Iggy Pop's body is a wonderland. Or, depending on your perspective, a house of horrors.
Either way, there isn't another quite like it in rock 'n' roll, much like there has never been another performer like the man born James Newell Osterberg Jr. in a Michigan trailer park in 1947. And really, those two things are inextricable from each other. Like Hendrix and his Stratocaster, or Kiss and their makeup, Iggy's physique—lithe and leathery, less carved from marble than chiseled into flank steak—is integral to his legend. It's the punk-rock Rosetta Stone. At a time when hippies were making "head music," he and his cohorts in the Stooges were making music for every other part of the anatomy, a visceral cacophony he quite literally embodied—sex and violence rolled into one tight, thrilling, frightening package.
And though he's grown less fearsome over time—appearing in insurance ads and The Rugrats Movie will do that—his body remains a natural wonder, as much as he remains a force of nature. It's a work of art unto itself, and has been studied as such: Last year, Iggy modeled nude for artist Jeremy Deller's life-drawing class in New York, the resulting sketches forming an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
As Deller told the media, Pop's body "is central to an understanding of rock music," and it is imperative to understanding Iggy Pop. Here we present a physical history of the eternally shirtless Godfather of Punk.
They're probably the last thing you'd notice on him, but the story of Iggy Pop starts at his eyebrows. Actually, it officially starts with his high school band, the Iguanas, which inspired the first part of his stage name. But the second part came just before the Stooges' debut at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 1968. "Iggy had shaved off his eyebrows," late drummer Scott Asheton recalls in the oral history Please Kill Me. "We had a friend named Jim Pop who had a nervous condition and had lost all his hair, including his eyebrows. So when Iggy shaved his eyebrows we started calling him Pop." That's also the show where the newly christened Mr. Pop sustained his first self-inflicted injury. "Iggy started sweating, and then he realized what you need eyebrows for," Asheton said. "By the end of the set, his eyes were totally swollen because of all that oil and glitter."
Iggy was always smarter than he looked and acted, but if you were making a movie about a depressed Midwestern town and casting for a sweet but dim gas station attendant, young Ig would've been your guy. While certainly handsome, with his large eyes and gaunt features, it was an odd kind of handsome, a fact he seemed to recognize. "Here comes my face/It's plain bizarre," he sang on 1977's Lust for Life, an album in which he appears on the cover posed as if he'd shown up to take his senior photo after a three-day coke binge. With age, he's added extra crags and creases, lending him a certain weatherbeaten dignity. But haters remain. A few years ago, a U.K. poll voted his the worst celebrity face, above Cher, Mickey Rourke and Donatella Versace. Harsh—but, for the guy who once snarled "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell," probably fair.
Although Iggy gradually shed his various stage stunts as he grew older and less out of his mind on drugs, he kept stage diving into his 60s—he invented the move, so why not?—until 2010, when he launched himself into the audience at Carnegie freaking Hall and splatted on the floor, dislocating his shoulder. It was the punk equivalent of Michael Jordan blowing a dunk on his third comeback with the Washington Wizards. He decided right then that his days as a human projectile were over.
Adam's rib. Achilles' heel. Iggy Pop's torso. On a body scarred with history, this is where he carved his legend—and that's meant 100 percent literally. He started with a splintered drumstick at a college gig in 1969 and kept going from there, using whatever sharp object happened to be on hand at any particular show. Self-mutilation soon became his version of Pete Townshend's windmill or Mick Jagger's rooster walk, the rock-star move fans would come out expecting to see. (As Iggy admits, his early fans were sketchy weirdos.) One particularly insane instance, at a particularly insane point in his career, involved slicing an X into his chest with a knife after failing to entice someone in the audience to stab him. Thankfully, he put away the cutlery long ago, allowing his long-suffering pectoral region to wrinkle with dignity. Well, he tried anyway—Google "Iggy Pop sad torso" for a reminder that age, and the internet, comes for us all.
Last year, when images from Deller's life-drawing project emerged, Vogue salivated over Iggy's washboard abs, noting that they appear "inexplicably unaffected by time or gravity" and pondering how they've held up despite years of extremely bad living. Plenty of others have wondered the same. Men's Fitness seemed to call bullshit on his professed regimen of tai chi and light swimming. But that's more than he was apparently doing in 1980, in the dregs of his heroin addiction, when Creem asked what he did to stay so fit. "Rock does it all for me," he responded. Smack is a hell of a wonder drug.
A British magazine once described Iggy Pop as "a hyperactive packet of muscle and sinew straight out of Michelangelo's wet dreams." But given how he imagined the biblical David, not even the master could've dreamt Il Stoogio with the correct anatomical dimensions. Stories of the Stooges' most prominent, um, member aren't just the stuff of groupie legend but documented fact. While the signature hip-huggers and bikini briefs he wore onstage left pretty much nothing to the imagination, Pop often went ahead and removed all doubt. "Iggy took out his dick and put it on the speaker," Steve Harris, the former vice president of Elektra Records, recalled of one early gig in Please Kill Me. "It was just vibrating around. He was very well-endowed." He mostly keeps Not-So-Li'l Iggy sheathed these days (well, mostly), though that hasn't stopped the curious from investigating the myth. At Keller Auditorium last year, a fan reached out of the crowd to grab a handful for themselves. Slightly Bigger Iggy, naturally, didn't flinch.
Iggy Pop doesn't move like other rock stars. Writhing, whirling, contorting himself at odd angles, he more often resembles an untrained ballerina trying to improvise a routine while high on ayahuasca. Part of that's by design, and part of that is how he's designed. As he told Rolling Stone, he got "run over by a big guy" playing football in junior high, resulting in his right leg being an inch and a half shorter than the left, which explains why he seems to naturally curl into a sort of S shape. Other maladies include a bad hip and what he calls a "twisted spine" brought on from years of pratfalls and cramped flights. And yet, here he is, at age 70, still standing, still shirtless, still putting his body through the wringer every night he's onstage. Whenever Iggy finally kicks off, his cadaver will hopefully get donated to science—or, at least, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Iggy Pop plays Aug. 26 at 8:20 pm.
MusicfestNW presents Project Pabst is Aug. 26-27 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Get tickets here.
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