Iggy Pop: The Bowie Years Album Review


In the mid-1960s, after years of listening to the British Invasion, a teenage Iggy Pop got sick of rock’n’roll. He had unearthed the blues originators of popular bands like the Beatles and the Kinks, and started listening to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and John Lee Hooker instead. In these groundbreaking artists he heard a vitality and backbone that hadn’t translated to their diluted white mimics. At age 19, in 1966, Pop—then known as Jim Osterberg, Jr.—left his native Michigan for Chicago and arrived at the West Side doorstep of blues drummer Sam Lay, hoping to be taken under his wing.

Lay let Pop shadow him, and eventually Pop started sitting in on gigs. He slept on Lay’s floor and absorbed the music around him. “I realized that these guys were way over my head, and that what they were doing was so natural to them that it was ridiculous for me to make a studious copy of it,” he said decades later in an interview for Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “I thought, What you gotta do is play your own simple blues. I could describe my experience based on the way those guys are describing theirs…So that’s what I did.” He called his high school friend Ron Asheton to come take him back to Detroit, and with Ron’s brother Scott Asheton and their friend Dave Alexander, they rounded up the Stooges.

Across three studio albums, the Stooges channeled their violent white ennui into an abject, unraveled rendition of the blues Pop had studied so fervently. Where British Invasion bands moved in friendly lockstep, the Stooges played with an almost confrontational looseness, as if at any moment they could quit their instruments and go at each other’s throats. As the band’s frontman, Pop earned a reputation for his outrageous stage presence. Offstage, Jim Osterberg was small and shy. In performance, as Iggy Pop, he swallowed up the room with his physical contortions, his drag getups, and his deranged, wounded howl.

The band’s inflammatory shows caught the attention of musicians like David Bowie, Suicide’s Alan Vega, and the future Ramones, who latched onto the wildness and self-degradation of Pop’s act. By 1974, five years after releasing their debut LP, the Stooges had imploded. They played a final show at Detroit’s Michigan Palace, where Pop viciously taunted his audience and his audience threw beer bottles onstage.

Deep into several varieties of hard drugs, Pop spent the next two years adrift in Los Angeles, getting arrested for everything from unpaid parking tickets to wearing full drag in public at a time when “female impersonation” was still a bookable offense. The LAPD got sick of him, and pressured him into a stay at the city’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, where he worked to kick his addictions. He reconciled with Bowie, who had disavowed their friendship amid the mess of latter-day Stooges, and the two agreed to collaborate. Pop tagged along on Bowie’s Station to Station tour in 1976, and then the two relocated to Berlin, where they’d produce some of the most singular work of their respective careers. During this fertile period, Bowie recorded the legendary streak of albums Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. Pop, with Bowie serving as co-writer and co-producer, issued The Idiot and Lust for Life, both now compiled on the 7-disc boxed set Iggy Pop: The Bowie Years.

The Idiot, Pop’s solo debut, decisively shut the gates on his time with the Stooges. Where once he was infernal and freewheeling, he now became cool and restrained by Bowie’s careful, calculated producer’s hand. He still sang in a tone of abjection, still retained his sense of being a debased and decrepit subject, but where he once showed a grimace he now wore a smirk. His Cold War surroundings provoked icy, glib reflections; taking cues from Kraftwerk over in Düsseldorf, Bowie and Pop adopted cool detachment as a primary artistic mode.

Predictably, The Idiot enraged those who championed the Stooges for their unhindered squalls; the legendary music critic Lester Bangs called it “phony bullshit.” And it’s easy to see how a voice beloved for its fire would turn fans cold after dimming its spark. But by reining in Pop, Bowie and his effete European sensibilities drew out a new range of nuance in the singer. The Idiot may lack fury, but it compensates with sardonic humor and perfectly tuned melodrama—both tools that would become wildly popular across all artistic media in the 1980s.

Against clipped percussion, whining guitars, and thin synthesizer tones, Pop’s voice turns barbed and sour on The Idiot. The closest he comes to unfiltered emotion is “Dum Dum Boys,” an elegy of sorts for the Stooges, and even there his keening is ringed with a sneer. Mostly, he sounds distant; the sleazy, hilarious “Nightclubbing” is less an ode to Berlin’s vibrant nightlife than it is a monument to alienation—the numbness of being among people in their moments of joy and sharing none of it. Pop’s circular lyrics reveal the song’s emptiness: “We see people/Brand new people/They’re something to see.”

Also released in 1977, The Idiot’s follow-up Lust for Life breathes some punk grit back into Pop’s performance. Its title track, driven by Hunt Sales’ animated and playful live drumming, could be a marginally tidied-up Stooges song; rather than sounding dwarfed by the instrumentation surrounding it, Pop’s voice resumes its fevered snarl at the front of the mix. He sounds alert, embodied, no longer a Bowie-animated cadaver but an enlivening force in his own right.

Pop’s performance shocks itself awake on Lust for Life, but the album’s most enduring track clings to alienation as its principal subject. “The Passenger” makes a saga of passivity. Written alternately in the first and third person, it watches a man riding a car, or a train, or a bus, seeing a city slip past his window, feeling the seal around himself. He is not of the city, just in it, gliding through. The city has “ripped backsides,” a vaguely homoerotic anthropomorphization; the passenger, who both is and isn’t Pop, stays “under glass,” sees “the bright and hollow sky,” as if for all he devours with his hungry eyes there were nothing of substance inside it. Four guitar chords, briskly strummed and punctuated by rests, roll onward, never budging from a single progression. There’s no chorus, save for a wordless repeat of the verse melody with Bowie chiming in on backing vocals. Pop moves but someone else is driving. “All of it was made for you and me,” he asserts towards the end, as his voice breaks composure, and threatens to “take a ride and see what’s mine.” So he arrives at a paradox: He’s an inert body rolling through space, and also the rightful owner of all he sees. He does nothing but owns everything, the whole empty world and all the nothing inside of it.

More than his chirpier singles from the era—the boisterous “Lust for Life,” the Orientalist fantasy “China Girl” (written about an unrequited affection for a Vietnamese woman, and later done better by Bowie alone)—“The Passenger” intoxicates with its refusal to yield what is hidden. It is an emblematic high point of Pop’s career, an example of how his quiet perception held as much power as his wildness. With the Stooges, Pop screamed across the space that separated him from other people, desperate to hear something in return besides his echo. With the albums he made with Bowie, he scrutinized the space itself.

In addition to remasters of The Idiot and Lust for Life, Pop’s new boxed set loops in the decent if not great TV Eye Live (a live album originally released in 1978 to free Pop from his RCA contract), a disc of alternate mixes and edits, and three live discs all recorded in 1977, featuring Bowie on keys and with very similar tracklists—a show of excess for anyone but the most ardent completionist fascinated by the variations in delivery and ad-libbing from different performances on the same tour. These live offerings, whose recording quality varies, show Pop and his band playfully mussing up The Idiot’s slick tracks, but do little to lend them dimension. Mostly, they vivisect the musician at a moment of transition, performing both Stooges and solo tracks, leaving the sound of his band behind and coming into his own as a lone icon.

Working with Pop allowed Bowie to get darker in his songwriting and production than he dared in his solo work; working with Bowie allowed Pop to focus his flailing instincts into refined, careful songcraft. For two albums, they served as each other’s perfect foils, and their work together would inflect music made on both sides of the Atlantic, from Joy Division and Depeche Mode to Grace Jones and Nine Inch Nails. Their stoic cynicism presaged the austerity measures of the ’80s and their continuing ramifications; amid the dregs of capitalism, these lonely melodies and their battered delivery keep resonating. “Can you hear me at all?” Pop asks on The Idiot’s “Sister Midnight.” The answer is “no,” and he keeps singing.


Buy: Rough Trade

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