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The saga of one man's lust for life


You see it in every bit of gristle and sinew and throbbing vein. Every swing of his thin, fine hair, matted with sweat and spraying the first five rows with his every gyration. He smells like cigarettes and sex, a cartoon of a man, tightly sculpted as if in wax into full, three-dimensional relief. He is raw power. He is Iggy Pop. Born in 1947 in Ann Arbor, MI, Pop, considered a godfather to the world of punk and college rock via his work with the seminal band The Stooges, entered into the world of music rather breathlessly. Literally.

At age five, in order to fight against his ever-increasing asthma problems, the young Pop (then James Newel Osterberg) start playing drums. Whether it affected his asthma is unknown, but he evidently liked the experience enough to play the drums for the next 10 years before hooking up at his high school with some friends to form the band The Iguanas. At this point, James picked up the nickname "Iggy," short for Iguana, partly due to the name of the group, and partly because of his strained, gaunt posture behind the skins.

In 1966, The Iguanas released their first record, titled Mona. Iggy and his pals had fallen hard for a new band called The Doors, it seems. His lust for life already pulsing, Iggy also joined a band called The Prime Movers in the same year, a blues band featuring his future best friend and Stooges bandmate-to-be Ron Asheton.

By 1968, Iggy had left Michigan for Chicago, where he played drums for the better part of the year with some famous (and some not-so-famous) bluesmen; these included Michael Bloomfield, who would tutor Iggy in band dynamics and composing when not performing.

Iggy soon came back to Ann Arbor, where he convinced Asheton to play guitar with him. Ron's bother Scott took Iggy's place on the drums, and after six months, Ron's old friend David Alexander began playing bass, freeing up Iggy to sing. They named the band The Psychedelic Stooges, trimming the moniker at the last second to The Stooges. They played their first gig almost 33 years ago today, on Halloween night of 1968.

By 1969, word of the band's outrageous live show had spread, and John Cale of the Velvet Underground signed on to produce the very first Stooges album, the self-titled The Stooges. Nabbed by Elektra, the album proved a hit, featuring flowers out of concrete like the grimy "No Fun" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

The Stooges got cut a few nice checks with the record, which mostly served to introduce the band to the world of hard drugs, a lifelong struggle for Pop.

It was also during this period that Iggy fell in love with Nico, the willowy German face who appeared on the Velvet Underground's first record. In recent years, Iggy told the media that it was she who in fact first introduced him to heroin and cocaine, which he would struggle with for a decade or more.

In 1971, The Stooges, now at the height of their popularity, released the album Funhouse. The same year, The Stooges made their first television appearance, during the Cincinnati Pop Festival. Setting the stage for the Rottens and Cobains to come, Iggy covered his body with jar after jar of peanut butter.

By August, it was over. The band split for good in August of 1971, as the rampant drug abuse and personality conflicts therein grew out of control. In 1972, Pop met David Bowie, whom he convinced to release the band's last recorded document, Raw Power (the original remains a collector's item, available sometimes as Rough Power, a pretty accurate description of the sound and a precursor of sorts to Lou Reed's dissonant Metal Machine Music).

After a few years of drug rehab and the commercial failure of Metallic K.O., a Stooges live document, Iggy and pal James Williamson tried to make a follow-up to Raw Power, with zero record company interest. Undaunted, Pop reunited with longtime pal Bowie to record Lust For Life (now playing in a commercial near you) and The Idiot, which would include a song that would later become a smash hit for Bowie, "China Girl." Iggy had found his own sound outside of The Stooges; now it was time to see if anyone was still listening.

Iggy continued to collaborate with Bowie throughout the 1980s. The two both sang on Bowie's Tonight (1984), with Bowie returning the favor by producing Iggy's Blah, Blah, Blah (1986). In 1990, Pop released Brick By Brick, which included guest turns from John Hiatt and Kate Pierson of The B-52s and featured the moderate radio hit "Candy." On American Caesar (1993), Pop enlisted guests (always a popular Iggy trait) Henry Rollins and Lisa Germano to help out. It was Iggy's attempt at an album of social commentary after the grunge revolution, but it mostly fell flat, both with critics and the buying public. Naughty Little Doggie and Avenue B, his next two releases, continued to search for an audience -- the former was an attempt to return to his days of singing paeans to the Unholy Trinity, the latter dispensed with the sex, drugs and rock & roll and added the jazzy vibe of members of Medeski, Martin, and Wood to his mostly introspective, spoken word diatribes.

And now he's back yet again, with yet another musical guise to cover his tightly packed frame. But is he back? He's definitely back to the heavier rock sound that he's known for. Iggy's production is overall pretty solid, but the chunks of nu-metal guitar often sound a bit congealed -- at least in comparison to the beautiful squalor of the unkempt Stooges. The solos also have the unfortunate quality of sometimes sounding a bit too much like background music to Beverly Hills 90210 or an action cop show. Basically, it sounds like Pop decided to rock, and went out and bought himself a band.

There's good stuff here, however, ranging from Pop railing against phoniness on "Mask" and most everything else imaginable in "It's All Shit." "VIP" is a thoughtful look at his own "celebrity status" (or lack thereof), and "Football" is the kind of song Pop would have loved to have written on American Caesar: political in intent and delivery, not in lyrical content.

As one critic said of Beat 'Em Up, "At his best, Iggy never sounded like he was out to prove anything, or out to change the world, just out of control." I think he's mostly right. Musically, it seems to me Iggy only practices self-control in the confines of the recording studio. It's on stage that Pop has always shined brightest -- like Henry Rollins, the presentation of the music is as important as what he's saying.

If nothing else, this still makes Iggy Pop valid. In concert, he still flails and testifies like a member of a Detroit auto workers' union at a rally -- which, if not for the fact that he has generally learned to release the out-of-control "Dirty Little Doggie" persona only for paying customers, he might well be attending right about now.

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