Over the years, the Michigan-born rocker James Osterberg Jr. — better known by his stage persona, Iggy Pop — has earned a reputation as “the Godfather of Punk.” This is thanks mostly to his tenure as the frontman of the proto-punk band the Stooges, but also because his reckless, sui generis stage presence embodied a gleeful but slightly scary abandon that became synonymous with the genre.
His presence looms over “Punk,” a four-part documentary series about the fashion, politics and musical influences that defined punk rock, which debuted this week on Epix.
Osterberg (credited as Iggy Pop) is an executive producer of the series, along with the fashion designer John Varvatos — which might raise eyebrows given that Varvatos put what some would say was the final nail in punk’s coffin in 2007 by buying CBGB, the hallowed punk club at 315 Bowery, and replacing it with one of his boutiques.
In a phone interview, Osterberg defended Varvatos and also discussed the Sex Pistols, drugs and his favorite music critics. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Punk, in its original form, was nothing if not iconoclastic. How do you feel when critics, fans or other musicians call you the “Godfather of Punk”?
Once it gets into reverence, does that bother me?
I was, initially, but now I don’t mind being called “Godfather of Punk;” I suppose I’ve grown into the suit! There are occasional personal feelings that come from one-on-one interactions, when someone lets me know something genuine about the role that my work played in their life. When any type of music is still enjoying its vitality — that’s a social influence. And then, as people carry on that style and figure out how to further produce it, the style becomes academic, by really imperceptible steps.
Even in country music: There is a hell of a big stretch going from Hank Williams to Garth Brooks, buddy! That process of change happens in all genres. Rock ‘n’ roll sort of took a beating and is now basically irrelevant, because it got mined to death. But whatever anybody wants to call me is O.K. I’ve been called worse things than the “Godfather of Punk”!
You’ve said that the Sex Pistols were honest with their fans because they always told their fans that they shouldn’t be trusted.
I said “They always thought they were honest.” I don’t remember applauding anybody for saying “Don’t trust me.” I was much more impressed with their onstage ability than whether they were swindled out of thousands of dollars by their manager [Malcolm McLaren]. I just don’t care. But that doesn’t mean [McLaren] was not an effective Barnum-type showman. He was, you know? And that’s fine.
The group, as a whole, had a lot of flair. Johnny Lydon is very good at the things you’re supposed to be good at when you front a group. And [the guitarist Steve Jones] was a really good foil for Johnny, especially when it came to doing publicity. Everybody contributed something musically, or in terms of image, to the group.
In “Punk,” the deaths of the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen are presented as examples of how drugs essentially killed the punk movement.
There was a lot of that stuff around the music business as I experienced it, as a punky type. And it was the hard stuff, so there was always a price to be paid. LSD and marijuana were the stuff being pushed in 1966 and 1967. And taking those drugs has a way of breaking down some barriers that people need to hold themselves together. But while those barriers are being broken down, you also get insights about life and the world around you, especially if you’ve grown up as a milk-fed American lamb to the slaughter, as we all were when we were told, “Go to Vietnam, but don’t ask why.” All that.
Cocaine came in next. And it seemed like a good drug because, after a while, the weed and the LSD weren’t doing it anymore. Some people were getting into speed, but cocaine was a more upscale stimulant that, in effect, kept the party going. Eventually, people’s nerves were shot, their patience had worn thin, and many turned to opioid drugs, as well as Valium and other soporifics. Those are very subtle, dangerous drugs.
Are there books or critics about either your music or punk music that you think are especially valuable?
Lester Bangs and Nick Kent are two people I can think of, off the top of my head. Both of them, in sort of a flailing, wild, highly subjective way. But why not! At least the two of them were treating what they write about like it’s actually important.
I read the stuff Lester Bangs wrote about me and thought: “Oh no, I’m a buffoon! But wait: I am a salient blowtorch of nihilism. Cool! Wait, am I cool or not? I’m not sure!” I have one of his books in hardback. I’ve had it for a long, long time. It’s sitting on the shelf along with “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” the collected works of Allen Ginsburg and a few other books. I look at their spines and think: “O.K., this is what’s important!”
In “Punk,” you talk about your work without retrospectively judging yourself. What kind of questions were you asked and how did they make you feel?
I knew and had worked for John Varvatos before I accepted both the interview and the fairly basic responsibilities that come with being listed as an executive producer. He loves and is genuinely interested in music. I once saw, in one of his stores, a book about the 100 greatest rock albums or something; at the time, I was modeling for him, so I was picking up some free swag. The book was thoughtful; it was a work of “soulful commerce,” I would say. So I knew that was where this show’s interview questions were going to be coming from. Like, there would inevitably be questions like: “So, you became a junkie … ” and that sort of thing.
Whereas, a critic — who’s concerned with arcana and “pure art” — is going to have different questions. In those cases, you listen to the question and try to answer it inasmuch as it can be respected. And then you try to insert something of your own that has nothing to do with the question, so that you get in your own licks. You try to twist the thing over a little bit to your own point-of-view.
What would you say to people who remain outraged that CBGB was turned into a Varvatos boutique?
What would I say to people who think, “It all happened at CBGB, man”? There was something about that room that was conducive to a range of musical approaches that centered on a kind of detail-oriented, reference-oriented, intellectually-tinted art-rock. Like Talking Heads and many aspects of the Ramones, which was stylized in many ways. And Blondie, though that’s not as obvious in Blondie: [The lead singer Debbie Harry] seemed to learn how to sing out of nowhere. I don’t know how she could have done that without a club she could go to over and over while she was learning.
And then Patti Smith’s group, obviously, even though I think “The Piss Factory” was recorded in the Nightingale. That was a little dive bar, smaller than CBGB, where they kept sawdust on the floor because people were going to puke, pee and spit, right? But she was also playing at CBGB, too. You could develop in that room. It was small in a particular way.