Friday, 10 September 1999
Iggy Pop always did it his way. Now 50, he has produced an intensely personal album. Deep in Sinatra territory.
When in 1972 Iggy Pop was encouraged to discharge himself from a psychiatric hospital by David Bowie, his first port of call was Columbia Records. Despite his continuing drug addiction and associated mental illness, he still had a vision of the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll band. That band was called The Stooges. They had already released two stunning albums – their eponymous debut and the hugely influential Fun House – but then found themselves on the wrong end of the record company axe. The Stooges subsequently imploded through an almost superhuman taste for the extreme side of life.
Post-hospital, post-trauma and newly revitalised, Iggy Pop entered the offices of MD Clive Davis with a plan for another Stooges album. This time with Bowie on production duties. Raw Power, the album that emerged, was a collection of bile-spitting, furious, trailer-trash rock songs that eventually sent reverberations throughout the world.
It was the start of a period that was to define people’s attitudes towards the Detroit-born Iggy Pop, nee James Newell Osterberg. A series of shows followed that featured the silver-haired vocalist slashing himself with broken bottles, urinating on fans and walking on the upturned palms of audiences. It was a period marked by a self-destructive urge which culminated in the infamous final Stooges show where Iggy declared war on the local Hell’s Angels chapter. As a result he left the stage badly beaten, cut to ribbons, unable to walk but still hurling abuse, an evening captured on the semi-official bootleg Metallic KO.
This, of course, is the populist image of the wild man of rock ‘n’ roll. But there is another story, equally important to the man’s musical passion and world view. Back in the Columbia offices it wasn’t a self-mutilating rock ‘n’ roll performance that secured Iggy his deal. The winning factor that put Clive Davis’s signature to the cheque book was Iggy’s rendition of a Sinatra standard. He used the executive’s desk as his stage and now thinks the whole event may have scared Davis into signing the Stooges.
Frank Sinatra’s croon has always underpinned Pop’s vocal performance. Whether on the Bowie-produced The Idiot and Lust for Life albums or the much stranger Chris (Blondie) Stein-endorsed Zombie Birdhouse, Iggy’s desire to explore smooth baritones has long been present. Indeed, throughout the punk era, when hungry crowds were baying for those Stooges numbers, Iggy would take almost perverse pleasure in delivering a lounge-core version of Sinatra’s paean to lonely drinkers “One For The Road”.
After a career spanning almost 35 years, Iggy has finally recorded the collection of songs he has always threatened. Avenue B – after his one- time New York home – is an intensely personal album which finds the man deep in Sinatra territory. More to the point, it is entirely inspired by the mood of Sinatra’s Bel Canto albums Only the Lonely, Where Are You? and Close to You. The singer has come back full circle to that day 27 years ago on Clive Davis’s desk.
“Ha! He just gave me the money and said get out of here,” laughs Iggy Pop. “But that whole Sinatra thing was always there. For the new album, which I spent three years doing, I spent a lot of time listening to those Bel Canto recordings. There was an essence of something that I particularly liked in those records. The tough guy, the woman who’s somehow in control, but from a distance.
“I was building towards this record for a long time. That Shaken and Stirred James Bond thing [a collaboration with David Arnold in which Iggy crooned through “Wonderful World”] was kind of a precursor to this. In fact I’ve taken on a couple of little projects over the past couple of years just to see how I would do. Basically, I just thought that, at this stage in the game, if I’m going to put my face and name on the cover of an album, there needed to be something representative of where I am now. And this really ruled out working in any other standard contemporary genres.”
The point where Iggy Pop is just now, it would seem, is post mid-life crisis. Just as with his old friend and collaborator Bowie, the past few years of Iggy’s career have been marked out by endless attempts to recapture the essence of his youth. In Bowie’s case this has taken the shape of explorations into jungle, out rock, avant garde – anything to help him rediscover his early career. Likewise, Iggy Pop has frequently searched out that old thrash attack of his youth, culminating in the largely workmanlike rock-outs of the album Naughty Little Doggie.
“Well, yes, you could say there has been an element of mid-life crisis, sure. And I’ve enjoyed it,” he says. “But there was another element here. I needed to understand aspects of myself as I turned 50. My relationships with other people, and with myself. I’m not what you would call a gregarious person. I like people, but I’ve enjoyed my time away from people.”
This “time away” is another underlying theme to Avenue B. Throughout the three years that he took to record the album he lived in self-imposed exile. He moved from New York to Miami (as a direct result of an ongoing amicable divorce from his wife) and, as he explains in the opening track, “No Shit”, “became strangely bookish”. There is a sense that with this album Iggy Pop has come through an experience that might once have forced him to check into his nearest psychiatric unit.
“It’s true I once needed the institution to do it for me, but now I am capable of reflection on my own terms,” he admits. However, the fact that many of the album’s lyrics suggest that his state of mind is down to women – mostly half his age – brings us back to that good old mid-life crisis.
“It’s really all about how I perceive myself through these women, which is what we all do, actually. We’re living in times of total self-analysis where we are being told that everything is OK. You have a self-help guru, or a religious guy or a shrink, and they’ll tell you that anything you want is all right: love yourself, modern relationships and their ins and outs…” he says, digressing into one of his rambling invectives, “… let’s have barriers, kids without parents, but you’re not actually learning anything about yourself or others, you’re just learning pop psychology. I think of women as mirrors on my own psychosis. It’s simple really.
“But there is an element of myself as the distant figure, observing others as a way of observing myself. I’m not your classic playboy. It’s a thrill to meet somebody that I turn out to like but my usual MO is that of `loner’. I like meeting people when it’s not empty.”
So has the Iggy of old mellowed in his old age? Should we be preparing ourselves for the Unplugged album?
“Not at all,” he laughs. “There was a guy called Lester Bangs who once wrote `Iggy Pop is trying to manage the Apocalypse; you cannot manage the Apocalypse’. I say `Why not?’ Hey, let’s give it a shot and see how it rolls. I’m not doing anything else on Tuesday, so let’s see how it feels to manage the Apocalypse. I’m still working this one out.”
`Avenue B’ is out on 20 September (Virgin)