Godfather of punk Iggy Pop's lasting lust for life
'I'm old and dirty and creepy, and I want to have as much fun as I can.' As he launches his limited-edition Flash Collection for Sailor Jerry, Iggy Pop - godfather of punk, inventor of the no-holds-barred stage dive and creator of iconic songs - talks to Emily Hourican about the certainty of death, getting in the moment, and how we all need to be held
'Those are the sexiest women I have ever seen in my life, including in dreams; he's really good around the erogenous zones," drawls Iggy Pop thoughtfully. He is telling me about Norman 'Sailor Jerry' Collins, father of the old-school tattoo. "I also like the 'fuck you' attitude and the humour." Funny, these are the very same things I like about Mr Pop.
They say never meet your heroes, but sometimes they are wrong. Especially if, instead of being the type of hero you wept over in your bedroom as a teenager and wrote love letters to, he or she was always more of a dignified background influence. That was Iggy Pop to me. Inspiration for a certain kind of uncompromising daring - he stood out there on his own, and eventually the world came to him. In person, all the attitude is there, but he is wittier, smarter, more introspective, than I expected. And still, at the age of 67, very much himself.
It's easy to fake it in a pop song - hard-eyed girls singing about how they'd give it all up for love; cynical constructs of record companies insisting they are just misunderstood kids. But when Iggy sings, 'I got a lust for life,' you believe him. He sings it like he means it, even now. You figure that probably this lust for life is what kept him alive at times, kept his head above water and his story from becoming just another drug casualty, a tale of mental breakdown and what might have been.
Iggy is a survivor. The angry kid, born James Newell Osterberg, who made it out of the pit to become an icon; inventor of a way of inhabiting the stage that gave punk its head start; a music legend and creator of a handful of enduring songs - what party-goer, hearing The Passenger or Real Wild Child on a night out, hasn't imagined themselves lost in the tough, dislocated glamour of those songs? - has become an industry elder.
From growing up in a trailer park in Detroit in the 1950s, through the crazy wilderness years in Berlin and New York, Iggy has endured - a marathon runner after all, not a sprinter. Recently he looked almost like a member of the establishment when he delivered the BBC Music John Peel Lecture wearing spectacles and a black cardigan (over bare chest, natch) - slating U2 and Apple for "stealing the listener's choice" by giving the album away for free, unasked. He hosts a hugely popular Sunday afternoon radio show on BBC Radio 6 Music - an engaging mix of insider knowledge, eclectic tunes and zany chat - pops up in the odd film, often with pal Johnny Depp, and is now involved in a new limited-edition clothing line, the Flash Collection, a collaboration with Sailor Jerry Clothing.
For a man whose best-known look is bare torso and jeans slung so low they barely cover his ass, Iggy is a surprisingly well-established style icon. He has modelled for Versace; alongside Daisy Lowe for French pret-a-porter designers Eleven Paris; been the face of Paco Rabanne Black XS L'Exces, and appeared in Vogue Hommes.
Now, for the Flash Collection, he has created three pieces, cornerstones of the Iggy Pop look. There's a sleeveless leather jacket with 'Death Shall Triumph' stitched across the back, a leather belt with a shark buckle, and six patch designs. So what's the inspiration?
"The clothing that was closest to my heart is from New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco, 1969 to 1974. That would be like the Stonewall-riots era, Motor City is burning, Black Panthers, White Panthers," he says, in gravelly tones, a voice as raw and sinewy as the famous physique, still a stunning physical anomaly in his late 60s. "There was a lot of unrest in America during that time, but the actual street fashion was amazing. None of it was really expensive or exclusive either. If you look at old footage or pictures of groups like the MC5 and their road crew, around 1970, or if you look at a film like Wattstax or the LA Coliseum, what the black people were wearing in those times, or the Angela Davis trial. Even Eldridge Cleaver - pre-penis sheaths - that was it, basically."
And that, in a sort of nutshell, is Iggy: the breadth of names, of references - cultural, political and aesthetic. The connection to America Now and Then, to the different Americas; from angry, nihilistic trailer-park youth to New York avant-garde art scene.
For those of us who need a handbook to get the references: Wattstax is the remarkable documentary film by Mel Stuart, focusing on the 1972 Wattstax music festival. Angela Davis is a political activist and author who was the third woman to appear on the FBI Most Wanted Fugitive list, for what they deemed was her part in the abduction at gunpoint of a federal judge, prosecutor and three female jurors by 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson. The guns used in the attack had been bought by Davis just days earlier. She was eventually acquitted, but not before the case turned into a major cause celebre, inspiring songs by the Rolling Stones and John and Yoko.
Eldridge Cleaver, meanwhile, was another writer and activist, an early leader of the Black Panthers, later convicted of rape, and designer of a particular type of trousers -the penis-sheath. "In these pants," he said, "the penis is held in a sheath of cloth that sticks outside of the pants." The trousers did not catch on.
So these were the influences foremost in Iggy Pop's mind as he set out to design his collection. He must be very disappointed in the way the kids are dressing now I guess? "There is more samey-samey dressing now," he agrees. "But there are people who are trying. Although they tend to go to extremes, like the fuzzy-toy people. The ones who dress like furry animals and fuck." And he goes off into a series of wheezy laughs, clearly delighted at the spirit of anarchy and sheer oddball-ness still to be found.
Iggy is different in interview to his stage performances. Those are confrontational and even alienating. He's putting it up to an audience who, certainly in the early days before they had learned what to expect, looked frankly alarmed by the stage-diving, skin contact and eye-balling. One to one, he is more conciliatory, more charming. He reaches across the divide to communicate, rather than taunting from the far side. Or maybe he has simply mellowed with age. "There's no one to be angry with today," he said a couple of years ago. And, as I said, he's not one to fake it.
The legend, 'Death Shall Triumph,' emblazoned across the back of the jacket and on the belt buckle, pre-dates Iggy -going back to Norman Collins, inspiration behind Sailor Jerry - but chimed with something he has long held on to as a kind of motif. "I always loved an old piece of flash that said 'Death is Certain,'" he says. "I never quite wore it, but I like the idea of carrying your death with you."
Why? "Because, I guess, I remember when I was a little boy, I didn't go to church. All the other kids went to church and they would tell me, you know, how we're all going to die but God would take care of us. But I didn't have a God, so I was on my own. I would surround myself with all my little toy animals when I went to sleep at night, to protect me.
"Later, you know, when I hit about 18, I just dug my heels in and I never wanted to be a lawyer or a something. I didn't want to go through the system and spend the rest of my life as an older, fatter version of high school. I wanted to be a musician. At the time that was considered to be, it had always been, a loser, hillbilly, drunk-ass, barbed-wire occupation, until The Beatles cleaned it up a little.
He has described his parents as, "lower middle class but educated," - his father was a high school teacher, his mother a private secretary. Naturally, they weren't pleased that their son would attempt such an uncertain route out of the trailer park and into sight of a better life. "Being a musician was considered an unattainable dream, and my parents were horrified that I was going to ruin my life. But I decided to ruin my life, because I think I knew there was going to be a death involved, so that's what 'Death is Certain' means to me.
"It means, 'You better do something you want to do. You can't do everything you want to do, and you can't have fun all the time, but you better do something!' I'm always thinking, 'Am I having enough fun?' Because death is certain, you better have fun.
You have to," he says, "get in the moment sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes you have to get in the moment." Iggy, it seems to me, is pretty good at getting in the moment.
So it's basically a memento mori, like the skull in Hans Holbein's painting of The Ambassadors? "Yeah. People in antiquity were more comfortable with the whole thing. They still are. The older people in Mexico for instance. I think it's peculiar to the Anglo-American cultural triumph of late - everybody is supposed to be young and happy and clean and prosperous all the time. Which is bullshit! I'm old and dirty and creepy, and I want to have as much fun as I can."
This is what is so invigorating about Iggy Pop. First, that in a conversation about flash art you can find yourself discussing medieval symbolism. Second, that he will cheerfully, even joyfully, describe himself as "old and dirty and creepy."
"People need to be touched and held, and admired," he continues. "And those three things are really, really hard to get unless you've got some sort of partisan to fake it for you. Like if you're a little kid, your parents fawn over you, until that takes so much energy they get divorced or something, it ruins their relationship. Or if you're the boss of some company, your secretary will treat you nice. But other than that, it's hard to get certain simple human things, like say primates do for each other. With human beings, it's more complex."
That stinging grasp - of the fundamental alienation of the human condition, roughly varnished with an emotional cynicism all his own - is very evident in songs like I Wanna Be Your Dog and TV Eye, and even more so in the live performances. Asked once how he prepared physically for those shows, Iggy said, "the music suggests the way a song should be performed. And if its gonna get physical, its gonna get physical. Like Elvis said, 'I can't help myself!' There's some of that to it."
He later added, "some of it comes from deep childhood problems. That sort of thing. Things you've got to work out for yourself: anger, fear . . . and some of it is just good, old-fashioned theatre." Where those things begin and end and dovetail with each other is for Iggy to know and the rest of us to guess at.
So who exactly does he see wearing his clothes? "The woman is kind of like a little, smart-assed punkette who likes to read and write, but also doesn't mind a drink and kicking someone in the shins once in a while. She's the kind of person who might customise her clothes with a whole lot of buttons" - that's badges to us. "You might see her at a gig at Grand Central in Miami. The guy would be more of a guy like me who always was impressed with bikers but he was never big enough. A biker sympathiser," and off he goes, another a wheezy laugh.
It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that Iggy is funny, but it does, a bit. The stage performances are so intense, with Iggy sometimes so out of it he looks like he could be scaring himself, the music often so extreme, and the self-destruct myth - the years of heroin abuse, carving himself up on stage with broken glass so that blood poured down his chest - don't leave a whole lot of room to contemplate his undoubted intelligence and wit.
Except that attitude and desire alone were never going to be enough to get him out of the trailer park and into collaboration with David Bowie, with whom he wrote China Girl and Sister Midnight. Bowie also produced Iggy's Lust for Life and The Idiot albums, which fomented a late-1970s comeback. Despite looking like he was permanently about to implode, he has produced six albums with the Stooges and a whopping 16 solo.
"I'm a collaborative artist," he says. "So a lot of my best work is with either a good producer, songwriter, guitarist or drummer. I tend to want to pick what I like best that that person is doing, and just chime in a little bit on my own, and kind of decorate it and present it. Kind of like a cross between a housewife and an evangelical preacher, is kind of what I do." I try and tell him he's selling himself short, but he goes instantly into self-parody, putting on a mocking voice and saying, "I'll just decorate this up a little bit, and then hard-sell it to everybody."
So what, as he approaches 70 - an unexpected survivor and enduring icon - is his philosophy of life? "I think the big thing is to get the fuck out of Dodge," he tells me. "Get done with what you gotta do, and always keep one eye on the exit door. Kind of like Clint Eastwood backing out of a saloon with his gun drawn, or Marlon Brando jumping on his bike in The Wild One. Try to keep one eye on the exit, because the four walls have a way of closing in. I've always thought of everything I've created as a kind of exit strategy." And with that, he's gone.