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Iggy Pop

A Beast Tamed?

Aug 03, 2009 Iggy Pop Photography by Xavier Martin Bookmark and Share

At 62, Iggy Pop is the last wild man of rock ‘n’ roll standing, and rarely standing still. The reunited Stooges toured as recently as last fall, performing with all the fierce energy you want from the band that arguably created punk rock in the late ‘60s. Despite the death of Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton in January, Pop says that there are even odds that the band will persevere, meaning that his depraved persona, a sinewy beast in jeans and shoes, may well be seen again.

But there’s another side to James Newell Osterberg, one that was fostered by David Bowie in the late ‘70s, when Pop’s music became slightly more focused and refined, and his lyrics drew from literature.

“Have you ever heard one called ‘Lust for Life?’” asks Pop, yelling over the sound of a Homeland Security helicopter hovering above his Miami home. Both the character “Johnny N” and the line about “hypnotizing chickens” are borrowed from Burroughs, he explains, while his 1977 album The Idiot is the namesake of the Dostoyevsky novel, as well as an in-joke for those who knew him at the time. “They said that if I came up with a decent album, I’d be a savant,” he says.

Michel Houellebecq is partly responsible for Pop’s new album, Préliminaires, inspired by the French author’s 2005 novel, The Possibility of an Island.

“It had soul, but it also spoke to me on the level of common experience,” says Pop. “I’d been to the same airports, I’d dealt with the same media executives, I’d had the same relationship shocks when I was around 50; I had a similar career profile to the protagonist, a comedian who makes the fatal error of retiring with his money.”

A year after Pop first read the dystopian story, he was contacted by Flemish filmmakers requesting music for their documentary about the making of its film adaptation, directed by the author himself. Apparently Houellebecq had been a fan ever since he heard The Stooges’ “1969.”

“France was the only place on Earth to put out a single from our first record,” says Pop. “They might as well have told me that it was being played on the moon at that point.”

Shortly after accepting the soundtrack challenge, Pop reconnected with Hal Cragin, a producer who’d played on some of his ‘90s albums and had saved Pop’s discarded rendition of the standard “Les Feuilles Mortes” (“Autumn Leaves”). Cragin and Pop re-recorded the track, which set the tone for the rest of Préliminaires, 10 new songs more akin to French balladry and American blues and jazz than punk, New Wave, or metal. Though he only consulted the novel once while writing the record, to lift lyrics for “A Machine for Loving,” Pop drew from its narrative and emotional core, and from rushes of the Houellebecq documentary.

“He impressed me as a lonesome, vulnerable figure with a very sharp intellect. I had a song up that alley that had been sitting around for a year and I was always despondent—I’m an artsy type so I get that way over things—that the song would never have an outlet in my rock oeuvre. But here was this opportunity.”

“I Wanna Go to the Beach” is the song in question, a downbeat number in the spirit of Houellebecq’s nihilistic ennui, as well as Pop’s “present interior,” worn down from all that he dislikes about showbiz: “An excess of travel, a surfeit of privacy, a certain tremolo that’s imposed upon all your friends and your family, the nausea that comes with dealing with the public. It’s all part of the job. I have no problem with it, per se; I’m just at a point in my life right now where I need a strategic withdrawal.”

To that end, there’ll be no tour for Préliminaires, though Pop has performed many of its songs in duets with a wide range of singers for French TV, and plans to record more of the same in the coming months. Both the Houellebecq documentary featuring his music, Last Words, and the film within that film, The Possibility of an Island, were released last year-the former was praised, the latter widely panned. But Pop is busy with other film work, playing the role of Death in the next animated film by graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame), who produced the artwork for Préliminaires. He also plays a part in a Canadian rock ‘n’ roll vampire movie called Suck, due later this year. After his recent appearance in a British car insurance ad campaign that was banned due to the company’s policy of not insuring musicians, he’s going to choose his ad gigs very carefully, if at all.

As for the big picture, Pop’s volatile life has presented many opportunities to burn out, but as an elder statesman of rock still capable of surprising the public with his versatility, he’s content to take the path most chosen.

“Eventually, I hope to be entirely unavailable, even ‘under the radar,’” he says, laughing. “I just sorta wanna fade out. But I’m not in a hurry. That would be unwise.”


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