Ask any casual observer what they know about Iggy Pop, and you’ll probably get a predictable enough answer: long hair, never wears a shirt, did a lot of drugs, was always devising new ways to injure himself onstage. In this respect, his appeal is obvious: he’s one of the last of the rock stars who defined the ’70s, a throwback to a time when the drugs were good and the mudsharks were wielded with abandon.
For anyone who’s studied the man and his career in depth, though, his appeal is more complex and nuanced than the caricature of the professionally hedonistic rock star. At its best, Iggy’s music has tapped in to the id of rock ‘n’ roll, or perhaps it’s even been the id of rock ‘n’ roll.
Despite its occasional divergences into elitism (prog, for instance), rock ‘n’ roll has always been a democratic art form — unlike, say, jazz, where there’s a technical barrier to overcome in the pursuit of transcendence through improvisation, rock music has always privileged unfettered self-expression over technical ability. As such, rock ‘n’ roll mythology has always venerated the primitive, the instinctual, the heartfelt. As our Moze Halperin wrote here last month, much of 20th-century art advanced the idea that “art [is] only valid if it [is] a projection of its creator’s purest essences,” and rock ‘n’ roll has always been beholden to this idea.
No one has embodied the idea of unfettered self-expression better than Iggy. Those who’ve really understood his appeal have always understood this; David Bowie, for instance, loved Iggy because, as Iggy himself put it, “I couldn’t do the things he seemed to do so well and so easily. Yet I knew I had something he didn’t have and could never have.” Bowie was a more cerebral artist; Iggy was always smarter than he looked, but his music was more visceral than anything Bowie could ever aspire to.
The best example of what I’m talking about is The Stooges’ music, especially their 1970 album Fun House. The most fitting adjective for both the music and the lyrics is “primitive,” in that they’re as uncomplicated as rock ‘n’ roll gets — a pounding, tribal kind of beat, lashings of guitar, Iggy howling short couplets that contain more meaning than their words alone suggest. Despite their simplicity, or perhaps because of it, the songs seem to tap into some sort of deep truth, deeper than perhaps even their creators intended: when Iggy sings, “I’ve been dirt/ But I don’t care/ ‘Cause I’m burning inside/ With the fire of life,” he’s distilling every rock ‘n’ roll underdog narrative into a couple of lines. When he snarls, “I came to play/ And I mean to play around,” it’s both thrilling and terrifying. This is not a man you want crashing your party; and yet, when he’s there, you know that party will get wilder than it ever would’ve been without him.
It’s this quality that’s always been what’s most interesting about Iggy — it’s something primal, something hyper-masculine yet deeply vulnerable, something harsh and dangerous and beautiful and funny. It was there in The Stooges’ work, and it’s been there in his best solo moments, too, from the Bowie-helmed masterpieces The Idiot and Lust for Life to the brilliant simplicity of “I’m Bored” and the urban Kurtz narrative of “Wild America.”
Which brings us to Post-Pop Depression, the album that Iggy says may be his last. As the title suggests, it’s a reflective work, one that finds him looking back over his remarkable life. When he sings, “I’ve shot my gun, I’ve used my knife,” you believe him, and it’s kind of heartbreaking when he follows that line with, “This hasn’t been an easy life.” It can’t have been, and yet, you can’t imagine Iggy having ever been able to live any other way. Those lines come from “American Valhalla,” a meditation on death and the afterlife that recalls… well, honestly, it recalls Bowie’s “Blackstar,” in a way that feels darkly appropriate. As ever, Iggy’s more direct than his old friend: “Death is the pill that’s tough to swallow,” he sings. “Is there anybody in there? Can I bring a friend? I’m not the man with everything/ I’ve nothing but my name.”
Lest you think that it’s all morose and pensive, though, it’s worth noting that our hero is also as combative and hilarious as ever. At one point, he observes, “The street is as cold as a corporate lawsuit,” and his fighting side is on full view in “Paraguay,” an album-closing escape fantasy that devolves into a gloriously foulmouthed off-my-lawn rant that’s worth quoting in full: “I don’t want any of this information,” snarls Iggy. “I don’t want you. No, not anymore, I’ve had enough of you. Yeah, I’m talking to you. Take your fucking laptop, and just shove it into your goddamn foul mouth and down your shitheel gizzard, you fuckin’ phony two-faced three-timing piece of turd! And I hope you shit it out with all the words in it, and the security services read those words and pick you up and flay you for all your evil and poisonous intentions because I’m sick and it’s YOUR FAULT! And,” he concludes, “I’m going to heal myself now.”
If that really is the sound of Iggy Pop signing off, then he couldn’t have done so in a more fitting way. He wasn’t made for the 21st century, but then he was never really made for the 20th century, either. He’s the eternal outsider, the weird kid in class, the one who wants nothing to do with your jobs and suits and pension plans. He could never have been anything else, and the rest of us are thankful for it.