VIDEO: Iggy and the Stooges live from Cincinnatti in 1970
“If we look closely at this theft of fire,” wrote Thomas Merton in 1961’s The New Man, “we see that it was in the end not so much a gesture of defiance as an act of adoration. It was almost as if Prometheus had stolen the fire in order to give it back to his gods; as if he were coming to them with the flames in his hands like vivid and sentient flowers, instead of flying from them with his life flickering between his fingers.” Merton was not a big rock-and-roller, not a CBGB’s type of fellow; to be precise, he was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. But had he lived long enough (he was electrocuted in a Bangkok bathroom in 1968) to catch a performance by the Raw Power–era Stooges, I like to think he would have nodded in grim recognition. For here before him, flame-handed, defying and adoring, Merton would have seen his Prometheus, his “prophet of the atomic age”: a man with huge night-creature eyes and the physique of an acrobat, yelling about the napalm in his heart.
That, of course, was then. And Iggy Pop has outlived himself so many times, and perplexed his own legacy with so many ripoffs, knockoffs, and careerist waterings-down, that we should have learned by now to accept him not as a rock-and-roll divinity but as something much more lasting and mysterious: a great entertainer. One year younger than Dolly Parton (he’ll be 60 next month), Iggy is an indestructible trouper whose communion with his audience is vulgar, essential, perennial. It’s certainly not about music, because he hasn’t made a decent record since 1977: Iggy had to earn his love the hard way. Some of the most interesting parts of Paul Trynka’s fine new biography Open Up and Bleed (to be published next month by Broadway Books) are about his workhorse years: the ’80s and ’90s, when he was touring like a beast, writing terrible songs, wearing out his rock-troll hirelings one after another. Desperate times, for example, are recorded on a 1997 stadium tour sponsored by US Tobacco, as our hero gets into a pissing contest with the singer of a band called Sponge: who can be wilder for the kids? The duel ends at the Polaris Amphitheater in Columbus with a candidly suicidal stage dive from the Ig into a bank of suddenly empty chairs. Regaining the stage with a bleeding head and a visibly dislocated shoulder, he kneels down, eyes whirling, and begins to sing in a language no one has heard before. “Whatever it was sounded real cool,” comments his guitarist, Whitey Kirst, “but it definitely wasn’t ‘Down on the Street.’ ”
Iggy made himself Iggy via the medium of the Stooges, the band of transcendental garage-blues goons he led out of ’60s Detroit. Ron Asheton on guitar, Ron’s brother Scott on drums, Dave Alexander on bass, Iggy singing in an affectless honk: “slowly,” writes Trynka, “like cavemen, they invented their own language.” Their music was a message from the punk-rock future; as rock stars they were always doomed, descending like the intro to 1969’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” down, down, down to that final custard-pie chord.