Listen to this track by punk rock founding father and pharmaceutical adventurer James Osterberg, better known to the world as Iggy Pop. It’s “The Passenger”, actually a B-side to his single “Success”. The song appears on a record he produced with David Bowie and engineer/bandmate Colin Thurston; the classic Lust For Life.
The record was written, recorded, and mixed in eight days in Hansa studio in Berlin, a city in which Bowie himself would be associated through his own “Berlin trilogy” of albums – Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Yet this album is all about Iggy, with his growling lead voice over a style of music that in many ways runs contrary to what Bowie was doing on his Berlin albums. This is stripped down, and almost minimalist rock ‘n’ roll, compared to Bowie’s layered art-rock approach.
And indeed, in addition to co-producing the record, Bowie plays sideman on this just as he did on the previous Iggy album, The Idiot. But, what of this song? With lyrics by Iggy, and music by guitarist Ricky Gardiner, the tune was bashed out in the studio, with the words strung together on the fly. With this method of songwriting, a lot comes out in the subtext. But, what is the subtext here?
Iggy Pop had had a tumultous half-decade by 1977, struggling with a flagging reputation and an advanced drug habit. Yet, he and Bowie had been tight since the early 70s, with Bowie on board to co-produce Iggy’s Raw Power with him, and with Iggy in turn, vis-a-vis the Stooges, arguably having been something of an inspiration to Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World proto-heavy metal textures. The two would interact artistically for the rest of the decade, with a brief intermission in the mid-70s as Iggy tried to shake himself loose of his addictions by sectioning himself in a mental institution.This was a heavy period for Iggy, even as Bowie’s star was rising higher and higher.
And yet, Bowie was still interested in what Iggy Pop could produce as an artist, with the two of them reconvening, and writing/touring The Idiot album together. Iggy was pulled up by Bowie’s ability to produce incredible work at great speeds, culminating in what would become his most celebrated album to date – Lust For Life.
And to me, this song “The Passenger” says a great deal about Iggy Pop’s artistic voice, and perhaps about Bowie’s role in helping to present it. The desparation in Iggy’s voice makes it one of the most compelling performances laid down on tape, speaking in the first person and then shifting to third person then back to first again, suggesting something of the autobiographical and the universal. And with Bowie involved, that textured knottiness you hear on Heroes is intermingled with Iggy’s back to basics approach.
This is the tale of a wanderer, a commuter, through a landscape of wondrous urban and cosmic complexities that are perhaps beyond the scope of his own senses, or his ability to express them. Perhaps this is what it felt like for both men, with one riding a creative wave, the other having just pulled himself out of a self-destructive tailspin, and both dealing with the prospect of fame in different ways.
It’s easy to interpret this as an artistic battle too, with at least two strong creative voices at the helm of the recording, and perhaps battling for the soul of the album they were creating together. Maybe this is a song about drug addiction, with the journey through dark landscapes not being a million miles away from a drug-induced downward spiral of which one is not entirely in the driver’s seat. Yet, perhaps this is a song for all of us, traveling as we are through a tunnel of existence, dark at both ends, and with no conclusive road map to carry us from one to the other.
Ultimately whatever he had in mind, if indeed it was any one thing in particular in the moment he created it, I think Iggy wins the day pretty honestly here, piling up the imagery, and letting his voice rise higher and higher in intensity until the excitement it creates is almost too much to bear. Rhythm section Hunt and Tony Sales make their reputation on this song, as much as they’d done on the album’s title track, with a rhythm sound that is at once large scale and raw. For a B-side, it’s hard to imagine this song being anywhere other than in the highest echelon of rock music.
For those who haven’t, check out the Iggy Pop official site, where among other things you can catch up to him on tour with a re-constituted Stooges.