New Year's Eve, 2004. Age 35, long past the point where I should be talking about such things. I was always at least a decade behind. Late bloomer. Like so many things in this life I heard about Iggy Pop when I was in high school but my emphasis at that time was psychedelic groups like the Grateful Dead and Traffic and spiritual forefathers like Muddy Waters and Elmore James.
You never heard Iggy on the radio. Then the appropriate amount of time passed and he was absorbed into the mainstream. A new generation of rock writers championed the pioneers of punk rock who had previously been swallowed by history. I was not one of them. Then I picked up a copy of an oral history of punk and clutched it to my breast for the next five years; I showed up at the airport in my leather jacket and my combat boots and my ragged jeans and an attitude more akin to someone about 15 years younger. This was all wrong. There’s nothing worse or more embarrassing than an aging hipster wannabe.
The problem is, I waited too long. That’s the blanket statement for my life for the ages. It all happens out of sequence. I am going though some sort of rebellious stage I feel has nothing to do with any mid-life crisis. When I was in my twenties I wanted to be wearing a tie with suspenders, to walk through an office high-fiving my co-workers, to throw crumpled up pieces of copy through a tiny basketball hoop over my garbage can. I did, for a short while. Then I got fired.
So it is N.Y.E. in my hometown, which means everything is closed. My blood is up and I cannot conceive of how I can stand it. I wanted to go to Milwaukee and have many drinks and be the go-to guy from El-Eh. I wanted to have a punk-rock evening without fully admitting it out loud, for to do so would mean I truly was hopeless.
Even my mother is going to a party. She's dressed in her mink coat and is pacing the house, leaving a cloud of cologne behind her as she wanders the house like she wandered through art galleries, waiting for my old man in his Rex Harrison hat. I'm waiting to hear from my old contacts in town. We're supposed to go to a party together. It's getting late and I'm getting impatient. I switch on the TV and pop over to VH1 for some reason, which is having a special Behind the Music show on Iggy. Two hours. I start to feel agitated (in a good way) as I watch Iggy fling himself off the stage and walk on people’s hands like they were one large escalator.
Mom comes into the den and sits down carefully, smoothing her hands on the cushions next to her and sighing and looking directly at me, which she does a lot. It makes my face feel prickly. She asks me what I'm watching. I tell her it’s a biography of a great rock star. "Who is it?" She asks. I tell her. She squints and says, "Ziggy Wha?" I say, "I-G-G-Y-P-O-P." She frowns, "What kind of name is that?"
It is the newest in a series of musical misunderstandings between my mother and I. She seems to think all these guys are singing about is false idolatry, like they're all cult leaders with backup bands. That they constantly reference their own selves in their music. They throw sex at you and then prance in front of the screen, daring you not to fall in love with their every bad impulse. "But Iggy's different," I maintain.
She really has to lean forward and study the TV: Iggy circa '70 stalking the stage on his hands and knees, stage dirt smeared on the side of his face and his hair damp and matted over his mascaraed eyes, his stomach bunched up in puffs of musculature, spine bended in an impossibly frank and rigid way like his body was made of Cheez Whiz and Slinkies, like his bones were deformed a la the Elephant Man.
Mother winces at this but has to keep looking like she's watching a medical film of a poison gas-afflicted chimp. "Is this man okay?" she marvels. "He looks like he’s having an attack!"
"That’s the way Iggy performs," I say. "It’s like confrontational theater. The Theater of the Absurd or what the Greeks did: confronting the audience with the grotesque or upsetting them to cleanse them of their shame or to get their blood up." I always pour on the college-speak whenever discussing distasteful cultural issues with the Momster; I feel the elevated language forces her to take it seriously. This way I can discuss snuff porn as long as I couched it in language from The Atlantic Monthly. "He doesn’t have any eyebrows!" Mother is yelping at the TV.
"He is probably one of the most revered rock performers of the last thirty years," I sniffed.
"Good God why?!" Her despair is palpable. You can feel the panic of watching one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse strip down and do a sundance shimmy.
"Well, when everyone else was wearing flowers in their hair and buckskin pants and flying the peace sign he was delivering these malevolent performances to unsuspecting people in economically depressed suburban Michigan. He’s had the kind of life that not many people could survive. He was a drug addict. He toured the country playing to deranged people, slicing himself with glass (and finishing the show), smearing peanut butter all over his torso, falling into the audience, picking up girls over his shoulder and molesting them..."
"Well, not really molesting them per se, but picking them up and slinging them over his shoulder and carrying them around the concert hall."
Mom wants to know: "Why would such a person be so respected?"
"Because he had everything going against him," I say as we watch Iggy in a recent interview where his face looks like a skull that won’t shut up. "He was born in Trailer Park USA. People like that aren’t supposed to grow up to inflict themselves on the public. People like that are not supposed to exist. They are supposed to disappear. They are unwanted and unseen with no voices."
"They are?" Mom frowns. "How do you know this?"
I ignore her. "But he did something different. The threw himself onto the edge of a razor many, many times. He decided that what he liked about music, particularly the blues, he could apply to his own life situation. He used his imagination and created something completely unheard of and unholy that made people listen. He went out on a wire every night and gave his all and he’s been doing this for over thirty fucking years."
Mother keens about my language. I have obscured my own point with the obscenity. I try anew:
"He never held back. He threw himself off the stage every night he played. Often he went out high on drugs and made a complete fool of himself. Imagine the will it takes to do that. The strength of inner character and resolve. Pure force of will and personality. They punishment his body and mind absorbed. And this was before there was any real starmaking machinery in place in rock and roll. He was doing music that hadn’t been invented yet, that had no support, that had no ears to listen to it, and when it was listened to, people wanted to kill or lynch him."
"Oh, why did he do such things?" Mother wails.
Because he had no choice, right? He had absolutely no choice.
I didn’t want to even get into G.G. Allin because I was afraid it would kill her.
"My name is Jim,
but most folks call me...Jim"