By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Pop--or James Osterberg, as his parents named him forty-some years ago--first came up with the idea of communicating directly with listeners from Henry Rollins, the punk impresario who makes a guest appearance on Iggy's genuinely impressive new album, American Caesar. After admiring the quarterly newsletter Rollins has been churning out over the past several years, Pop boldly imprinted the surface of the Caesar disc with a handwritten message: "If you want to know more about me, write me and I'll reply."
"I thought once a month I'd write a generalized prose poem about the feelings that I was going through and send out copies," Pop says. "But of the first five letters I got, three of them said, `If you fucking send me a fucking mimeographed sheet, you're a complete shit. Don't you dare.'"
And so Pop made a personal commitment to write a personalized letter to anyone who bothered to write to him, without regard to how many people might take him up on his offer. Since then, plenty have. "A month or five weeks ago, I'd received five or six hundred letters. But I was just home in New York for a few days, and my manager brought many large boxes stuffed with mail," he says, chuckling. "I just kind of gasped."
Given this onslaught, few would blame Pop for reneging on his pledge; after all, even in the unlikely event that no more letters arrive, it may well take years for him to answer the ones already in his possession. But Pop is not a man known for taking the easy way out. As both the leader of the late, lamented Stooges, which some observers have dubbed the original punk band, and a solo artist known for work so unflinching that it sometimes verges on the embarrassing, he has built a reputation for doing what he says he will do, consequences be damned. He may not have given a lot of thought to the repercussions of his actions in this case, but he knows that's no excuse. Besides, he says he's enjoying his new hobby. "In the kind of work I do, there are a lot of lull periods, where there's nothing really constructive I could do," he concedes. "And I real don't want to watch the TV or read Tom Clancy novels. So the letters are good company." He adds that the mail he's received thus far has been marked by what he calls "some degree of seriousness and diginity. Whereas fifteen or twenty years ago, I'd get letters where somebody would send me a photo of the bottom half of their naked body and write something like, `I want to barf in your ear.' So things have really changed."
To say the least. When Pop first rose to prominence on the music scene, he was the prototypical rebel boy, a snotty Dionysus whose reckless pursuit of pleasure and open expression would have left a lesser man dead. The Stooges--the late-Sixties lineup included bassist Dave Alexander and brothers Ron and Scott Asheton on guitar and drums, respectively--were known for absurdly energetic live shows during which Pop often would risk life and limb in the name of entertainment. This is a man known for (sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally) slashing his arms and/or torso during performances, yet refusing to leave the stage even as blood collected in pools at his feet.
"There were times when there was definitely a cause for alarm, and times when I was alarmed," he admits. "Not often, but several times--and those times would generally involve altercations or drugs. I think the worst was once when I took a psychedelic after not taking one for a long time. We were playing this old ballroom, and when I got out there, I looked at the ceiling, and the ceiling suddenly was so much more interesting than what I was doing. The band would start one song after another, and I'd say, `That song is stupid. I don't want to sing that.' So then they'd play another one, and I'd say the same thing. We went through my whole repertoire, and I didn't like any of them. So I said, `I'll see you guys later,' and tried to walk off--but my tour manager pushed me back, saying, `You've got to last at least 55 minutes or you won't get paid.' So I went back out there, but only because he wouldn't let me leave."
In between these self-destructive shenanigans, Pop actually managed to make more than his share of astounding music. The Stooges, released by Elektra, was highlighted by "1969" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," a pair of pre-metal classics, and production by John Cale, whose group the Velvet Underground had a large influence on Iggy. This work was followed by 1970's Funhouse, an even more abrasive and startling broadside, and 1973's aptly titled Raw Power. Not long thereafter, the Stooges went up in smoke, and Pop dived headlong into a personal odyssey of lechery and degradation that took place mainly in Berlin. His co-conspirator during this period was David Bowie, who resurrected Pop's career by producing for him a trio of albums issued by RCA: 1977's The Idiot, an effective slab of weirdness, yet one that sounds more like a Bowie album than anything else; the more typical and more enjoyable Lust For Life, released the same year; and 1978's TV Eye, a lousy live album.
These recordings put Pop back on the music map just as the growing importance of the punk and new-wave movements established him as a innovator. However, this designation did not prevent his subsequent recordings from ranging wildly in quality. He made three not-very-good discs for Arista, one quixotic, frequently laughable one (1982's Zombie Birdhouse) for the ill-fated Animal imprint, and two more uneven platters for A&M. If not for a new deal with Virgin Records and a pair of moderately successful singles ("Something Wild" and "Candy," the latter a duet with the B-52s' Kate Pierson), Pop currently might be little more than a trivia question. Instead, thanks to American Caesar, he's in the middle of a career renaissance. The album perfectly encapsulates all that's good about Pop; it features musically raucous punk ("Wild America," "Hate"), lyrical nakedness ("Jealousy," "Fuckin' Alone"), inspired lunacy ("Caesar," a twisted rewrite of "Louie Louie") and, on "Mixin' the Colors," an upbeat salute to the trend toward mixed marriages. Pop points to the latter when countering those observers who've pegged him as a nihilist.
"The people who have grafted words like `nihilist' on rock and roll are the people who didn't like rock and roll in the first place," he says. "I mean, can you picture someone going to a Gene Vincent gig and saying, `Man, that tune was pretty nihilistic'? Or someone telling Chuck Berry, `Hey, Chuck, I think Johnny B. Goode must have been a pretty nihilistic guy, because he just liked to sit by the railroad tracks, and he never did anything for himself until his mother told him to'? There's a whole fake-positive side to rock and roll now that is completely destructive. It cheapens the issues it pretends to uphold, and it depresses people who know they're being lied to. That's why, if I do one thing, I tell the truth."
Not that Iggy is perfect. In responding to a recent letter from a 23-year-old woman who was wondering if she should quit her soul-draining job because of her hypocritical co-workers, Pop says, "I told her that I'm in show business, and some of my standards aren't as high as they might appear. About half the time I push to meet my standards, and the other half I sit back and laugh at how ridiculous it is for me to impose these standards on myself anyway. So I told her to push a little and give a little." He laughs before adding, "And don't quit your day job."
Pop is taking his own advice, but he's also branching out. In addition to writing music, he's also freelancing articles for publications such as Details and Interview. "And I wrote an advice column for Sassy," he says. "So maybe I should be glad I'm getting all these letters. It's good practice."
Iggy Pop, with Chainsaw Kittens. 8 p.m. Thursday, March 10, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18.50, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.