'I did debauch myself to achieve that look': Iggy Pop looks back to his iconic 1970s heyday
Iggy Pop is rock music's wildest free spirit. In an exclusive interview, he discusses the iconic photos that made the legend.
Iggy Pop is here to talk pictures. It is 40 years since the British photographer Mick Rock shot the images that adorned the front and back covers of the legendary performer's stop-you-in-your-tracks album Raw Power. And Iggy is here to talk about them. He is, his people have insisted, not to mention either David Bowie's recent comeback or the new record he has been working on. But Iggy is Iggy and within 15 minutes he has brought up both. Even now, just a few months shy of his 66th birthday, Iggy Pop is not a man who can be constrained.
He greets you with a Joey-from-Friends-style "How you doin'?" and – unusual this from a bona-fide rock star – actually waits for an answer. It is a bright winter's day in Miami and Pop has agreed to this one interview because Foruli – a British publishing company that has carved out a niche in high-end books on rock'n'roll subjects – is commemorating the 40th anniversary of Raw Power by issuing a set of pictures of Iggy in his pomp, shot by Mick Rock, and hand-signed by the pair of them.
So how did we get from hell-raising, punk-inventing, drug-abusing, torso-baring, lock-up-your-daughters rock god to a series of limited-edition art prints?
Pop cackles a hyena-like "Hehehehe. Well, you know," he says, "I did really debauch myself to achieve a visual at the time, so I thought, that's fair enough. I like the words, the lyrics, and we put those together with the pictures and then they wanted me to sign them in a certain way. I said, 'OK, but you'll have to bring a certain amount of cash and I want to see it in the room before I sign them.' So there was a good, sordid street-level aspect to this thing, too.
"Look, the [Foruli] guy does good work. He puts out some very nice limited-edition books and he gave me the one he did on Elektra [Pop's original record label] and he's the kind of guy who hands you the book and tells you, 'This is bound in sacred cowhide, but it died naturally.' I'm like, 'Did you bring the cash?' Hahahahahahaha."
What can you tell us about the time and place these pictures were taken?
"Well, Mick Rock was very well-mannered and he didn't make a big splash in your space. All the pictures that were not on stage [at the London Scala in 1972], were done in a dirty little hole that was a basement under a derelict building in Fulham where we'd rehearse. Mick would bring down three or four aluminium spotlights and one camera and we'd show him our pimply personalities."
Can you still relate to the young man with the burning eyes in those shots?
"It's not too alien, looking back. I'm only now losing a little bit of the kamikaze sense of mission that that person had. At the time I really felt I had to convert the world, through the sword if necessary, and I was probably going to die one way or another in the process."
Pop and his band, the Stooges, had ended up living in west London because David Bowie, a fan and friend, had encouraged him to try his luck in the UK after Pop had been dropped by the aforementioned Elektra, his American record label. "So we were living in Fulham and you'd turn on the TV or radio and I think it was Jimmy Savile, or this succession of awful creeps with insinuating voices, would come on and say, 'Hi mums, here's the new one from Elton' or whatever. These people peddling this horrible showbiz crap. The game was sewed up so that nothing any good could get in. So we were on a mission – partly to get people to get with it and partly to get there ourselves. I had somebody I wanted to be, a way I wanted to look, and a way I wanted to sound and it had nothing to do with having 10 quid in my pocket."
The historical document of this time is Raw Power, the result of a period in Pop's life which he can look back on today and reflect that he was "an awful, nasty, horrible, destructive, self-centred prick with a pair of silver leather pants". Do you still have those trousers? "No. I sold them to somebody for dope many years ago." Would you buy them back now you've got a buck or two in your pocket? "Nah. It's the dick in the pants not the pants on the dick. Hahahahahahahaha!"
It is a conversation about the sort of person who might buy one of the Foruli prints ("That's not my area… Depends on their rug and couch… Is there blood on your rug…?") that leads to the first of our forbidden subjects. Pop is telling me about the time, a few years back, when he was working on a record with the Guns'N'Roses guitarist Slash and had been put up at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. "I was astounded and shocked," he says. "The hotel had been redone and there was this huge picture over my bed of Ziggy Stardust. The room was a little small, so I asked for a change and they upgraded me to a room with an even bigger picture of Lou Reed with a bottle of pills!"
It must have felt like your life was flashing in front of you. "Exactly, exactly."
So you can understand the desire to hang this sort of rock art on your walls… "I actually have a small home here that I don't share with anyone. I live elsewhere, you know I'm married [his third wife is Nina Alu, who Pop has been in a relationship with since the early Noughties] and have a lot of wonderful little animals and things like that. But I've also got a place where I go to be a shit. And I have pictures there of me and Lou romping and one of me with the Thin White Duke… you know, pictures from various periods of what I've done. So I do it."
Now look, I wasn't going to bring it up, because in the media feeding frenzy following the release of Bowie's comeback single last month every newspaper and magazine in the Western world was trying to hunt down any former musical associate to seek out their opinion. But since you mention it, what do you think of "Where Are We Now?". "I've been working on my own album and I haven't heard it yet, but I'll check it out when I get the chance."
Have you spoken to each other recently? "He called me down here about 10 years ago. There were a couple of projects but I couldn't do them so we just had a really great chat. You know, 'How are you? What have you been doing? Married? Girlfriend? This, that, blah blah blah.' We haven't spoken since. Which is fine. I think he's probably been doing a hell of a lot over the past 10 years that's none of anybody's business. He has done nothing publicly and I think that's great and hats off to him. That's kind of where I'm heading hopefully. I'm sick of talking to guys like you. And I don't mean that in a nasty way."
Mick Rock has gained himself a reputation as "The Man Who Shot the Seventies", but the British photographer is quick to point out that, "It's not that I got the best pictures of that time, I got the only pictures of that time." The young modern languages and literature Cambridge graduate had bonded with Bowie over the pictures he had taken of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett and it was through Bowie that he met Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. "It all happened so quickly," he says from his home in Staten Island, New York. "I met Bowie in March , 'Starman' was released in April, Ziggy came out in June and I met Iggy in July."
Rock and Pop's (and yes, that might be considered contrived if Rock didn't happen to be the photographer's real name) first encounter was at a vegetarian restaurant in west London where Bowie's management had organised a dinner reception for the visiting American. The restaurant was, the photographer remembers, "mostly frequented by people who had over-experimented".
Bowie had encountered Pop and Lou Reed the previous autumn/winter in New York, but their work – with the Stooges and the Velvet Underground respectively – was not then widely known. "There was this thing back then called the underground," says Rock, "and only those people who thought of themselves as hip knew about Iggy and Lou."
Which means that when Rock shot the cover of Raw Power and, soon after, the cover of Reed's breakthough album Transformer at the same London venue, there were only a few hundred people in the audience. So how did Rock come to know about them? "At university I had been obsessed with reading about the lives of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and I was steeped in the crazy poets and I came to view my early subjects through that prism."
Although Pop is on record as saying that he wrote the lyrics to Raw Power's opening track, "Search and Destroy", while sitting under a tree in Kensington Gardens snorting rocks of Chinese heroin, Rock never saw what he calls "the death drug" in any of the time he spent with the singer. "My understanding was that he'd come to England to dry out," he says, "and he certainly wasn't doing heroin when I spent time with him. It wasn't quite as easy to get hold of in England then and I think he was more articulate and cerebral than people appreciated. But he did have a fury in him. He was very physical on stage and he had a dark undertow. All the punk bands that came after paled compared with what Iggy was doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He defined and owned punk rock and I think he still does. I was and am fascinated and impressed by him. He's a one-off."
Did Rock realise then that his pictures of that period would have this longevity? "Not at all. There was a sense that we were living out the last days of rock'n'roll. The idea that I would still be taking pictures of musicians and that Iggy would still be out there performing… But it turns out that constitutionally these people were tougher than they or other people thought. And I'm delighted. These are people for whose creativity I have a deep and abiding respect and who have had a major influence on culture. Plus, Iggy is still a fantastic photographic subject."
Iggy Pop – whose most successful album in the UK is called Lust for Life – is thinking of naming his new album, due out the day after his 66th birthday, Ready to Die. "It's got the energy," he says, "but it's different. It's a little older. But at least this particular group [the Stooges] have not done too much in the interim so it's not as if we've had 17 crappy albums squeezed out of us. So that gives us a bit of a boost."
Can he still do the backflips he performed so memorably for Mick Rock all those years ago? "Hell no. I was still pretty flexi up until the late 1990s, but I stopped being able to do those around the time EMI and Virgin started putting out all these compilations and the movies and the corporations started using my music and I started sneaking on the radio. That was when I turned into a stiff, an old cadaver."
Almost as if mainstream acceptance sucked the life out of him. "You know it did. But I was older, too."
Could life be about to begin at 40 for the still-challenging Raw Power? "You know, I've never known what was going to happen with that record. In the studio, I knew that it was something special. On the other hand, within a year it was in the 39 cent bin in a used-record store in Hollywood. It's come a long way and I'd be really curious to know what they'd think of it in the Islamic Maghreb. Though it's hard to get vinyl down there, I'd imagine. Hehehehe."
We talk about why Pop moved to Florida ("privacy, remove and physical regeneration") and he then proffers an opinion of New York City today that, for the first time, becomes if not incoherent, then at least a little involved – concerning, as it does, something he calls the pyramid of various ethnic groups and servants and overlords.
When he's finished, I joke that I'm glad this is him mellowed. "You know," he says, "it's good for me down here and I'm kinda step by step approaching what I call that Ted Turner moment: which is where you have somebody who founded something or did something and it's creeping towards becoming an institution and the originator's kind of in the way. What I'm saying is that it's more fun to look at an old picture of me than it is to look at a new one sometimes. Although, I still wear a dress pretty well.
"In some ways," he continues, "it was easier back then. Living in England was wonderfully civil and easy-going. It was quieter back then, it was easier to have a rock band, harder to have long hair but easier to be unemployed. Now everybody's maybe a little more hardbitten. I'm not exactly a social pundit…"
And presumably, the lyrics to his new album were not written while snorting heroin? "Naw, I wish! Hahahahaha. I'm not up to it, mate."
The Stooges album is due out on 22 April. The Foruli art prints are available from 20 February at foruli.co.uk
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