Raw Power: An Interview with Iggy Pop

Raw Power: An Interview with Iggy Pop

Last month Third Man Books launched the excellent new book Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges / As Told by Iggy Pop – which TIDAL previewed an excerpt from earlier this month – with an event in New York City featuring the legendary punk icon and author Jeff Gold.

Gold, who previously authored the book 101 Essential Rock Records, saw the Stooges in 1973 and was hooked on the band’s raw energy, and Pop’s charisma. As luck would have it, he ended up at A&M Records a decade later, and worked with Pop on his solo career. They remained in contact over the years (Pop contributed an essay to 101 Essential Rock Records), and both say it was a no brainer when Gold approached Pop about doing a book merging Gold’s Stooges memorabilia collection with Pop’s memories of the heady days of the band.

But once the pair sat down at Pop’s Florida home, the book turned into a massive, all-encompassing oral history of the Stooges, in all its gore and glory. So, when Pop and Gold sat down to promote Total Chaos in New York, the legend was at ease, and had lots to say about the Stooges, his wild days in the Big Apple and his friend David Bowie, among other things.

You can read TIDAL’s juicy exclusive excerpt from Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges here.

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Jeff Gold: I want to ask you about when you came to New York in April 1969, recorded your first album for Elektra with John Cale producing, which was really the first time you’d been in a studio with a record producer. What do you remember about that?

Iggy Pop: Well, [the Studio was in] Times Square in the old days. There was a real rickety wooden staircase and the stairs weren’t level or anything. It was just a real shitty little shit hole, there weren’t enough rooms. They did little tight R&B records in that room and that wasn’t really the right room for us. But I liked the atmosphere of Times Square in those days. All that was real suitable and all. John Cale came to work most nights wearing a kind of a cape with an opera collar. Like Z-Man in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And he had a presence. He’s welsh, but it was a Continental presence. He had a hero presence and a slight accent that was something exotic in the room to play for, so that was nice. We were kids who smoked a lot of weed, because like a lot of the young bands in those times we had so much energy, so we smoked a lot of weed before playing just to calm down. And the opposite soon became the case. So I’m smoking a lot of weed and trying to get something out of the band, and there was a brief struggle when they wanted us to turn down. That was a real bummer. So that didn’t really happen. I think we turned down to nine out of 10 or something.

The big problem for me was that John recognized, rightly, that the group didn’t play with the same intensity unless I danced around. So in the studio we’d do take after take and I had to dance around for every take. And I had a kind of violent dance style, so I was getting pretty bruised up doing it. Each song had about 2 1/2 minutes of good content and then we were just accustomed to jamming, and we thought it sounded great. We never listened back to anything. So in the studio we played 4 songs, and we played each one for about ten minutes. And we thought that was it. We were listening to the playbacks, and after about 3 and a half minutes on most of them I thought, “Jesus, this is kind of boring. Maybe if I smoked more weed it would sound better.” And it did. Eventually the head of the record company, who was a very erudite New York-born and raised scion of a communications family, Jac Holzman, sends us a message: We need more songs. And he sent us back into the studio.

(Iggy Pop: Courtesy of Third Man Books)

JG: The conventional wisdom is that Elektra didn’t know what they had. But you told me that Jac played back the record you had done and you agreed with him.

IP: We were able to make a more conventional record without making it too conventional.

JG: You thought he was right.

IP: I thought he was right. There’s a song called “Ann,” the only ballad on the record and maybe the only love ballad that the Stooges ever recorded. It actually has the words “I love you.” So there it is, you know. I think you have to start from classicism when you start in any of the arts. You must pay a nod to that which is classic. “I love you.” And that’s in there. And after 2 minutes of that I was sick of the love bit, so we went to a bolero. A very, very heavy bolero, that closes out that song. We had adapted that from a live piece we used to do which was called “Life is Sick.” So that bolero went on for 10 minutes while I kinda moaned. And that’s out now on whatever reissues of gold or glitter vinyl there are out. Which are good. The fellas just wanted to be, you know, “Can’t we just be rockstars now?” And I saw the necessity for the particular people we were, the type of talent we had, and the skills we didn’t have, and were never gonna have, to come from left field. So it started out as pretty avant-garde and then we kinda went a little more rockish. We never really did join the scummery of the times. The times, you know, what was actually going over was pretty mundane. Pretty awful.

JG: I love this quote of yours where you say there were maybe only 100 words on the first Stooges album.

IP: Well, yeah. There are so many awful Bob Dylan’s out there. Just awful. He’s wonderful. But the rest of them are bloody awful and should be locked away. And then of course in the arts, I’m a coward about it now, I do whine, but in the arts life is a struggle, and when you’re struggling and see somebody getting away with real murder, real shit, you get angry.

JG: Soupy Sales brought that home to you too, right?

IP: Well, yeah, Soupy Sales was a great comedian and in Detroit he had a lunchtime show for kids, and he had a little character – a little finger puppet called Willy the Worm – and Willy would announce the birthdays. Like “Jimmy Osterberg is 2 years old today!” And Soupy would say, “When you’re writing in your birthday wish, keep it to 25 words or less.” Because soupy didn’t wanna get these letters like I get sometimes, 8 pages, singled spaced. That is not as much fun as a really put together, entertaining, reasonably-edited letter that says something, where somebody is going to tell you about themselves.

(Iggy Pop: Courtesy of Third Man Books)

JG: The first show you played in New York was in September 1969, right after the first album came out. You played the World’s Fair Pavilion with the MC5. It was your first big city show, really. You played in Detroit, and I think one gig in Cincinnati prior to that, but New York was the first night you cut yourself with a broken drumstick. In the book I ask you if it was because you were in New York, and you said, “Of course it was!”

IP: I was going for it that night. It was a beautiful old place, with a map of the USA on the floor. What I remember most about that night was that I was wearing a pair of Levi’s short shorts and Minnetonka Moccassins. I love them they’re so good. There was a long, long dangerous stage. I thought the audience weren’t into it, and that may have contributed to a little self-mutilation. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation. But there was a man who came to that show, he was a very important man in the commerce of music at that time in the USA, his name was Frank Barcelona. And Frank ran something called Premier Talent. Premier Talent toured the big British acts. Mostly toured them to death. You know, over and over. His special was the blues rock: Stevie Marriott, Ten Years After, that sort of thing. And he looked like a close associate of Tony Soprano.

But Frank had a nice polo shirt, you know cashmere, and nice yachting pants and little deck shoes on and everything. And my manager was trying to hook us up with him and he just didn’t wanna know. He said to me, “I think you’ll be something important in the future but I don’t wanna get involved.” So that might have been a metaphor for a lot of people in the audience at that point, in the audiences we were fortunate enough to encounter. A lot of them were checking it out, but not many people wanted to get involved, especially outside Detroit. That changed later big time.

JG: You left New York after that to go on your first real national tour. You go to Boston, Philadelphia, touring with Ten Years After. And there’s a quote from you where you say you were flinging yourself on the floor, drawing blood, cutting yourself, taunting, walking into the audience, fighting with people. You started talking to the audience. You refused to be ignored. If you weren’t going to get a positive reaction, you damn well were gonna get one that wouldn’t let them sleep at night.

IP: Well, Ten Years After wore shag haircuts and they wore these flouncy Edwardian faux shirts and they played like… You know, it was just fuckin’ awful. And, I mean I’m sorry, dude, wherever you are, but it was awful. And they laid claim and the guy’s really handsome with the big chin and everything and then we’ve got to go sit in our little dressing room and they’ve used it to dump their groupies and their groupies all have shaggy haircuts and flouncy shirts and they’re all bigger than us too. Their girls are bigger than us! I weighed about 120 at the time, and we ranged from 120 to 130 pounds. You know, like my t-shirt that night was “Go-carting Fun for Everyone.” That was my look. You know, like, “Cool. Boy when people see me in that Go-carting t-shirt!”

So yeah, we looked different right from the get-go. And then we went on, and we played well. I remember how we played. It sounded just like our first record. That was in a little room under Fenway Park in Boston, under the baseball stadium. That was a bastion of reactionary rock and roll. So I had a little foray out among the assembled, and had a little go at them. But nothing harmful or anything. Although a great guy, Joe Perry from Aerosmith, told me years later that he was at that gig, and he said, “You ruined everybody’s acid trip! But I can’t remember their set but I remember yours!” You know, so that was our career in Boston, anyway.

(Iggy Pop: Courtesy of Third Man Books)

JG: On October 7th you played the Electric Circus here in New York and you had this look that really anticipated glitter rock, with silver hair and your body covered with glitter. You were pretty resourceful in putting that look together. You wanna tell us what the ingredients were?

IP: Well, I would take a little one of these little glass bottles of Johnson’s Baby Oil and I’d just pour it all over my body, and rub a little on my face, and then I’d take a little bottle of gold or silver glitter and glitter myself. And there was a great product in the drugstore called Nestle’s Streaks ‘N’ Tips. It was a great product. What it was, it was spray paint. And it came in black, gold or silver. I thought, “Whoa!” And I’d spray it on my hair and it became a fantastically artificial color, and gave it tremendous body. But it came off on everything. It comes off on your pillow. It comes off on your friends. It comes off all over your house, or anyone’s house that you visit. So for days that would go on. It was just to get a little light in the performance at that point.

JG: The first time the Stooges broke up was in May of ’71, and then in September of ’71 you meet David Bowie. He very quickly facilitates you getting a management contract, for better or worse, with his manager, and you go to England and create Raw Power, which Bowie doesn’t produce but does mix. And there’s a lot of controversy about the original mix that Bowie did, which you much later went back and remixed, I thought I’d ask you about that.

IP: Ah, there’s this Detroit tradition of all the groups at that time being super butch. You have Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, records like “Jimmy, Take a Ride.” That’s a butch record. Ted Nugent, in his way. The MC5, that was very aggressive. And the Detroit musical scene that fed Motown, it was a very tough, male approach on the part of the black musicians that really started that out. Some of the early records like “Money” by Barrett Strong, that’s a tough little groove. So we sounded pretty huge live around the Raw Power era, but it was also a sound where most of it was in the middle. Ron Ashton played high on the frets, on the bass. James Williamson took up a lot of the middle space on the guitar. I start out, well, I wished I was a little richer but I wasn’t, but I tried to sing – or more talk – with that intensity. I said to somebody once, “It’s like going to a pet store and there’s four puppies all fighting for your attention.”

That’s kinda how we were. Everybody was going full tilt every second to outdo each other, and it was difficult to mix. It really was. It was not poorly recorded, it was just difficult to mix. And I cared so much about it, and I was drugged up intermittently at the time, on and off, but not all the time. But I just cared so much about it that I became unsound. And I was trying everything to make it sound as good as possible. But the treble was never loud enough, and the bass was never loud enough. I even tried some Beach Boys harmonies, to try and make them more musical, which is ridiculous. But I tried. You can hear a couple places on the album where there are keyboards, and that’s me playing a few notes, just to widen the attack. But I couldn’t get what I wanted. I just couldn’t get it. And eventually (the management company) Mainman just said, “Well, we’re gonna take this away from you and let David remix it.” And I said, “Well, you know, he could probably do it. That’s okay.” And we did a session, in a little room called Western Recorders in Hollywood, it was David Bowie, James Williamson and myself, to mix it. And I think it was done in 2 days, or a day and a half.

(Iggy Pop: Courtesy of Andreas Neumann)

We moved right along, and the mix on that sounds, to me, a lot like the records David was making at the time. He took off the bottom and at the top and there was a lot of clarity. And you really, really heard the vocal and the lead guitar. Those were the main two things. But when it came out, nobody took care of it. I mean, we didn’t even know what mastering was. But there’s a step after the record is mixed, in any recording, before it gets to the version that is sent out called mastering. It has to go through a step where someone decides how heavily and with what degree of distortion and aggression to push that music at the listener. And if it’s Perry Como you don’t push it at all. But if it’s Booker T and the MGs, you give it a little push. If it’s the Stooges, you push it a lot. And nobody did. So the record came out and it sounded small. And these are guys that don’t wanna sound small. So there was angst over it within the group for quite a while. But if you turned it up, if you just took it to someone’s home and turned it up to 10, it always sounded real good.

Later, when new metal came in, in the ’90s, I realized that there was an audience that could hear that record if I just made it loud enough. So I did a remix that’s probably one of the loudest records ever made. I just made it very loud and put a big bottom on it. And it reached people that way. But the original mix is better and so a few years ago we put out the original Bowie mix. But it was fun being in the studio when he was mixing it. He was fond of gadgets. And he had this gadget in there, he called it “the time cube.” And he would call in his people and they would say, “Hey, man, have you tried this? It’s only been used on two obscure jazz records.” And it looked like a bomb. It was a great big ugly tube thing, and you would run the sound that you wanted to alter through a little speaker and it would come through the speaker and it would make a journey through this tube and come out “wowowow.” And you hear that on “ Gimme Danger,” at the end, the effect on the guitar. And he put it on the drums on “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell.” That was one where I called the song “Hard to Beat,” but he and the people at Mainman listened to the outro chorus and had a few giggles over that and they just changed the name. When it came out I was furious for a few days and then I realized, “Cool, ‘Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell.’ Yeah.”

The above conversation has been lightly edited.

(Iggy Pop: Courtesy of Andreas Neumann)

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