Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Interview with Paul Trynka, author of Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed

In his revealing and detailed biography Open Up and Bleed, Paul Trynka examines the life of Jim Osterberg, better known to music fans as Iggy Pop. Trynka, formerly the reviews editor of Mojo magazine from 1999 to 2003, uses both previously-available information and new interviews he conducted to create an exhaustive, informative, and sometimes startling character study of one of music’s most celebrated and notorious personas. In the following interview, Trynka discusses a variety of Iggy-related topics, including the nature of this persona and the toll it took on the musician’s mental state, the musician’s intense ambition and lasting musical legacy, and why an Iggy Pop tune just might be the single worst song of the 1980s.

Blogcritics (BC): A central theme of the book is the contrast between Jim Osterberg as a person and Iggy Pop as a musical persona. In many ways it’s hard to reconcile the polite, articulate, and almost genteel Jim Osterberg vs. the wild madman of Iggy Pop. Do you think it reached a point where the person was indistinguishable from the persona?

Paul Trynka (PT): The classic moment when Jim Osterberg lost control of Iggy Pop was, I think, when he was hospitalized in 1974. Although he was diagnosed with hypomania, a bipolar condition, the psychiatrist who treated him now thinks his problems were simply a product of his extravagant drug intake – and his out of control personae. Of course, it was gratifying to have a clinician confirm what others had suspected, and justify what became a central premise of the book.

BC: What do you think the biggest influences were in shaping this persona? Various people quoted in the book offer up a host of reasons for the musician’s behavior.

PT: Quite simply, it was audience hostility. Jim Osterberg took his ‘art’ very seriously – and when the early audiences rejected him, or mocked him, the Iggy character became a kind of psychic armor. It helped a lot – for a while. But, just as in the best, and worst, horror movies, the creation began to take on a life of its own.

BC: You suggest that maintaining this persona eventually began to take its toll on Osterberg’s mental state.

PT: Well, eventually the man had what was essentially a mental breakdown, and became a forlorn, pathetic figure. But I think it wasn’t so much maintaining the persona that caused the breakdown, as coping with his own apparent failure. Because Jim Osterberg was a very ambitious guy.

BC: This persona is one of the most infamous in music history. In the various interviews and research you conducted for the book, how difficult was it to sort the facts from the myths?

PT: After a while, you develop a nose for the stories that aren’t true, and of course there was endless cross-checking. I felt horrendously guilty about going back to people again and again to refine a story – but did it nonetheless. That said, there were events where different people’s accounts were simply incompatible, so I’d simply choose one person’s version and construct my account from that, mentioning this in the notes. Along the way, I had to drop a lot of juicy stories that turned out to be fictitious – but then I found just as many juicy new ones, including Iggy’s bizarre involvement with voodoo practitioners in Haiti!

BC: The book offers an overall sympathetic depiction of the musician, yet there are still plenty of unflattering moments included.

PT: Of course I felt a duty to be honest, to illustrate a man who was, in terms of dealing with other people, almost entirely selfish. But his gift to other people, to all of us, was his music – and, of course, the person who suffered most in the making of it was himself.

BC: What was the most thrilling or memorable thing about seeing Iggy Pop perform? What was the atmosphere like?

PT: Those who saw him in the 60s and 70s describe a visceral thrill and excitement – and also fear, that sense that anything could happen. Even today, you get a sense of that. I found it absolutely inspiring how he’s still borne along on the music, how this 60 year-old gentleman with a bad limp becomes a carefree child, skipping onto the stage like a spring lamb.

BC: Even now, the way he would confront the audience seems startling. It’s hard to imagine any band today doing this.

PT: I guess I've seen plenty of bands out on the edge, with the sense that it could all fall apart at any moment – that’s what makes music exciting. But these days, it seems like it’s simply a career that’s at stake; in Iggy’s prime, it seemed like it was his life that was at stake.

BC: Many times Iggy Pop seemed on the verge of mainstream success, both with The Stooges and later as a solo artist, yet it eluded him. What do you think were the major factors that contributed to this?

PT: They say pioneers get all the arrows. I think that’s true. It’s generally the band who put a gloss on something new who clean up in the charts. But it’s always the pioneers that are remembered, a decade or two on. Today, who remembers that Pat Boone had more pop hits than Little Richard?

BC: The drug use documented in the book is pretty staggering, and it’s been suggested that The Stooges’ music would have sounded far different without chemical assistance.

PT: A lot of their inspiration came from drugs – they certainly wouldn’t have sounded the same, and likely wouldn’t have sounded as good, without it. But it was a Faustian pact that left two bassists dead, plus plenty of other friends.

BC: David Bowie’s motives in hooking up with Iggy Pop have been questioned for years. What’s your take?

PT: The quick answer is that, first time around, their friendship benefited David, and that second time around, it benefited Iggy. But it’s more complex than that. I think Iggy’s own description of David, when he first met him, is pretty apposite. He called him “a not unkind person.”

BC: Has the Stooges’ limited recorded output somehow enhanced their legacy? Music fans sometimes find the idea of a band that releases a few brilliant albums, lives like complete lunatics for a while, and then flames out quickly quite romantic.

PT: Well, yes, that’s a large part of their appeal, that they had three albums that were, in a fucked-up kind of way, absolutely perfect. We don’t need anything else to justify their existence.

BC: Who did you find was the most surprising band or artist to cite The Stooges as an influence?

PT: I remember Robbie Williams namechecked him to me once. Go figure.

BC: Favorite Iggy Pop/Stooges album and song?

PT: It changes every day... I'll say Raw Power, because I’m in a London frame of mind at the moment. And the song would be “Success,” which (in the supreme example of ‘critics’ being wannabe musicians) I sang for my wife at our wedding two weeks ago!

BC: Least favorite Iggy Pop/Stooges album and song?

PT: There is a particularly horrible song called “Happy Man” – a few correspondents have attempted to get me to back down, but I maintain not only is it the worst song in Iggy’s catalogue, it’s one of the worst songs of the 1980s, and that’s saying something.

BC: Any particular favorite stories or anecdotes about Iggy Pop that either did or didn’t get included in the book?

PT: I remember doing a photo shoot with him in the mid 90s, in the Lower East Side on a sweltering hot day. There was a broken fire hydrant spouting water, and we were asking him to splash himself. Some local wags saw what was happening, sneaked up behind with a cold bucket of water and emptied it over him. I still have the photos that show him laughing. Whatever his faults, I can’t imagine anyone else doing the same.

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