Iggy Pop attracts attention even when hes conducting a long-distance phone interview, as befits this hyperactive icon of musical extremes.
The man hailed as the “godfather of punk-rock” is speaking by phone from Miami, where he is doing a photo shoot for his next album. With his shoulder-length hair bleached somewhere between brown and blond, rock´s original wild child attracts the attention of a passer-by.
Perhaps it´s because he is lounging in his red Cadillac convertible, around the corner from a store called Ziggy Furniture in Miami´s earthy “Little Haiti” neighborhood.
“Who are you?” the passer-by asks.
“I´m a musician,” he bellows, unaware of his visual incongruity in such a setting.
“What are you doing?” the passer-by shoots back.
“I am doing a photo shoot a block from here, and I´m taking a break,” Mr. Pop says, “to talk to San Diego. I´m a musician.”
Then, lowering his voice into the phone, he adds: “This is a pretty rough neighborhood.”
Mr. Pop, who grew up in a Michigan trailer park and moved to Miami a few years ago, has seen his share of rough neighborhoods.
A profound influence on artists as varied as David Bowie and the Sex Pistols (who recorded their own version of Mr. Pop´s song “No Fun”), he has long thrived on confrontation — with his audiences, with social mores, with the music industry and with any other target he set his sights on.
In the late 1960s and ´70s, Mr. Pop´s hard-living ways and drug abuse threatened to place him alongside such rock casualties as Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. So did his stage antics, in which he has crawled across broken glass bare-chested, extinguished cigarettes on his body, picked fights with audience members and pulled worse stunts.
Against all odds, the man who invented stage-diving 30 years ago has survived. What´s more, he has managed to do so without selling out, going soft, retiring, apologizing, becoming a reactionary blowhard or turning into a parody of himself.
“Usually, there has to be some jail time for some of the band members involved for a band to be any good,” says Mr. Pop, 53. “As I get older, I try to be the one who doesn´t have any jail time in the band. Other than that, I don´t have a theory.”
What Mr. Pop, formerly known as Iggy Stooge and born James Jewel Osterberg, does have is a track record most of today´s punk-rock upstarts can only dream of matching.
As the founder of the proto-punk band the Psychedelic Stooges in 1967, he helped create an artistic template that endures to this day. The band, which soon shortened its name to the Stooges, quickly earned a reputation for its primal and incendiary music, mixing dissonance and noise into a potent whole.
At the forefront is Mr. Pop, who earned nonmusical notoriety as a boyfriend of the Velvet Underground´s ill-fated vocalist Nico.
His quasi-performance-art approach to concerts found him smearing peanut butter on his body and rubbing raw steaks on himself as a prelude to more destructive stage behavior. His raw, stark lyrics were distinctly at odds with the peace-and-love hippie ethos that dominated rock in the late ´60s.
Recalling “No Fun,” a standout song from the Stooges´ self-titled 1969 debut album, Mr. Pop says: “On the first record I did, I sang, ‘No fun to hang around / Freaked out for another day.´ And a lot of people were like: ‘What do you mean? Everything is great. We´re all loving each other. John Phillips for president.´ And I am like: ‘I don´t think so.´
“I didn´t set out to collide with people, but I did. And I think anytime anybody goes against the party line in America, they get you back by making you look ridiculous. They don´t have to lock you in jail; they just make you look like .”
As for his extreme music and even more extreme stage actions (which often resulted in no small amount of blood and self-inflicted physical damage), Mr. Pop cites a novel inspiration: his love for such legendary progressive-jazz saxophonists as John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp.
“What I heard John Coltrane do with his horn I tried to do physically,” he says. “And the simplicity of the compositions is —- how should I put it? — encouraging to me, because I did not have more than an extremely rudimentary sense of chordings and song structure. And yet I heard these great and very listenable modern-jazz compositions being done over a bass line, or a simple snatch of a melody being stated and then returned to.
“It is very fluid and free and flexible music, and therefore convincing to me in a way that ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale´ is not. That is a rock adaptation of a piece of classical music that worked great, commercially, for listeners who couldn´t touch their toes — old white men or people who in 50 years would be old white men.
“If I have any honor at all, I have to mention that jazz is one more brilliant facet of black music, and all black music is the best. And I tried to do some of what I heard in jazz through the visual approach I did onstage.
“I kept the structures loose enough that they allowed for events that were particular and special and would never happen again on another night, yet still have some structure.
“I heard the sax floating, and I tried to float as a person, in general. I tried to float 24 hours a day. Like, when I first started listening to James Brown, I got rid of all the chairs and sofas in my home.”
“I started sitting on the ground,” Mr. Pop explains, “because I thought I could get in touch with the Earth and learn to dance. Because most white people need a stick of dynamite … to dance. It kind of helped me. I started off bridging the gap between rock and what is generally termed the avant-garde, or the artsy … side of life. I also have one foot firmly rooted in vulgar commercial .”
Mr. Pop´s most recent solo album, 1999´s “Avenue B,” found him turning away from rock to desolate torch songs that suggest a meeting between Frank Sinatra and Brazilian bossa-nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim in a bar that might be called Impending Doom.
The album found Mr. Pop crooning such grim lines as: “It was in the winter of my 50th year when it hit me / I was really alone, and there isn´t a hell of a lot of time left.”
The album´s intensely personal tone and shift to understated music gave Mr. Pop a new lease on life artistically, but it confounded most listeners. His next release, due in June, returns to his hard-driving rock style.
Where does this rock legend see himself in 10 or 15 years?
“Probably with a chick a lot younger than me and doing regular work, regular music work,” he says.
“Who knows? But one has certain limitations of one´s talents. I wonder what I´d do if I had Mariah Carey´s voice?” he muses, launching into a falsetto scat vocal. “Maybe I would have been a parakeet like her, because I wouldn´t have to develop any taste.”