Nasty, Brutish and Surprisingly Resilient: The Stooges' Second Life

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It looks like something out of a fairy tale—the quaint, forest-sequestered cottage on the edge of Miami’s colorful Little Haiti neighborhood, with a walkway so long and winding it’d confound Hansel and Gretel. But there’s no dainty Disney princess waltzing around inside. You’ve stumbled upon the current lair of one of rockdom’s grumpiest ogres, notorious Stooges leader Iggy Pop. There’s no warm and fuzzy welcome mat at his door—in fact, you’d be well advised to get your trespassing ass off his private property. Now. “I don’t do a gate, but there’s this big hedge, which sets a certain tone—it’s a hint,” growls Iggy in his unmistakable Big Bad Wolf voice.

Iggy has a fable or two of his own to relate. As he tells it, only two brave souls have ever dared to breach the perimeter, one a yuppie real-estate shill, and the other “this young black man in a poorly fitting white dress shirt and slacks … [He] stopped in front of my drive, and then determinedly walked right up to my door and knocked. And I thought ‘Wellll… OK,’ and said hello. He had a gigantic scar, must’ve been a knife scar, the length of his throat, so he’d been around. And he was selling magazines, door-to-door, as they used to back in the day.

“And I would never, ever give somebody like that the time of day,” continues the artist born James Osterberg, who—at 59—has been around a bit himself. “But ya know what? My heart went out to him. He told me he was just out of prison and he was being rehabbed and he was doing this and could I help him out.” In a moment of weakness, Iggy paid cash for a subscription to Art And Architecture, then watched his mailbox for the mag, month after month. “And I started to think ‘That sonofabitch!’ But then it came, ya know? And I said ‘Yes!’ And now I think of that guy every month when I get my Art And Architecture—it kinda restored my faith.”

Faith that—judging by The Weirdness, Iggy’s fanged, feral new slugfest with the original Stooges (guitarist Ron Asheton and his drumming brother Scott)—has been in unusually short supply.

STILL ANGRY

This iconoclast should be content. In his rakish 38-year career, he presaged the punk movement with stellar Stooges albums like Fun House (1970) and Raw Power (1973); was rescued from heroin addiction by David Bowie, who presided over his two landmark ’77 solo sets The Idiot and Lust For Life; and went on to become an in-demand character actor in films like Cry-Baby, Dead Man and the TV series The Adventures Of Pete & Pete. (His next gig? A voiceover as the revolutionary uncle in an animated adaptation of graphic novel Persepolis).

But Iggy still doesn’t sound at ease on record. The Steve Albini-produced Weirdness reads like a study in antisocial misanthropy. The album’s scruffy, squealing mix—thanks to the low-budget Shure mic Iggy chose over a pricey Neumann—puts his blunt vocals up front and in your face. “I should believe in human nature, but I don’t,” the singer snaps over stadium-huge drums in “You Can’t Have Friends.” And the deeper you descend into this ogre’s den, the darker it gets. “I’m the kinda guy who don’t pick up the phone,” Iggy drawls in the stomping “Free & Freaky,” which defends his curious habit of “walking all alone in a bathrobe in the park” (i.e., the woodsy expanse behind his cottage. He explains: “It’s my own park and I’ll do what the hell I want.”). Over the handclap percussion and ragged Asheton riff of “Greedy Awful People,” he sneers at conservative society and admits, “I can’t live among my class.” But he reserves his harshest barbs for the deceptively shout-a-long “My Idea Of Fun,” which builds verses like “I hate mankind” into the walloping chorus of “My idea of fun / Is killing everyone.”

Other Weirdness cuts may be less strident: “ATM” marvels at the royalties its composer continues to receive for such oft-covered classics as “Tonight,” “China Girl,” “Real Wild Child” and the enduring “Lust For Life”; “The End Of Christianity” celebrates his relationship with Nina, a woman he met at a Miami Beach pizza parlor a few years back. “I’m trying to think—No, I don’t have anything positive on there, they’re all negative, those lyrics,” cackles Iggy, kicking off his boots and curling his wiry, muscular frame into a booth in the café of his Hollywood hotel. The magazine hawker aside, Iggy has judged today’s self-centered civilization and found it wanting. “So the songs mean what they say, and nobody, I mean nobody, is nice.”

TRUST NO ONE

Ron Asheton—who’d been punching the axeman clock in Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival before he was stunned by Iggy’s call—sees it the same cynical way. “When I write a piece of music, I always have something in mind, some kinda theme, a certain feeling,” he notes in a separate chat. “So I’m always wondering what Iggy’s gonna come up with. But with this album, it was always right, always something where I’m going ‘Yes!’ It’s my same general feeling—I’ve been kicked around for ages in this business, and all my friends have four legs; my pet cats that I trust more than anything walking on two.”

The Stooges reunion saga began in 2003, when Iggy phoned the Ashetons at the same Michigan number they’ve had for decades and recruited them for four tracks on Skull Ring, his last solo salvo. It clicked well enough for the lineup—with Mike Watt filling in on bass for the late Dave Alexander—to bow at that year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California and steal the show in the process. With original saxophonist Steve Mackay on board, The Stooges mark II began piecemeal work on The Weirdness, hooking up for five-day writing/demo stints, Iggy recalls, “Once every three or four months for three years. Ron had a little amp as big as a toaster oven, I sang through something about the size of a microwave, Scotty played a toy kit, and I recorded the whole thing on a mini-disc. So when we went in the studio, the songs were all written, arranged, rehearsed and ready to go.” Though, with one key exception: the Mackay-punctuated “Passing Cloud,” which was improvised on the spot.

“It comes directly from my loving to look at the clouds in Miami,” elaborates Iggy, who says he always feels two beautiful reactions when he comes off the road: “One of ’em is—as the plane starts coming down through those big, puffy Miami clouds—I just start grinning, because it’s this diffuse and forgiving light, like cotton candy. And I like it. And then when I get near my cottage and see the ’hood, I just relax and smile. Everyone’s walking a little slower and dressing a little brighter than in the other parts of the city.”

Albini’s ball-peen hammer mix captures The Stooges at their retro best, believes Asheton, who nervously shivered all the way to Coachella, only to walk off stage rejuvenated. “That raw and simple sound? That’s basically exactly what we are anyway. We’re not refined, we don’t wanna be overproduced—that’s just how we play, and Steve understood that.”

As his 60th birthday approaches this April, Iggy confesses he’s looking back and cracking a smirk. Two film scripts about his life—as yet unauthorized—are floating around, Penelope Spheeris’ Stooge-centered Search And Destroy, and Nick Gomez’s The Passenger with Elijah Wood possibly playing the ol’ Iguana. Thoughts of legacy, he concludes, “might come more into play now that I finally got this record made, because somehow I felt this was unfinished business. But we got the band up and running again, and sorta like Ahab, I think I managed to get my whale.”

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