Saturday, August 25, 2007

Book Review- Iggy Pop; Open Up and Bleed, by Paul Trynka

Warning; This is a rather lengthy book review. Paul Trynka wrote a lengthy, but well researched biography of Iggy Pop, a very influential performer. I had hoped to convince one of several music publications to run this review, but there were no takers. Ho hum. Anyhow, once upon a time, publications like Rolling Stone ran in-depth reviews of products associated with preferred artists. I don't want this review to sit in my hard drive forever, and the book is still rather current (summer 2007), so here is my review of Iggy Pop; Open Up and Bleed by Paul Trynka. I hope it isn't too long for a blog post.

Iggy Pop; Open Up and Bleed, By Paul Trynka. (Broadway Books)

Open Up and Bleed is the most extensive book written about the life of James Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop. Previously, all fans had to go by were Iggy’s less than completely reliable 1983 autobiography I Need More and the excellent, but brief Per Nilsson book The Wild One. The English writer and Mojo Magazine editor Paul Trynka has, over the course of many years, managed to track down pretty much everyone from Iggy’s past who was willing to discuss their relationship with Iggy.

Indeed, the coverage of James’ Osterberg’s childhood is more thorough than that of his seventies concert tours. Former school mates and ex-girlfriends are consulted along with other people from Iggy’s Ann Arbor days.

Iggy Pop, or James Jewel Osterberg (named after his father James) was raised in a close knit, if uptight family where both parents worked and the preferred recreational father and son activity was golf. James, or Jim, as just about everybody in this book including its author calls Iggy when he’s in his “normal” persona, was an exceptional student as well as quite the social climber, while growing up. Interestingly, Iggy’s father was raised by a Jewish couple who adopted him, but Iggy would later make some rather anti-Semitic remarks on stage, as well as record most of his best music with a guitarist who had a Nazi fetish which included wearing SS outfits on stage. This incongruity is seldom addressed in Open Up and Bleed, but the author doesn’t gloss over or ignore Ron Asheton’s Nazi predilections, either. Trynka mentions Ron’s Nazi paraphernalia was still a fixture of life in his mother’s basement in Ann Arbor, where he was living in 1996 when the author stopped in for an interview.

One interesting observation that comes up early in the book is that being raised in a trailer park, Iggy’s stern school teacher father left no public misconceptions about his family’s social or economic status around affluent Ann Arbor. While trailer parks have long been associated with poverty and stereotyped as populated only by white trash, Jim lived in a solid community which was ultimately razed to make room for a highway.

Jim was apparently popular with the girls from a young age, which was presumably helped by his well built body and rather large penis which comes up, so to speak, through the course of the book. Suffice to say, even when he was a broke has-been, which happened several times in his remarkable career, Jim never had a problem finding girls, even if some of them were underage.

By the time The Stooges were formed with the thuggish Asheton brothers and the late Dave Alexander, playing Michigan clubs, their music was taken to be either avant-garde or merely bizarre. One early show was busted by the police who found a naked Iggy fronting a loud band. Thinking they had stumbled upon some illegal gay strip club, the cops had to promise not to beat up the naked singer before Iggy could be persuaded to emerge from hiding.

Various lingering debates among Iggy fans over such matters as how much input came from the respective producers of the three Stooges albums are discussed at some length in Open Up and Bleed. Over the years, Iggy and the Stooges have lamented the production on all of their records, especially the first and third releases. An early and long time champion of the band, Danny Fields (who got them signed to Elektra Records with the MC 5 in 1968) managed to get the well respected John Cale to produce the Stooges debut, and regardless of Jim’s comments about Cale and his input, it would seem the producer was indeed an active and effective producer for The Stooges. The 1973 classic record “Raw Power” was produced by David Bowie. He was later referred to as “that fucking carrot top” who destroyed a brilliant recording by Iggy and the rest of the band. The Stooges used to describe their mix as heavier, and without the yelping sound on the original record. Unfortunately for the Stooges, their preferred mixes have been well distributed among fans and sold by bootleggers over the years, and the record as produced by Bowie sounds undeniably livelier.

In any case, David Bowie would prove to be Jim Osterberg’s best friend for many years. David suggests they grew apart in the nineties after Jim was sick of discussing David Bowie in every single interview. Paul Trynka asserts the both Jim and David recorded much of their best work collaboratively over their time living and recording in Berlin in the mid-seventies, and he has a point. In fact, many long time fans probably feel the 1978 album “Lust For Life” is Iggy’s last great record.

David Bowie came to Jim’s aid several times before their retreat to Berlin. In 1972, Bowie got Jim signed to his MainMan management company and despite what became of MainMan, David was clearly looking out for Jim. He would repeat the favour a couple of years later, and even after their time in Berlin, the two would work together again in the late 1980’s.

In 1972, the original Stooges had blown apart. MainMan saw Iggy as a solo artist rather than the Stooges as a group. The afore-mentioned Danny Fields, is one of the book’s most engaging raconteurs. He described the Stooges highs and lows from that brief two year period when they looked to be poised for success. Iggy himself was a big hit with the trendy regulars at Max’s Kansas City during several visits to the New York City night spot, and Danny Fields had the presence of mind to have recorded a few of the New York Stooges performances for posterity. Whether these include the recently discovered 1970 recording from Ungano’s, a New York City club, is not mentioned, but Danny’s perspective is interesting.

Danny also introduced Jim to cocaine in Los Angeles during the “Fun House” recording sessions in 1969. Jim, or perhaps more accurately Iggy, would have problems with coke and other drugs for almost two decades. Nonetheless, this unfortunate introduction was bound to happen, as cocaine suddenly appeared all over Ann Arbor when Jim returned from L.A. Paul Trynka blames President Nixon’s 1969 crackdown on marijuana for the rise in cocaine use at this time. Apparently, Michigan stoners first had to content themselves with opium-laced hash from Canada, then cocaine made a splash, and heroin came on the scene. By the fall of 1970, the author described heroin as “flooding” Detroit. The Stooges, like many other Detroit musicians, ended up strung out on junk before long, and by 1971 they were often getting paid in cocaine or heroin. Danny Fields described a double bill featuring Alice Cooper and The Stooges, and each act was getting paid 1500$. Danny saw Alice Cooper’s band getting ready with their make up and wigs while he pulled a needle out of Iggy’s arm, squirting blood on his face. It was obvious at the moment, he said, that one of the two bands in the room was on the verge of stardom while the other was heading for the bathroom floor.

In 1971, Iggy and MC 5 guitarist Wayne Kramer even had a heroin selling business, which seemed to involve Iggy steering clients for Wayne who had a good heroin supplier in Detroit. The partnership was terminated at gunpoint by Kramer, who returned from an MC 5 tour to find no money or dope or Iggy- he had been hospitalized for an overdose.

By the time David Bowie visited Jim in rehab in 1975, the singer’s post-Stooges L.A. accommodations ran the gamut, from living off rich girls to sharing a garage floor with some male hustler to a forced stay in a mental hospital. The following year, he was invited to join Bowie’s “Station to Station” tour, and a year later the two would be recording the Iggy Pop “comeback” album, “The Idiot.”

There are a few topics which are covered all too briefly in Open Up and Bleed and Iggy’s 1970’s live career is one of them. While Paul Trynka talked to Michael Tippin, who recorded some of the Stooges Detroit concerts, including the notorious final show at Michigan Palace, the final Stooges tour is written off as a doomed waste of time. “There were no good shows” is one quote used, but there was surely more that could have been written about this period of Jim’s life. The 1977 tour is barely discussed at all; this was Jim’s triumphant come-back tour, the shows were often very well received, and the up and coming band Blondie shared the bill. Debbie Harry discusses this tour more in her book than Trynka’s scant coverage here. In fact, she describes Iggy and some of the Blondie members playing an after-show in Seattle, where Iggy sang Doors and MC 5 covers for a few lucky fans. There were also other events on this tour, like Jim jamming with old friends in Ann Arbor. Given he would later share a tour with Wayne Kramer, last seen robbing Jim for revenge in 1971, there must have been a few interesting tales left out of the book. The subsequent “Lust For Life” tour receives little coverage, and when the topic of Jim’s stage work does come up, the author suggests Jim’s constant touring from 1979-82 did more harm than good for his creativity and his career.

I have to disagree with this assessment, especially in the case of singers like Iggy Pop, who’s reputation comes from his live appearances more than his records. “New Values,” “Soldier” and “Party” are described as being mediocre to dreadful records, in descending order. Road-testing new material would have quite likely saved Jim the trouble of recording some of the turkeys he released in the early eighties. Iggy Pop was a steady live draw, and it was his concerts (and definitely not his new records) that kept his fans around during those years. Touring was also the only way for Jim to make any money; his records were expensive to record, and kept tanking. The expenses of studio bills and a cocaine habit took a lot of road work, and Jim was living night to night.

The author proposes “Lust For Life” should have been a strong seller, having made the English charts upon release, but at this time, in the summer of 1977, Elvis Presley died. This meant RCA Records virtually shelved all non-Elvis projects, and went into overdrive rush-releasing Elvis product through the rest of the year. Once the first pressing of “Lust For Life” sold out in the U.K. there were no subsequent pressings, and the l.p. disappeared from stores. This notion hasn’t been brought up before, but it would be interesting to see what other well-regarded records fell off the radar over the years due to circumstances that had nothing to do with the artist.

Paul Trynka gives the reader a stronger appreciation for Jim’s backing bands over the years. The Stooges, for all their perceived incompetence, were one of the most adventurous sounding groups to emerge from the musical hotbed of the Motor City, and later players included the famous Sales brothers (bass and guitar), Ivan Kral from Patti Smith’s band, Fred Sonic Smith, Carlos Alomar from David Bowie’s group, and many others. For all the debauchery and antics of an Iggy Pop performance, the band’s playing was usually tight, and surely helped Iggy Pop get repeat bookings when album sales might have suggested it wasn’t worth bringing Iggy Pop to one’s town.

After bottoming out again in 1983, Iggy pulled himself together and apparently quit cocaine again. Quitting such a destructive drug was obviously a sound move, but the influence cocaine on Jim’s studio work is unclear; if coke helped ruin albums like “Party”, suggests Trynka, then it must have helped during the equally coke-infused “Lust For Life” sessions, or it might not have had much effect on Jim’s recording sessions. The author also paraphrases the photographer Robert Matheu on the topic of being “clean”; “drug-free simply meant that it was not cool to share your cocaine anymore; instead, everyone snorted in private.”

Regardless, Jim’s relative good health was matched by David Bowie’s when they got together to record “Blah Blah Blah.” This was described by many fans and critics as the best 1980’s record that Bowie never made, and clearly his influence is all over the poppy album. “Blah Blah Blah” was the best selling Iggy Pop album in many years, and his cover of “Real Wild Child” was a hit in England, where Iggy records always sold better than they did Stateside. The record is described as a pristine, crisp recording, and the author seems to quite like the record. Many long-time fans certainly found it too slick and watered down, but they were waiting for him when Iggy hit the road again in 1986. This is cited as a particularly strong tour, but despite the longer sets, the energy level seemed to wane a little with all the synthesizers and sound effects that characterized these shows.

The follow-up “Instinct” record and tour is decried by Trynka as corporate rock, and lamented Iggy’s going on tour with a “hair band”, but only one “hairy” newcomer was on that tour. It was also hailed by a lot of fans as Iggy’s return to hard rock, after drifting dangerously far into Bowie-territory over the previous two years. Of course, the quality of Iggy Pop records and tours is as debatable as any esthetic argument, but almost everyone was surprised when the follow-up record, “Brick By Brick” became the best selling Iggy release to date. In fact, the nineties were Jim’s most prosperous decade ever; his old songs suddenly became hip, as one popular new artist after another insisted on singing Iggy’s praises. The smash hit movie “Trainspotting” featured a generous helping of Iggy music in the soundtrack, and “Lust For Life” enjoyed a second life as a hit song and a third life as a catchy jingle, minus the “liquor and drugs” reference (at least until the song is licensed by some private rehab-clinic). A string of increasingly predictable releases followed, but once again it was the live performances (as well as “Lust For Life” by this point) that kept Iggy in demand. One drawback with Iggy Pop recording sessions for many years now has been the steadfast desire for one record company after another to hook him up with a hot-shot producer-du-jour who was expected to get a commercial success out of the work. One would have thought this unreliable method would have lost favour by now, but perhaps the need for record company staff to cover themselves for slow sellers requires they only release the most commercial sounding music they can.

Trynka suggests Iggy’s constant touring was an attempt to make up for wasting so much time, blowing off potential work right through the early and mid-seventies. It could well be the case, as Iggy is hardly desperate for cash, as he was on those early eighties tours.

Finally, in 2003, twenty years after publishing his often petty autobiography, the impossible finally happened; the Stooges reunited. They played on some of Iggy’s c.d. “Skull Ring” and even performed a few dates together. The shows presumably went well, because The Stooges have been playing on and off ever since. Earlier this year they recorded a new c.d. together called “The Weirdness.” Open Up and Bleed is nothing if not up to date.

Overall, this huge undertaking has paid off in an enjoyable and informative read. Anyone interested in this book is presumably an Iggy fan already, but there Paul Trynka adds plenty to the already well known facts about Iggy Pop. There are a few points where the author might have dug a little deeper, most notably on Iggy Pop’s live career. There are plenty of bootlegs and other live recordings, as well as other people’s accounts of those shows. Similarly, the infamous Skydog label is barely discussed, and erroneously cited as beginning operations in 1973 with the release of a Flamin’ Groovies album. In fact, Skydog released a (terrible) performance of Jimi Hendrix with Jim Morrison in 1970, as well as the first Velvet Underground bootleg, using Brigid Polk’s Sony cassette recording that was later used for the “Live at Max’s Kansas City” set. There was a lot of controversy over the “Metallic K.O.” Skydog release in 1976; it was by all accounts a bootleg, and Iggy claimed the label’s owner Marc Zermati never had permission to release the set. “Metallic K.O.” must be one of the most influential rock albums of the seventies, and the controversy surrounding it surely contributed to its punk cache. In fact, a complete discography of The Stooges that included the bootleg and quasi-legitimate releases through the seventies and eighties would have been an excellent addition, and it has after all been almost twenty years since Per Nilsson’s book (with it’s extensive discography and listing of available recordings) book came out. More pictures would have been most welcome as well. That said, there is a decent collection of pictures featured, covering Jim’s entire life on and off stage. Open Up and Bleed is one of the more ambitious recent books about any rock star, and the research is complemented by some particularly well informed interviews.

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