Friday, May 29, 2009

BrooklynBio: Iggy Pop

Since releasing his first album as a member of the Stooges forty years ago, Iggy Pop – the titular Godfather of Punk -- has acquired as much a reputation for his hard living as he has for being one of rock’s less boorish exponents (indeed, his article “Caesar Lives” appeared in the academic journal Classics Ireland some years ago). Since the Igster is such a man of open-mindedness and multitudinous talent, it should come as no surprise that his early 80s lean years included a sojourn in an exotic locale for the Ann Arbor native (nee James Osterberg)… Bensonhurst!

After trading in the doldrums of a heroin addiction in ennui-laden L.A. for clean living with David Bowie in Berlin in 1976, Pop seemed poised to break through to the mainstream with the classically off-kilter The Idiot (1977) and the shamanistic tour de force of Lust for Life (September 1977). Unfortunately, the wave of outpouring that surrounded the unexpected death of Elvis Presley forced RCA – Pop’s label at the time – to drop all extant publicity campaigns in favor of pressing more copies of Moody Blue (the King’s lamentably turgid swan song). Without any publicity or support, Lust for Life stalled on the charts, leaving Pop as dejected as he had been when Columbia failed to promote the sinuous Raw Power in 1973. Having blown yet another opportunity in his eyes, Pop spent the next few years on a shambolic never-ending tour characterized by diminishing returns, pausing only to release the intermittent album of punk-influenced dross on Arista Records.

Having reached a new critical and commercial nadir by 1982, he returned to New York City – the site of his greatest triumphs – and signed with indie label Animal Records in a prevaricative move. “After the Party tour, I was broke and I didn’t know how to get a room to live in. A roadie from that time, an Italian American, helped me to find a room… I felt very lonesome.” The apartment was in Bensonhurst, then an off-the-beaten-path Italian/Jewish enclave some 40 minutes away by subway from Pop’s stomping grounds in downtown Manhattan. (Continued displacement from gentrification, coupled with an influx of immigrants that began around this time, have seen Bensonhurst emerge as one of the most diverse and lively neighborhoods in the borough.) The solitude proved beneficial – fueled by kosher hot dogs, “good Chinese dishes”, and behemoth pasta dishes from the area’s ristorantes, the provocateur rallied to produce one of his more underrated efforts, Zombie Birdhouse. Recorded at Blank Tape Studios (an intimate space frequented by the likes of Arthur Russell and the Talking Heads) and produced in conjunction with Chris Stein of Blondie, the record successfully blends crisp new wave melodies with spoken word interludes redolent of Patti Smith and The Doors. Although seldom cited as one of his better efforts by the critical cognoscenti, the album was a definite return to form and remains a cult classic among Iggy connoisseurs.

Alas, a life of anonymity under the clangor of the West End line (then home to the B train) proved not to be an ideal fit for one of rock’s more astringent talents. The release of Zombie Birdhouse was overshadowed by David Bowie’s hit cover of the dissolute Berlin-era anthem “China Girl”, finally relieving the singer of the precarious financial straits he had known for his entire adult life. After paying off a not inconsiderable tax bill and breaking up with longtime companion Esther Friedmann, Pop established his long-term residence at the then-haute Chistodora House – reviled by many of his fans as one of the East Village’s first tangible examples of gentrification – on Avenue B and 10th Street. Although he still maintains an apartment there to this day, you’re more likely to find the rocker at his regular residence in the even more improbable environs of Miami. Pop’s latest album, the jazz and electronica-influenced Preliminaires, was released to some of the best reviews of his career earlier this week.

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