I went to see Iggy Pop at the United Palace Theater at the beginning of April. The United Palace is one of those great gilded theaters that have mostly disappeared; It’s up at 175th Street, and it takes a lot to get punk rockers of a Certain Age above 14th Street, much less to Inwood.
And yet, we came. I emerged from the subway and followed graying folks in leather jackets up the sidewalk to the theater. Once inside, it took me 20 minutes to get through the tiny lobby because there was someone I knew or a familiar face every couple of feet. This year of all years, you take the time to stop and shake hands with old drinking buddies, shake hands with the friends you used to run with, and just say “How the hell are you?” to the people you don’t run into any more. There was lots of spandex and dyed black hair and frippery on display from fans of all ages. It was festive. These were your people. This was your tribe. It felt like homecoming.
And it was homecoming. The show opened with the curtain down–I do love bands that will use a curtain these days–and you heard primitive drumming, getting louder and louder, until the curtain opened with the grandest flourish, revealing the band in place onstage. At that moment, the drums charged into the backbeat for “Lust For Life” and the crowd roared their approval. Iggy emerged from behind the scrim to an ever louder roar, Josh Homme stepped to the mic to announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Iggy Pop!” and Iggy started singing the song I once called “The Punk Rock National Anthem.” I remember seeing Iggy play a show in 1986 and watching the toughest kid’s face light up the first time they got to hear Iggy fucking Pop sing “Lust For Life” in the same room as them. I wonder how many people in the United Palace are having that same experience tonight.
Think what you want about Queens of the Stone Age, I was thrilled that Josh Homme made this record with Iggy. I didn’t even care what it sounded like, it didn’t matter, all I cared was that Iggy was alive and out on the road again. To be honest, secretly I was worried about Iggy’s health; this would be the second artist to make a record in secret in the last year and I’m sorry if that makes me worry, but it makes me worry. I worried this would be it. I worried this would be goodbye. I worried that Iggy needed the band to prop him up onstage.
I worry far too much.
Josh and the band all wore matching red suits, like they were backing James Brown or Chuck Berry, and that comparison is not really that far off the mark when you place Iggy in their particular pantheon. It was sweet and respectful and cool as fuck, all at the same time. They set up on the far left and right sides of the stage so that Iggy had the center stage all to himself. There was a white scrim down the back of the stage that provided a stunning backdrop for lighting and for Iggy and for a bare chest that showed up two songs in, when he flung his jacket aside. Everyone was surprised it took him that long.
My word, seeing Iggy singing his solo material with a group of actually talented musicians was nothing short of life-affirming. There were too many years in the 80s where you’d cruise down to the Palladium or the Ritz to see him with some band that was absolute fucking shite, but you’d go because it was IGGY POP. I loved how the band stayed as neutral as they could: they played the songs, and stayed out of the way, even when Iggy would talk about “Joshua” inviting him to make a record. Homme would kind of dip his head and look amazed and thrilled that he was able to do this. I don’t even care if it was fake–I don’t think it was–it was darling and warmed my heart. The band generally just bopped around amongst themselves, dancing and smiling at each other and looking like they were having the time of their lives. They were tight and loose at the same time, they knew every note and played it to the letter. But it was very clear that this was not about them. This was about Iggy.
This show was also Iggy’s homecoming, a fact I somehow forgot until he greeted us with “Thank you very fucking much. Great to fucking see you.” After Detroit, he was so much One Of Ours, living on Avenue B, that I’d see him when I had to go meet a friend at the Life Cafe or that Mexican joint that was nearby. He’d be walking around the park, he’d be in the bodega when you went in to buy a pack of cigarettes. You got used to walking past Iggy. There were times I’d nod hello because I’d see someone familiar out of the corner of my eye (and back then you did not walk around Avenue A even during the day without 360 degree peripheral vision), and two seconds later realize, “I just nodded a casual hello to Iggy fucking Pop like he was the pizza delivery guy, and not like he was the godfather of fucking punk rock. Way to fucking go, champ.”
The set was material from Iggy’s solo albums (and the new record, Post Pop Depression, of course). There was no Stooges material, which was fair enough, he’s certainly given us enough chances to see that. (Although to be honest, I would have loved to have heard this band’s rendition of “Search and Destroy.”) I was so happy and excited to see Iggy again I didn’t put a lot of effort into thinking about what songs he would play, because I didn’t care. I was just happy to see the dude singing and dancing and ripping off his jacket and jumping into the crowd and throwing ‘fuck’ into every other word of every sentence he spoke. Iggy is visceral. Iggy is not cerebral.
All of this is fine and well and good, but it left me utterly unprepared for what it was going to feel like to hear all of the Berlin-era material performed not four fucking months after David Bowie died.
It wasn’t until the the opening beats of “Sister Midnight” that I thought, “Oh, FUCK.” It’s not like I’m not up on my history: I’m enough of a geek that when I was in Berlin in September, I rested my palm on the wall of Hansa Studios (where Iggy and David made those records), and I rode the Ubahn to the edges of Berlin so I could stand outside the apartment on Haupstrasse that David and Iggy shared (until David made him get his own apartment in the same building because Iggy was eating all the food out of David’s refrigerator. This is a true story.).
So the songs from that era are not just about Iggy, they are all full of Bowie’s energy and presence. “Sixteen” and “Tonight” and “Funtime” and “Dum Dum Boys” were this mix of amazing and wonderful and old familiar favorites and it’s so good to hear Iggy playing those songs on a stage in front of you. And then, every other beat, it was like your heart did this somersault of OH BERLIN! OH DAVID! oh wait he’s…not here any more.
“The Passenger” was New Wave Dance night all over again, and “Nightclubbing” was this strange morphing chameleon of punk rock cabaret where Iggy pulled up a stool and sat down at the beginning, that pulsing beat (another New Wave Dance Night favorite) behind him, while Josh Homme changed guitars and danced along. (I tweeted during this that Josh Homme dancing to “Nightclubbing” was almost soft-core porn, and I do not wish to revoke that statement.) Then Iggy got up and started singing again, walking the front of the stage, pacing it like a panther, and it once again felt dark and dangerous and like it was exposing the soft white underbelly of downtown.
“China Girl” was the end of the main set, and I guess it caught me off-guard because the other Berlin songs had been earlier in the set, and I had processed all those emotions and put them away and then this one brought them back front and center, reminding me that they’re actually not that far away at all, that we had better get used to this, that this is only the beginning of our time of mourning and saying goodbye, of having to figure out how to live when the things that made us who we are no longer share the planet with us. Somehow I was unprepared for it. Somehow I was unprepared for my reaction to it, the scars across my heart opening up yet again, one more time, not hurting any less or any easier.
Iggy never said anything specifically about David, but he was in New York and he knew he didn’t need to.
By the end of the night I was 100% convinced that Iggy is 100% fine. He’s allowed to be done touring and making records if that’s what he wants to do, even if I’m sad I can’t run into him on Avenue B any more. “Success” closed the night out, the aisle full of the rabid and the drunk and the kids high on the fact that I’M SEEING IGGY POP, all yelling “HERE COMES SUCCESS, HOORAY, SUCCESS!” with gusto and wild abandon, singing it at the ushers trying to keep people out of the aisle, singing it at the old dudes standing with their arms folded, young and old, singing together, the songs of our youth, whether that was 30 years ago or whether that’s happening right now. I hugged the 20-something girls with the magenta hair and silver lurex who were bright-eyed and shiny and excited and tiptoed up the aisle to beat the crowds, secure that Iggy was fine, and he’d be with us for a little bit more at least.