Saturday, May 14, 2011
Iggy Pop's Poetry
We were tracking overdubs for The Swans album that eventually became The Burning World at Platinum Island's Studio East. I was assisting Bob Musso, Bill Laswell was producing, when Iggy Pop walked in to check out the music.
After listening to a track, Iggy asked Bill for some help with a performance piece he was making for a festival honoring genius and pioneering avant garde music composer, John Cage. Iggy had written a poem for the occasion and wanted a backing track of some kind to go with it. Bill had the idea to make a "prepared piano" and play the melody to I Wanna Be Your Dog which I think could safely be called Pop's theme song.
A prepared piano is a technique of altering the timbre of a piano by putting objects on, and in-between the strings. John Cage was known for these experiments and composed pieces for the prepared piano. So we "prepared" the grand piano with paper clips, rubber bands, nails and other things that rattle in the night. I don't remember exactly how we miced it, maybe with a couple of U87's one closer to the hammers aimed toward the high strings, and the other at the back capturing the low strings.
Bob quickly got a blend between Iggy's voice and Bill on the piano and recorded the piece live to a Studer A80 1/2" tape machine. They only did it once, one take, and that was that. I only vaguely remember the poem but recall as it feeling both "beat" ( as in Kerouac and Ginsberg etc.) and punk with a strong emphasis on the right of the individual to be who they are. I should have a copy of it somewhere which I'll have to dig up. At the time it sounded incredibly right on, hitting the nail squarely on the head in terms of where I was coming from.
We dubbed a 1/4" copy for Iggy, the format for submission to the Cage Festival, and Iggy went on his way, mission accomplished.
In the latest Rolling Stone magazine Paul Simon raises the question of whether song lyrics can be considered poetry or not? I think they can. If the words move you just as strongly what difference does it make what you call them. Both poetry and song lyrics effectively use words to conjure images, feelings and moods that can alter consciousness to greater or lesser degrees. Ritual magick is often not much more than the imaginitive reading of inspired poetry. Poetry that exalts the consciousness outside of the mundane. Great songs do the same for me.
After we finished mixing Instinct, the album Laswell produced for Iggy Pop not too long before the Cage project, we had a playback of all the mixes in sequence for Iggy. The album sounded great! The production was as raw and noncommercial as the old days with the Stooges but pushing the envelope with modern technology and know how. Iggy's lyrics and delivery were brilliant and passionate, classic rock-n-roll.
Maybe it's because I heard them a lot in the mixing sessions - and at home to check the mixes out, and just to enjoy listening to the latest offering from a genius songwriter, but the lyrics seemed to reach to the core of my being and back out again to some of the further regions. I heard Jungian style archetypes in them that had immediate and practical applications for my life's journey as it then unfolded. I thought the name Instinct was perfect for it.
Iggy didn't react much and gave little expression during the playback except for rocking a bit in his chair. At the end, he said everything was good except for one thing. He was concerned that his singing on Cold Metal, the opening track, got boring as it went along. Bill Laswell and Bob Musso both told him it was great.
Iggy responded, shaking his head, "I don't know..."
Bob mentioned a teenager who had heard and really liked it. Iggy wasn't convinced and stood there struggling with the decision.
Bill said, "We're scheduled to master tomorrow, but it's your call, we can cancel, whatever you want to do..."
Finally, I couldn't help myself ( I was the assistant engineer and wasn't supposed to offer an opinion unless asked) and blurted out, " Those lyrics are so intense it doesn't matter how you sang them!"
Iggy immediately lit up and said, "Ok! Let's go with it.
I believe he was reacting more to my enthusiasm rather than to what I actually said.
To start with, Cold Metal seemed to describe my living situation with pinpoint accuracy. At the time I was residing on South Street in Manhatten's Lower East Side. It was a 26th floor apartment with a balcony overlooking the East River, Brooklyn, and you could easily see both the Brooklyn and Williamsberg bridges. FDR Drive was directly below. Also right below, and a little to the North was a floating prison barge docked on the river.
The lyrics start, after a heavy Steve Jones played guitar riff:
I play tag in the auto graveyard
I looked up at the radio tower
Rag tent by the railroad tracks
Concrete poured over steel bridge
Pondered my fate
While they built the interstate
I'm a product of America
From the morgue to the prisons
Cold metal, when I start my band
Cold metal, in my garbage can
Cold metal, gets in my blood
And my attitude
Threw my hide in an automobile
Heard a song called "Drive the wheel"
Truckers, trailers, tractors caught me workin'
This is the song of my heritage
From the bad to the Buddha
Cold metal, that's what it be
Cold metal, from sea to sea
Cold metal, it's how we win
And also how we sin
How we sin, how we sin, how we sin, how we sin
Cold metal, in the afternoon
Sounds lovely like a Hendrix tune
Cold metal, it's the father of beat
The mother of the street
Cold metal, it rolls on by
Cold metal, gonna raise it high
Cold metal, it'll even fly
Rust buckets in the sky
Cold metal, got to be
Skeleton of the free
Cold metal, it's gotta be
Better save a tree
Save a tree, save a tree, save a tree, save a tree
Cold metal was the song from Instinct that made it onto Iggy Pop's Greatest Hits cd. It was also featured in an episode of Miami Vice.
Looking at these lyrics years later, they ring more profound than ever for me. Viewing them through the occult language known as Qabalah, as developed by Aleister Crowley and others, one can clearly tap into a different kind of information useful for personal transformation and evolution.
One of the linguistic techniques Aleister Crowley applied in his Qabalistic lexicon was to associate very simple everyday words with particular magical formulas, that is, specific techniques for transformation. Words such as OUT, PLACE, THAT, and IT were given specific metaphysical meanings in Crowley's Book of Lies. For instance the word IT corresponds with Absolute Reality.
Looking at in this way can give a whole new angle to song lyrics. For example, just knowing about a different meaning for the word it puts the lyrics from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme in a new light:
A Love Supreme
I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord.
It all has to do with it.
Thank You God.
There is none other God is.
It is so beautiful.
Similarly, the first line from Cold Metal:
I play tag in the auto graveyard
can have a much more expansive meaning especially when interpreting "auto" as something other than a car.