For the Nov/Dec 2004 issue of High Times, iconic filmmaker Jim Jarmusch interviewed music legend Iggy Pop, who turns 74 years old on April 21.
Some say Iggy Pop jump-started punk.
Stripped to the waist—and sometimes beyond when inspired to grab crotch—or revealing a stunning, lubricated, 12-pack ripple of a chest, smeared in blood, sweat and peanut butter, hurling himself head-first offstage, arms wide, trusting his fans to catch him…. it is possible that the meaning of the word “punk” swaggered off the stoop and into music history with the animistic, who-gives-a-shit brilliance of Iggy Pop.
From that first 1969 album, The Stooges, and 1970’s Fun House, through his solo albums in the ’70s, his dark years of indulgence in the ’80s, to his powerful 2003 record Skull Ring, Iggy Pop remains one of the most influential forces in music.
He’s been called the godfather of punk and garage rock; his songs have been covered and sampled by a stunning range of artists—from David Bowie to Snoop Dogg to Beavis & Butthead to the Red Hot Chili Peppers—and used in soundtracks as varied as Ally McBeal and Trainspotting.
This hypnotic psychotic performer, this dangerous dervish, exploded snarling and yelping out of Detroit and hit the Flower Power pop scene of the late ’60s like some kind of glam dog with a gallows wit and a reckless stage presence—a glorious, wiry package of balls and holy revolt, burning (along with the MC5) the Motor City onto the music map forever.
As a pre-teen trapped in the prison of early-70s suburbia and aching to bust out, there was nothing more riveting than to know Iggy Pop was out there, jamming, leaping, busting it up for all of us. With his raw, clandestine, criminal, animal power, he was a delectable choice of pagan worship, and—unlike all those other Stones and Beatles clearly headed for commericaldom—you knew Iggy Pop would never compromise.
He made all us prisoners of convention feel the fire. His influence can’t be calculated in record sales or print, because his influence went right into the blood, hijacked the mind, and jackknifed many a kid onto the road of righteous rebellion.
Jim Jarmusch’s hip, loving cinema of outsiders helped jump-start the independent-film movement in the early ’80s. When Stranger Than Paradise (’84) and Down by Law (’86) first flickered across movie screens in luxurious, mercurial black and white, a new phrase entered the cinematic lexicon, joining “Godardian” and “Felllini-esque”: a “Jarmusch moment.” These film moments are one part noir, one part comedic, one part Beat, along with a dash of something indescribable that makes the sauce sing.
Big skies and lonely roadsides—a camera drifts around, glancing at exquisite photographic tableaus… then an eye opens, the music track kicks in, a woman in a black slip (Ellen Barkin) begins tearing down the house of her hapless DJ boyfriend (Tom Waits). She screams, rants, flings his clothes and 45s out the windows, but the DJ only protests, finally, with “Not the shoes!” when she goes for his precious pointed leathers.
Later in the same film (Down by Law), innocent cons on the run are cooking a kill in a Louisiana swamp. “This rabbit tastes like a tire,” says the white pimp (John Lurie). “Yes, very good!” says the Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni). In Ghost Dog, two men who don’t understand a word of each other’s language nonetheless communicate beautifully. It’s moments like these that make Jarmusch such an original artist—scenes drenched in a deadpan wit so sharp he almost tricks you with a sly sleight of hand into missing the tender heart that roots his irreverence.
As with Gary Farmer, Steve Buscemi, Gena Rowlands, Johnny Depp, Joe Strummer and many others in Jarmusch’s films, it seemed surprising yet inevitably fated that Iggy Pop would one day inhabit the Jarmusch universe. Iggy Pop was in the luminous Dead Man and is currently in the whimsical Coffee and Cigarettes. You never know who’s going to stroll into one of Jarmusch’s films next, but when they do, one says, “Yes, of course—I should have known that he’d show up.” —Annie Nocenti
On the occasion of the Virgin Records release of Skull Ring, Jarmusch and Iggy Pop sat down to talk. Skull Ring reunites Iggy Pop with the Stooges on several tracks, and features collaborations with Green Day, Sum 41, Peaches and the Trolls.
Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch
Jim: First thing I want to do is return a CD I borrowed from you about eight or 10 years ago—do you remember? Bongo Joe?
Iggy Pop: Wow. This is a wonderful American musician who used to roam the streets of Houston, Texas, playing on an oil drum and reciting stories of the streets—chief among which was “Innocent Little Doggy,” which went something like [sings in falsetto], “O look, here comes down the street innocent little doggy. Isn’t he cute waggin’ his little tail? He’s just a friend to everybody—uh-oh, look out! Here comes a big truck. Burrrghh!” [crashing impact sound followed by chuckling] But it’s moving when you hear it; it’s funny at the same time.
Did “Naughty Little Doggy” come as an answer, in a way?
“Naughty Little Doggy” was originally named “Innocent Little Doggy” after the Bongo Joe track. I sent it off to the printers—it was done in England, and they made a mistake in printing and sent it back with the English sensibility—“Naughty Little Doggy”!
I’d been conflicted about my right—you know, this gets really ridiculous, it gets really arty—but I thought: “Am I really an innocent little dog? Do I have the right to portray myself as an innocent little doggy?” And back came my cover with “Naughty Little Doggy” written on it, and I thought, “I’ll go with that.”
Fate stepped in….
It was a mistake—and I usually let those happen.
Do you approach music that way, too? Do you like mistakes and accidents?
Yeah. I think serendipity will bring out music which is fun and ends up having some sort of enjoyment for the listener—whether that be happy enjoyment or music that makes you want to cut somebody with a switchblade…. My name was a mistake. I was lookin’ for a stage name and I was comin’ up with things like, “How about Jimmy James? That’d be cool.”
Well, it’s not that cool, really. And “Iggy” was something that they used to yell at me to insult me, to tease me, when I was hangin’ out with older, more accomplished people on my local arts scene and they used to tease me about the band I’d been in in high school, and that was something I stuck with.
You were the drummer in the Iguanas originally.
Yes, I saw an iguana on the cover of Life magazine when I was a young teenager… and I thought, “That looks cool—it looks ferocious!” The kinda thing little kids often think when they see something that looks terribly powerful—like it could eat their parents, you know? I ended up namin’ my high-school band after that.
The greatest live performers I’ve ever seen are you and James Brown—and Fela, maybe…. I would sometimes refer to you as the Bruce Lee-slash-Nijinsky of rock ’n’ roll…. You’ve worked with great drummers: What is the connection between your physical moves, and drumming, to how you create music?
Well, rock ’n’ roll—popular music—is always gonna come from the drums, because that’s an older form of language. And there’s always, behind the notion of any music that’s on the edge, some kinda idea about dancing. And once people start dancing, there’s a dangerous element—it always upsets. If it was the ’50s, it was Elvis; it upset a priest. If it’s hip-hop dancing, at a certain time it upset police authorities….
Yeah, provocative. [I was] your typical white kid—just a total spaz. Couldn’t even dance in the school dance, always wanted to. Wow! I couldn’t even think that I’d ever be able to do anything like that. But once I became a drummer, it was kinda the next best thing and a great excuse not to dance at the school dance.
And in playin’ the drums, you do learn to use your different limbs for rhythms and you learn to think about the rhythmic underpinnings of the music. It took about two years of stabs in the dark and trial and error to get the Stooges—my first band—off the ground, and what really determined its ability to fly or not was the drumbeats.
Once we got some good drumbeats and a kid that could put ’em across—a good, tough kid, Scott Asheton, a kid that could put that stuff out there, and with authority… Then one night I was just hungry enough and started dancin’ to him.
I mighta had something to smoke, I mighta had somebody I was pissed at, I mighta had something I really needed to do now or never—a combination—and that was really the relationship between me and him. I started dancin’ to him. Of course, the beats he was playin’ were stuff I’d taught him, from belly-dance records and Stax-Volt R&B. Those were the two big drum sources, ’cause those were simple, catchy beats.
Gregory Hines just died recently…. I was watching on TV, they had some tributes to him. In one, he was doing a dance routine, and I just closed my eyes and was thinking, “Damn, he’s a drummer with his whole body,” you know?
He was making music, it was unaccompanied…. Drums are very spiritual and are used in many religions and different cultures, although in American church music that’s the one instrument you don’t have—drums are from the dark side, the physical world or something….
Yeah. They do it with their hands and feet, simply. . . .
They get the rhythm going and they do dance, but they don’t actually have drums.
You don’t hear too many sets. Some primitive Baptists, they’ll use a kit, but usually it’s just too loud, it gets in the way. But I know what you’re sayin’, there is a thing between God and Devil and all that, which is kinda legitimate. There’s a beautiful thing that the Ayatollah Khomeini said a long time ago in one of his edicts against music when he took power in Iran: “It’ll stupefy you.” Guy’s got a point.
Puts you in a trance…
Yeah, a good hypnotic trancelike groove will stop you thinkin’ about all sorts of things, and get you fixating on something else, you know?
So you were playing drums with the Iguanas—didn’t they call you Iggy Stooge? Didn’t the record company want you all to be Stooges—all Stooge music?
I think it was Danny Fields, the publicist at Elektra, [who] suggested that we be marketed as a brand name that would be the last name of each member and the name of the band. They were lookin’ at, “How do we sell this thing?” We didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t a bad idea, but it wasn’t for us. So they just did it anyway to me, and at that time we were just a little ol’ Midwest band.
We’d made the record in March, shortly before my birthday in 1969—I was still 21. Scotty was a teenager, and we went home to Detroit, and I would walk every Friday from the edge of town into the Discount Records Outlet in Ann Arbor to see if our record was in the window.
And I walked there like 17 times or somethin’, until finally, one August weekend, there we were…. “Damn, it’s us! It’s our record!” I grabbed the record and turned it over, and there’s “Iggy Stooge,” and I was pissed! But they later used that idea for the Ramones, ’cause Danny was handling them.
How did you first meet the Ashetons?
Ron Asheton was in a high-school band called the Chosen Few. I really liked his bass playing, and the first thing I noticed about him was his fingers—he has a serious set of beautiful long fingers, just made to play a stringed instrument. I thought, “This is the real deal.”
He was a bassist at the time, he had longer hair than was safe to have in Michigan, he acted like a high-school dropout. His brother Scott had dropped out. And he had another friend, Dave Alexander, our bassist, who was also a school dropout, and they had a third friend, Roy.
Roy, Dave, Scotty and sometimes Ron would stand around leaning on the wall in front of Marshall’s drugstore, across from the record store where I worked in Ann Arbor. Just hangin’ out… street-comer delinquents, basically, on a real petty level, and they used to wear these jeans we called “highwaters,” ’cause they were stretch jeans that had shrunk up first time they were washed and so they only extended about halfway down the calf. And so they’d make jokes to each other: “Hey, expectin’ a flood today? Ha ha ha!”
I remember them….
So this was a little gang of call it what you would—they were punks, but that term wasn’t in wide usage then…. I was playin’ in a blues group myself, the Prime Movers, on campus. Scott was about 15 and he was always buggin’ me: “Hey, man, will you teach me some drums? I like the way you play drums, will you teach me some of that?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah—later!”
What amazing musicians they are. And the chemistry together really is something…. We’re talking about the Stooges, because that’s the origin of your recordings, a great four-and-a-half records, basically…. There was a collection of songs that you did before Kill City?
Yeah, there’s a live album called Metallic KO that had new material on it that we couldn’t do in a studio ’cause we didn’t have a career at that time.
The newest record, Skull Ring, has four tracks with the Asheton brothers, the Stooges tracks…. What kind of music were you guys listening to back then? You’re in Detroit, Ann Arbor, so obviously R&B—but the real R&B, what R&B used to be?…
There was an exchange. Ron and Dave, his friend, were Anglophiles. They’d skipped half of their senior year in high school to go to Liverpool and look around for the Beatles. Didn’t find them, but had a good time.
Ron listened to pretty much bands from England—Pretty Things, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Animals—and, more than anyone else, Jimi Hendrix. You hear a lotta Hendrix in Ron’s subsequent guitar style…. I was listening to everything from Scepter-Wand and Stax-Volt—“Green Onions” would be a song everyone knows—Booker T and the MGs, Wilson Pickett: serious, tight drum, bass, organ and guitar arrangements. Harry Partch, Berlioz, experimental composers, anything I could get my hands on—a little Wagner, a little Mozart.
A lotta Middle Eastern music struck me as being ripe for exploitation by the popular-music industry, ’cause it had a relentless flow that segued really quickly from sex to violence, almost to comedy, to religion—boom, boom, boom, boom! You could almost hear it changing, it was so mercurial. That beat [slaps a Middle Eastern rhythm, palms on knees]—that sorta thing. It’s like a Bo Diddley beat, but it’s not. And you hear that everywhere, from Algeria and Rhy music all the way through the crescent in North Africa almost to Turkey, with different degrees of sophistication.
So I said, “Well, the best bands and writers right now are bringing ethnic music from a certain distance—from Mississippi, from where have you—to bear on basically what white America, American youth, listens to.” So it seemed to me the next step was to go farther afield. So I was also listening to gamelan music, gong music from Bali, everything.
I would go over to Ron’s house with some weed and get ’im up, light up some weed to get everybody interested, and we’d play music and just listen to it. And little by little some of the influences started creepin’ into our playing and it came somewhere between the two—between Dandy Jack and space music.
Ron came up with some important concepts too, such as (after a year of not getting anywhere): “Well, if we can’t entertain people, maybe we can scare ’em—make ’em laugh.” Yeah, Ron had the idea: “Yeah, we’ll call our band the Psychedelic Stooges—we’ll be like the new Three Stooges, but we’ll be spacey.” A lotta things were goin’ around.
I can see, I could hear that….
There are little overtones of it. We’d listen to Ravi Shankar, and at this time Ron was still playing bass and I was the instrumentalist. And the bass guy was gonna sing and do the instruments, but as the thing took more shape, I fired myself from being the instrumentalist and put a guitar in his hand. We noticed when you hit a good open chord with overdriven, distorted amplification, just the chance harmonics were really more interesting than anything you played. And they were a lot like the harmonics in Eastern music.
As we got into it, in Ron’s mother’s basement, the three of us, it became noticeable that there were a lotta chance overtones in just the distortion that results from cheap, loud amplification that were very Eastern, very meditative.
It finally culminated in a period when we had a band house together and I was first tryin’ to write for the group, tryin’ to come up with somethin’ of our own. I’d put both my feet up on the keyboard of an electric Farfisa organ, turn it on 8 or 9, up to 10 with a Fender Princeton amp and just let it squeal in my ear for hours. [laughs] This is cool, it’s goin’ “Rrrrgggghhhhhhhhh” and I’m thinkin’, “I know there’s somethin’ in here, I know there’s somethin’ in here—I don’t know what it is.” We were groping.
Well, you were open to a lotta things during this period. Like the MC5 also were interested in avant-garde, outside jazz and recorded something by Sun Ra, and these things seem very disparate and distant from rock ’n’ roll in a way, especially now… But I hear those things. I could put on the Stooges—especially parts of Fun House— and definitely hear the Middle Eastern stuff and drone music… even some Wagnerian kinda moments where the music just elevates you, takes you up somewhere….
The first rock ’n’ roll band configuration was started by a barefoot, illiterate black sharecropper who’d done jail time in Mississippi: Muddy Waters, who started playin’ on acoustic guitar. Didn’t have shoes, didn’t have anything to do with all this, “Hey! You rock, I rock, you have a guitar, hey!”
As he tried to develop his music and come north to an industrialized and commercial society, and tried to make his way with it, around him he developed what became the first rock band. And that means the first band to have a drummer, a bass player, guitar player and either some sorta embellishing instrument, either a piano or harmonica, with a lead vocal. Doing three-minute numbers. The first one.
So it came from somebody whose background was basically a working relationship with a mule. That’s where it comes from. So it should still.
I love that. You know that Mississippi Fred McDowell recording? Where he’s talking and he says, “I do not play no rock ’n’ roll, just straight, natural blues,” then he plays “Baby Please Don’t Go”…
And it’s really rockin’, right? [laughs]
The essence of all rock ’n’ roll…
Wow. You know, everything gets historicized nowadays so fast. I’m from a basically punk-rock generation, or whatever—late hippies, early whatever—and now we’re already putting that in a historical perspective…. For you, it must be really kinda strange. I saw you play last week with the Stooges. And you are, for me, at the height of…. you are still a superb performer. And you have been doing this all the time, you never stopped doing this. And it’s a convoluted question, but you’re playin’ with the Stooges again and you haven’t since, what, the ’70s?
Yeah, and it’s great, it’s still just amazing. So you’ve moved through all this period of history, I just wonder: Does it seem strange to you, or do you even think about it, or do you even care to be put in the context of rock ’n’ roll history?… Because I recently read you were talking to somebody, you said, “Well, when I was 20, Bo Diddley was like 40 or 50, an older guy that I took inspiration from. Now when I’m 40, I’m 50, and now, with kids, I’m like to them what Bo Diddley was to me.” I’m just curious how that whole historical thing affects you. These questions are kinda vague…. I’m not a journalist.
So that’s kinda good…. As you go on and do anything for awhile, for a long time, there’s gonna be some history attached to it. And this takes many different forms, and there’s different kinds of history. Probably the one to view as most honest is the history in the mind of somebody who’s come after you, and what they personally think of what you’ve done.
So that’s something I kinda pay attention to emotionally.
Like, if I hear somebody pick up on one of my phrases in a song or even use my haircut, I know where that came from and it’s kinda a good feelin’. It’s a mixture of feelings. You feel included, you feel some security in being part of a group, you feel honored—you also feel a little bit like, “Hey, that’s my haircut, keep your hands off it,” you know?
There’s a second category of history that I would call institutional history, and that you get tagged with if you do some sorta work in public, and that’s the kinda history, if it’s MTV or VH1, it’s a personal look at, “Well, he was young and bad, but then he was older and poorer, then he was even better and richer.” Or if it’s the radio, it’s: “Well, they didn’t have any hits, then they kinda had a little hit, and then they had a big hit.”
And if it’s the critics, it’s: “Well, they were weird, but then they invented punk rock, and then punk rock became cool and everybody else made a whole lotta money and they still get a gig.”
There’s all these different histories that get attached to you. I hate ’em all, personally. It just riles the shit out of me…. The way I see it, the job is to be aware of them and then ignore ’em…. There’s a side of your personality that goes: “Oh, they think I invented punk rock, huh? That’s gotta be good for three more albums.” But you’re also thinkin’: “Well, maybe that’s not so good, ’cause what happens when punk rock’s out?”… It’s a mess, and it’s always rewritten….
Even rap, rap ’n’ roll, or the music histories or social histories that are accepted now—just completely revised and torn apart very quickly. Another 10 years by a new set of videotape editors or digital DVD editors or whatever the new technology is…. Apropos to that is the CD.
I never really liked the sound of ’em, but the CD helped my music a great deal because it was an occasion for people to listen to it again. Or re-evaluate it… When it was on vinyl, people were sayin’: “Hey, these guys are dummies and they didn’t finish school.” You know: “They’re bad,” or whatever. And then there was a reevaluation.
Interesting. I mean, the great stuff stays there and history does find it…. Like Vincent Van Gogh—he got no respect, he couldn’t even sell his shit in his lifetime. Or Lester Young died with nothing in a hotel room, and Béla Bartók was not famous….
But somehow it doesn’t die, and people do find it.
Real shit stays real, and your shit will stay in the top echelons of the gifts of rock music and music in general….
’Cause it’s personal. Somethin’ personal between the band that made it, or the people that made it, and the listener, I think.
I find it really interesting that some of your songs as songs, your recorded work, is very confessional…. A lot of your songs are written to another—addressing another person in a way, directly, like “I Want to Be Your Dog” or “Beside You” or “TV Eye.” Some are about you or a character that you make up. I think Avenue B was a beautiful example of a kind of confessional recording…. Do you sometimes want to focus your expression to one other person who is everyone who receives it, or do you not think about it? Are those just devices that serve you?
Well, I think about it as a device…. When I first started writing songs, I’d
listen to everyone else’s songs, and I thought about them in terms of “What are the ingredients? What are the structures?” I found that the good ones tend to be like journalism, the five W’s taught me: who, what, when, where, why.
So I noticed the good ones, the ones I believed had a lotta specific detail, and that there’s a mixture of emotion or view of the singer, but there was also inclusion of other human beings in the outside world or sometimes objects. That there had to be a mix of both—for instance, you can have songs that are subject songs. I had one recently, “Corruption.” But once I wanted to sing about that subject, I had to include myself. I didn’t want to be confessional—I had to. That’s on Avenue B, actually, and I had to make it a true song….
Or that song “Jealousy” pops into my mind.
“Jealousy,” yeah, that one’s more me. I’m feeling this… or I’m at somebody’s show and I think they’re a lousy performer, the music is a fraud, but they’re getting over with it, they’re getting a lotta things I would like to have, and I think, “My God, you’re jealous, dude!” [laughs] To me, it’s one way to make something that’s real… ’cause there are a lotta songs that I think are not too real. False songs—more false and they’ll probably wilt a little quicker.
So, you know, with “I Want to Be Your Dog,” basically it’s got a setting. Where is this guy? He’s in his room. And what does he want to do? You actually find out he’s gonna lay down—you presume it—on some part of whoever he’s singin’ the song to. And that’s probably a girl, you know, so you have some pretty concrete things. And the rest is left vague: “Well, what does it mean, he wants to be your dog? In what sense?” And you try to leave that open….
Any time you start thinkin’ about any given subject you can take [it only] so far, there’s nothin’ to latch onto, so the trick is you want somethin’ real simple to latch onto and at the same time some parts that just fly around in the air….
I wanted to ask you what connection you have to Eastern philosophy in your work and in your physical maintenance—preparation. I know you do some physical stuff that’s at least partly based on tai chi, so am I going way off the track to ask you about Eastern discipline and philosophy?
No. When I wanted to start my first band, first thing I did was go to the undergrad library at U of M and… I kept comin’ back to two cultures: Egyptian and pre-Taoist Chinese. There was one book called The Way and Its Power by Arthur Waley, which was Taoist translations. I didn’t understand any of this stuff, but it just felt right.
I remember one translation, paraphrased: “The man who has The Way is like a drunk, but he hasn’t drunk anything. He’s like a baby, but he’s full-grown. He’s as if lost, but he’s always in the right place.” All these kinda Eastern word games, and it got me on a certain tack.
And the Egyptology, that’s where I got the idea to work without a shirt—looking at depictions of the pharaohs. Pharaohs always had their shirts off. “Shit,” I thought, “that’s something very classic—they’re expressive.”
So I was just takin’ stuff, not knowin’ why, what it meant. Many years later, when I got past 40 and needed a little boost physically, a little discipline to stay sharp, I found a Korean tai chi master in New York City—chi kung tai chi. He’s basically tai chi and qigong, and those things are Taoist, and those Shaolin monks—all that “Aiieee-ahhh!” pre-karate stuff—is all Chinese Taoism, and a lot of it is based on takin’ a great big breath. That’s the first thing you’ll die without. You can go a little longer without water and a little longer without food, but if you can’t take a deep breath, you’re gonna die in five minutes, right?
So I started learnin’ more of the practicality of that, and I worked at being ready to play. But I’m not a physical-fitness buff, either. I do about a half hour of this stuff each day to keep the energy goin’. It’s kinda like startin’ a car. It’s not energy as it’s thought of in the US—it’s not like running real hard, you know, beat yourself up; it’s kinda funny stuff that you do. But keeck, keeck, it starts your motor and keeps you sharp enough to function.
You mentioned drugs when you talked about Ron and Scott…. You mentioned weed opened you up….
I saw how good it was, man.
I know you’ve had a whole history and I’m not interested in going through all of that, but drugs—they open your mind, but they also kill one’s spirit, depending on a lotta different things….
Has drug use enlightened you? As well as damaged you?… I know you’re very sharp now, clean and focused.
There’s something to be said for the idea that there are different historical periods, and what mighta worked in the ’60s might not work in 2003 or 2010. And I don’t know much about drug use now ’cause I’m so out of it, but for me, at the time, the drugs I took, the greatest thing they seemed to do for me was eliminate or shut out, buffer out conflicting signals, conflicting thoughts, conflicting ideas—anything that said basically, “NO, you can’t get into the groove. NO, you can’t create fine art.” And conversely, at the same time, maybe enhanced the fascination of the fine arts…
I remember taking heroin—that drug seemed to make it possible, when I was stoned on it, to see straight through an ulterior motive in a person that I never noticed when I wasn’t… or maybe that vision was always there, but I wasn’t gonna pay attention to it.
I remember on LSD I noticed the difference between people. Some people’s faces looked—I was gonna say “more like a steak”… some people’s faces didn’t look as clean, as pure as other people’s. I was seeing spiritual differences.
I took a big toke of something once, DMT, a gaseous psychedelic, and boom! In front of me was a big MF’n Buddha, a huge Buddha in very, very fine and diverse detail, amazing detail. And I thought to myself, “My God, my mind has a lotta power…. I was able to remember that.” ’Cause somewhere I musta seen a picture in a magazine….
It was in your consciousness….
It was in my consciousness, and the detail was just incredible…. I’m not sure those were enlightenments that I needed or were so important. The bad side of it is that it’s a Dutch courage—akin to some guy that’ll say, “Yeah, I’ll fight if I have three bottles of liquor.” It will steal a lotta energy from you. Any time you’re gonna play, you’re gonna pay—it’s gonna steal your life energy….
In my life’s experience, the highest you can possibly get is being completely straight. You can really get high, man….
Riiiight. I drink coffee in the morning, I go out and have a glass of wine at night, so I go a little up and a little down, and I’m curious to see what things will be like without any of that.
Yeah. Well, I’m not there—nicotine and caffeine.
But I’d probably go crazy in two days—ahhhhh!! You know?
Can you remember any specific bands that you shared a stage with?…. I’m sure there were hundreds….
That were good?
Well… that were just somehow kinda interesting… or just weird?
Yeah, well, it was all weird. The Stooges were an opening band in a ballroom, the Grande Ballroom, in the psychedelic-ballroom era…
Which is gone now, right?
Yeah. So we [were] paid 50, 60 bucks for all of us—came out to about 10, 12 bucks apiece to be sacrificed to whatever band was coming through town—and so we opened for Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mothers of Invention, Love, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Who, Cream. We didn’t open for Zep, but we went and saw them at the ballroom. We saw Sly….
I think the first gig we opened for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and because we were really innovative—we had all these instruments I’d built from junk, I was wearin’ whiteface and an old maternity dress and an aluminum wig I’d made up for myself, I wanted to be somebody different than little Jimmy Osterberg sittin’ around my dad’s trailer—we got a lot of attention in the local college paper, they wrote a lot about us… Made me think, “Shit! Maybe we can get a job from this!”
So, second gig was tougher, the Mothers of Invention. I spent countless hours on the headphones smokin’ marijuana, listenin’ to Frank Zappa go, “Help, I’m a rock… help, I’m a rock.” Crackin’ up, you know? This is the funniest band in the world.
“Brown shoes don’t make it.”
Right. “Suzie, Suzie Creamcheese, ah, shuddup,” you know?
“Duke of Prunes.”
[In falsetto] “Who could imagine that they’d freak out somewhere in Kansas, Kansas, Kansas….” So I was pretty worried about that one, and I was thinkin’, “What can I do to be as freaky as Frank Zappa?” So at the end of our gig, I just felt we hadn’t quite gotten across to people. So I don’t know what came into my head—I took it literally, the idea to “get across.”
I stood on the end of the stage and I did what little kids do sometimes when they want attention, sometimes they just fall forward. And I just fell forward and busted my tooth. I tried to fall on two people in the audience, and they just moved and I just hit the floor. But that started a whole thing, you know?
The worst it got was my 21st birthday: We were opening for the Cream, and I had hauled single-handedly that afternoon from Ann Arbor, 45 miles to the Grande Ballroom, a 200-gallon oil drum—that’s the big oil drum that you put on stilts out on a stand outside your house if it’s gonna be a hard winter. And I hauled it up there and put it in front of the stage all by myself.
I wanted my manager to hit “one-beats” on a certain Stooges song with a mallet with a mike in it. It was an instrument I’d kinda invented—it had a humongous sound—to make us sound extra thundering when we opened for the Cream.
When we got out there the amps wouldn’t work, so all I had was my manager beatin’ on this drum and people yellin’, “We want the Cream! We want the Cream!” My job for the next 15 minutes was to stand there and act like I didn’t give a shit. And I was on fuckin’ two hits of orange sunshine, man, I was pretty discouraged.
I went home and stayed at Dave Alexander’s house that night and had a cheeseburger with a candle on it, at 2 in the morning. But it was an interesting night, because that woulda been about the time to give up. But we weren’t into that….