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Iggy Pop: From a howl to a croon

June 6, 2009 | 11:25 am

The archetypal madcap rocker leaves his howl for a croon on 'Preliminaires.'

Iggy Pop, the shaman of punk, metal, glam and alternative rock, the man known for his baritone howl, scarred chest and unsettling stare, is sick of what the music he helped forge has become. "Rock is worse than 'Kumbaya,' " Pop said from the art-filled Miami riverfront bungalow he uses as a studio and clubhouse. "I think it's a terrible form."

So when he began to record his 20th studio album, the schoolteacher's son turned to other musical loves. Fans of the Stooges, the legendary proto-punk Michigan band that launched Pop's career and reunited in 2003, might be in for a shock when they hear "Préliminaires," released Tuesday, on which Pop finds his inner crooner.

He sings French cabaret like Serge Gainsbourg, poetic blues like Leonard Cohen, bossa nova like a blasted Sinatra and jazz like Louis Prima.

Rockers who start second careers by singing jazz have become an industry cliché, but Pop, no surprise, doesn't just rework the standard songbooks. Using "The Possibility of an Island," Michel Houellebecq's 2005 existential sci-fi novel about a dissolute, desolate icon as a springboard, "Préliminaires" follows the poète maudit tradition of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, not the sunny show tunes of Gershwin.

Pop sings "Les Feuilles Mortes," the mournful French basis for "Autumn Leaves." On "A Machine for Loving," he recites a passage from the book over an acoustic guitar: "Through these dogs, we pay homage to love." The ironic anthem "Nice to Be Dead" is the closest "Préliminaires" comes to a rocker.

"If someone wants to hear a good rock song by me, I've got a few," Pop, 62, said with a laugh, alluding to a catalog that includes "Raw Power," "Lust for Life" and "China Girl." "Your thyroid slows down after a certain age. I can still do it live, but I don't wake up dying to write one in that vein."
As frontman for the Stooges, Pop became infamous for shows in which he would cut himself, get into fights with concertgoers and smear peanut butter on his naked torso. In the years that followed the group's breakup, he lived with David Bowie in Berlin, built a solo career in New York, then decamped to Miami in the '90s before reuniting the Stooges.

The band produced a new album, "The Weirdness," in 2007 and began touring around the world; a Times review of the Stooges' show at the Wiltern in April of that year praised Pop's "ability to unhinge himself effortlessly, to go loosey-goosey and channel a toddler, making up his pure, spastic moves as he goes."

But it came crashing to a halt this January when guitarist Ron Asheton was found dead of a heart attack at age 60 in his house.

"Logically I said to myself, either one of us is going to kick it or get injured or something's going to happen to stop this train," Pop said. "But I didn't see this particular one at this time. I thought he would live to be 75, 80. Ron always reminded me of Boris Yeltsin, he had the pigheaded peasant energy. I thought his body could take a lot of abuse."

Pop began working on the new album before the death of his longtime friend. "Préliminaires" grew out of a meeting with a group of documentary filmmakers -- Pop refers to them as "Euro artistes" -- who flew to Miami to ask him to write songs for their project about Houellebecq. The film, "Last Words (Derniers Mots)," was released in the Netherlands last year.

He already had penned a lyrical lament of a tired rock star looking to live out his autumn years in peace. The ballad, "I Want to Go to the Beach," "had no place in the Stooges, no place on an Iggy Pop album, no place in the American music industry," Pop said. "I felt so bad about that. Then this opportunity came from the sky."

Pop agreed to record a few acoustic songs for the film. Meanwhile, Hal Cragin, a musician Pop had worked with in the '90s, sent the singer some jazz tracks they had recorded back then. Pop started laying down vocals in Miami's Crescent Moon Studios, then Cragin added music in upstate New York.

"It was a bit of a curiosity, an adventure," Cragin said. "He did 'Autumn Leaves': very moody, very dark. It struck me as something that hasn't really been done yet."

They never saw each other during the entire recording process. Pop didn't even meet the horn players who swing New Orleans style on "King of the Dogs," or any of the other musicians. "I never had to meet a human being, and it really helped," he said.

When Pop realized that the material he was writing deserved its own album, he approached the French division of his label, EMI, concerned that executives stateside wouldn't understand or appreciate his new artistic direction.

"I knew this wasn't going to fly with the American company," Pop said. "They were already making plans for me to get produced by [punk-pop band] Sum 41, who are very nice, but that wasn't where I was going to go. So I used my international skills."

His diplomacy worked. The album has received worldwide attention and is being released in the U.S. through the indie-oriented Astralwerks. He is ready for the naysayers, for those who will accuse him of going soft or attack him for associating with the controversial Houellebecq, though Pop was not aware that the author was prosecuted by the French government for slandering Muslims in his book "Plateforme" (Houellebecq prevailed).

After all, he's never been one to shy away from scandal. "I'm just the kind of person who keeps putting my foot in those spots," Pop said, his tan face breaking into a smile.

--Evelyn McDonnell

Photo: Mike Stocker / For The Times