Iggy Pop

Metro, April 16

Iggy Pop has certainly come a long way since the late 60s and early 70s when he fronted the Stooges in shows around southern Michigan–shows I still kick myself for missing. He contorted himself across the stage and covered himself with peanut butter and raw meat and cut himself with broken glass and bled all over the stage and dived into the crowd and generally carried on like a nut–excuse me, like a shaman. How come I, a rabid fan growing up in the conveniently located state capital of Lansing, never went to see him? Because I was a wimp. My high school buddies thought me very odd for actually liking the Stooges’ 1970 LP Fun House, because they all agreed with the conventional wisdom that the Stooges couldn’t play. Sure, they were a popular live act, but even many of their fans tended to regard them more as a freak show than a band, and certainly inferior to such other fine Michigan-based acts as SRC, the Frost, the MC5, Terry Knight and the Pack, Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, and the Bob Seger System. So to avoid ridicule I kept my mouth shut, listened to Fun House alone at home, and never found anyone willing to take me to Detroit or Ann Arbor to see the Stooges. And I was too young to drive.

Iggy is still with us, having done away with the peanut butter and raw meat, but leaving much of the rest of his act intact, if somewhat more disciplined and structured. The times have caught up with him, and he who once seemed so unutterably bizarre is now smack in the center of mainstream pop-music culture. He’s accepted as one of the avatars of punk rock, Fun House is acknowledged as an enduring classic, and the stage-diving he invented has become an “alternative rock” cliche. And although Iggy has succeeded in transforming himself from the wild, druggy-eyed King of the Slag Heap of the late 60s to a sober, responsible homebody with offstage enthusiasms for Chaucer and vacuuming his apartment, that just makes him seem more interesting, not less.

The best news about Iggy these days is that he’s artistically back after several years of lackluster output, winding down to the shrill and depressing American Caesar (1993), in which he resorted to exhausted blues changes and even a lame, clattery rendition of “Louie Louie” to push the CD to an unnecessary 71 minutes; the only noteworthy moments are chunks of out-and-out weirdness such as a spoken piece in which Iggy identifies with the jaded Roman emperor who sneeringly orders Christians to be thrown to the lions. Cynical isn’t quite the word for it; the whole album bleeds bitterness.

But in the two or three years since Caesar some door seems to have sprung open in Iggy’s brain and allowed fresh air to pour in. His new Naughty Little Doggie is a focused piece of work, a powerful return to form that makes hackwork like Caesar easy to forgive and forget. The songs on Doggie sound like he worked a lot harder on them; what might otherwise have become long rambling jams and vamps are focused into tightly constructed pop tunes, ten in all, that unapologetically betray Iggy’s enduring connection to the 1960s. “Knucklehead” is his powerhouse rewrite of the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud,” and one section of his “To Belong” sounds remarkably like the “I can’t hide” bridge in the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I wouldn’t suggest that Iggy appropriated these bits consciously, though it’s possible he did, and at any rate they’re well enough integrated into his compositions that one doesn’t notice until after hearing each song several times. There’s also “Pussy Walk,” in which Iggy revels in the wonderfulness of having a healthy sex drive, and “I Wanna Live,” which lays down the album’s central theme just as nakedly and catchily as you could wish. The band rages and screams, Iggy snarls and croons, and the album clocks out at a concise 40:26, little more than half a CD’s capacity and about the length of a 1960s vinyl LP. It all suggests that Iggy’s concerned less with being “modern” than with sticking to what he knows and does best. Call it cautiously conservative if you like, but I’d rather think that the album’s concision and classicism bespeak the artist’s renewed confidence in a tradition he helped create, a kind of assurance that may be a bit more difficult to maintain when you’re pushing 50.

And yes, age inevitably becomes an issue. Not because Iggy makes it one, but because so much of the rock culture seems to make it one. Rock and roll is, after all, essentially a childish form of expression that lends itself to temper tantrums and impulsive screams more than to reflective examinations of Yahweh’s clockwork universe–and as such it has always been dominated by younger artists. Especially since the late-1970s rise of punk rock, younger rock musicians and critics have consistently tended to put down older-school rockers as creaky old bores overstaying their welcome. This in itself is nothing new–it used to happen in jazz too, with post-World War II beboppers denigrating veterans of the swing era as “moldy figs” and worse. But it presents any rocker over 40 with a challenge he or she can’t afford to ignore.

So when Iggy took the stage at Metro one week before his 49th birthday, he proceeded to command it like a man with something to prove. Ripping through 19 songs drawn mostly from his albums of the 60s and 70s, including 5 from Doggie, he made his capable 30-ish backing band look like a bunch of tired geezers. It was a remarkable performance not just for someone pushing 50, but for anyone. The man is simply one of the all-time great rock-and-roll showmen, and though he’s nominally a singer, his live show is less about singing than all-out expression of the rock-and-roll spirit.

Iggy is still a hell of a dancer, and his dancing is essentially free, improvised movement: like a good jazz musician, he uses a certain amount of technique to execute ideas that bubble up from a preconscious center of invention, and these resolve themselves into a continous organic flow. But as much as I enjoy this stuff, I’m under no illusion that it’s anything like those over-the-top Stooges shows I so stupidly missed back in the early 70s.

Still, it may be a whole lot more life-affirming. In the 70s Iggy seemed bent on nihilistic self-destruction, but now whenever he dry humps a guitar amp, cheerfully smashes a microphone stand, or gracefully hammers himself across the stage on his heels like a flamenco gypsy, he’s quite unambiguously celebrating life. I usually can’t help being suspicious of those who put too much stock in dance as some sort of Dionysian celebration of the mighty earth-flesh. “Come back when you’re 78, when everything aches and you’re wrinkled and coughing and it’s a struggle just to walk down the street,” I want to say, “and then tell me how much you still celebrate the mighty earth-flesh.” But certainly you can celebrate the body as an evanescent snowflake in the unfolding of aeons, and if you’re going to do that, well, you may as well jack it to a big rock beat. The fact that Iggy’s doing this at 49 means that he’s celebrating not with the dumb arrogance of a pretty 24-year-old who thinks he’s indestructible, but with a craggy awareness that the body still working OK today will nonetheless fall apart on him someday. In the show’s most chilling moment he prowled across the stage as the band pounded away at the coda to “Five Foot One,” and suddenly screamed, “LIFE! LIFE! LIFE!” It was really just another way of saying “DEATH! DEATH! DEATH!” In other words, we’d damn well better appreciate our ability to breathe and move, because life is short and death is waiting with a patient little grin.

Does all this life-affirmation stuff mean we should infer that Iggy thinks it’s foolish to commit suicide like, say, Kurt Cobain? Well, not quite. Check what he told the crowd before singing “Look Away,” his new song about the dissipated life and stupid death of the infamous Johnny Thunders: “Sooner or later, everyone has to grow up or die. But I don’t really blame the ones who die, because either way you get fuckin’ nicked up for sure.”

So life is good, life sucks, and all you can do is punch your way through it. One highlight of the show was Iggy’s new rendition of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which originally appeared on the first Stooges album (1969). Of course the song climaxed quite fittingly with his diving into the crowd and crawling around on top of their outstretched hands as the entire club swelled into a pounding throb of noise, strobe lights flashing, guitars wailing, music and electricity and postindustrial alienation fusing into an overblown ritual of meaninglessness. And of course it felt good. The music throbbed harder and harder, and you throbbed with it until finally you could only take in the whole scene and reflect that here certainly was a piece of genuine Americana, an essential and enduring image of the late 20th century.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.