Pop is, after all, punk’s great survivor. The first, one of the baddest, now 72 and still kicking thanks to quitting smoking, catching early nights, some Qigong exercise. Not so much intravenous cocaine and on-stage outrage and self-harm, more swims at the beach near his Miami home and pre-gig meditation.
Listening to something I enjoy and excites me has always been my escape from the drudgery of life.
As rivals, contemporaries, beloved friends fall by the wayside, here’s Pop, still, a wrinkly, preserved punk rocker, sweeter but no less intense, getting pretty deaf but with gleaming white teeth.
Punk is anger but there’s none to find today in Iggy Pop. The T-shirt under the leather jacket says “I Need More”. More life. More music. Laughs.
There’s irony here, for the man whose voice induces Rage every week in Australia, and whose quirky, unexpected new album Free includes a reading of a Dylan Thomas’ poem, the one that goes:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Yeah, don’t take it literally, Pop says, in his deep, rough, slow drawl. It’s just a poem. And the punchline is “really not the great part”. He read it in an advertising job a few years back, and loved the characters in it, “who just before, just at the end of the game realise oh shit, this is where I f—ed up. The wise man who’s angry because his words had forked no lightning. The wild man who catches the sun in flight and sings the song of the sun, but he grieved it on its way, you know.
“Show-offs don’t get a warm love life. That’s how I took it. I just thought, well, I’d do that [poem] pretty well. I’d like to perform it with music. It was really not – it doesn’t have to be personal.”
Take his claim not to see any autobiographical lines here with some crusty grains of salt. But the way he sees it, he’s not the wise man or the wild man. He’s made it. At last.
“You know I had a pretty rough haul,” he says. “Right up through the end of the century.”
He was the guy that everyone making a hundred times as much money was citing as inspiration.
“But then at the end of the century the corporations started coming around, putting out Greatest Hits. Licences started appearing. First it was mostly glory. Then later it started being money. I decided f— it, and f— you everybody, and moved to Miami.”
In the new century the Stooges reformed for a decade (“it upped the scope of my operation, but it’s always a big pain in the f—ing keister to have partners”), and the last five years was “a process of hanging out my own shingle again”.
Now he’s as well off as he needs to be. He drives a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Once the money started coming in did he think, I’ve done enough? Time to wind down?
“Oh f— no. No. It’s not me. I hadn’t fully realised my talent. My possible skills. My popular potential. It would have driven me nuts.”
Now, though, he’s not so sure. “I can go to Hell now and at least I’ve been here,” he says.
He points to his “I Need More” T-shirt, and tells me about the new album.
“I wanted to do a little more non-rock,” he says, with a crunch on the last consonant like he’s choking on it. “I wanted to step away from the rock grind in which you make the album by spending eight hours a day in the studio with a bunch of somewhat randy, hairy individuals with all sorts of energy and ideas who are all 30 years younger than you.
“I wanted to get away from that and the whole type of machine and type of expectation that goes with it while still doing some of that on my own terms [in] my live gigs.”
A former New York Times jazz critic sent Pop some recordings by Leron Thomas, a 40 year-old genre-bending American jazz trumpeter, session musician (“sideman”) and songwriter who’s almost the definition of underground – in Australia his tracks have mostly only been heard on 3RRR.
It was some spoken word stuff plus “this incredible horn”. Thought Pop: “I don’t know what you call this but I know this guy can really play”. Studio sessions together turned into an album. Close friends of Pop told him not to, but Pop “had to bark”, he says. “Yup. I’m the artist here. I’m the big dog. I’m going to put this stuff out.”
Pop isn’t saying he doesn’t love rock music any more. He says if you don’t love rock music it wasn’t done right. They probably used too much technology to “stiffen”, equalise, digitally correct. He learnt that the hard way, he says, when he sat with an engineer for 12 hours a few years back fixing a “sloppy” recording of a song called Sterility, correcting the drum beat, compressing the guitars.
“But of course what I was creating was a piece of sterility,” Pop says. “Right? I put it in my car stereo and peooow, there went my hard on because it was bullshit.
“Mistakes are human. There’s sex in the machine but there’s no love.”
He’s also conflicted about the modern music scene. He’s switched on, thanks to his eclectic, hypnotic BBC Radio 6 show. He loves Australia’s the Chats, Courtney Barnett, US experimentalist Lingua Ignota, quirky English rockers the Lovely Eggs.
“All these little monsters know what publishing is,” he says, half horrified, half admiring. “They know about digital royalty collections. They know how to swing merchandise tie-ins. They’re not innocent. Like I was.
“But there is some wonderful romance to the country fool. And that whole thing seems to be lost. I’m a fool. I’m a country fool.
“Listening to something I enjoy and excites me has always been my escape from the drudgery of life since I was, what, 13? It’s just the same thing.”
Free is now available.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age