11 – Iggy Pop: Sister Midnight

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What’s your favourite time of day? It’s an easy question for me to answer. I’ve always been drawn to the dusk. To that indefinable point at which there seems to be more darkness than light, when nocturnal creatures begin to sniff the air, leave the burrow or keep tentative vigil. As a teenager, I’d wait for confirmation by streetlamp that the afternoon had officially passed into evening. I’d relish the dimming of the sky, noting how the things around me gradually ceded their distinct outlines to the fuzz of twilight. And then I would drift, imagining the excitements of others. The Friday nights spent wondering what the cooler kids were doing. Dreaming up scenarios of new clean shirts, loud beats and pheromones. Or else the speakeasies of an underground I barely understood, the freak-zone boltholes and dives I could half-picture from reading snatches of Ballard and Burroughs on Saturday trips to Waterstones, surreptitiously scanning the cult fiction while my best mate riffled through the sci-fi.  I’m not sure why I was so fascinated by all these dystopian demimondes. There’s nothing like growing up in a stable family in an anonymous suburbanised village to spark a morbid interest in paraphilic outcasts. In any case, I only dabbled. If I’d wanted real apocalyptic landscapes, I could have spent hours investigating my own doorstep; parts of Sunderland and Gateshead were as spiked with barbed wire and used needles as any Hubert Selby backdrop. Really, I dreamed of decadence rather than plain old decay. I dug disused industrial architecture, but I was always thinking about the possibility of illicit dancing among the wreckage.  There was even an abandoned fire station in our village, and my friend and I idly fantasised about setting up a club there. At seventeen, you alternate between extreme self-loathing and extreme self-belief, the type of optimism that conveniently sidesteps the need for contacts or capital.

If we had turned Bournmoor Fire Station into a hipster joint, I know what would have headed up the playlist. I can’t really think of a better way to begin an evening of louche posing and underground cool than ‘Sister Midnight’, which opens Iggy Pop’s art-rock-noir classic, The Idiot. At seventeen, my familiarity with Pop’s back catalogue extended only as far as the two Trainspotting soundtracks. Although I never owned them, my friends did; those orange and green anthologies were the quintessence of 1996, a hit of smack quickly absorbed through the ear into the common bloodstream. The three featured Iggy tracks – ‘Nightclubbing’, ‘The Passenger’, and of course ‘Lust for life’, which still sounds like a mob of escaped prisoners trampolining on giant gas canisters – charted the dangerous tension between restraint and release. They weren’t quite ‘going out’ songs; if you try to dance to ‘Lust for life’, the dotted rhythms soon catch you out. They weren’t ‘staying in’ songs either; they’re too itchy, too antsy. These tracks occupy that hinterland between the daytime and the evening – they are all violet light and the promise of something wild.

In fact, Iggy’s two 1977 albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life, are transitional in all sorts of ways, personal and artistic. On the title track of his 1976 LP, Station to Station, David Bowie announced to his fans a renewed interest in ‘the European canon’: after two years of emaciation, coke dependency and black magic in LA, he was coming home to read Thomas Mann and listen to the Moog music coming from the synth-labs of Dusseldorf. Meanwhile, Iggy had declined from staged self-mutilation and elemental musical firepower into miserable heroin addiction. Acting with a kind of mad logic, Bowie scooped Iggy out of his doldrums and moved him to Berlin, where they shared a flat in Kreuzberg. Bowie detoxed by growing a moustache, riding his bike and weaning himself off the coke with the aid of strong Pilsners. The odd couple cleaned themselves up. It’s all there in ‘Success’, Iggy’s hilarious take on the thrills of domesticity. ‘Here comes my Chinese rug!’, he drawls with delight. You can almost imagine him ordering Bowie to raise his legs while he runs around with the hoover.

All this was a willed transition; the musical thresholds traversed could not have been anticipated. I’ll write about Bowie’s Berlin trilogy anon (anyone who knows of my obsession with the Thin White Duke is probably grinning now at the cheeky way I’ve snuck him in here); but it’s worth suggesting that, despite being initially recorded in France and then Munich, The Idiot is the first in that trilogy, followed by Bowie’s own Low and Heroes. Knowing what we do now about the reach of the trilogy’s influence, The Idiot is transitional indeed. At the height of punk, before The Clash had even recorded their first album, here are Dave and Jim inventing post-punk. John Lydon’s still shouting anarchy, while the Berlin boys are predicting Public Image Ltd. The Idiot is one of those albums that defies its date, and in doing so defines the next generation. ‘Mass Production’ pre-empts ‘industrial’ music, while ‘Nightclubbing’, with its anaemic lounge vocal, sleazy piano and mechanised drug-shuffle, spawned a legion of later pop vampires from Marc Almond to Nick Cave.

Nevertheless, to my mind ‘Sister Midnight’ is the very peak of the Bowie-Pop partnership. It was among the earliest of the Berlin-era songs to be premiered live, on Bowie’s Station to Station tour: it sounded fabulous even then. Later, on 1979’s Lodger, he reworked it as ‘Red Money’; ever the self-referential auteur, rounding off one stage of his career the way it began. I’m glad he gave it to Iggy, though. It’s too dark for Dave; not arch enough. The stroke of genius here (one of the many, in fact) is the way Bowie overlays Pop’s zombie croon with his own breathy falsetto. The high part flirts with the low, flattering it and servicing it; essentially the Bowie-Pop relationship, summed up in an octave. Those falsettos are jittery – they want to skip off and out of the song, to turn on the light and see the world – but Iggy has sabotaged the fuse-boxes. ‘Sister Midnight’ is forced to play to the pace of a man who is ‘a breakage inside’, reducing its funkiness to the sparest attar, the barest of bloodless grooves. It doesn’t take much of a listen to realise that there is only one chord; the spine-tingling tension of the track is the tug between its relentlessly looping riff and the textures and timbres that bounce and ping off its surface. Look at that famous album cover again, and bear in mind its painterly influence (Erich Heckel’s ‘Roquairol’, to be precise). Then restart ‘Sister Midnight’, noting how the endless motif is a canvas, and the bloops of synth and stabs of guitar are the oils’ flicks and splodges.

These colourful irruptions are not enough to alleviate the delicious gloom. It carries on regardless. As the song progresses, we sense that Iggy wants to break out of it by any means. He climbs the octave, bawls his lines to the point of distortion, desperate for Sister Midnight to hear his pleas. Does he crave the daylight? Is his body crying out for vitamins? By the end of the song, he is howling like a caged animal. It’s a wonderful release, pulling at the very stuffing of that unrepentant groove, stretching the song as far as it can go. It’s at this point I always conclude that Iggy Pop would have been wasted on the daytime. He belongs in this crepuscular limbo, chomping at the bit, straining at the leash.

It’s so jarring, then, to see him whoring himself for Swiftcover insurance; many’s the time I’ve stood on the platform at Didcot Parkway, shaking my head at his billboard image. At times such as these, there is only one corrective. I select ‘Sister Midnight’ on my IPod, and ward off corporate, banal Iggy with heavy-lidded, pilled-up, menacing Iggy. And of course, menacing Iggy always wins. The cooling towers of Didcot Power Station glower, the sky blackens, and it is night once again. Seamy, dreamy, alive with possibility – sweet darkness.

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