Welcome to GQ's New Masculinity issue, an exploration of the ways that traditional notions of masculinity are being challenged, overturned, and evolved. Read more about the issue from GQ editor-in-chief Will Welch here and hear Pharrell's take on the matter here.
When life throws changes at us, however unexpected, we all need to learn how to adjust. Iggy Pop is doing his best. “I’ve always been the chronically angry paranoid person,” he reflects. “As my circumstances have improved in life, I forget about that often…. I know something good is happening. People are treating me well in life. People are nice to me.”
That is why Iggy Pop now finds it much easier to be a man who can enthuse about how he treasures swimming in the sea and good food and a fine glass of wine and his daily qigong exercises and the ability, when need be, to think carefully and deeply about things, as well as the ability, when need not, to not think too much about anything.
But all that having been said, he wouldn’t like to mislead you. “And then there are other times,” he says, “when you’re, ‘Fuck all this shit!’ and ‘Fuck that guy!’ and ‘Fuck that chick!’ and ‘Fuck those people!’ and ‘Fuck this!’…”
So that’s all still in there?
“Yes, that’s still in there.”
Where does it come from?
“It’s justified! It comes from reality! It’s the correct and justified emotional response to reality. To the more irritating parts of reality, when I’m forced to come into contact with them.”
On the cover of his new album, Free, Iggy Pop is pictured naked, walking away into the ocean in the half-light of a Miami Beach dawn. This turn of events can’t be considered entirely surprising, given that Pop has spent a lifetime—he is 72, at least in human years—ﬁnding various ways to be less dressed than most of us, just one part of the ongoing Iggy Pop master class in doing things your own way.
Told through the soft gauze of nostalgia, Iggy Pop’s story is one of the great ones: In the late 1960s, James Osterberg, a small Michigan youth with big ideas, takes a new name and forms a group, the Stooges, in which he lays down one of the no-nonsense propulsive templates for punk rock, years ahead of time, and recklessly extends the possibilities of how one’s body might be used and abused on a stage—for just one aspect of this, he is often now credited as the inventor of the stage dive. Then, in the 1970s, with acolyte David Bowie alongside him, he makes two remarkable classic-packed solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life…and on it has gone ever since. As others around him have withered and fallen, he has persevered and triumphed.
That’s the way pop-culture history is generally written, where you know that every oddball and pioneer and long shot at the beginning of the story is always going to be acclaimed and get their due before the story’s end. It ignores the fact that once the outcasts have been cast out, most of them never ﬁnd their way back in, and that long shots are long shots because most of them will never see their number come up. In truth, Iggy Pop’s story was messy and uncertain for a long time, and it ending well was no sure thing.
These days he rebuffs the inevitable invitations to write his autobiography, but a scrappy memoir with his name on it, I Need More, did come out in 1982, long before the ground beneath his feet stabilized. It has a brief foreword by Andy Warhol, including the lines: “I don’t know why he hasn’t made it really big. He is so good,” and a text that offers plenty of clues to clear up the mystery for Warhol.
The ﬁrst two sentences we get from Pop in the book, setting up an anecdote about how he was once mistakenly arrested under suspicion of being a murderer, are these: Yeah, so when I was in the Stooges a lot of dumb things used to happen to me. I remember one night I was sitting up, just sitting up all night with our road manager, John Adams, shooting coke with a hypodermic needle. And it continues like that. It’s not so much the excesses that strike a modern-day reader but the sense of a chaotic life without a center or a moral compass or viable path forward.
It’s been a long way from there to here, and there were plenty more difficult years along the way, but now he is thriving in all kinds of ways: touring regularly to big crowds, making new records, selling old records (“all the studio albums are in print and they all sell, all the live albums sell—I have 79 or 84 or 102 or whatever they are—reconfigured, repackaged albums; licensing and the Stooges’ licensing is through the roof…”), acting (most recently as a zombie who still hankers for coffee in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die), making endorsements (most recently his own signature brew of, er, Stumptown coffee), doing voice-overs (recently narrating both the surreal art movie In Praise of Nothing and the art-world documentary The Man Who Stole Banksy), and for several years now, hosting his own weekly radio show, Iggy Conﬁdential, for BBC6 in the U.K. (he records it in Miami, where he has lived for nearly a quarter of a century), displaying a thoughtful and esoteric taste in music. And along the way, Pop has become aware that he has achieved, or attained, something that somehow stretches beyond all of this.
“In the process,” he tells me, “I became something vague-to-articulate but very, very solid to people in general—way, way, way from anything to do with music. Cops like me. Customs officers like me. All sorts of everyday people, they like something about me that has something to do with stick-to-ativity.” By which I think he means something to do with endurance that also relates to a peculiar kind of obstinate dignity. “I’m not sure how that all works,” he muses. “I haven’t gone into it too much, but I realize it’s important.”
For over a decade now, conversations with Iggy Pop have generally included a moment in which he explains how he has no more in him, and how he thinks he should probably shut up and go away. But retiring has turned out to be one thing at which Iggy Pop has proved spectacularly poor.
“Just lately I kind of gave up on that,” he concedes. “I just sort of realized I’m so used to being somebody. I might be nobody if I retired, you know. I was going to be more a nobody in comfort—probably not a good dynamic for me.”
What would happen?
“Alcoholism. Sloth. Depression, probably. All those things. I don’t have any problems like that right now.”
The Norm-Shattering Iggy Pop is Back
Immediately before we sit down to speak, Iggy Pop went swimming in the late-afternoon sun at a quiet spot he likes, where he’ll head out to a buoy on which a loon usually sits. He says he doesn’t think about anything much while he swims, apart from the current and his body and the depth of the water; in fact he’s wary that even being asked about it might put something else he doesn’t want inside his head. “If you fuck this up for me forever,” he tells me, “fuck you!”
He prefers to swim naked, of course, but he usually saves that for a place he has in the Caribbean. “Outside the good old USA,” he says. The image used on the cover image of his album was actually shot for a yet-to-be-released short French film called The Dawn, about a successful painter who gets up each day for sunrise, until one morning the sun does not. (“Pretty good idea, right?” says Pop. “That’s why I wanted to do it.”) Pop also wrote a song for the movie, called “The Dawn,” one that now closes his album, an elegiac mediation about lying awake at night, facing down the challenge of nocturnal thoughts, trying to imagine against hope what might make things better. Love and sex are gonna occur to you, he ruefully warns in the kind of timeworn voice that suggests he has fully road tested every possibility, and neither one will solve the darkness.
“Well, that’s my experience,” Pop says. “You’ll think it can, but it can’t. In life you’ll think that love and sex and all these wonderful things are going to take care of the interior business, and they’re not.”
This recorded version does not include the full version of Pop’s lyric; the French edited to their own sensibilities, and Pop stuck with this shorter version. In its original, more expansive version, as he wrote about what it is like for a man of his age to lie awake in darkness, Pop found a heap of poetry and pathos, but as often in his career, he also found more.
“Yeah,” he says. “I wrote about how much I hate having to get up in the middle of the night to pee.”
You really hate that?
“Fucking hate it! Yeah! I want to go to bed at night and just, that’s that, and then when I open my eyes I want it to be sunny in the morning. And then that happens—it’s very rare—I’m thrilled. ‘This is great!’ But that’s not how it normally goes.”
When Iggy Pop was photographed for this story, each time he changed into a new outﬁt, a makeshift screen was held around him so that he could dress in modesty. “I didn’t ask for that,” he notes, almost affronted at the thought; I mention to him how it reminded me that he is one of the few men outside my immediate family whose penis I have seen several times in the ﬂesh. (Earlier in his career, there would often be a moment toward the end of an Iggy Pop performance when his manhood would appear.)
He nods. “Everyone’s got one,” he says. (After a second, he does append the logically necessary coda: “Unless they don’t.”)
I ask him about those old days, because it always struck me how strange it was, the way he used to expose himself. It wasn’t like some theatrical Well, here it is! Get a load of that! It was more like some kind of challenge or provocation. “Yeah, that’s right,” he says. “That was the general feeling behind it.”
Pop points out that this year, with his shows all going so well, he hasn’t even felt the need to stage dive, as if it is obvious that all of these possible techniques—anything up to full exposure—are resources a performer calls on not to cap the cherry on a triumph but to change something that is not going the way they wish it to. “Maybe I was feeling that particular time, ‘You know, you’re holding back on me, you’re not connecting with me, I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that…how about this? What does that do for you?’ ”
When would you last have done that?
“I don’t think I’ve done it this century.”
But it could still happen?
“I don’t think so, no. I do real well, and I have a real strong thing with the audience I play to.”
When you would do it, what would you be thinking?
“When you’re a lifetime performer, and every performance is your proof of pretense—and every performance when you’re me is pretty much a life-and-death situation—it better be fucking special and it better go over, and it better get me to the next fucking performance, because I didn’t have the record company really behind me, I didn’t have the fucking radio stations behind me… Who did I have behind me? The band wasn’t really behind me, they were a bunch of…well…” He laughs. “It was a band, what could I say? It was not a professional relationship. And so who do I turn to? I turn to the fucking audience. And you better make sure. Meanwhile, most of the audience were standing there staring at me holding a beer or cowering in fear or in some sort of vague judgmental pose. And so then I’d go and get ’em. That’s all. Because that’s what I needed to do to be…Iggy Pop! It didn’t happen that often—just every once in a while. If things were getting gnarly and difficult. There was no conscious: ‘So let’s think this out! If I expose my penis, here are the pros and cons—’ ”
But you’re well aware that most performers don’t do that.
“Yeah, well, I’m not most performers. And I’m not interested in most performers—most of them are shit. And I’m not. How about that? I may not be just what the doctor ordered for everybody, but I’m not shit.”
If you want to follow Iggy Pop’s career, he has a professionally managed Instagram page that will keep you up to date with the salient highlights. If you want to get some sense of Iggy Pop’s home life, I’d refer you instead to someone else’s page, one that exists under the name @biggypop. Biggy Pop also does not manage his own posts, but the principal reason for this is that Biggy Pop is a large pink cockatoo.
Biggy Pop shares the Miami home where Iggy lives with his wife, Nina. (Their menagerie also includes a second, smaller cockatoo and two conures). For several years, the cockatoo’s Instagram posts have conformed to a fairly repetitive and yet beguilingly satisfying format: Iggy and Biggy hang out together at home. Generally music plays to which both a shirtless Iggy and Biggy will dance in their own different ways, and Iggy will occasionally chat away to his friend as though no one is listening: “So you have a college degree? No, I don’t, either”; “When I fart I sort of like to raise my butt to give it some fly space.” In one post they are by a robot dinosaur. Usually the music they move to is pop, hip-hop, reggae, or Iggy’s own, though in one post Biggy and Iggy listen together to Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” something that may seem endlessly weird and complicated to anyone who knows the circumstances of the song’s singer’s final moments.*
When I ask about all of this, Iggy defers all credit and responsibility for the site to his wife.
“My duty is to play with the bird,” he explains. “I try to play with the bird almost every day that I’m home, unless I’m really too tired. That’s my job. I’m his playdate. His mom will come in, she doesn’t ask me, I never know when this is going to happen, she just starts filming it, that’s all. My role is to patiently and compliantly appear as his second banana.”
Who named him?
“I did, because my wife was going to call him Peaches. I said, ‘You can’t call him Peaches! Call him Big Bird—he’s huge.’ So that shortened to Biggy, And then wifey put ‘…Pop’ on it. She didn’t really ask me, she just kind of did it. What am I going to say? I mean, a guy who used to whip it out onstage—surely I can tolerate a little home cockatoo video?”
This thought, I point out to Iggy Pop, does rather bring everything together, given the lyrics to one of his old singles. Iggy swiftly realizes what I mean, and obliges by quoting the lyric in question (from the 1993 single “Wild America,” detailing an encounter with a woman called Debbie): “…she said, ‘Iggy, you’ve got a biggy.’ ”
Pop then adds, as if he should somehow defend himself from something or other: “She said that! I didn’t make it up. ‘Oh, Iggy, you’ve got a biggy…!’ ”
“I’m more relaxed, the less clothes I wear,” Pop says, though he will of course dress up a little when the situation calls for it. (Even then, as you can see, he generally prefers to accessorize with plenty of his own flesh.) He links this preference to growing up in the confines of a Michigan trailer park (he’ll describe to me the precise measurements of the three principal trailer homes of his youth) and his discomfort with the strictures of school and the straight world.
Also when he tried the other way, it didn’t much suit him.
“I didn’t make a great dandy,” he says. “I mean, I tried in high school. I had these red suede loafers. They didn’t make a real big splash.” He smiles. “I found I did better with less.”
Famously, Pop almost invariably appears onstage without a shirt.
How is singing different when you have a shirt on?
“It’s more civilized.”
You say that like it’s a bad thing.
“Well, it’s…okay. I have no quarrel with civilization. As long as I can do my thing, you know.
Chris Heath is a GQ correspondent.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue with the title "Radical."
Photographs by Grace Ahlbom
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Grooming by Mariana Hernandez
Production by Annee Elliot
* Ian Curtis was found hanged in the kitchen of his home near Manchester on May 18, 1980, age 23. On his turntable was Iggy Pop’s landmark solo album The Idiot.
Originally Appeared on GQ