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Iggy Pop: My life as a transformer -- and a monkey

By Neil Curry, CNN
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon July 1, 2013
Iggy Pop is touring Europe with The Stooges, having recorded
Iggy Pop is touring Europe with The Stooges, having recorded "Ready to Die" -- only their fifth album in 45 years.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Iggy Pop is touring Europe with his band The Stooges
  • It follows the completion of only their fifth album in 45 years
  • Early reviews speak of the 65 year-old's boundless energy

London (CNN) -- In a room which once served as the residence of the painter Monet at London's Savoy Hotel, one of rock's most engaging and enduring entertainers is having a little trouble recovering his hearing. Visibly though, Iggy Pop shows no after-effects from last night's gig at the city's Festival Hall. At 66 he looks in great shape -- yet a glance at his hell-raising musical resume tells you it's a wonder he's here at all.

The early reviews of the show at London's Meltdown Festival (curated this year by Yoko Ono) speak of his boundless, youthful energy as he bounds on to the stage like a jack-in-the box who's just escaped the confines of the toy cupboard, cajoling, teasing and captivating his audience with the skills of the consummate showman.

"There's a lot of craft," he says. "Everything from learning the different parts of the room to reading the reactions to ultimately. You're like a funnel or a vacuum cleaner. You're a transformer between all the energy of the group and its music and the different energies of all the people in the different parts of the room. What's really happening when it's good is that everybody's flowing into each other's presence, maybe through the medium of a particular riff or a particular chorus but also a monkey -- a well-rehearsed monkey," he laughs.

Read more: Foo Fighters drummer will play Iggy Pop

Pop's monkey business has revealed itself in various forms of bad behavior on stage over the years. Among the less notorious antics, are his trademark topless performance and an affinity to stage-dive into his audience.

"The first time I did it I was 21 years-old and I was opening for Frank Zappa who was great and we were just a local band in a psychedelic bar room," he recalls.

CNN Preview: Johnny Depp, Iggy & Jay-Z

In those days, he tells me, they would be lucky to get a sympathy fee of $50.

"But we were cute kids and we got to play with everybody and I thought it was my job to make sure that when we played no-one forgot about us. I did that thing that little kids do when they're not getting enough attention from their parents, they just fall forward and wait for maybe somebody to catch 'em. And I would just step off the stage and inspect the audience."

Forty-five years later and he's still at it.

"Last year I did a couple of big dives and I got a couple of stitches because I always overdo it. And at this stage I just fall in once in a while and say "Hi" and it's fine -- just a gentle collapse is okay!"

But some things have changed since those early days: the after-show party today is an altogether calmer affair, in the company of his third wife Nina Alu, a nice bottle of Bordeaux and "lots of desserts."

"And someone will draw my bath and sleep will come hard. There's some element I do with The Stooges... the hardcore stuff. It's a bit like being a prize fighter, there's a lot of nervous energy and you wake up sore."

Pop is currently touring Europe with The Stooges, having recorded "Ready to Die" -- only their fifth album in 45 years. His parents named him James Osterberg Junior but playing in a band called The Iguanas led to the nickname "Iggy" and an apparent similarity to a local character named "Pop" provided the rest. In the early days, he says, he became known as "The Man You Love To Hate" and today he's most commonly billed as the "Godfather of Punk" -- a term with which he's uncomfortable.

I've been called lots of things and it's nice to have lots of titles. I'm waiting for Nobel laureate -- no-one's nominating me so I'm putting it out there.
Iggy Pop

"At first it was just a really embarrassing tag and then it got to be funny and then I just gave up. I've been called lots of things and it's nice to have lots of titles. I'm waiting for Nobel laureate -- no-one's nominating me so I'm putting it out there."

Pop's musical career has been supplemented by a long association with movies both as an actor and musician. Tracks such as "The Passenger," "Lust for Life," "Search and Destroy" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog" have appeared on the soundtracks to almost 150 movies and TV series. This summer he'll be played by Foo Fighters' drummer Taylor Hawkins in the film "CBGB," about the legendary New York music club frequented by the likes of The Ramones, Blondie and Patti Smith.

But an unexpected acting connection revealed itself during Pop's visit to London. "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe has confessed to being a huge fan of Iggy and was reported as saying that playing his idol on screen was his ultimate dream.

Pop tells me Radcliffe attended last night's gig and the singer seems delighted to be reaching a new generations of fans.

"I think it would be great if everybody played me," he says. "Yeah, come on kid play me! I think it's wonderful it's a gift that anyone would think of me."

However there's one actor in particular with whom Iggy Pop has developed a strong musical bond and friendship -- although it didn't start out that way.

"Johnny Depp was in a couple of bands in the Florida area -- I think Rocky City Angels and The Kids -- and apparently once when I was in my wildest phase I played in Gainesville. He came to the club, he tells me he tried to meet me and tell me about his band and I said: 'Shut up you little turd'."

Happily, the relationship survived this first awkward encounter.

"Since then we've played and we've jammed on and off. He's a very sensitive guitarist, he has a really nice intonation, attack and a really nice sense of music. And we recorded one thing together years ago called 'Hollywood Affair' and we played once on French telly."

Fans of both Depp and Pop have a chance to hear their latest collaboration on the soundtrack of Depp's new film "The Lone Ranger" (Depp plays the masked lawman's native American character Tonto) with a rendition of the traditional Gold Rush-era song "Sweet Betsy from Pike."

"He called up about this and I think it was late in the game and he didn't have a great cut and with about two weeks to go he said: 'Come on, we gotta get this together so choose a song.' So I tried writing something but it's not my style and 'Sweet Betsy' is just a great great great song and he plays beautifully on it. I just had a great time doing that."

With close friends David Bowie and Lou Reed continuing to stir up the music business and contemporaries The Rolling Stones reaching new musical milestones, Pop remains one of rock's great survivors.

"What's interesting is that for people of our generation that matured in the 1960s, people still seem to be interested. I got to think there was some sorta bump in the quality in that period '65 -- '75. It's pretty much a given that a decent, or better than decent, musician or songwriter is gonna keep doing it in some way throughout their life."

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