When 70-year-old Iggy Pop stalks on stage like a wild cat to a roaring crowd at Desert Daze—the psych rock festival that just went down in California's Joshua Tree for a sixth year—he glows supernatural. Maybe he was born with warrior genes. Maybe it's his vegan macrobiotic diet. Maybe he's a witch drinking a potion of youth elixir. Whatever his secret, despite decades of chemical and physical abuse, his body seems to regenerating instead of decaying.
The festival, held in a 420-acre, white-stoned "spiritual center" called the Institute of Mentalphysics, is headlined by several generations of swaggering icons—from minimalist composer Terry Riley to The Velvet Underground's John Cale to indie rock BFFs Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. But Iggy, strutting in the low-slung dark jeans and wide leather belt that's been his go-to look since the 70s, looks cooler than them all. Hell, he looks better than any of the neo-hippies, hardcore stoners and Instagram scenesters in the crowd too.
The self-declared "street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm," Iggy prowled among the coolest cats of his generation and watched them fall, one after the other, to death or destruction. Lou. Leonard. Bowie. Petty. Prince. We lost them suddenly, then all at once. It's almost a cruel joke that the wildest one who lived every day like his last turned out to be the last one left prancing.
Up close, his skin is brown and beaten like lizard leather, stretched over a chest crossed with squiggly veins and battle scars from carving himself into ribbons at shows. But it also curves into soft folds in other places, like above his narrow hips, which are permanently cocked in an impossibly angled, now iconic contrapposto.
Iggy, who was punk before the word existed, uses "fuck" as an adjective, verb, and noun—but always through a sardonic grin.
"California!!" he howls. "Who lives around here?"
The crowd roars.
"Fucking nice!!!" he shouts back.
"Who drove from Hollywood?" he snarls.
More screams and scattered laughter.
"Fucking THANKS!!!" he bellows.
He launches into "I Wanna Be Your Dog," thrashing around to that angsty, single-note piano riff that announced the arrival of The Stooges in 1969. From there, he parades out the hits—"Gimme Danger," "The Passenger," "Lust for Life"—flipping his curtain of blonde-streaked hair, gyrating against a lighting truss, and often theatrically pantomiming the lyrics. "Goodbye Betsy I'm goin' away," he croons in the opening of "Sick of You," raising his hand in the air and flicking his wrist goodbye. "Smoking on a cigarette" he later sings, bringing two fingers to his lips and blowing us a kiss.
Even when you've heard these songs a million times, from bar jukeboxes to movie soundtracks and your best friend's bar mitzvah, feeling them vibrating straight from the source is both humbling and surreal. The electric thrill of Iggy's sweat making contact with your skin is a baptism.
According to rock legend, Iggy invented crowd-surfing when he lept off a stage at a festival in 1970 to impress some girls. Though he vowed to give it up after the crowd failed to catch him at a 2010 Carnegie Hall concert, he jumps into the pit by the first song and continues to do so throughout the night, as if he can't hold himself back from his audience's yearning embrace.
Kicking down the barriers between audience and artist has been Iggy's lifelong vocation—"I felt it was important to make contact at every show" he says in Jim Jarmusch's recent documentary on The Stooges, Gimme Danger. Raging against the dying (stage) lights, he repeatedly demands, "Turn em up, leave em on! I want to see you!" He waves as if we're old pals. "Hey, people in the back." (A guy behind me squeals, "Hiiii, Iggy!") "And you people in the front," he continues, "Well, we know each other pretty well already."
At one point, he notices someone in the crowd. "Let her up! Come on up, baby!" he says, reaching out his hand. A girl with neon hair clambers on stage, and with an awestruck grin, drops to her knees as if asking him for a blessing. He pulls her up and they strut down the stage together, before he segues into "Gardenia" and a few other songs off his latest, existentially-fraught album Post-Pop Depression—which he recorded in Joshua Tree with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, and has suggested could be his last.
The home stretch is devoted to iconic cuts from the late-60s and 70s: "Mass Production," "No Fun," "TV Eye," "Search and Destroy." "This one's for diehard Stooges fans, I'm yours baby!" he screams over the kerosine guitar riffs of "Loose." "Motherfucker hit it, don't fuck around!" Often, he playfully tweaks the lyrics, like when he prefaces "1969" by singing, "When I was 21…I did lots of LSD and had sex all the time." Somewhere between poetry and a madman's mutterings, these seemingly improvised ad-libs breathe new life into familiar songs. Finally, slinking back on stage at the encore, he crows, "I'm starting to think, and when I think, I don't know what to think, except that I'm a… wild one!"—fittingly ending the night with his classic cover of The Dee Jays' "Real Wild Child (Wild One)."
That Iggy is still playing shows to rave reviews all over the world is a giant "fuck you": to common sense, the laws of physics, and everything you were told about drugs in school. Frankly, it's a relief that he hasn't suffered the pitfalls that aging rock stars are prone to: settling into a cheesy comfort zone, robotically trotting out the classics without feeling, or lapsing into self-indulgent pretentiousness. Almost exactly 50 years after the acid-loving Psychedelic Stooges played their first show on Halloween of 1967—where Iggy played a vacuum cleaner while dressed in a maternity dress and a tin foil afro—he remains the realest rock star alive. Once, when asked if he'd ever get surgery to stave off aging, Iggy replied, "Rather than do that I would buy a funeral yacht, sail off to Cannes and party myself to death."
Let's not fuck around: Iggy Pop is probably going to die soon. To steal his own snarling words from 2003's "Little Electric Chair," "the prosecutor"—and the laws of nature—"says you should be dead." Iggy himself has intimated that he's prepared for it; when The Stooges reunified in the early 2000s and recorded their final album, they called it Ready to Die.
Iggy, who had his face shoved into heroin, poverty, hopelessness, and Hollywood, survived with his middle fingers still in the air, teaching us that fear causes nothing but death to the soul. At the end of the night, he raises his sculpted arms above his head and howls, "Fucking thank you for checking us out!" Then he turns around and walks off into the dark. He doesn't look back. He doesn't say goodbye.
Michelle Lhooq is a freelance writer covering parties, pot, and porn in the plastic asshole of the world (LA). Follow her on Twitter.