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.Continue reading