Still alive. Not just still alive, but still moving, singing, provoking and thinking. How did that happen Iggy Pop?
Playing his second show tonight at the Sydney Opera House, with his headlining slot at Blues Fest this weekend and a show at Festival Hall in Melbourne on April 21, Mr I. Pop is a bloody marvel of science, resilience, or some of what Keith Richards is on.
As Wind Back Wednesday discovered in this 2011 interview – before he came out for the Big Day Out (which it should be noted, did not have half the long life of Iggy) – there’s a whole lot more to the man than the miracle of his continued existence in the face of decades of attempts to harm himself in novel, sometimes even tasty, ways.
Hail the philosopher king. Hail The Idiot. Hail hail rock’n’roll.
Iggy Pop's aged but still wiry, muscular and scarily fit body bears the scars of his particular, 40-plus years, battle with performing rock’n’roll. Usually shirtless in low slung jeans. Or no pants at all.
There are the marks left from the broken glass he’s rolled in, smashed against himself or had hurled at him (as happened at the final gig of his band, the Stooges, in 1974, knocking him out), inevitably leading to gigs dripping with blood and the smell of fear – mostly from the audience – and sometimes peanut butter if it was available to be smeared on.
There are the deep-set bruises and irreparable tenderness from the times he slammed, often repeatedly, into immovable objects, and the joints creaking from years and years of leaping, landing and twisting on stages from tiny bars in late ‘60s Detroit to London clubs in the early ‘70s to outdoor stadiums in Australia in the 21st century.
Though he took some cues from Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop’s fearlessness/recklessness was pathologically his own.
And there is a face, tanned and almost archaeologically deeply lined from living and drugging - he was one of the more famous heroin “casualties” for a decade, making his soundtracking of the film Trainspotting all the more apt. Around that face his defiantly long straight hair still flicks like bluebottle tendrils and you can see faintly outlined the doe eyed and good looking boy, James Newell Osterberg, who graduated from high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1965.
As he said once, “my career for a long time was a wonderful series of falling upward moments. When we failed in Detroit, we took to LA, then New York, then London. I was lucky enough to get out of each of those situations having learned something that would help me down the road. Of course, I nearly killed myself a few times too.”
That face, that body, that reputation, as much as his solo work and the time with the musical anarchists and insurrectionists the Stooges, entitle him to be called the otherwise stupid name, the godfather of punk.
That’s true whether it was the original lineup of Stooges, with guitarist Ron and drummer Scott Asheton and bass player Dave Alexander, whose self-titled 1969 debut was a brutally simplistic howl of rhythm and grunt, the lineup which recorded the quasi-avant garde second album, Fun House (with free jazz-influenced saxophonist Steve Mackay), the band which made 1973’s riff-heavy, smack-tasting surge, Raw Power, (where Ron Asheton was moved to bass to accommodate new guitarist James Williamson) or the two versions of the reformed band he’s toured this century, firstly with the Ashetons and now, since the death of Ron Asheton, Williamson once again.
Of course, at 63 that title may well need to be changed to grandfather of punk but Pop you suspect wouldn't mind. This devotee of Asian philosophy whose teenage inability to sit still – remember him on Countdown, more than a little “tweaked” and irrepressible? - has long passed into a grown man's equanimity, is quite chilled, thank you,
"Hey, hello, how are you? " he says in a drawl which couldn't be any more relaxed if you tipped it back on a banana lounge and served it a daiquiri. "I'm pretty good, pretty good.”
Back when he was young Jimmy Osterberg in Ann Arbor, from when he had toy box lids and wooden logs on which to play, Pop was a drummer. When offered a music program at high school he bypassed trumpet for the skins.
"I’m kinda glad I did, because I learned certain fundamentals sitting back there," he said years later. I wonder how much of the drummer in him remains and has an influence.
"Yeah, it's in every technical aspect of what I do. From the phrasing that I choose vocally, to the way I express myself physically when the band is playing. It's not just jumping around, honest," he laughs. "My taste in music run to the rhythmic or when it's not highly rhythmic, then it will run to the other extreme.
“I can listen to Sinatra for hours, that's okay too, or classical music. I don't go much for the school of rock that began in the ‘80s where its bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp, 16 bars of repetitive thumping with some guy moaning sincerely. [Another laugh.] I don't really go for that.”
One of the regular assumptions about drummers is that they are there to thump and provide the basis for the "real" musicians. Much the same was said about Pop’s band. It took quite a while before people realised that the Stooges weren't dumb, that it wasn't just done because it could hurt.
In a sense his whole career has been people belatedly realising that this man who 15 years ago wrote an essay for an academic publication on the modern relevance of Edward Gibbon's Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire is far, far smarter than they believed.
"There are tremendous contributions which can be made musically within the confines of simplicity," Pop says. "Bob Marley's quote of the Bible in his song, ‘stiff necked fools, they think they are cool to deny me for simplicity’, is actually a very apt musical commentary on the biggest weakness of almost every contemporary musician I can think of.
“If I had the voice of [multi octave siren of the 1950s] Yma Sumac, the intellect and folkloric knowledge of Bob Dylan and let's say, the symphonic articulation of Bach, I would have done it. But sorry, no can do. So what I was interested in was not being the 101st vocalist or group member that made big plans. That was the idea, to do something formatted simply but the ideas are not simple at all."
Simplicity has never meant narrowness for Pop who, before this current tour with the Raw Power-era Stooges, released an album called Preliminaires based on the writings of French author Michel Houellebecq, which took its influences from jazz and contemporary classical. The man who released a David Bowie-produced album called The Idiot has shown with a career in and outside the Stooges, as an occasional actor as well as jobbing singer, that there is no limit to what he can do.
"I think that’s true and besides the urge, it takes some political skill and some ability to withstand a certain amount of punishment," he chuckles. "In the case of Preliminaires, I had to enlist the French to get that out because the American industrial machine simply will not allow, they won't help you, put it that way, achieve that and some of them won't countenance it if you do.”
Is there something in the French adopting both Iggy Pop and Jerry Lewis, two American institutions considered base and simplistic at home?
"Yeah,” he says with a guffaw, “they also like Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan."
Still, it’s not just the French, and Bowie, who have saved him over the years. For several generations of music fans now Iggy Pop has been discovered second-hand. Much like the Stooges-influenced punks did in the USA and UK, the Sydney underground in the late 1970s and early 80s saw groups like Radio Birdman and their offshoots and acolytes draw on the Stooges and fellow Detroit rebels, the MC5, as well as surf music and soul, to make the new rebel music.
At a time when it was difficult to get the three Stooges albums, their name and attitude was being kept alive.
"Bless those people because not only did they carry out some of the ideas and covered our stuff, but they talked me up to their little brothers too,” Pop says graciously. “This is the same way I discovered Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and Arthur Alexander, from the writing credits on early Beatles and Rolling Stones albums.
“Once I found out about those people I’d idolise them, I’d want to be a middle-aged black man who could play and sing magic. That didn't happen but in a funny way I looked around a couple years ago and I thought, my God I've become Bo Diddley in certain ways.
“And that's a great thing. I'm kinda happy."