In late July, in a brief window between professional appointments, Iggy Pop drove to the mouth of Biscayne Bay, so that he could bob in its tropical waters. In 1995, he had bought what he described as “a very seedy condo” in Miami, and he has had a home in the city ever since. The extremity of the place—it is both environmentally tenuous and aesthetically vulgar—seems to suit Pop, who, in the late nineteen-sixties, as a member of the Stooges, helped invent and refine punk rock, a genre of music so menacing and physically savage that it is sometimes shocking that Pop has made it to the age of seventy-two. After he moved to Miami, he started swimming every day. “I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I’d go to the beach and come home, go to the beach and come home. I tried to build myself back up from twenty years in harness—New York City, the modern American record industry, gruelling economy touring. I quit smoking here.”
From afar, Pop resembles a bronze statuette. He is lithe, sinewy, and deeply tanned, with a torso that, for decades, has appeared so exquisitely and minutely muscled that an onlooker might reasonably assume it was painted on. In recent years, his midsection has relaxed a bit, but he assured me, while patting it, that it remains quite firm. His hair is blond, shoulder length, pin straight, and parted in the middle, and his eyes are an oceanic blue. Though he has had Lasik surgery—“In Colombia, before it was legal here”—his vision is still imperfect, a malady he chalks up to doing too much intravenous cocaine. He has retained a bit of a round, Midwestern accent from his upbringing, outside Detroit. In conversation, he is nearly guileless, and he listens intently and carefully. Periodically, his face will collapse into a benevolent grin.
He kicked a pair of striped Gucci slides onto the sand. One shoe had been customized with a platform sole, to correct for an inch-and-a-half difference in the length of his legs, a condition he attributes to arthritis combined with an old football injury. As he waded in, Pop told me that he’d once stayed at a Holiday Inn in Tallahassee, missing a Merle Haggard performance in the hotel bar by a day. Earlier, he had suggested that he didn’t know very much about country music, but then he spoke thoughtfully and at some length about the careers of Doc Watson, Hank Williams, and Waylon Jennings, before putting his head underwater and starting a vigorous swim—a mixture of freestyle and backstroke—to a buoy about fifty yards offshore.
Pop is a voracious and enthusiastic student of American music, from the Ronettes and Dave Brubeck to Link Wray and Bob Dylan. Earlier in the day, at a small studio in Coral Gables, Pop had recorded two episodes of “Iggy Confidential,” the BBC Radio 6 music program he began hosting in 2015, after finding that he enjoyed the experience of acting, as he put it, as “a kind of atmospheric bartender.” His broadcasting voice is deep, slow, and pleasantly wobbly. “Comparing my patter when I started the thing and my patter now, I sound nearer and nearer to my expiration,” Pop said. “I sound like Shrek.”
Pop’s selections that morning included songs from contemporary acts such as FKA Twigs, Bill Callahan, Cate Le Bon, and Tyler, the Creator, along with “Hot Chile,” a single that James Brown and his band released in 1960, using the pseudonym Nat Kendrick and the Swans. As a d.j., Pop is good at revealing the connective tissue between seemingly incompatible numbers. After cueing up “Dream Baby Dream,” by the experimental punk duo Suicide, he sat up in his chair and adjusted his spectacles. “Alan Vega, he had rock and R. & B. moves,” he said. “He reminds me a little of Bruno Mars and Sal Mineo.” Between shows, Pop emerged from the cool, dark booth, shirtless and looking for sunshine. “Wanna go outside and warm up?” he asked. He discovers new music for his show by taking the recommendations of friends and opening acts, by reading the shortest, most obscure reviews published in the Guardian, or by looking through the upcoming concert listings published each Friday in the Times. It has kept him awake to the moment.
In early August, the eponymous début album from the Stooges, which Pop helped form, in 1967, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. In September, Pop will release “Free,” his eighteenth solo album. “Free” is his most surprising record in decades, and one of his most collaborative. “I began to recoil from guitar riffs in favor of guitarscapes, from twangs in favor of horns, from back beat in favor of space, and, in large part, from the effluent of my own mind and problems, in favor of trying to interpret the poetry of others,” he writes in the liner notes. Two of his writing partners on the album are Leron Thomas, a jazz trumpeter from Houston, and the composer and filmmaker Sarah Lipstate, who records as Noveller.
Thomas wrote lyrics for half of the tracks on “Free,” including “Dirty Sanchez,” a lewd, tense meditation on contemporary sexuality that includes the lines “Just because I like big tits / Doesn’t mean I like big dicks.” “I was thinking, How do I explain to this guy”—Thomas—“that this is career suicide?” Pop told me. “So I wrote him and said, ‘Look, the best thing you can do is put some horn on it.’ That’s my contribution: ‘Put some horn on it!’ So he horned the shit out of it, you know?” Pop went on, “I sang the song once, just for fun, and I thought, you know, Don’t turn into a total fart here. Put that out.” Pop sings the lines with a kind of deranged glee, as if he were trying to get the words out while being dragged off to jail.
David Bowie, Pop, and Lou Reed at the Dorchester Hotel, in London, in 1972.
Photograph by Mick Rock
It’s surprising that Pop would worry, even for a moment, about the propriety of a lyric. In the early nineteen-seventies, he was notorious for subverting cultural standards; a concert by the Stooges often included bloodshed, along with the triumphant celebration of one or more perversions. Pop was brutal onstage—barfing, taking his clothes off, dragging furniture or bodies around, slicing his chest with shards of broken glass. In San Francisco, in 1974, he was stomping through the crowd when a fan yanked his briefs down and appeared to perform oral sex on him. Stories about Pop’s misbehavior are lewd, captivating, and plentiful.
But Pop’s work has grown more interior in recent years. The most personal piece on “Free” is “Loves Missing,” a propulsive song about the value of companionship and loyalty. Pop wrote the lyrics. His voice sounds rich and heavy, with a depth and fragility reminiscent of Jacques Brel’s. “Loves absent,” he sings. “The center won’t hold the ends.”
“He doesn’t want to re-tread ground that he’s covered before,” Wayne Kramer, the guitarist and co-founder of the Detroit rock band the MC5, told me. “A lifetime of creativity is a hard job, and he’s a soldier.”
Iggy Pop was born James Osterberg, Jr., in 1947, and brought up in Ypsilanti, about forty miles west of Detroit. He is an only child, and was brought up by his mother, Louella, who worked for Bendix, a manufacturer of automobile and airplane parts, and his father, James, who taught English at Fordson High School, in Dearborn. For most of Pop’s childhood, the three of them lived in a three-hundred-and-sixty-square-foot trailer in a mobile-home park, surrounded by a gravel quarry, vegetable fields, and Pat’s Par Three golf course. He began playing drums in fifth grade. At night, he banged on a couple of rubber pads glued to a piece of plywood, until his parents bought him a three-piece drum kit and let him set it up in the trailer’s master bedroom.
In “Please Kill Me,” Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk, his classmate Ron Asheton describes a teen-age Pop as fairly conventional: “He hung out with the popular kids that wore chinos, cashmere sweaters, and penny loafers. Iggy didn’t smoke cigarettes, didn’t get high, didn’t drink.” Every few years, Pop’s high-school-yearbook photograph circulates on the Internet: looking dewy and handsome, wearing a jacket and a tie, he gazes at the camera with a curious mixture of eagerness and apathy.
In 1963, Pop started a band called the Iguanas, which played surf rock and covers of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks. Already, Pop had an instinct for theatrics. He built a rickety seven-foot riser for his drum kit, so that he towered over his bandmates like some sort of magnificent despot. Eventually, Pop got bored doing British Invasion covers. He enrolled at the University of Michigan, and, soon after, he left the Iguanas for a blues band called the Prime Movers. The group was led by Michael Erlewine, an aspiring intellectual who read the major poets, knew a bit about philosophy, and had experimented with psychedelic drugs. “He was the guy around campus who had the best record collection, knew how to wear boots, had reportedly hitchhiked with Dylan,” Pop said. Pop’s tastes began expanding toward the fringes.
Pop had come of age as Elvis Presley was ascending the charts, and was moved by Presley’s magnetism. “I started listening and watching, especially the stuff he took from minstrel shows,” he said. “The footwork, the tongue-in-cheek humor.” Meanwhile, he told me, “Charlotte Moorman did this thing where she was naked—I don’t think she was really naked, maybe she was topless—and played the cello.” There are elements of both traditions in Pop’s music: longing, rage, depravity, dissonance, showmanship, charisma, a little bit of old-fashioned song and dance.
Pop had a job at Discount Records, near the central campus. Ron Asheton, his brother, Scott, and their buddy Dave Alexander used to loiter out front, spitting on cars. Jeep Holland, the manager of Discount Records, would holler “Iguana alert!” whenever Pop emerged from the stockroom in the basement of the store. The nickname shrank to Iggy, and stuck. (“Pop” was borrowed from an acquaintance named Jimmy Popp.)
In 1966, Pop left Ann Arbor for Chicago, and, through Erlewine’s connections, got a gig playing with Big Walter Horton, a harmonica virtuoso who had moved to Chicago from Memphis in the nineteen-fifties. Chicago blues is rowdy and licentious, but it carries some of the lonesomeness of the genre’s country forebears: J. B. Smith singing “No More Good Time in the World for Me,” Robert Johnson worrying over the hellhound on his trail. It seemed as if Pop had learned something about how to sublimate despair through song, but, he said, “I realized I wasn’t going to be Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer.”
Pop returned to Ann Arbor just as many of his classmates and neighbors were being shipped off to war. He managed to avoid being inducted by appearing deranged at his draft examination (“I did some creative acting,” he said), and he sublet a small house on campus with Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander. They formed a band called the Psychedelic Stooges, and began developing their sound in the basement. “You can’t believe how dirty and destructive and lazy and just untenable these people were,” Pop said. “Meanwhile, I was crazy as a loon myself.”
Ron Richardson, a friend of Ron Asheton’s who later became the Stooges’ first manager, was involved in psychedelics experiments at the University of Michigan, and the band often partook of his supplies. LSD wasn’t criminalized in the United States until the end of 1968, and drugs more generally were not particularly difficult to come by on campus. “This guy came over one night and gave us all DMT in a bong,” Pop said.
The Stooges played their first public show at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, in March, 1968. Pop had shaved his eyebrows and slathered his face with white paint. He wore golf shoes, a rubber swim cap decorated with several dozen strips of aluminum foil, and a frock that Ron Asheton described as “an old white nightshirt from the eighteen-hundreds.” The Stooges were not yet interested in melody, preferring to generate a caustic, demented drone, using a blender, a vacuum cleaner, several fifty-gallon oil drums, and a hammer. The P.A. was cranked to inhumane levels.
Cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein
Wayne Kramer recalled the show as feeling instantaneous and electric. “I was expecting a band. It was way more than a band. It was primal,” he said. “Simple is not easy. It was the first time I ever saw someone dance and interpret the music to the degree he was able to, live onstage.” He added, “The music wasn’t pop, it wasn’t rock, it was something else. It was dark and foreboding and powerful and hypnotic.” In 1969, the band lost the “Psychedelic” at the start of its name, and released its début album. Pop and Ron Asheton wrote most of the tracks. “I didn’t have his riffage, but I could write something simple,” Pop said.
Those first few years were dangerous. Not in a vague, something-explosive-is-starting-here way but in a spilled-blood way. Pop once stage-dived into an empty room, cracking his front teeth. In 1970, in Cincinnati, he got his hands on a jar of peanut butter, smeared it all over himself, and began chucking gobs of it at the crowd. (There is a famous photograph of Pop taken that night, wearing tight jeans, a studded dog collar, and a silver lamé glove, walking upright on the audience’s raised hands, as if the crowd were a floor made of people.) He would deliberately provoke the most unsavory character in the club, in search of a reaction. He was often zonked on heroin.
Most of Pop’s bandmates were as stoned and as disobedient as he was. In 1971, Scott Asheton, who played drums in the group, got blitzed on the sedative secobarbital and drove a tall truck full of rented gear under a low bridge. The top of the truck peeled off, Scott was tossed fifteen yards, and everything inside was destroyed. The story gets told now as a metaphor: the Stooges simply refused to acknowledge the laws of physics.
“Iggy and the Stooges were a giant opening to me,” the singer and writer Richard Hell told me. In downtown New York, in the mid-seventies, Hell developed a counterpart to the Detroit sound, performing with the punk bands Television and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. “He was talking about things as they are, rather than in pop conventions,” Hell said. “He took all the monotony and frustration and made it great.” In the eighties and nineties, young and discordant indie-rock bands were equally shaped by the Stooges’ music. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon described it to me as “dark, sexy, dangerous, radical music. Those words hardly describe any music in rock today, but that’s what the Stooges gave us—perfect, seemingly effortless rock songs.”
At the time, however, critics and listeners mostly found the band insane—four angry young men brazenly wrecking themselves in service of who knows what. Even Rolling Stone, a bullhorn for the counterculture, didn’t entirely dig it: “Their music is loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish. I kind of like it.” The rock critic Lester Bangs—a fan—wrote, in Creem, in 1970, “Antisocial art simply don’t fit in, brothers and sisters. Who wants to be depressed, anyway?”
Yet the band’s tumult accurately reflected the tensions of the time, including the escalation of the Vietnam War. The Stooges were neither hippies nor pacifists. “Peace and love wasn’t a big part of it,” Scott Asheton said, in “Please Kill Me.” Whatever was happening in Michigan felt markedly distant from scenes elsewhere. “What I noticed about the West Coast bands was that they had awful rhythm sections,” Kramer told me. “The bassist was just the guy who couldn’t play guitar as well as the other guy. In Detroit, the bar was very high—it was the home of Motown.” He added, “We were informed by unionism, and having an organized voice against corporate power. It seemed to me that on the West Coast everything was diluted with a kind of Pollyannaish, utopian vision of the future.”
In 1967, the year the Stooges formed, Detroit had been flattened by race riots, in which forty-three people were killed, hundreds were injured, and nearly fourteen hundred buildings were burned, mostly in black neighborhoods. “Iggy and the Stooges were making a deeper political statement that had to do with disenfranchisement and disconnection from the mainstream,” Kramer said. Certainly, a song like the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” didn’t share much DNA with a moony anthem like the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” one of the best-selling singles of 1969, or even with most of the lineup at Woodstock; the Stooges weren’t coastal, arty, or conciliatory. Pop’s lyrics were blunt. “No fun, my babe / No fun,” he sang, his voice flat and clipped.
Pop seemed to regard violence as a kind of absolution. He routinely mutilated himself onstage, carving, exposing, and contorting his body, performing a sort of theatrical exorcism for the benefit of whoever might be watching. Though it seems clear that Pop was working, in part, by instinct, he was also being intentional. “There wasn’t much that happened that wasn’t conceived of as a performance,” he said.
It’s possible to find echoes of the Stooges’ penchant for physical and spiritual obliteration in contemporary music; I often encounter a similar sort of purposeful dissolution in the songs of emerging rappers on SoundCloud. Many of these m.c.s praise benzodiazepines and other anti-anxiety medications, and their slurred, depleted delivery seems to indicate a wish to briefly disappear. They tattoo their faces, a gesture that swears off mainstream acceptance. Why worry over a future when there might be no future? Watching someone give in to chaos and panic can be palliative for an audience. Still, rebellion that vicious will eventually catch up with a person. Now, Pop told me, his “skeleton is the weak area.” Occasionally, he uses a cane.
Shortly after we met, Pop offered to accompany me while I moved my rental car. I was driving a lozenge-shaped gray sedan; he was driving a 2016 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead coupe. He climbed into my front seat, and politely said nothing about the fact that my cell phone had automatically synched to the car’s stereo, and was now blasting “Pump Up the Volume.”
“Do you want to see mine?” Pop asked, gesturing toward the Rolls-Royce. The interior was a creamy-white leather. After I pressed a button marked “Door,” the door closed. Pop took down the top, and turned the air-conditioning to high. We spent the next two days cruising around like this. Pop is a courteous chauffeur. When the traffic necessitated quick braking, he shot his arm in front of my chest. He travels with an extra hat for guests, in case the sun or the sea breeze becomes overwhelming.
“Have you ever tried to buy a fucking car? Excuse me—a new car?” he asked. “You’ve got to fill out this form, and talk about this, and come down, and get manhandled and assaulted, and ‘What’s your job?’ and ‘Who employs you?’ ” He prefers to buy his cars used. When he first moved to Miami, he acquired a cherry-red 1968 Cadillac DeVille, with a white top and brown Naugahyde seats. Then he bought an electric-blue 1984 Ferrari 308 GTS, which he described as “a motorcycle with a top on it.” That one caught fire every once in a while. “You’d see the paint bubble first,” he said. “I had a rag that I used to beat it out with. I had a date with a girl who became my wife, and I took her somewhere nice, and on the way home she said, ‘I think the car’s on fire!’ ”
“He was talking about things as they are, rather than in pop conventions,” Richard Hell said, of Pop. “He took all the monotony and frustration and made it great.”
Photograph by Peter Hujar / Condé Nast
Returning to the Rolls, he said, “What I like about it is, it makes me feel like everything’s O.K.” Though he lives with his wife, Nina Alu, a former flight attendant, in Coconut Grove, an upscale neighborhood opposite Key Biscayne, he spends a few afternoons or evenings a week at a small bungalow that he owns north of Miami, in El Portal. He refers to the property as his “spirit house,” and he does the bulk of his thinking and writing there. The neighborhood is a mixture of Bahamian, Haitian, Dominican, and Cuban, and is bordered by the Little River, a brackish, semi-polluted canal.
One afternoon, Pop gave me a tour of the place. It’s crammed with folk art, bits of Stooges memorabilia, stacks of books, plastic skulls, framed photographs, throw pillows, a large painting of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns, a Marlins jersey with “Pop” and the number sixty-nine on the back, and assorted mementos from his travels. There are a handful of acrylic paintings that Pop made himself, including a striking portrait of his wife, rendered in shades of blue, gray, and red. In the vestibule there are framed photos of his mother and father, and a handwritten note from Yoko Ono (“Ask the clouds to remember”). His bedroom contains an enormous straight-backed wooden chair that he bought from Sotheby’s. He believes that it is at least four hundred years old. He paused at a black-and-white photograph of himself, wet and smiling on a beach. “This is a favorite picture,” he said. “I was on a tour break at a fairly snobby hotel near Nice. And there was a beach photographer who came every day with her giant camera, and she was photographing people’s kids. And the kids were jumping and having so much fun. I thought, That’s not like the photo sessions I do! So one morning I was up early and she was there—it was just her and me, and I said, ‘Would you take my picture?’ ”
The portrait is striking—Pop looks innocent, grateful, and happy. “He’s a real Midwestern gentleman, no matter that wildness that he celebrates,” the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch told me. He and Pop have been friends since the late nineteen-eighties, and Pop has appeared in several of his films, including “Coffee and Cigarettes,” “Dead Man,” “The Dead Don’t Die,” and “Gimme Danger,” a documentary about the Stooges. “People think he’s this wild, shirtless, Dionysian man, running around the stage like a pony on amphetamines, and they overlook the incredible depth that he has, and his interest in history and art,” Jarmusch said.
Pop wakes up early these days—by 6 A.M. or so—and his only significant indulgence is a few glasses of wine in the evening, usually with dinner. If he is touring, his preshow ritual takes eight or nine hours. “I wake up, cup of coffee, stay in bed, clear my mind, don’t think about the show,” he said. “I’m not going to talk to anybody about anything. Three hours before, I lie down on the floor and do something called wu chi breathing, where I breathe very deep into my gut for almost a half hour. I’m a little high, but not dizzy, and my voice has widened. Then I lightly visualize for about an hour. I hit my cues—there’s certain blocking to remember, like in a play. Maybe you find one little thing that you can improve, but you’re not desperate about it. Then I do Qigong, which loosens up my bod,” he continued. “My bod gets tight. I’m a little gnarly. Then I take a hot shower and I turn it all the way cold. And then they pick me up, and take me where I’m going, and I sit there for a couple of hours, and I realize where I am and what I’ve got to do.”
Pop has never imagined a traditional domestic life for himself. (In 1969, when Pop was twenty-one and living in Ann Arbor, he had a son, Eric, with Paulette Benson. Eric was brought up by his mother, in California, and lives in Berlin now.) In part, this is why it matters so much to him that his work remain vital. “It’s gotta be fucking good,” he said. “This is what you’ve sacrificed a lot of things for, dude, and this is what you were doing when you weren’t always there for other people, so it’d better be good.”
This past year, Pop went on a brief twelve-date tour of Australia and Europe, starting with two sold-out shows at the Sydney Opera House. He wore dark pants, thick boots, and a leopard-print jacket with no shirt. He charged the edge of the stage, waggled his arms, and galloped in circles. A critic from the Guardian called the performance “superhuman.”
Late in the day, Pop and I walked down a short stone path and sat in a pair of sea-foam-green Adirondack chairs by the edge of the Little River. He had changed into a pair of “Three Stooges”-themed pajama pants, a gift from Ron Asheton. He was not wearing a shirt. A large iguana fell from a tree, splashing into the water. Pop laughed when I yelped. A few minutes later, he spotted a manatee swimming by, and erupted from his chair, pointing excitedly. He and his assistant, Spencer, planted most of the trees on the property: Dade County pines, royal palms, coconut palms.
The Stooges released three studio albums: they followed up “The Stooges” with “Fun House,” in 1970, and “Raw Power,” in 1973. The first two albums are chaotic, desperate, and bold. “The Stooges,” which was produced by John Cale, of the Velvet Underground, is the band at its most economic. By the time that they made “Raw Power,” James Williamson was playing lead guitar and Ron Asheton was on bass, and they had rebranded themselves as Iggy and the Stooges. Dave Alexander had been fired in 1970, for showing up too drunk to perform. (He died in 1975, at age twenty-seven, from complications from pancreatitis.) “Raw Power” was mixed by David Bowie, and it contains two songs, “Gimme Danger” and “I Need Somebody,” that might reasonably be described as ballads.
The Stooges fell apart shortly thereafter, for all the usual reasons: drugs, clashing agendas, poor sales. The band’s final performance of the nineteen-seventies was at the Michigan Palace, in Detroit, in 1974. Pop was antagonizing the room, and being pelted with beer, whiskey bottles, bras, and shoes. In 1976, a recording of the show was released, titled “Metallic K.O.” In 1977, Lester Bangs wrote about the record for the Village Voice: “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.”
Pop was strung out. The drugs, he said, “make you larger and weaker. They water down a person’s ego.” In 1974, he began trying to quit. “I didn’t really use drugs for the next couple of years, except for the normal amounts of coke that everybody did at that time.” But he credits his addictions—heroin, cocaine, pills, psychedelics, booze—with permitting him, for a time, to be stranger and more flamboyant onstage. “I allowed the humor to come in where a lot of people wouldn’t have,” he said. He was rebelling against a certain type of self-seriousness. “You know, ‘I’m a blues guitarist, and what I want to get over in this hour is that I can play the blues and you’re going to believe it and make me rich. And, by the way, I’ve got a fringe jacket that you can’t get,’ ” Pop said. “That wasn’t me.”
In early 1976, Pop went to see David Bowie at his hotel in San Diego, where Bowie asked if he might want to record “Sister Midnight,” a slinking, funky song he’d been writing with his guitarist, Carlos Alomar. A few months later, Pop and Bowie travelled together to the Château d’Hérouville, an eighteenth-century estate outside of Paris, to make what became “The Idiot,” Pop’s solo début. Afterward, they moved into an apartment on a tree-lined street in West Berlin. This was the beginning of a fruitful and largely drug-free period for both artists. Bowie released “Low” in January, 1977, the first album in his celebrated Berlin trilogy. Pop released “Lust for Life,” co-produced by Bowie, in August of that year. “I think Bowie saw in Iggy a kind of weird doppelgänger,” the writer and guitarist Lenny Kaye told me. “The records they made in Berlin pulled them both out of this pit that they’d dug themselves into.”
While we sat by the canal, I made an offhand comment about how Pop is now the last man standing, which I meant in a general sense. But he presumed that I was referring to a photograph of him, Bowie, and Lou Reed, taken by Mick Rock at the Dorchester Hotel, in London, in 1972. (Reed died in 2013, from liver disease; Bowie died in 2016, from cancer.) Pop is in the middle, wearing a T. Rex shirt and holding a pack of Lucky Strikes between his teeth. “I had crashed that party, innocently, and there I was, so uncool that I was grinning,” Pop said. “You have the two pillars of the new alt industry there, and in the middle you have this sort of shaky proposition.”
The first few years of the Stooges’ performances were dangerous, in a spilled-blood way.
Photograph by Tom Copi / Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images
Some of Pop’s most interesting and idiosyncratic work has been made in the past decade, including two records—“Préliminaires,” from 2009, and “Après,” from 2012—inspired by Dixieland jazz, French chanson, mid-century American standards, and the books of Michel Houellebecq, Pop’s favorite living novelist. Pop is very nimble with other people’s material, able to land instantly on the emotional center of a lyric or a melody. “When Americans bothered to review those two albums, they said ‘hilariously bad crooning,’ ” Pop said. “I can’t sing like Michael Bublé—I know that! But Bob Dylan does those standards great, and he can’t sing like Michael Bublé, either.” (In an interview Dylan did for his own Web site, in 2017, he said of “Après,” “That’s a good record.”)
Pop has also collaborated with the composer Jamie Saft, the producer Danger Mouse, and the experimental musician Oneohtrix Point Never, who worked with him on “The Pure and the Damned,” a song for the 2017 film “Good Time,” directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Josh Homme, the front man of Queens of the Stone Age, co-wrote and produced Pop’s most recent album, “Post Pop Depression,” from 2016; it was Pop’s first record ever to chart in the Top Twenty in the United States. “He has been so ahead of his time, for so long,” Homme said. “That’s lonely. Part of the nature of a good idea is that no one around you gets it.” He continued, “Can you name another band that’s taken longer to be understood than the Stooges?
“When ‘Post Pop Depression’ got good reviews, across the board, he got emotional, because that had never occurred before,” Homme said. “He was a pariah at times in his life. The constant doubt of others might have been a springboard for him sometimes being self-destructive.”
I asked Pop about a collaboration he did with Cat Power, the Miami-based singer and songwriter, in 2012. “I read an article that said she tried to get David Bowie and couldn’t,” he said. “There’s always someone they weren’t able to get. Houellebecq couldn’t get Neil Young. Somebody else, you know—‘We can’t get Tom Waits.’ The Safdie brothers said, ‘We couldn’t get Britney Spears.’ ”
The Stooges are an accepted part of the canon now, which makes it easy to forget how poorly the band’s records sold, and how deeply reviled they were by both critics and listeners. “It’s not a personal lack of confidence so much as an imposed one,” Pop told me. “For a long time, I wasn’t doing that well on the industry side of things. There weren’t that many people coming to shows—sometimes there were very few people.” He paused. “I’m more cat than dog when it comes to how comfortable I allow myself to get, let’s put it that way. The phone rings; I get offered work. And, you know, there’s always my Apple stock,” he said, and laughed. “I have taken pains to diversify outside of the music industry.”
In 2003, the Stooges reunited, with Ron Asheton on guitar and Mike Watt, of the Minutemen, on bass. At the time, this seemed like a dicey idea—most of these guys were in their fifties, and so much of the Stooges’ power had to do with a kind of lunatic vitality—but somehow the band sounded as exhilarating as it did in 1969. The reunion magnified the Stooges’ significance, particularly when they were booked alongside younger rock bands. In a review in the Times of the band’s set at Coachella, in 2003, Neil Strauss wrote, “As Mr. Pop yowled through a fierce, rumbling version of ‘TV Eye,’ it was more than clear that in the 33 years since the song was recorded, the genre has largely been variations on a theme. And the first two Stooges albums are the theme.”
In 2010, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Pop opened his acceptance speech by blasting two middle fingers at the crowd, and then reading from a stack of index cards, declaring who and what he believed was cool: his wife, his bandmates. “All the poor people who actually started rock-and-roll music are cool,” he said.
The Stooges played their last show in 2013. Ron Asheton had died in Ann Arbor in 2009, of a suspected heart attack, and was replaced by James Williamson. Scott died the same way, in 2014. The Stooges are now functionally kaput—of the original lineup, only Pop is left. That’s a lot of loss, I told him. “It begins to make an impression,” he said. “So you start to think, Well, O.K., what are my probabilities? And how would I feel if I was going to die tomorrow, and I looked at what I was doing with my life today?” He added, “My only thing is, to spite those who don’t like me, I want to make eighty.”
He is not currently considering retirement: “I always wonder, if I stopped doing music, would I really start drinking tea instead of coffee, and, you know, brush my teeth more, and all that? Or would I become, like, an alcoholic depressive?” Though his recent work might suggest that he is entering a more contemplative period, he is confident that whatever wildness exists inside him is intact. “Don’t tell me that I can’t strip off my shirt and go make a big primitive noise,” he said.
To prepare for the release of “Free,” Pop agreed to shoot some promotional videos at Sweat Records, an independent record shop in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. He was shirtless, and wearing tailored gray pants and a pair of black loafers. A wardrobe rack contained pieces from Gucci, Versace, and Saint Laurent. Pop is energetic and amenable while working, but he is also firm and precise. When the director asked if he could repeat a gesture—shaking his head in such a way that his hair whipped back and forth—he said, “I’ll do that two more times for forty seconds each.”
The penultimate track on “Free” is Pop reading Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” over moody peals of guitar, synthesizer, and horn. He got the idea to do it after an advertising agency asked him to read the poem for a commercial voice-over. “I think there’s some sort of betting pool out there on when I’m gonna croak,” he said. He paused. “It’s alive!” He agreed to read the poem into an iPhone, and sent it off. “At first, I resisted—I’m not in junior high,” he said. But he eventually decided that he liked it, re-recorded the vocal, and asked Leron Thomas and Noveller to improvise around it.
Now it was time to shoot a video. It’s true that the poem has grown increasingly meaningless over time, having been repeated and adapted to so many inane circumstances. Yet if you can shake off its familiarity the central idea—that a person should live vigorously, unapologetically—remains germane. Thomas wrote the poem in 1947, when he was thirty-three; he died six years later. Pop gathered himself in front of the camera. “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight / And learn too late they grieved it on its way / Do not go gentle into that good night,” he said. The words sounded thick and textured in his mouth. ♦