Iggy Pop: Open Up And Bleed
By Paul Trynka
Unrelated note about this blog post. Sheila from Book Journey challenged me to use the term "awesome sauce" in a blog post this week. I have fulfilled the challenge. Read on and see how...
Boy, do I ever read a lot of rock and roll biographies. And if you look at them, you can trace a very obvious interest in artists famous for their self-destruction. In the past two years I have read biographies (or autobiographies) about Keith Richards, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Anthony Keidis. Iggy Pop: Open Up And Bleed seemed to be the logical end point in a reading trip to the pits of rock and roll depravity and beyond. So to say that I was looking forward to this book it a bit of an understatement. I love rock and roll depravity and there is simply nobody more depraved than Iggy Pop (except, perhaps Phil Spector, but I'll have to wait for that biography).
For anyone who has never read a rock and roll biography, allow me to explain the basic formula. They all follow the predictable pattern from precocious childhood into an adolescence full of talent and promise, a difficult rise to stardom which, in turn, provides the inevitable introduction to drugs, a brief episode of hyper creativity and bliss is always followed by the long, slow and often painful descent into depravity (the bulk of the biography). What follows is the ultimate rebirth of the artist, a phoenix rising from the ashes of self-destruction. It's a career pattern as cliche as rhyming "cry" and "die."
I've been a fan of Iggy Pop and his band The Stooges for a long time and I have always found Iggy Pop to be one of rock and roll's more enigmatic figures. He also stands outside rock and roll to a certain degree. During his peak creative years between 1969 and 1979, Iggy Pop (first with the Stooges and then with David Bowie) created music so ahead of its time that it was seen as (at best) a curiosity or (at worst) noise.
Only year later would critics and music fans comprehend the very real impact that Iggy Pop had on both the punk and new wave movement in the late 1970s and pop music as a whole. But Iggy Pop is simply the myth behind the very real man known as Jim Osterberg. I was ready when I opened the book. I wasn't going to be surprised to find out that Iggy Pop was simply a talented man with substance abuse problems like all the rest. He was (and to a degree, still is) rock and roll's wild child and the stories are legendary. Iggy Pop is the unpredictable madman famous for cutting himself onstage with a steak knife, rolling around in broken glass, throwing feces on his band, exposing himself at every turn and vomiting his awesome sauce all over the audience. If anything, Iggy Pop was known as the performer most likely to die onstage rather than the influential artist he has become over time. This book was going to follow the pattern to a tee and I wasn't going to be surprised.
Except I was.
And for a good portion of the book I was confused.
To say I was disappointed in this book is an understatement. A biography about Iggy Pop should write itself. It's not like there's a shortage of stories about a man who sacrificed his body for his art night in and night out and survived to tell the tale. I mean he spent a large portion of his life in and out of mental institutions and snorted enough blow to power a mission to Mars. He once performed a show entitled: Killing a Virgin. How could this book fail? Get these stories down on paper and let his fans bask in their depravity.
This book bothered me from the very beginning. Paul Trynka's work is so exhaustive, so expansive and so detailed I had to continually check to see whether I was reading the biography of Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy or some other such historical heavyweight. And for a time I was inclined to trash this book when it came time to write this blog. I very nearly did. But I figured out what it was about this book that was bothering me.
Trynka's research is so painstakingly thorough. He has collected interviews from literally everyone from Jim Osterberg's life (everyone that was still alive in 2007, that is) and combed through reams and reams of material (school records, newspapers, magazine articles, medical records etc...) in order to put this work together. It's not really a rock and roll biography at all. Paul Trynka has written an academic work on the life and work of Jim Osterberg. The book is so scholarly (the endnotes by themselves would make a decent sized biography) that there were points where I had to read passages two or three times over. Iggy Pop: Open Up And Bleed is an opus. It's so definitive that I can't imagine anyone ever writing another word on the subject of Iggy Pop, unless it was a revisionist history (and if someone did hypothetically write another academic work on the life of Iggy Pop, I suppose someone would then have to write the historiography. Egads!).
While the research is obviously sound, Trynka's agenda is sometimes suspect. Trynka often overstates Iggy Pop's contribution to the world of pop music. While I would, personally, place Iggy Pop extraordinarily high on the list of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Trynka often oversteps academic objectivity and proceeds into hero-worship and often dives straight into pretension. I actually tossed the book aside in disgust at one point when he compared Iggy Pop's collaboration with David Bowie as the greatest meeting of creative minds since Gauguin and Van Gogh worked together at the Yellow House. C'mon! Really? Such nonsense has no place in a scholarly biography and only served to pile on the pomposity and compromise the integrity. Unfortunately, this book has stretches when it drips with pomposity.
In the space of 375 pages, Trynka managed to name-drop literally every single human being of consequence since the French Revolution. Again, I know Iggy Pop is an influential character in the history of rock and roll, but dropping names like Vaslav Nijinsky and Napoleon Bonaparte and Eldridge Cleaver even though hey have little to no importance to the life of Iggy Pop. I got the feeling that Trynka was trying (valiantly at times) to authenticate the mythology of Iggy Pop while his thesis was obviously an attempt to humanize him. This conflict was apparent to me throughout the book.
Despite this, Paul Trynka is fast on his way to becoming a very erudite biographer of artists that have, until now, not been given the academic treatment. This is probably a good thing. I just hope he can keep his myth-making in check. That's the artist's job (and Iggy Pop has spent his career shrouding himself in his own myth). The biographer's job is to cut through the myth. Trynka seems to do this inconsistently at best.
However, it's difficult to dislike this book. Paul Trynka has put everything he had into this book and it will stand as the conclusive work on the career and legacy of Iggy Pop. For that reason alone, it's a must read for anyone who is interested in this particular genre of music. But it's not a typical rock and roll biography. I have since learned that Trynka has written a similar work on the career of David Bowie (which makes sense since Bowie plays such a major role in the career of Iggy Pop). I can only imagine that it too will prove to be conclusive.