February 28, 2012

Iggy and the Idiot

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This is a little embarrassing to admit, but some years ago I went on a post-punk binge. At its most serious phase, I didn’t listen to anything but The Fall for weeks. This very critical condition only ended when I contracted an even worse obsession: New Wave. Through all these binges my friends, who were listening to Modest Mouse and the Strokes, thought I was weird. They were right, because for all intents and purposes I had the music tastes of a 40 year old British man.

Despite this, there were a couple of albums at the end of this strange phase in my life that stuck with me (okay, maybe more like 20). Some were classic favorites, like Wire’s Chairs Missing. Others were not as widespread, like The Chameleons’ Script of the Bridge. But among this snobbish list of mine, there was one record that I remembered the most: Iggy Pop’s The Idiot.

After the Stooges broke up, then came back together for Raw Power and broke up for real in the 70s, Pop was on a path to self-destruction. Once, he was arrested for vandalizing parking meters in a drugged state while wearing a dress. It got so bad that, after an intervention, Pop checked himself into UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute to fight his heroin addiction. David Bowie, who had helped produce Raw Power, was one of Pop’s few visitors when he was institutionalized. After Pop was released, both escaped to West Berlin under the premise of weaning off their drug addictions. It was there that Bowie helped Pop get a record deal with RCA, and started work on Pop’s debut solo album.

The Idiot is often overshadowed by two albums that are polar opposites of each other. One of them is Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, complete in its despair and isolation. The other is Pop’s more popular second album, Lust for Life, characterized by buoyant tracks like “The Passenger.” Nevertheless, both albums owe their existence to The Idiot. Unknown Pleasures would not be as dark if it was not inspired by The Idiot’s dysthymia, and Lust for Life would never be as dynamic if The Idiot did not provide Pop with a chance to recover his artistic career.

Unlike my fellow writers’ favorite albums that range from sentimental (Transatlanticism) to downright fun (Spice World), The Idiot is none of those things. It’s bleak, mechanistic, and sinister. It’s the regret that comes from the aftermath of a wild party. It’s realization that even when you’re surrounded by party people that you’re ultimately alone. “It must be really nice to be dumb enough” to enjoy drugs, Pop said when remembering his first cocaine party. “I’m not really very good at this, getting stoned, partying … I’m just not the type.” The Idiot is not something people listen to for fun; there really never is an appropriate situation or incentive to play the album.

Even worse, Pop purists hate it, accusing the album of being a Bowie creation because it does not reflect the wild, hypersexual and self-destructive personality that characterizes the rest of Pop’s catalogue. Instead, it shows a broken Pop, reflecting from the window of the psychiatric ward he stayed in. “What happened to Zeke?” Pop asks of his fellow Stooges on “Dum Dum Boys.” “He’s dead on Jones, man. How about Dave? O.D.’d on alcohol. Oh, what’s Rock doing? Oh he’s living with his mother. What about James? He’s gone straight.”

My personal connection to this record is not because the album was musically ahead of its time or that it was influential to the post-punk genre. Growing up 20 years later makes it difficult to appreciate that. And it’s definitely not because it was found still spinning on the record player of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis the morning after he hanged himself. It’s because I have still not encountered an album which matches The Idiot’s depression, ominousness and apathy. The record straddles the middle of all three things, catching Pop smack in the middle of his recovery, when he did not feel utterly hopeless but he didn’t feel like his former self either.

It is here that Pop shows his indifference: He’s glad that the worst is over, but does not know how he feels about the way he recovered. Was it worth being committed to Ward 9C? Was it worth being treated as a sick body instead of a human being? Was it worth being labeled as a number from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders just to feel a shred of normalcy again? “Though I try to die / You put me back on the line / Oh damn it to hell,” he sings as he is pushed back to the societal assembly line in “Mass Production.” The disciplinary nature of normalization in psychiatry has saved him from total destruction, yes, but it came at the cost of his identity when he was forced into the mold of a model citizen. This is not anti-psychiatry babble. This is a serious question addressing the inevitable identity crises that everybody will experience in their lives. It is a message that I, at least, can empathize with.

The Idiot is a surprisingly honest expose of a celebrity’s doubts and insecurities for a person whose image rests significantly on masculinity. Yet when he confesses he does not become Jim Osterberg Jr., he remains as Iggy friggin’ Pop. His solo debut, thus, is honesty at its purest: Pop does not need a prop or something to hide behind to talk about himself, he just does it. By putting his own crisis into song, he laid his frustrations to rest and figured out who he was. How else could he later lust for life?

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng