Interview With an Old Stooge: Kristine McKenna talks with IGGY POP about everything (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003), with photography by Peter G. Whitfield, on the occasion of the Stooges’ reunion as a live force.

If you’ve never read Iggy Pop’s 1982 autobiography, I Need More, do yourself a favor and go out and buy it. It’s a totally inspiring book. Talk about triumph of the will! There he was, Jim Osterberg, a slightly built, asthmatic only child growing up in a shabby mobile home in a sleepy Midwestern town during the ‘50s. The chances of his metamorphosing into a rock avatar who would channel the id of an entire generation were not good. But Jim came in with an extra hit of the life force, and that’s exactly what he did.

Perhaps I should backtrack for a moment and recap the story so far. James Newell Osterberg was born on April 21, 1947, in Muskegon, Michigan. His father, Newell Sr., was an English teacher, and his family lived in a trailer park in Ypsilanti Michigan. When he was 15 he formed his first band, the Iguanas, which is how he wound up with the stage name Iggy. He was playing drums at the time, and after three years of practice and local gigs, the Iguanas recorded a single; the year was 1965, and the song was Mona, backed with I Don’t Know Why. A short time later he joined the Prime Movers Blues Band, an experience that prompted him to head for Chicago to serve some kind of apprenticeship with real blues guys. Eight months later he’d come to the conclusion he was barking up the wrong tree, so he returned to Ann Arbor and formed the Psychedelic Stooges with Ron and Scott Asheton. They played their first gig on Halloween in 1967. 

It was then that Iggy began redefining the parameters of rock’n’ roll with a show unlike anything that had been seen before. Synthesizing elements of shamanic ritual, blues, Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, psychedelia, and  performance art, Iggy invented a frightening and transformational form of musical theater that soared into the stratosphere. A crucial ingredient in his show was his extraordinary body — a perfectly constructed skeleton with an overlay of muscle in a wrapping of taut skin — which he deployed to maximum effect. He was also hilarious. All of Iggy’s work has been inflected with a bracing current of self-deprecating humor that makes him very easy to love. Describing himself in the early days of his career in I Need More, he says ‘got gotta’ understand that I was still like Topcat, the cartoon character. I was very lazy and happiest dozing in a garbage can.’ Who can’t relate to that?

The Stooges were extreme and definitely weren’t for everyone, but incredibly enough, they were signed to Elektra Records just a year after they debuted. The next five years were a tornado of wild gigs, drugs and escalating conflict, and at the end of 1973 Iggy quit the band. His downward spiral gathered momentum, and in 1975 he suffered a breakdown that resulted in several weeks of hospitalization. His longtime fan David Bowie helped him relocate to Berlin, got him back on his feet, and produced his first two solos albums, The Idiot, and Lust for Life.

It was shortly after that, in 1979, that I interviewed Iggy for the first time. We met in his tiny room at the now defunct Tropicana Motel, and to tell the truth, I was afraid of him — his reputation at that point was rather formidable. He surprised me, though. He came across as a somewhat reserved, well-spoken man who’d clearly thought long and hard about the world and his place in it. 

At the end of our meeting, he said ‘if I have any goal it’s to be an unchanging beacon in this world full of health foods and good vibes. I wish not to change.’ Twenty-four years later it seems safe to say he’s achieved that goal, and with his recent reunion with the Stooges he comes full circle. His new album, Skull Ring, includes four new songs written and recorded with his childhood pals from Michigan, along with six new songs by Iggy and his band of the past twelve years, the Trolls. Green Day, Peaches, and Sum 41 also turn up on the album, which was recorded in Miami where Iggy’s lived since 1999. (He moved there from New York following his divorce from his companion of 16 years, Suchi Asano Osterberg.) Miami seems to suit him; he seemed strong, focused and in excellent spirits when we spoke in late July. — Kristine McKenna

What is the source of your strength?

Whatever strength I have is probably the result of the fact that I made some good emotional investments at an early age. I went for a certain kind of music and maintained the naïve belief that I could do something wonderful in music, and that that would help me move towards what is wonderful in life. I looked like I was nuts at the time, and those beliefs caused me a lot of grief for a while, but it paid off for me big time. 

What gave you the courage to make those choices early in life? Something that comes through clearly in I Need More is what extraordinarily loving parents you had. Did they play a significant role in setting you on the path you’ve taken in life?

Yeah, I definitely had some killer parenting. My parents were really great, spiritually glowing people whose love and protection really set me up in life. I’m getting the credit for a lot of stuff they did. Losing my mother was one of the most painful things I’ve experienced. [Louella Osterberg died in 1996.]

In reflecting on your childhood in  I Need More, you say, ‘we were very good dreamers, which is mostly what my dusty Midwest is all about. The land that time forgot. At this time, in the fifties, America was a beautiful, virgin land with green meadows and room for everyone. It was a calm and verdant land.’ Where did that world go?

Unfortunately, most of it has been paved over. Sometimes I’ll be motoring through Ohio on the way to work somewhere and I’ll see what I think might be a glimpse of it, but in general, the U.S. has lost a great deal of its charm. A certain rigidity has set in now that we have imperial capitalism unbridled by other isms–it was nicer when we had communism to balance the capitalism. Here in Florida there’s a little more land and a few more wild creatures walking around, but the pavement is coming, and I think that’s a contributing factor to things like Columbine. The problem isn’t just that there are guns available. It has a lot to do with the fact that things have become so systematic in a kind of binary code, rectangular way that it makes everybody kind of tense.

Are you proud to be an American?

Oh yeah, among other things, though. I wouldn’t say it’s my proudest thing — I’m more proud that I’ve made some decent music.

What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?

I once woke up in an abandoned building in L.A. puking weird, green bile and decided I better check myself into a neuropsychiatric hospital. At the time I felt like a pet who’d been put into one of those animal carrier for a plane flight–you know how they’ll whimper for the first few minutes, but after that they don’t want to waste the energy. The thing that led me to that moment in that building was heroin, so maybe the worst thing that ever happened to me was the first time anybody offered me heroin and I took it. We had an ex-junkie roadie we’d neglected to take along on a West Coast trip and he was pissed off at us about that, so I think he decided to turn us into junkies and fuck up the band–and he did. I don’t know what happened to that guy. I’m not in touch, let’s put it that way.

What was the first record you ever bought?

A Johnny & the Hurricanes album I bought at Woolworth’s for 99 cents that had a regional hit on it called ‘Red River Rock.’ This group was from Toledo, Ohio and was what was referred to as a greaser band. They had greased up pompadours, matching skinny suits, and the leader played sax.

Name a song that always makes you cry.

‘Walk On By’ is a pretty deep one, but only Dionne Warwick’s version. The others are all terrible. There’s also an old jazz standard, ‘The Night We Called It A Day,’ that makes me a little misty.

You once said, ‘what I heard John Coltrane do with his horn I tried to do physically.’ Could you describe precisely what that thing is?

The first time I heard Coltrane the cut was A Love Supreme, and that’s an extremely simple three note bass line that repeats without variance throughout the duration of a  very long piece. I was a novice unfamiliar with that sort of jazz, and I heard him run through the gamut of emotions on his horn, from tender to angry to kind of bluesy, to just fucking insane, to where it actually sounded offensive to me–until later. I liked the way he was dancing, over, above, under, within and without this rock solid motif that didn’t change, and that three note motif established a trance world where he could do all those things. It seemed timely, spiritual and earthy all at the same time. I was 20 at the time, and was just starting to play gigs with the Stooges when I heard Coltrane, and I heard him at the home of a prospective new manager who was an older hipster on the local scene named Jimmy Silver. He was a good friend of John Sinclair’s–in fact, he probably got the record from John, because it was very much a reflection of the nexus John was establishing between free jazz, indignant criminality, and rock’n’roll.

Why was this the right time to work with the Stooges again?

We had to wait until everybody was hungry enough for it that we were able to transcend our more crappy parts–but I didn’t know that going in. The way it happened was I wanted to work with multiple people on this record, so I made a list of possibilities, then when I looked at the list I thought ‘the Stooges are the coolest people on this fuckin list!’ I didn’t know what it would be like though, and I think we were all surprised at how good it was. But we had something going for us in that we had a good bunch of songs we’d written a long time ago, and all the playing we’d done a long time ago was right there for us too, like money in a bank. It was the same, because we’d done all those fucking gigs and because we’d lived in that house together. An added plus was that we were working towards a recording instead of just doing a reunion tour to play old songs and lap up some bread–not that we didn’t lap up a little bread. But we had the recording first, and that’s the life blood of anything that’s gonna have any currency to it. So we laid it out there, and people can say this shit is cool or it sucks, and going through that process makes your togetherness more timely. At this point the Stooges play with the authority of two old sharecroppers. There’s some serious authority in their sound, but they still sound dangerous and appropriately childish.

You toured with Junior Kimbrough shortly before he died. What did you learn from him?

To slow down musically. I also learned that Fat Possum is the only decent record company in this country. They’re the only ones putting out consistently good product, and their shit is the only new shit I listen to for pleasure. I’ll go out and buy the White Stripes because I think I should hear the new White Stripes album, but if I want to listen to something for pleasure or genuine interest, I go to Fat Possum.

You once made the comment, ‘the longer a person lives the more useless he becomes.’ Do you think that’s true?

I have to reverse myself on that, although it’s certainly true I’m not gonna make a primal album again. There were certain things I could do when I was at a certain age and you can’t do those things when you get older. You can be worth other things to people, though. There’s a certain fascination to anybody who’s older who isn’t just sucking eucalyptus leaves on the porch, because young people wonder hey, what happens later?

It’s not as if you’re doing a lounge act now. In fact, the show you do today is largely the same as the one you did when you were 20.

It is related, but if you looked at film you’d spot differences. I never really thought much about it, then or now, though. The main thing is you’ve got to be in that song, and then everything will come from there. If you’re not inside it you can exhaust yourself but it will be shit. You gotta remember to obey the song. 

Are there songs you’re no longer able to get inside of?

Lots of them, but you never know until you try it out at a show and it doesn’t click. I haven’t been doing Lust For Life for a couple of years, maybe because of all the film and advertising usage, but I do ‘The Passenger’ from that album. I tried ‘Knockin’ ‘Em Down (in the City)’ the other day but it wasn’t happening, and I just learned ‘I Snub You,’ which was a gas. I was doing ‘Five Foot One’ for years and I did it to death, which does happen.

Speaking of film, how did you feel about Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of you in Velvet Goldmine?

I didn’t see the movie but I did see the trailer, so I saw him singing ‘T.V. Eye.’ My first impression was dude, you’re a little pudgy aren’t you? After that I thought it was pretty cool that somebody was singing ‘T.V. Eye,’ and at least they got it right that he stood at the microphone and sang it. I’d read the script for the film and had a brief conversation with Todd Haynes, who is an estimable filmmaker, but I didn’t want to see the movie because I thought it was a confused piece. I did O.K. their use of my songs, though.

I’m a big admirer of your performance in Jim Jarmusch’s 1996 film, Dead Man. [Hunkered down around a campfire in prairie drag, Pop gives two grubby associates a bible lesson.] Was your scene improvised?

It was improvised around a rough structure, but I came up with my own lines. Jim  worried that I’d gotten too carried away talking about Nero and the dogs, so in the version released to theaters he cut my monologue back to a story about the three bears. Later on he had an attack of conscience and he reinstated my lines in the video release.

You once made the comment, ‘it’s very rare that an individual actually has anything to say.’ Is this because that people lack the courage to speak out, or because they lack the imagination to come up with anything worth saying?

Probably the latter. The times we live in are not very conducive to the use of the imagination. Everything’s pretty wired in just about now. It’s pretty bad. 

What’s the closest your average middle class American come to experiencing shamanic ritual?

If you’re talking about an actual journey, I guess there were many years when the movies served that function of taking people into the dark underworld and into heaven. I don’t know what they’re doing out there now because it’s been so long since I’ve been an average American.

How have you maintained your connection with your animal nature?

I try to stay near rocks because they have a nice energy, and old objects have a better energy than new objects-my house is old, my cars are old, I’m old. I like plants to be around, and I pay attention to animals and enjoy watching them. I try to stay near the sea, and I have these funny exercises I do, this Tai Chi shit–all these things lead you in that direction.

Do you believe in God?

No.

What do you think happens after death?

Probably the better it goes, the quieter it is. If it’s a hard one, it’s probably like those dreams you have just before you wake up, but I imagine that one eventually settles down. After that, one can come back as anything from a worm to a member of the Bush family. I can’t quite say that I believe in reincarnation, but some sort of regeneration makes sense to me. There must be some sort of  weird, viscous, soul goop, some sort of anima that persists. 

You once commented, ‘the natural instinct of every person you meet will be to use you.’ Are we all craven opportunists sizing each other up as a meal?

I’m afraid so. Either that, or they look and think ‘no meal there’ and that’s the end of the interest. A lot of us don’t want to know this about ourselves, though.

What’s the purpose of chaos?

Chaos is the sound of one hand clapping.

What seemed terribly important to you as a young man that no longer seems quite so pressing?

When I was young I wanted girls and music, those were the two things. The chick thing has played itself out, but there are still lots of things I want to do with music I haven’t gotten to yet. I was never interested in being famous, not even as a highly confused youth.

Is fame infantilizing?

You can definitely spoil yourself, and as long as you’re aware of that you can cut that back in certain ways. I was fighting with my guitar player [Whitey Kirst] on some airstrip in Brussels the other day because he was drunk, and he turned to me and said ‘you’re spoiled!’ I got really mad and said ‘I’m not spoiled, you’re spoiled, I’ve worked hard, blah, blah, blah…’ Then I went back to my room and thought shit, he’s right. 

What’s the most widely held misconception about the life of a famous person?

That it’s easy. The hard thing is dealing with the choices–one has tremendous choice thrust upon you constantly, but the choices aren’t really yours to make, and you have to make them whether you’re ready to or not. And, the choices are couched in terms that may or may not be appropriate to your fame. And do you want to even allude to that? How healthy is that? What do you get out of it? Do you care what you get? Should you always be getting? Is this shit cool? Is it for real? It gets pretty fucking complicated! Sometimes they’re not the choices you want either. All of a sudden you’re in a position where you can do something for somebody, or not, they think. You can hurt somebody, or not, they think. It gets pretty intense trying to figure out what you want.

So, what do you want?

Funny you should ask. I’ve got a Tai Chi master who functions as sort of a guru for me, and he’s written a book I’ve been reading, and in the book he organizes life into pyramids of desire. Some people want money, others want health, some want to find God. I haven’t had sex in four days, so today I want sex. I have it all the time with a super-specimen named Nina.

Are you in love?

Oh my god! Yeah I love her. I’m in love sometimes, then other times you’re fighting. You know how it is–hey, gimme that soup bone.

In a recent interview you were asked how you envision yourself 15 years from now and you said, ‘probably playing music and hanging out with a chick a lot younger than me. I’m an American guy so I prefer young pussy.’ Why is young pussy better?

It’s probably the same with dick. You’ve got me pacing the room now! I’m sweatin’ this one! Gee, lets see. I think it might have something to do with the fact that when chicks get older they worry more about what they’re doing, and inevitably the boyfriend is gonna get involved in that; like ‘I need to be fill-in-the-blank and you’re not helping me with that.’ The younger they are the more air seems to be available to fill their heads.

In Kiss My Blood, a film of a performance you gave in Paris in 1991, there’s a sequence where you interact with a few girls in the audience who seem to be completely under your spell. It looks as though you could’ve persuaded those girls to do anything. Do you take pleasure in the power you’re able to exert over women, or is that something you’ve thoroughly explored?

I’ve lived out everything I needed to experience with women in that regard, and I don’t get a charge from that kind of thing anymore. Some people might say ‘hey, I’ve been this way for a while and it’s too much hassle to change,’ but around the time I turned 50 that died down as a motivating factor, and I don’t have a plural attitude towards relationships anymore. I really want to be with one person at one time. Sometimes I do encourage audience participation of the sort you just mentioned, but if it gets too sexy it becomes embarrassing to me as a musical artist, because the music must remain paramount at all times. If the other thing starts to climb on top you’ll be on Hollywood Squares in three years. There’s sexual energy in the world and we all want to be attractive to members of the other camp, but that’s something I’m choosy about because it’s an important thing who you’re with. I didn’t really use to care. It was more like I want a chick; this seems like a good one, hey, now I haven’t got that one, but look, there’s another one. Now, I’m really surprised [laughing] but they actually become people.

Do you consider yourself sexist?

Everybody’s sexist when they’re young, especially in America. With me, it had more to do with the fact that I had something I wanted to get done and I couldn’t think of anybody else. I didn’t even think of myself as a person much. Whenever I did, it usually got in the way and made me get drunk. 

Physiology aside, what’s the most significant difference between men and women?

The need to love and be loved appears to be more of a focal point for women. Whether they actually live that out, or simply use that as a weapon in the temporal world is another thing. For men that’s less of a primary drive. Men are more apt to define themselves in terms of work or some sort of achievement in the gorilla world. 

You’ve been quoted as saying ‘all boys are queer.’ Do you really think that’s true?

Kind of, in that all boys want to impress other boys and all boys get crazy if they think some other boy is lording it over them. It’s not a sexual thing – it has more to do with having an ego-driven obsession with your peers.

Why does love die?

Business and daily practicalities get in the way, and familiarity does breed contempt. The only way to get around that is to cultivate your familiarity, choose the more enchanting varieties and weed out the vulgar. Familiarity is necessary between people–if you don’t have that, you’re all alone–but uncultivated, it will breed contempt. Everything from saying ‘hey, while you’re up can you bring me…,’ to bring up the toilet paper, to fart jokes, to money worries can kill the mood. I just read an article in the New York Times about a couple of limited means who spent so much money on their wedding that it put them in debt for years and killed the marriage. 

Is money the same thing as power?

No. Health and sound judgment give power. A healthy, balanced person is more capable of exercising sound judgment, and that can lead to the mastery of the tools of power, one of which is money. Money is definitely something that’s unfortunately not to be spit at.

You’ve said that, ‘on a daily basis in my life I tend to avoid people.’ Have you always been this way, or is it a behavior that’s come with age?

Nah, I’ve been lurking since kindergarten. Being in a band, there are periods where you’re always surrounded by people, and one of the toughest things I’ve had to do is deal with the necessity of immersing myself in a bunch of musicians in order to accomplish something musically. It’s really hard because everybody’s got their little trip. I did the live-in thing pretty steadily until I was around 31, and that was enough.

Everybody talks about how tough you are. Do you feel tough?

No. I feel fairly well disciplined in certain areas, and sometimes I kind of surprise myself and get results that would imply that I’m tough, but that’s never been a motivating factor. I must’ve been some kind of fool to do some of the things I’ve done, but I seem to be the one cockroach in a large bunch that didn’t get squished by the boot of infamy. Then, when I was in my late ‘20s I met some people who were more worldly than I was when I went through my English rock star phase with David Bowie. I learned a lot from the people I met through him–‘oh, so this is how you defend yourself, and this is how you act at dinner with Mick Jagger’ and so forth. 

How would you describe your state of mind today?

A little bit crafty, a little bit getting away with murder. I’m livin’ in Miami Beach with a couple of Rolls Royces and no nine-to-five, goin’ to the beach when I want to, feelin’ good because my album’s done and it sounds pretty bitchin‘. I’m kind of sneaking and lurking around like I do.

What did you do last night?

I was quiet, basically. I was at the beach until twilight, just looking at the waves and thinking, then I cooked myself a steak sandwich which I muffed badly by undercooking it, so I shared it with a feral cat I entertain. Then I did a little reading of a book by my Tai Chi master called Elixir, and picked up some tips on a couple of breathing exercises I want to try. I had a glass of a ’98 Saint-Estephe red Bordeaux, called Nina and said goodnight, then watched TV for an hour, something about Mike Tyson called Beyond the Glory, that focused on his troubles, and I was in bed by ten. I’m a seriously conservative person. I’m ready to throw money away, and I’ll do and say things that piss people off, but I’m always in bed between 9 and 11:30 at night, I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t run around chasing affairs, and I keep my attention on the ball. I don’t have my nose to the grindstone, but I move the ball right along. 

Categories: Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003), Kristine McKenna | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock

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