pop says the exhibition was Asheton's inspiration.
"Ron paints a little bit, and I've been painting for years. He'd shown some last year and wanted to do another show, I think actually because he'd sold a couple to the actress Renee Zellweger… I'd never shown my paintings and I really didn't want to show 'em in New York. So I thought a Detroit show with a musical hook to it sounded about right."
Many regard Pop's work with the Stooges as his best, and whatever your opinion, it certainly will go down as his defining legacy. At a time when the rest of the pop world was still coming down from 1967's acid-suffused Summer of Love, a fire-breathing Pop and the brothers Asheton (Ron and drummer Scott), offered a look at the world un-enhanced by rose-tinted lenses.

The creative burst between their 1969 debut The Stooges and 1973's Raw Power proved prescient, hinting at the punk counterrevolution that was to come later in the decade and yielding songs like the endlessly covered, I Wanna Be Your Dog. But the Stooges broke up reportedly amid acrimony, making their recent reuniting a surprise for many.

Pop downplays the difficulties between them.
"The animosity among us stayed at the level of things said in print about the other's personal qualities," he says. "That sort of thing won't really break you up for long. Later when it gets to the level of lawyers, and accountants, that's what really separates bands. Pardon me, but if it's just some shit you said to a journalist, so what?"
The bludgeon-like directness of Pop's songs has a source, and it's not simply the unvarnished view of life he developed growing up in a trailer park in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The son of an English teacher, Pop took his education to heart. Describing his song craft, he says that some of the archetypical elements necessary for a good rock song include a memorable title, and the what, who, when, where and why of journalism.
"I try to follow the things I learned in high school," he says, perhaps incredibly. "In creative writing, be universal. Whatever you write, try and do it in a way that will mean the same thing in 300 years. It should mean the same thing to anybody anywhere. And then from debate - I was on the debate team in high school - tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, and then tell 'em you told 'em."
Pop isn't big on metaphor.
"Metaphor is great if you're Bob Dylan, just like theater's great if you're Shakespeare," he says. "But each of those people [is] responsible for an enormous amount of bad art being made by mediocre people who think that if they do things as if they were great, they'll be great. Metaphor is beautiful - Every Grain of Sand by Bob Dylan is beautiful - but I'm not Bob Dylan."
Yet in addition to these basic elements of songwriting, emotions are also needed to make a song resonate.
"Something that gets me sad, wistful, excited, nostalgic," Pop adds animatedly. "It could be any of emotion - lustful, aggressive, whatever it is."
He says that the actual creation itself shouldn't take more than five minutes, but that making a song special could take much longer.
"There might be one element that might not come together, and that could torture you till it's right," he says. "You might have to do something like become a drug addict and wander through cities wasting your youth until you get the lyric just right."
But the now clean-living, happily married Pop isn't suggesting that one take heroin, only that it's often been part of the process.
"I'm not prescribing. You asked me about a lyric, not about health issues," he recoils. "And I'm telling you that's one of the things that keeps cropping up. You look at Baudelaire and you're looking at laudanum. You look at Rimbaud and you're looking at alcoholism. Even certain periods of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, the Who, y'know good writers, it comes up. I'm not advocating it, I'm obviously not using it, and I don't think that's the way to go today. But you asked me and I said that's one of the avenues that's taken."
Having survived his demons, Pop approaches his career as exactly that, although one with unique perks. Asked if at age 56 he doesn't tire of playing the rock god, Pop confesses:
"Well you know there are certain privileges that go with doing alright at the job, so I ain't gonna bitch about it, you know what I'm saying?"

Iggy Pop and The Stooges played Magic Rock Out at Makuhari Messe on March 20 and Shibuya AX on March 22, 2004.

Dan Grunebaum

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