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Iggy Pop (live at the Royal Albert Hall)

London
13 May 2016

Blow my cool. Bite my lip. See me through on my death trip.

Once the needle had finally run out from the closing grooves of “Death Trip”, the concluding song of Iggy and The Stooges’ 1973 white-hot masterpiece Raw Power, there was no shortage of occasions when it looked like the title was truly a prophecy rather than merely youthful braggadocio. When The Stooges finally imploded after their last two concerts at Detroit’s Michigan Palace in February 1974 – thankfully captured for posterity as the live album Metallic K.O. – the resulting chaos was perfectly summed up by Lester Bangs:

The audience, which consisted largely of bikers, was unusually hostile, and Iggy, as usual, fed on that hostility, soaked it up and gave it back and absorbed it all over again in an eerie, frightening symbiosis. “All right,” he finally said, stopping a song in the middle, “you assholes wanna hear ‘Louie, Louie’, we’ll give you ‘Louie, Louie.’” So the Stooges played a forty-five-minute version of ‘Louie Louie’, including new lyrics improvised by the Pop on the spot consisting of “You can suck my ass / You biker faggot sissies,” etc. By now the hatred in the room is one huge livid wave, and Iggy singles out one heckler who has been particularly abusive: “Listen, asshole, you heckle me one more time and I’m gonna come down there and kick your ass.” “Fuck you, you little punk,” responds the biker. So Iggy jumps off the stage, runs through the middle of the crowd, and the guy beats the shit out of him, ending the evening’s musical festivities by sending the lead singer back to his motel room and a doctor. I walk into the dressing room, where I encounter the manager of the club offering to punch out anybody in the band who will take him on. The next day the bike gang, who call themselves the Scorpions, will phone WABX-FM and promise to kill Iggy and the Stooges if they play the Michigan Palace on Thursday night. They do (play, that is), and nobody gets killed, but Metallic K.O. is the only rock album I know where you can actually hear hurled beer bottles breaking against guitar strings.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Bangs referred to Metallic K.O. as “documentation of the Iggy holocaust at its most nihilistically out of control”, and, listening back through the rock and roll canon, it’s hard to find anything that matches its sheer visceral sense of violence and obliteration. When it came, and it is possibly remarkable that it took so long, the end of The Stooges was a desperate, bitter and destructive affair. Iggy’s heroin habit was killing both the man and his career, the musical body of The Stooges had been staked through the heart by a hostile music industry and tipped into an unmarked grave, and the world seemed no longer to have even the smallest place for Mr Pop and his band of slam-happy Detroit droogs. Unbelievably, though, only six months later, things got worse.

Iggy Pop RAH May 2016

In early August 1974, a disconnected and directionless Iggy staged an improvised “play” entitled Murder of a Virgin at Rodney Bingeheimer’s English Disco, an event so appalling in its desperation that those who witnessed its fifteen ghastly minutes stills speak of it in shocked tones over four decades later. Wearing a pair of Jim Morrison’s leather trousers loaned by his “manager” Danny Sugarman, Iggy asked the audience “Do you want to see blood?”, at which they bayed back for it like a pox-ridden crowd at the Tyburn Gallows. Then, at Iggy’s instigation, guitarist Ron Asheton, sporting his best Afrika Korps regalia, complete with swastika armband, choked him and whipped him with a scourge he had improvised from a length of electrical flex. Iggy then began hurling racial epithets at a black spectator in the audience, trying to goad the man into stabbing him with the steak knife he’d borrowed from Sugarman and brought onstage. Not getting the desired result, Iggy closed the set by carving an X into his chest himself. Super-groupie Pamela Des Barres, another attendee that night, remembered the horrifying conclusion with a grim succinctness: “They then put him in a burlap bag, out of the club and into the gutter.” Sugarman tells of trying later to get Iggy down to the beach in order to wash his wounds and attempting to revive him.

Much of the next eighteen months passed in the same borderline psychotic manner, a heavy blanket of sedative hypnotics seeing Iggy sinking ever lower around the streets of Hollywood, frequently being seen “sleeping rough…or passed out on Quaaludes in a parking lot.” Eventually Sugarman took a call from a man called Dr Zucker, who memorably told him: “I work at UCLA Neuropsychiatry Hospital, where I’m on call. So far I’ve admitted two Jesus Christs, a Napoleon Bonaparte, an albino who thinks he’s Santa Claus, and I now have his guy the cops brought in who claims he’s Iggy Pop and you’re his manager.”Such were the wages of rock and roll that Iggy was drawing at the time.

Thanks to Zucker’s sympathetic and patient care, though – a gentle but firm regime of discussion groups, background reading and Spartan sleeping quarters – Iggy gradually began to pull back in from the edge of the ledge. Abstinence from intoxicants was, however, an iron rule, and to this end neither visitors nor gifts were allowed – that beautiful bunch of geraniums could possibly conceal a carefully-secreted wrap of white powder or some such other expressway straight back to mental derangement.

One visitor, however, did manage to make it through this cordon sanitaire, his fame and otherworldly appearance flabbergasting the hospital staff and opening doors closed to mere mortals. Like Luke Skywalker breezing into Jabba the Hut’s lair in Return of the Jedi, David Bowie walked in through the front door one day in order to find his old friend, and would not take no for an answer. This was a different Bowie, though, from the efficient, calculating careerist of several years before. Remarkably, Bowie was in state of mental disorder that rivalled even Iggy’s – though with more financial and artistic capital to limit the damage – living in paranoid seclusion in Beverly Hills, eating only green peppers and milk, keeping his urine in the fridge (lest it be obtained by his magical foes for nefarious purposes), andhoovering up truly industrial quantities of Columbian marching powder.1

Scooping up the Ig, the two men fled California, running quite literally for their lives, their careers and their sanity. Following Bowie’s unerring instinct for a happening scene, they fetched up in Europe to begin the long, slow process of rebuilding their artistic careers.2 Living together and collaborating on a warped Anglo-American take on the electronic New German Music of the era,3 for Iggy the result was his first and second solo albums, The Idiot and Lust For Life, a double whammy which appeared in 1977 and put him right back on the musical map, fortuitously (for once) at exactly the moment that the new generation of Punk musicians were starting to revere him as the John the Baptist of their new religion.

Iggy Pop RAH May 2016

And it is those two albums – together with Iggy’s newest, Post Pop Depression – which form the basis of tonight’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Much of the (positive) critical reaction to the new album has referred to it as “…his best since The Idiot and Lust For Life…”, and the grouping of the three albums this evening further underlines the seemingly-deliberate intention to present them as a triptych of sorts, even if the final instalment took some thirty-nine years to arrive. The presence of the song “German Days” also seems to indicate a wistful retro-connection with the Berlin-era material – Iggy’s corollary of Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” The massive contribution of Josh Homme, a huge fan of the two German albums, cannot be underestimated here, the younger man pushing the older to recognise his classics in a way that might not otherwise have come to pass so overtly.

Homme and the band hit the stage in svelte red evening jackets, their tapered sartorial fit as slim, tight and elegant as their collective musical swing. Iggy’s sidemen have often over the decades been prone to a cycle of variable quality, a boom and bust that saw them great at some junctures, terrible at other. This band, however, with Josh Homme and Matt Helders as the supporting joists, is as good as it gets. Thedeafening wall of audience noise that greets their intro riffing is the inverted image of those nights at the Michigan Palace, the sound of love and reverence breaking against guitar strings, as Bangs might have put it.

Iggy Pop RAH May 2016As the irrepressible beat to “Lust for Life” bounces every person in the room into hopping, grooving, nodding or moshing, the sense of anticipation rises to a near hysterical peak. The audience are quite literally becoming demented. Finally, just at the moment of rupture, the Great Survivor appears on stage. Looking back on the classic photo of Bowie, Iggy and Lou standing in a line, he is now the last of the three legends with us (four if you include the cheeky Marc Bolan peeping out from Iggy’s T-shirt). Bowie’s death last January seemed like a very real trigger event; it brought many people up short, probably because most, like me, had assumed he was immortal. With their music, their iconography and their inspiration so deeply imbedded in our sense of self (for some of us, at least), their deaths have hit rather harder than most and brought the prospect just a little nearer for us all. I realise with no little personal amazement that Iggy Pop has now outlived my dad (and he wasn’t even prone to OD-ing on Quaaludes and impaling himself on borrowed steak knives). Jesus.

And now, like some thrashing, 100,000 volt electric eel, and dressed in plain back jacket and trousers, Iggy is in front of us, contorting, jumping, thrashing and grinning from ear to ear. He prowls the stage, waving at every corner of the enormous auditorium,dragging each and every member of the audience into the swirling vortex of his show. He waves at our section and every (wo)man jack of us instantly jumps up and down and waves back, “Whoooooo Iggyyyyyyyy!!!!!!2 Scarcely one song in and I’m already thinking, “Let’s not ever again get blasé about this man. He truly is fucking incredible.”

There follows two hours of astonishing and solid gold Iggy material, every song lovingly reproduced from the original blueprints, whether “Sister Midnight”, “Some Weird Sin” or “Paraguay”, “Nightclubbing”, “Sixteen” or “Fall In Love With Me”. Even the gloomy proto-industrial electronica of “Mass Production” makes an unexpected appearance. With survival and longevity very much the subtext of the night, for a moment I get a chilling mental image of The Idiot spinning silently on a turntable in a silent Macclesfield house.4

I’m particularly thrilled when a personal favourite, “Tonight”, is played in all its gorgeous glory. I find myself singing along lustily and perhaps even stifling a slight tear – “Everything will be alright… tonight.” It was Iggy’s anthem for doomed youth, but now it’s almost a measure of his endurance. Pleasingly too, unlike many large venues these days, the sound (wo)man has done a proper job, and the vocals rise above the howl, meaning that we can hear The Ig as well as see the him whilst he hurtles around the stage like a pinball careening off the flippers.

Iggy Pop RAH May 2016

During a break in the set Iggy commands “Turn up the lights in this f****** dump!” And lo, there is light. He shields his eyes and gets a good look at his fanatical faithful, drinking in the sight of his vindication and the crystallisation of his myth for at least another generation. And, despite the advancing years and no small measure of bodily pain,5 he hurls himself from the stage into the audience with the kind of abandon that defies belief. He knows that people have turned up to see Iggy Pop, and Jim Osterberg is damned if he’s going to let such bagatelles as the ravages of time get in the way of that. Whilst horizontal on top of the audience, being borne aloft and tossed around like a tiny ship on a raging sea, not only does he not miss a lyric, he doesn’t even miss a beat or a breathe. How is this even possible? For a man so long derided as a fruitcake by the mainstream music industry, his professionalism and dedication are really second to none. But for all the doubters and nay-sayers, he’s outfought them and he’s outlived them, and tonight it is only him that matters, not the critical opinion of minnows long since forgotten.

Throughout the course of the set some incredible energy vortex feeds itself through the room, Iggy whipping the crowd into a fury of excitement, and then feeding back on it himself.At several points of the show, nubile young ladies leap onto the stage and snog him for as long as they can before the security guards shepherd them away. “Let go of my pants, baby!”, he says as another attempts to pull him off the stage by his trousers. When he leaps into the crowd and conducts a fifteen minute Arkestra-style walkaround/surf-around of the stalls, he’s being kissed by every girl and bear-hugged by every guy. Having lost so many legends in such a short space of time recently, everyone wants a bit of the last remaining one and, in a show of love so polar opposite to the years of the Iggy holocaust, tonight he’s making sure that they get it. Fiona comments that she’s never seen quite such a show of love between performer and audience before. Perhaps only Brian Wilson’s comeback performance of Smile at the Royal Festival Hall comes to mind, but with Wilson still as shocked as a rabbit in the headlights, the energy of that evening came nowhere near what we are experiencing here tonight.

The final song of the evening is, pointedly, “Success”. Featuring its ludicrous call-and-response of “Here comes my Chinese rug”, I’m grinning like an idiot all the way through. With his esteemed BBC 6Music show Iggy Confidential, an acclaimed new album and an Albert Hall full to the brim of adoring admirers, “Success” is not a boast, nor an expectation, nor even a cold revenge. It’s simply the truth. At 69 years young, Iggy has nothing left to prove, no explanations to make and no bars to making at least one or two more classic albums before he is called to that great rock and roll Valhalla in the sky.6

Mr Pop, a grateful nation salutes you.

-David Solomons-

1 Angie Bowie’s memories of the house on North Doheny Drive say everything about Bowie’s mental state at the time: “David liked the place, but I thought it was too small to meet our needs for very long, and I wasn’t crazy about the pool. In my experience, indoor pools are always a problem. This one was no exception, albeit not in any of the usual ways. Its drawback was one I hadn’t encountered before and haven’t seen or heard of since: Satan lived in it. With his own eyes, David said, he’d seen HIM rising up out of the water one night.”

2 Although, even during this wretched nadir, in collaboration with James Williamson, Iggy still managed to co-write much of the classic material that would form the backbone of Kill City. He recorded the vocals on weekend release from the institution.

3 This flocking together of birds of a feather was recorded forever in the lyrics to Kraftwerk’s classic “Trans-Europe Express”: “From station to station back to Düsseldorf city, meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”

4 “Mass Production” was the last song that Ian Curtis would have heard before he took his own life in the kitchen of his home. He was 23.

5 In recent interviews, Homme has let slip the extent to which Iggy is in constant pain from decades of bodily abuse of one sort or another.

6 The Ig has hinted that Post Pop Depression may be his last album.

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