Iggy Pop: A Work in Progress

At 70 years old, the godfather of punk is making a late-career bid for mainstream credibility.

Iggy Pop Feature

“If you manage to live this long, that’s OK; you want to live longer, but at the same time you don’t want to do that just for the sake of breathing,” punk rock superstar Iggy Pop told Rolling Stone just before his 70th birthday last year. “But it’s really do a little bit here, do a little bit there, and try to be a decent hang.”

Certainly, Pop has been a decent-enough hang for millions of fans around the world for the past half-century, releasing 24 studio albums, six live albums, three compilation albums, nearly 50 singles, and countless collaborations. And the “Godfather of Punk Rock” is still in top creative form, with a recent rock album, a making-of documentary, and several box-busting collaborations with the likes of French jazz artists, American soul musicians, and Malian punk-blues bands.

Regarding his more recent boundary-pushing musical endeavors, Pop, “still [has] that ‘let’s try this and see what happens’ thing,” he told Rolling Stone. “I’ve never lost that since way, way early. Even when I was in the high school cover band: ‘Let’s do this backwards and see what happens,’ or ‘How ‘bout if I have a 16-foot drum riser!’ You know, whatever. Just try some stuff. That’s what I’m doin’.”

The legacy of that high school cover band, The Iguanas, lives on in Pop’s name, along with that lifelong affinity for the new and untried. Famous for popularizing the stage dive and rolling around shirtless in broken glass as a member of the punk rock powerhouse, The Stooges, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pop is also known for defining the seminal American punk rock sound of the era, with his straightforward lyrics, gut-punch delivery, and unabashedly experimental acoustics and instrumentation. At the time, Pop was also way past the experimental stage with his addiction to heroin. Enter the Thin White Duke.

Twentieth-century music and style icon David Bowie, barely four months Pop’s senior, “salvaged [him] from certain professional and maybe personal annihilation—simple as that,” Pop told the New York Times shortly after Bowie’s shocking death from liver cancer in 2016. “He resurrected me. He was more of a benefactor than a friend in a way most people think of friendship. He went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on me.”

Both stars fought their drug addictions during the 1970s while building their careers, collaborating on Pop’s first two solo albums after separating from The Stooges: The Idiot and Lust for Life. Pop studied Bowie’s professionalism and discipline in the studio and on the road, while also encouraging the British singer, songwriter, and actor to venture a bit outside of his own sandbox. “[Bowie] said, ‘I can’t put out a record with [a cheap synthesizer and a drum machine].’ I said, ‘But I can.’”

Iggy Pop

Gimme Danger photo-call during the Cannes Film Festival in 2016.

But I Can

After another 35 years of career ups and downs, including a reunion with The Stooges and a permanent move from New York City to Miami, Pop is still playing in other sandboxes. He once said that people believe, “by subscribing to a particular kind of music you have joined a political party,” and he credits his musically astute parents back in suburban Detroit for introducing him to “everything from Floyd Cramer to Debussy to Sinatra’s September of My Years.”

This early eclecticism has most certainly influenced Pop’s forays into jazz, starting with the 2009 album Préliminaires, a mélange of jazz, rock, and blues. “I got a call to contribute something to a movie about [French author and filmmaker] Michel Houellebecq,” Pop told Rolling Stone in a 2017 interview. “[T]hat project became Préliminaires…suddenly there I was singing ‘Autumn Leaves’ in French, and growing, in a way.”

“Practice makes perfect, and it’s good to do different stuff if you’re lucky enough. Especially in my vintage,” Pop told Rolling Stone, and practice he did, releasing an album of French jazz and rock covers in 2012 called Après. His label at the time, Virgin EMI Records, refused to back the project. “They didn’t think they would make any money,” he said in the Telegraph. “They didn’t think my fans would like it—very sensible attitudes for a sensible sort of person—but that’s a different sort of person than I am.” The album has since become a sleeper fan favorite, with Bob Dylan even offering kudos.

Real American Hero

“They say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes,’” mused Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme in a 2017 Billboard interview. “Well, that’s not true, not for me…I believe he is not just one in a million; he’s got to be one in a hundred million.” Homme and Pop collaborated—in secret—on what would become one of 2016’s most lauded albums, Post Pop Depression.

Sparked by a text message exchange that became a meeting of creative minds, the pair teamed up with musicians Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys in the California desert to produce the self-financed album. “We paid for whatever ourselves,” Pop told the New York Times in 2016. “But it was made to be heard—not to be some quirky thing that we did with our own money, ha-ha.”

Post Pop Depression ranked among the Top 50 albums of 2016 for Rolling Stone, the Guardian, the Independent, and British music publication NME, and scored a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. It was also Pop’s highest charting album in the United States, debuting at No. 17 on the Billboard 200. Homme described the project as picking up where Lust for Life left off, while Pop explained the album’s theme to the New York Times as, “What happens after your years of service? And where is the honor?”

But the honor continued to be the fans, as Post Pop Depression spawned a 20-city tour through North America and Europe, a live album recorded during the London concert, and American Valhalla, a feature-length documentary film about the making of the album and subsequent tour, which appeared in cinemas last summer. Not one to be easily worn out, Pop also posed nude for a group of art students in New York, participated in a documentary about The Stooges called Gimme Danger, and contributed to the book, Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges/As Told by Iggy Pop, all in 2016.

Connecting with the Things

“I don’t expect to use the album form anytime soon,” Pop told Billboard in 2017, “but I hope I can do some singing or talking or writing that appeals to me.” He has expressed that sentiment several times, though also expressing his desire to work with Homme again and pursue other artistic outlets. But it was his desire for out-of-the-box creation that led to Pop’s most recent collaboration as a featured vocalist on last year’s well, album, Loneliness Road, by jazz musicians Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow, and Bobby Previte.

When the trio sent Pop three songs to review before agreeing to work together, his initial excitement to tackle all three turned to trepidation. “What have I done? How am I gonna do that?” he remembered. Even the greats can be gripped, however temporarily, by fear. “So, I went in and did them, and they were basically first-take on each one. I was a little surprised at how feeble I sounded on certain parts of it, but I thought that was OK. I thought, just let it be what it is.”

Indeed, Pop’s voice does waver a bit on the album, but the vulnerability of his vocals, particularly on the closing love song “Everyday,” is palpable and fitting. Pop attributes this willingness to be vulnerable and explore new territory to listening intently to the music. “Listening very, very carefully is an art,” he told Rolling Stone. “Sometimes it’s just like cooking an egg—there’s steps you gotta do to get to know it—but at other points you’ve got to do it in a state of extreme enjoyment, almost bliss, to allow something to happen, to come out of yourself, to connect with the thing.”

Connecting with the thing, through personal and professional highs and lows for seven decades, seems to be Pop’s strongest suit; he has connected with millions of fans worldwide and collaborated with several hundred master musicians like himself, often from other genres of music. When asked his thoughts about reaching that particular temporal milestone last April, Pop told Rolling Stone, “I just want to continue working and reacting to the world around me and enjoying bearing witness to this beautiful Earth.”

But it’s the reaction from the world around Pop that is the most telling. “One of my favorite parts of his set is watching young people watch Iggy,” wrote rocker and activist Henry Rollins in LA Weekly, after catching Pop’s high-energy—and shirtless—performance at last year’s FYF music festival in Los Angeles. “It’s so cool to see so many smiling faces. Iggy is 70. He is history, a work in progress and a living artistic statement.”

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