Who is Iggy Pop?
Monday, September 26th, 2016 marked a big day for Montreal locals in the punk rock scene young and old. We gathered at the “Monument National”, located at the heart of St-Laurent Boulevard and the oldest theater in Quebec that is still in use as a venue. Iggy Pop, icon of Rock’n’roll history was to be interviewed by Canadian cultural critic Carl Wilson, in a casual setting. That is, as casual as you can be whilst meeting THE Iggy Pop. Organized by the Red Bull Music Academy, they hoped to bring their yearly month-long festival of concerts and conferences to a city that would appreciate this sort of intimate setting with an artist. Montreal, they decided, would be the best bet this year. And I think they were right, as even twenty minutes before the lecture had started, I could feel the crowd tingling with excitement and anticipation.
Iggy finally appeared, looking fabulous at 69, seating himself after a few dance moves on a leather couch and wearing a suave blue suit open just enough to reveal his chest. (I think we were all a bit surprised he wore a shirt at all). The first point of discussion was the pseudonym itself. Who does he identify with most: his original name or the one that defined this character that he built for himself. The first thing we heard was Iggy Pop, born James Osterberg Jr., respond in his deep leathery voice: “You can call me Iggy.” We all had a good laugh at this. I think the crowd could all come to the conclusion that his voice was made for performance…or maybe to recite William S. Burroughs novels. Either way, it is a captivating voice, one that has grabbed the attentions of generations.
He compared the controversy that arose from his stage name in the 1960s, versus how it would be received now.
“You gotta have a name like Iggy nowadays if you wanna be a show man,” he said, chuckling. Back when he started, the name was received with disgust and shock. This, to me, exemplifies his will to go against norms despite difficulty or controversy, which would later come to classify him as one of the creators of “punk” music and attitude. But I’ll get to that later.
I think we were all curious to know who the real Iggy Pop is. What is behind the façade of his ecstatic dance moves and chaotic stage presence, which he so flawlessly demonstrated to us before sitting down for the lecture. And I guess that’s what makes these kinds of lectures so interesting – to hear a personal, unrehearsed response to those types of questions.
Seeing him respond with such a humorous, lighthearted yet intelligent manner was what really grabbed my attention throughout the lecture. Carl’s questions were incredibly well thought-out, yet were structured very seriously and professionally. Iggy didn’t seem to be taking himself too seriously in his answers. He seemed to stay as far away from the rock-star attitude that may come along with fame. Last night, I saw that he wasn’t a rock star, he was just a man, an artist who strived for “bourgeois success” as he put it, as well as emotional catharsis through music.
To this day, he still seemed to be seeking some kind of catharsis, whether it be through art or not. With his newly released album, Post Pop Depression, he seems to deal with his difficulties, doing so in his later years. He spoke about moving from the cultural center of New York City to
the quieter comfort of Miami Beach. “I’ll tell you, when I turned 53/54, I had been duking it out in New York City for 20 years. To live my “after-life” (post-stardom), I wanted to get away from (New York’s) cultural scene and found a lot of comfort there (in Miami)…Here I am, I have no plans, no debts but I didn’t feel carefree. I just felt like ‘Hey, I’m out’…I was still looking for some sort of paradise that I would say does not exist.”
This tone of sadness and experience really touched me. This last quote reflects on lyrics from Post Pop Depression, which has been hailed by critics and fans as Iggy’s best album of the last 20 years. Perhaps this is because it returns to his “Bowie-esque” roots inspired by the solo albums they worked on together in the 1970s or perhaps it is because it hits a very personal spot with themes of old age, misery, loneliness, inspiration and the idea of an American Valhalla, the latter the title of the song that was quoted earlier.
“What is the reward for these people (fighting for their country) other than a bed in some hospital and some Suboxicodone?”
Iggy spoke of the album as being reflective, as well as touching Iggy’s raw roots with themes of death, sex and obsession.
Of course, being in Montreal, Carl asked a question comparing this new album to his album of a few years back which mostly consisted of French covers, including songs by Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf. After a brief demonstration of what he called his “terrible French” he said “I made the album not for music people but for everyday people. Some moms like it. I think that’s great. Some guy who owns a wine store buys copies every once in a while and they sell out at the counter. People ask – ‘What is this?’ That makes me happy.”
Of course, Iggy did not only speak of his recent years or “the only after-life I know of”, as he described it. He was asked about what everyone wanted to hear: His history with the Stooges and their influence on the beginning of punk, as well as his solo work with David Bowie in the 1970s. What allowed the Stooges to create their no boundaries, provocative, expressive and empowering approach to their attitude, their music and their performance?
He started off by talking about the beginning of the Stooges and his motivations for success. Personally, he was inspired by the blues and rock’n’roll, as well as avant-garde experimental art. Particularly, he was inspired by provocative, sexual and gory imagery in various forms of experimental art, such as artist Charlotte Moorman, whom he saw perform cello bound, in the nude. These sorts of things really made an impression on him. In early performances, the Stooges didn’t play a real drum set and Iggy would experiment with various strange instruments such as a vacuum cleaner.
“I was inspired by this kind of gay hobo named Harry Parch who created his own scales and his own instruments and created his own music.”
From the start it was clear that Iggy Pop wanted to start something new that would change music forever.
Growing up and going to school poor also had an effect on his will to succeed. “You meet some wonderful teachers and kids (at school) then you meet some pricks who are just there because they can be. That put a chip on my shoulder to want to succeed in the same bourgeois world.”
As for starting out with the Stooges, it took nothing but simple motivation to differ from the norm, and to make ideas real. “We started with blues and standard rock covers but we wanted to start something of our own…I didn’t think we’d get far enough as imitative artists because I wasn’t a skilled enough singer…The only people who would follow me were these wonderful delinquents (the Ashton brothers). I took on their problems and their personalities and became the spokesperson for the “no fun” stoner mentality…I thought HEY, delinquent blues…yes.”
These themes of angst, boredom and letting loose were considered to have inspired or maybe even created the punk-rock scene in the early 1970s. In a way, Iggy and the Stooge’s brutal honesty and raw energy allowed them to explore these themes that were very present in teenage society and burning to be exposed to a greater population at the time. And to this day, the music only becomes more and more popular and appreciated by youth around the world.
It was interesting to see Iggy Pop’s own perspective on what got him and the Stooges to that point. I learned that Iggy was a drummer before being frontman and vocalist for the Stooges. He said that stuck with him throughout his career with the band. He always had to be a part of the music.
“I think as an individual working with the band on stage I want to find a way into that music and I want to let that music make my life better at that moment…take me somewhere I can’t be in real life.”
This notion was very evident in seeing Iggy’s powerful stage presence, which he explained were inspired by, amongst other things, black church and Native American dances. “If you want to continue your employment then maybe you need a guy in the band who’s going to go out there and get noticed…It was a compulsion. I knew what I had to do for the group to survive. It was thankful that there were photographers at the time.”
As for being the definitive kick-starter of punk rock, Iggy admitted it was a modest statement. He didn’t seem to want to take credit for something that big. No matter what, Iggy Pop surely did get noticed. At the time, and more and more throughout the years. Even though the Stooges records may not have sold much at the time they were released, they have been coveted as extremely innovative and influential to bands for years to come. For all of us in the crowd, it was amazing to hear him talk about his life and experiences from such a personal standpoint, and how he and his music has developed throughout his almost five-decade career. His honesty and modesty was surprising for an artist of his fame and influence, but honestly not surprising for Iggy Pop. I think we all knew he was going to be a cool dude.
He did also talk about his experience with David Bowie, but he only briefly touched upon it. I think the interviewer as well as the crowd was hesitant to open up such a fresh wound after Bowie’s death last January. From what he said, you could tell they were very close and that he looked up to Bowie as a musical mentor. He did not necessarily say that he owed his success to
Bowie, but rather that in time of need, Bowie’s musicianship and knowledge of production and creativity helped Iggy reach a better place artistically.
Iggy is a band-leader and musical leader, an innovator and orchestrator of sound and performance. He dedicated his life to art, and continued to experiment with its various forms throughout his life. This event allowed those present to understand Iggy Pop from a personal point of view, one that is rarely addressed in interviews and I think we all felt privileged to be there. He looked over his career, and even if Post Pop Depression is his last album, it is clear that Iggy Pop has succeeded in his lifetime to innovate music, to help himself and touch others and to remain a modest, honest man, still looking for meaning in life and in art. It was amazing to see people of different generations come together with such excitement to hear what he had to say, and to see him respond with such genuine appreciation and modesty. During the Q&A at the end, I remember this one guy, who was around 50-60 years-old, in a leather jacket, starting by saying that he’d seen Iggy in Montreal in 1978. Iggy looked at him for a minute then responded – “I remember that night! At some small venue and everyone there was…whoa.” He didn’t explain what whoa meant, but I think we all can imagine, knowing how crazy Montreal concerts can be. That I think was a real connecting moment with the audience, and with our Montreal culture.
I think with his intelligence, humility and amazing sense of humor we could all conclude that Iggy Pop is in a pretty good place for a 69 year-old man, with lots to look back on regarding his life.
I left feeling like we had truly connected as a crowd and a speaker, and that I’d learned a lot in such a comfortable setting. And I never really thought I’d see Iggy Pop talk on a leather couch for two hours so there’s an experience…rock on Iggy!