It was sometime in the fall of ’82: I was talking to a friend outside my parents’ house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, when Jerry, a guy I knew from the neighborhood, walked by.
“Guess who I just sold a nickel to?” he asked me.
That would be a nickel bag. Jerry* dealt pot, among other things, in a schoolyard about half a mile away from where I lived.
“I don’t know. Who?”
“Who’s that?” I didn’t know anyone named Iggy.
“You know, Iggy. The singer.”
“You mean Iggy? Iggy Pop?”
“What was he doing on Bath Avenue?”
“He lives over there now.”
Bensonhurst is way down in southwestern Brooklyn, just outside Coney Island. During a brief period in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s there were a couple of vaguely punk bars nearby, but doing anything involving music or culture usually entailed taking the subway into Manhattan, a good 45 minutes away. I played in bands with some pretty hip local musicians, including one who regularly played on bills with various ex–New York Dolls in the East Village, and another who actually went on to play with Johnny Thunders. But in Bensonhurst? Nothing. It was inconceivable that the Godfather of Punk, from Detroit, would have suddenly decided to move there.
Jerry was from the Bath Beach section of Bensonhurst, an almost completely Italian area in what was a predominantly Italian part of Brooklyn to begin with. It was probably the toughest part of the neighborhood, with an unusually high concentration of gangs and wiseguys. There were the notoriously violent Bath Beach Boys, led by the widely feared Charlie, who was shot and killed in a local bar sometime in the early ‘80s. And then there were the Louisiana Boys, the gang Jerry belonged to, who to their credit occasionally did things other than beat people up. Their name came not from the state (duh), but from Louisiana Lanes, a scrungy local bowling alley on 86th St. where they used to hang out.
I was surprised that Jerry even knew who Iggy Pop was, but the idea that Iggy was living in Bath Beach was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. Could angel dust produce hallucinations of famous rock stars hanging out in the local schoolyard? But when I checked with a few other guys from that part of the neighborhood, they all claimed that they’d seen Iggy too, and that in fact he’d been coming to the schoolyard to cop pot fairly regularly. I never saw him myself, though, and not being the biggest Iggy fan I simply forgot about the whole thing till almost 20 years later.
When I recalled the story sometime in the late ‘90s, I tried to find evidence that all this had happened, but there didn’t seem to be a record of it anywhere. I started to wonder whether the kids from Bath Beach had been pranked, or whether I’d misremembered something. Based on what I knew from friends of friends, Iggy certainly hadn’t lived anywhere near Bensonhurst for years, but why would he ever have lived there? When I mentioned the story to people I knew now, they didn’t believe a word of it. I had no idea how to contact any of the guys from the old neighborhood who could confirm the story firsthand, quite a few of whom were, um, permanently unreachable. And I didn’t dream of trying to contact Iggy himself, since I assumed he’d either think I was out of my mind (if the story wasn’t true) or be unhappy that I’d reminded him of the episode (if it was true).
But eventually, references to Iggy’s time in Bensonhurst began to crop up in scattered interviews. As it turns out, after recording a string of unsuccessful albums for Arista and being dropped by the label, he’d hit bottom physically, mentally, and commercially. His drug use continued to be a problem, and he was too broke to live in Manhattan even if he’d wanted to. “I was living hand-to-mouth,” he told the Irish Times. “My health was going, and I realized I couldn’t take on the world anymore — I was going to lose. So I decided to try to go straight.”
An Italian-American roadie of Iggy’s suggested he move to Bensonhurst (“a Mafia neighborhood”) to get away from the temptations and high rents of Manhattan for a while, so he did. In a 2003 interview with MTV, in which he noted that very few people knew he’d lived there, his memories of Bath Beach gave a vivid and accurate picture of that area in the ‘80s:
The intersection by my house had a Catholic Church, the police station, the pizzeria, and the corner where the dealers sold Quaaludes. I was recording an album [Zombie Birdhouse] for Chris Stein’s label, riding the subway out to sessions. Nobody in the neighborhood knew who I was. Then I played the Brooklyn Zoo that summer and all the hoodlums came up. This one guy, John, he was this handsome burglar. He was so impressed he said he’d steal me anything I’d like. I was like “No, thanks, that’s okay.”
Not surprisingly, Iggy says he was very lonesome in Bensonhurst, but he acknowledges what anyone who’s grown up in the neighborhood can attest: “On good days, I’d get a big plate of pasta from the Italian restaurants, much better than those in Manhattan.”
I was never able to find out exactly where Iggy had lived. But according to a friend from the neighborhood who I tracked down just recently, Iggy stayed with Bob, a Louisiana Boy with a more or less endless supply of coke, for at least part of his time in Bensonhurst. This friend also gave me more details that he’d heard from Bob about various drug deals, thefts, killings, and retaliatory killings that happened at around the same time and among this same group, but he asked me not to repeat them because they might reveal his identity. (Thirty years later, after more than a decade living in another part of the country, and with Bob long gone, he was still very concerned about this. )
Though several of the Bath Beach kids who knew Iggy met untimely fates thanks to their various extralegal activities, the good news is that Iggy’s recuperative stay in Bensonhurst seems to have had exactly the effect he hoped for. As he told the Irish Times: “it was a good decision, although it took three or four years of adjustment, and probably led to a fairly long period of mediocrity in my music. But it also led to my survival as a person.”
*All names except Iggy’s have been changed in this story.