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Wednesday, May 1, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Godfather Of Punk: Iggy Pop Is Still Going Strong

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

"I took this chick out, you know? I had never met her but we had corresponded with each other for a long time. So the first thing she says to me after we say `hello,' she says, `This is like a dream for me because you are a Living God,' and I'm like . . . Whoooaaa! I don't wanna hear this! Then I thought about it. And, heyyyyy, Living God-hood . . . after a little while . . . I found myself on this better behavior.

"I spent about a week with her and, during all that time, I was catching myself. Where maybe normally I'd slip up a little . . . give something away, I wouldn't. Instead, I would go, `Waitup! Just a minute! Would a Living God do this? Hold on!' "

In Seattle, days after his 49th birthday, rock vet Iggy Pop is ending his tour. It is celebrating not just his new album ("Naughty Little Doggie," out now on Virgin), but his genuine Living God-hood. Since 1969 and his album "The Stooges," James Newell Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, has been white rock music's own James Brown.

Through 16 LPs, his star has risen and fallen and his influencewaxed and waned. What has never been in question, though: Iggy Pop has profoundly altered music.

These days, people yell at him in airports ("People my age, who don't look like fans! They'll just yell out, `Hey Iggy! keep on goin'!' "). Scotland's Irvine Welsh wrote a bestseller (called "Trainspotting," now a film by Danny Boyle) which made Iggy a Euro-controversy. He's not part of its story of Scottish junkies. But its score - and themes - revolve around him.

Says Welsh: "He's nae in it, but he's the star. I couldnae have written that book without him. Without hearing Iggy, it would be a different book."

And there would be no "Seattle sound." For, all credit due to the Velvet Underground (whose John Cale produced Pop's first album), to the New York Dolls, the Ramones and Voidoids, it was Iggy who really gave punk its being.

Nicknamed for his role in a 10th-grade combo, he began professional life in 1965. That was the year Iggy's band played The Ponytail Club, he bleached his hair, and first got busted.

Pop was born not far from The Ponytail, in Ypsilanti, Mich., outside Detroit. He grew up in Coachville Garden - a "court" of mobile homes. The Osterberg home was identical, he likes to note, to that of Lucille Ball in "The Long, Long Trailer."

He describes his youth as thoughtful and solitary, filled with alienation and "industrial noise." This was the rumble of decaying factory life, crossed with the rabid, noisy politics of the 1960s. Detroit had it all: "blues, rock and pressing plants." Bands from tuneful Motown to the militant MC5. It was "monolithic and metallic."

In the Pop ouevre, these are key adjectives; he has never strayed far from their basic vision. What he brings to it, though, can't be qualified. Iggy's stage act re-wrote rock performance. Dancing, twitching, posing, fighting: every Pop performance is an exorcism. He is like the colonial preacher Cotton Mather, selling tickets to a match where he wrestles the devil.

It's an apt comparison, for Ig is all-American. Like the greatest of the bluesman, Robert Johnson, he is both his country's critic and its poet. And his appetite for "big questions" never wearies, even when, many times, it brought him to his knees.

As a rising star, founder of The Stooges, a young Iggy caught the eye of many. He was feted by Andy Warhol, signed to David Bowie's management, shimmered uniquely among the glitter-rockers. But he also gained a heroin habit, which led into a steady, seedy downward spiral. Drug deals, gutters, drunk tanks, jails and panic. Pop tried every drug - and paid for them all.

These days, he says, he "regrets" the heroin deeply. "One time, during all that, I saw James Brown. Ran into him in a hotel hallway. I had silver hair, I was wearing cutoff jeans. I jumped out and just gave him the works: `Mister Brown, you're the greatest singer in the world! You're my idol! The biggest star in show business!' I just stood there, with my hand stuck out."

"As he walked by, he just slapped my hand. And said, `Be cool! Stay in school!' Walked right by."

In 1975, to avoid formal charges, Pop entered L.A.'s Neuropsychiatric Institute. He was still recording, on a day pass. He had few visitors, but one was David Bowie.

The calculating Brit had a fascination for Iggy's talents. He took Pop on tour, then followed him to Berlin. There, holed up alone during 1976, they produced Pop's double-headed `comeback': the albums "Lust For Life" and "The Idiot." Stark yet tender, bleak yet filled with feeling, these LPs are milestones: mirrors of one another. Their slew of classics has been commandeered by many, from Grace Jones' disco-era version of "Nightclubbing" to Boy George's recent "Funtime."

Here were all of Pop's pent-up views of America - the America which frightens most Americans. The inhabitants of his world confront savagery and they feel reciprocal anger inside. Yet, as with all great American artists (who share his concerns: mobility, honor, family), Pop's work always strives for the transcendental. "God, I always cared. I cared so much!"

Iggy was a living - not a dying - legend. England's Sex Pistols launched themselves with a Stooges cover ("No Fun"), and launched Iggy as Punk's Godfather. When their scene imploded, he kept right on working, in 1979 producing another gem, "New Values." But, once more, his trajectory faltered. He ping-ponged from label to label, anddrugs to drink.

Meanwhile, punk had migrated West, spawning late '70s scenes in L.A. and San Francisco. In Seattle, too, bands were cutting new teeth on Iggy covers. One, the Telepaths, even lured a touring Pop back to their communal apartments in Ballard. After entertaining a packed house at downtown's Paramount, he played there to a post-show party.

Pop's aesthetic kept on shaping Seattle, but his actual presence here suffered a setback in the '80s. During one show at the now-defunct Eagles, he urged fans to join him on the amplifiers. When the stacks tumbled, concert-goers were injured. Pop was ordered to pay them part of any future profits: any more monies he made onstage in Washington.

Consequently, notes Clark Humphrey in "Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story," "The single biggest influence on Seattle punk didn't come back until 1994."

By that time, of course, the landscape had changed radically. But the change was spurred by Iggy, by his memory, his videos and out-of-print albums. In 1990, at Manhattan's Pyramid Club, Pop saw one Seattle band he really liked: Nirvana. While the other onlookers seemed unmoved, Pop yelled words of encouragement from down on the dancefloor.

He was the idol, sohaving Iggy see your gig was nerve-wracking. Mudhoney's Mark Arm is a star whose stance, sneer and lyrics recall the Pop's. And, in 1992, Iggy bought a ticket. Says Arm, "It was in New York; I saw him coming. All I thought was how much I wanted to hide!"

Like so many of Seattle's stars, Arm first bought Pop's work in secondhand stores. He has been in bands since 1969, and for 16 years he's done "updates" of the Stooges' "1969" (the first song on Pop's first album). On tour in Australia, he finally met his mentor.

Arm: "He's amazing. So . . . straightforward. Such a sweet man. He truly warms the cockles of my heart."

Would the Living God agree with Arm's estimate? "Oh, I think more of Steve Martin in `The Jerk.' Outside my own work, that was - ha! - the best depiction of myself I've ever seen."

Yet Pop knows the Stooges legacy matters. For years, the remaining Stooges have urged a reunion. They've been asked, he says, "over and over again. For movies, for TV, to play with the Sex Pistols!" But Iggy saw the filmed Velvet Underground "reunion." "They just looked - for want of a better word - OLD."

But star producer Rick Rubin wants to record the Stooges. And, to Iggy, that's something different. "It would be me and the (ex-Stooge) Asheton brothers and a bassist from the era, Gary Rasmussen. We would make a record, not just dish out oldies. We'll just get together; see what happens."

Meanwhile, there is "Naughty Little Doggie": an allusion to Pop's early anthem, "I Wanna Be Your Dog." It's what Pop calls "a nasty rock, fast-food album." Yet, it's also filled with a special longing. After all, Pop now has a near-adult son, a recently widowed father and a Japanese novelist wife.

Briton Phil Bicker designed the album - and spent happy hours on the phone with Pop. "He's incredibly well-read, educated. He knows every sort of art reference going. Plus, he's so pure. He's got real integrity."

If Iggy had input, though, Bicker changed his concept. "It was actually`Innocent Little Doggie.' I wrote that down on a bit of paper, then I promptly lost it. Once I read the lyrics, I never thought of `innocent!' " So, he added a very British "naughty" and Pop, who loves language, chuckled and used it.

This Seattle gig is the tour's finale, and we'll next see Iggy Pop in a set of films. In "The Crow II" he's a "psycho killer," in Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" "a transvestite cowboy," in the Spanish "Atolladero," "another crazy."

Pop has had a series of other roles: on cable TV's "Adventures of Pete and Pete," in films from John Waters' "Crybaby" to Scorcese's "The Color of Money," and the Jim Jarmusch short "Cigarettes and Coffee." He feels he's been "awful, but I'm learning fast."

Tom Waits, who played with him in "Cigarettes," has his own idea of Iggy's genius. "He attacks the real world, not with a mirror but a hammer. And shapes it into something which gives you a different view."

Iggy's new ambitions have a Waits-like tenor. He is listening a lot to Frank Sinatra (as he has done ever since the age of 8). Age, he hopes, will help him polish his crooning. "I'm still working on my real acoustic blues. Dignified ballads of miserable broken hopes! Standards, stuff like you'd hear in a classy lounge."

If Mark Arm is one side of Pop's local legacy, rusty-voiced Mark Lanegan is the soulful blues half. This reclusive star actually balances two careers: Screaming Trees' vocalist and solo artist. In the latter, he's a local idol like the early Iggy.

With a new Trees album currently pending, Lanegan is proud he can speak in praise of his hero. "In the earlyTrees, we always tried to sound like Iggy, especially like the first and third albums. His structures are so great: both the albums and the songs."

Like Mark Arm, Mark Lanegan tips his hat further. "He's a really personal inspiration, always has been. As a solo artist, he really, really moves me. He's still going strong and never did sell out."

No, he didn't. But what's Iggy's secret? He still lives dangerously -meaning, he still lives totally in the present tense. Every room he enters, every city or country, grabs his focus with a total intensity. It's his great wealth, but it's terribly wearing. Only, for Pop, it's also how he survives.

"I construct these moments, and I move from moment to moment. But sometimes, you just have to force things. Find your moment in wine, in a conversation, in somebody's face. Just some little kind of something somewhere." ----------------------------------------------------------------- More from Iggy

"Naughty Little Doggie" is out now on Virgin. "I Need More," Iggy Pop's self-penned autobiography, will be republished by Henry Rollins' 2-13-61 press. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Iggy Pop at the Showbox

If anyone doubts Iggy Pop's status as a conceptual artist, he or she was not among those left standing after last night's show. Bursting onstage with "I Wanna Live," Pop enthralled viewers until they were exhausted. Clad in nothing but some tight black plastic pants, he flew, pranced and sang like a practiced mesmerist.

From the start, his set was incendiary but down-to-earth. Iggy's first classics ("Down On the Street," "Raw Power") were traded off against new tracks, such as "Heart Is Saved." Without missing a beat, he punched home varied favorites, reviving some (the quirky "Five Foot One") and reclaiming others (such as the famous "No Fun").

Pop's backing band, name unprintable, proved Iggy's theory that industrial noise is beautiful, and that it can possess a legitimate poetry. Enthralled by its power and by his stage mastery, as the floor shook the crowd hoisted Pop aloft. - Cynthia Rose

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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