Impermanence is a two-way street. That which we think will last, doesn’t. But even for that which is meant to be ephemeral, that impermanence is often impermanent. In the former, we get two vast and trunkless legs of stone in the lone and level sands. In the latter, we get coffee table books.
This weirdo preservation has been brought into ever clearer focus as the punk and proto-punk era, a movement fueled by a refusal to project into the future, has become canonical. There are now handsomely bound, lavishly illustrated, and exquisitely priced tomes on everything from CBGB OMFUG and Max’s Kansas City to the Velvet Underground, Blondie and now to Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Inevitably these books are published around Christmas. Total Chaos: The Story of The Stooges / As Told by Iggy Pop, for instance, came out a few weeks ago from Third Man Books, the publishing arm of Jack White’s record company. They are meant, one presumes, to grace the gift guides under the “For the Music Lover” section and eventually lay upon smart coffee tables in the cushy pads or corner offices of the middle aged and comfortable. There they will likely lay, unopened.
Am I alone in recoiling in horror upon entering the offices of the professionally artistic to see thousands of dollars of hardcover monographs artfully stacked, some serving as pedestals for various professional awards embodied outlandish statues, others not, but all serving as proclamations of the occupants recherche and catholic interests?
This bourgeois materialism is perhaps less jarring when the subjects are, as they often are, jewelry designers or architects or photographers, all of whose work is meant to be a lasting monument. But when the subjects themselves, when taken on their own terms, would certainly howl against the use of the book-as-fetish object, then the gravitas meant to be imparted by the hardcover reification turns instead into gross pomp.
Now that’s for the cover and spine and how they’re used by those who purchase them. The actual contents of these books vary. Some are so poorly put together, it’s clear even the publishers don’t really expect anyone to open the covers. Others, and this is happily the case with Total Chaos, are quite interesting. Drawn from two days of interviews at the Miami home of Iggy Pop -- itself a shock since I always thought he lived just East of Tompkins Square Park and I used to imagine him as some sort of guardian presence whenever I walked down Avenue A -- the 344 pages over 15 chapters are essentially the transcriptions of conversations between the man himself and two ardent fans: Jeff Gold and Johan Kugelberg, who showed up with a trove of Iggy Pop. There are also eight essays by adoring guest authors like Dave Grohl, Joan Jett and Jack White.
The Iggy Pop that emerges from his own recollections is full of piss and vinegar, acidulated anecdotes, a lot of humor and an impressive grasp of musical history. Though to be fair, it’s not as if he grasps the facts of history as much as he has a good memory and has touched history. Some of the most engaging stories -- perhaps well-known to a die-hard Stooges fan but not to me -- take place before the Stooges were the Stooges, when Iggy Pop was still Jim Osterberg, a gangly boy drummer of Ann Arbor, MI, in a band called the Iguanas. As Pop relates, “ When [these Motown bands] would come through at Club Ponytail in Harbor Springs and in Ann Arbor at the Armory, I was generally the guy to call so I played one-offs behind the Crystals, the Shangri-Las, the Four Tops and the Contours.” He tells another story of playing a gig at an Episcopal Church with “Big” Walter Horton, the blues harmonica player, and Johnny “Man” Young, one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. “I remember sitting in the car on the way there in the front seat with Big Walter and he took out a switchblade and he waved it at my face laughing, and he said, ‘you better be able to play some drums, white boy.’” On one level, this can be appreciated as just a good throwaway anecdote. On another, though it draws a beautiful connectivity from the Mississippi-via-Chicago blues scene to whatever weird thing it was that Iggy Pop became. He didn’t come out of the blue; he came out of the blues.
As crazy-seeming and Black Swan-y as Iggy Pop and the Stooges were, what’s also clear is that he was an assiduous crafter of his own image and ruthlessly realistic about his own talents. “If I didn’t make a complete break with the music that was going on, I wasn’t gonna ever make it as a musician,” he explains, “So we had to stop what was going on and make something new.” In other words, there was always an Iggy Pop watching the Iggy Pop, as he writhed on the stage or cut himself, shallowly but bloodily, on the chest. There’s a great passage in the book in which he breaks down his own approach to onstage antics, drawing a parallel to that other great onstage provocateur, Jim Morrison of The Doors. “Once you’re starting to do more gigs and you’re getting paid more for them and you begin to realize that it’s to your benefit to have people show up the next time...then what happens is you start thinking about a little consistency. So if you’re good, you leave the things you’re gonna do open, but you find certain spaces for them so that there will be an arc. And by the time I saw [the Doors] the next time, there was an arc to the gig. It wasn’t total chaos.”
In the end, I can’t tell if it is disappointing or somehow gratifying that even at his most outré, when he seemed to be living anarchically in the moment and too trashed to stand, Iggy Pop probably had an eye to the future. He was writing the coffee table book all along.