Backstage With Iggy Pop And New Order At Carnegie Hall

James Brown remembers an access-all-areas pass for a unique day and night in New York - the greatest gig of his life

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James, Jim, Iggy – the prime mover, the iguana, the passenger, the idiot. The King. King Iggy sweeps into a black box rehearsal room in Manhattan where Bernard Sumner, Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham from New Order are arranged in a tight triangle of chairs strumming “Love Will Tear Us Apart” fast on unplugged electric guitars. There is no announcement, he just sweeps in and the soundproofed door swooshes quietly shut behind him.

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His smile, which he leads with, is a force of beauty. Bernard, who wrote “Love Will Tear Us Apart” with the rest of Joy Division almost 25 years ago, stands up and lets Iggy’s smile bounce back off his own. “Mr Pop!” he says in a confident, expectant but respectful tone. “We’ve been expecting you…” everyone thinks, but no-one says.

And we have – for months, maybe all our lives. I first interviewed New Order for the NME Christmas cover in 1987, and covered the band, Tony Wilson and Factory Records over the five years I was at the paper. In 2002, my New Order special in Jack magazine saw the issue afforded the rare distinction of being given a Factory number: Fac 413.

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But when it comes to true rock’n’roll greats, there are very few left. Iggy Pop is one of them. If you’d asked anyone who knew him back in the days when he was battling bikers, drowning in drugs and chopping up luxury German cars with axes, few would have predicted he’d still be alive 40 years on, never mind walking round wearing a grateful smile, or about to appear – again – at America’s most revered music venue, Carnegie Hall.

He beams around the room before taking a seat with Bernard, Tom and Phil, clapping along to the songs and discussing which parts of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Transmission” he will sing. Of “Transmission” he says, “I know the first line of every verse and all the third verse, so maybe I should sing them.”

Iggy Pop and the members of New Order are in town to perform at the annual Tibet House Benefit Concert, organised by composer Phillip Glass to raise awareness of Tibetan culture “at a time when it is confronted with extinction on its own soil”. New Order will perform “St Anthony” with Mancunian poet Mike Garry and arranger Joe Duddel, a piece based on the track “Your Silent Face”, before Iggy joins them for lead vocals on “Californian Grass” and backing on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Transmission”. After Iggy’s own three-song set, Patti Smith and her band will close the event.

“When we wrote ‘Californian Grass’,” Bernard says later, “the key of the song was a little bit low for me and I thought, what can I do with this? I can either shift the key and have it roughly where all the other songs are, or I thought, ‘I can do a bit of an Iggy’ on it.”
After Phillip Glass wrote to Bernard Sumner, outlining the event’s spirit of collaboration and asking for three band members to take part, Sumner began picking songs. “Phillip put us in touch and I sent Iggy “Californian Grass” and a few other songs. He came back and said, ‘The key’s really sweet for me.’”

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“It’s an amazing piece,” Iggy says later. “It’s really beautifully written.  I spent quite a bit of time preparing to get it right. This is a very sensitive band, and the music leaves a lot of space for the vocalist.”

This becomes apparent once Iggy and the band move from the room they’ve been warming up in to the main rehearsal space. Joining us en route is a sharp-looking dude – a cross between Elvis Costello and Tom Waits in a pork pie hat and glasses. It’s Jay Dee Daugherty, Patti Smith’s drummer, who’ll be filling in for both New Order and Iggy.

The main soundstage has the feel of a school assembly. Its alarmingly well organised with a timekeeper recording the length of every song. A row of guests at the back watch quietly as Glass picks his way through the music stands from the black grand piano in order to talk to Bernard and Iggy. Glass looks like a physics teacher on a project, unperturbed by everything going on around him. Located between the performance area and a long table where men work silently on laptops, are two well-worn leather settees. It’s the perfect vantage point. Bernard is right: “Californian Grass” could have been written for Iggy, and up this close – just three feet away – his voice sounds otherworldly.

I’ve been the warm-up DJ for the Sex Pistols, danced one-on-one with Prince at his party in Brazil and watched the Beastie Boys in the downstairs room of the Rough Trade store in Covent Garden. What follows on the soundstage outstrips everything. It has to be the best musical performance I’ve ever seen.

Witnessing Iggy Pop singing “Love Will Tear us Apart” sends shivers through my body and brings me close to tears: one of the greatest songs ever recorded being sung by one of the greatest performers.

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When they’ve finished, Bernard and the band join Mike, Joe and I on the settees. We sit back and watch Iggy run through his set. The sense of excitement is palpable.

Iggy moves around between the musicians, talking quietly to one, discussing the intro with the bassist, moving the guitarist onto piano. It’s Patti Smith’s band – Lenny Kaye on guitar – and they know the songs.

“His voice sounds like it’s coming from underground,” whispers Bernard as Iggy performs “Sister Midnight”, “Nightclubbing” and “Mishima”, a piece about the celebrated Japanese author set to Phillip Glass’s music. At the halfway point of “Nightclubbing”, with the settee now occupied by six northerners happily singing along, nobody notices Patti Smith walk in.

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After whipping through his short set, Iggy bounces onto the couch alongside us. “James was saying, “Here Comes Success” would have been good to do,” Bernard tells him. “Yeah,” says Iggy. “There were just so many to chose from to get it down to three songs.” The next five minutes are surreal: talking tracks with Iggy and Bernard.

The conversation ends as Patti Smith starts spitting her way through “Horses” – really spitting, gob landing three feet away. If Iggy had been fully limbered up during his rehearsal, Patti is positively charged.

It’s not long before show time and the first thing we see on walking into the backstage area of Carnegie Hall is a wall of monks in orange and burgundy, like Bradford City or Galatasary, only devout. They sit there beaming as we walk past them and down the corridor.

Tony, the ex-Buzzcock, Arsenal-supporting guitar tech who I’ve known since we were both 18, is getting the guitars ready by the side of the stage. The National, who will be on early, are milling around, along with a host of other musicians and event organisers. Carnegie Hall is full: you can see a huge slice of audience through the door at the side of the stage. Phillip Glass sits perched on a stool surveying the performers in front of him.

Bernard is unsure about the planned mass encore of Patti Smith’s “Power to the People”. He’s been given a song sheet: “I’m going to look like that Tory MP who didn’t know the words to the Welsh National Anthem,” he says.

The atmosphere backstage and in the wings is anything but rock’n’roll. Everyone seems happy, calm. There’s no shouting, or grandstanding. I ask New Order’s former American manager if it’s because everyone’s a Buddhist and he says, “Yes, that or the Californian grass.”

Iggy’s got his sockless DM Dealers on with black waistcoat and suit, no shirt. His deep Miami tan protects him from looking anywhere close to his 66 years.

New Order are ready to go on. Mike and Joe head out and recite the “St Anthony” poem and, as the opening bars to “Your Silent Face” fill the arena, the crowd cheer and get to their feet. By the time Iggy joins them for “Californian Grass”, members of the audience are beginning to move into the aisles. House managers glance at each other uncertainly.

The cheers are raucous but nothing compared to “Transmission” which has them out of their seats, down the aisles and rushing to the front. It’s hard to tell who looks more excited, Iggy or the band. Iggy’s smile is one of delight and he pours himself into the songs – “DANCE DANCE DANCE TO THE RADIO!” he growls, before joining Bernard on the chorus of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.

After his own set, Iggy sits quietly on a chair at the side of the stage, like a shy kid or a patient relative. His stunning wife stands quietly by as the world mills around them, some stopping to tentatively ask the great man for a photograph, to which he happily obliges.

“That was fucking great, Iggy,” says Bernard. They huddle, discussing God-knows-what. The gig? The songs?

The next day, Bernard can’t quite remember. “I was blown away by the moment, by the whole thing,” he says, the excitement still evident in his face. “Obviously playing with Iggy was fantastic. The first time I went to Ian Curtis’s house when we came to do the first Joy Division rehearsal, The Idiot had just come out. Ian said, ‘Listen to this,’ and he put it on and played it the whole way through. I was blown away.”

Was Iggy’s the voice that Ian Curtis wanted? “Not on ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’,” says Bernard. “He wanted to sound like Frank Sinatra. He’d been having a row with Rob, our manager, and me about whether Sinatra was any good or not. Ian’s dad had been a fan. We were saying he was shit, Ian was saying not, so he did that to make a point.”

Unlike Ian Curtis, whose allure has been preserved by death, Iggy Pop seems to have shed the skin of the self-destructive anti-hero. Now he just seems happy to be here. The perennial outsider appears comfortable with being loved and revered. I’m not sure he or anyone else saw that coming.

“Doing those songs live was a real eye-opener,” Iggy tells me a couple of days after the gig. “I had already described “Transmission” to Bernard as a show-stopper.  I had no idea about the power of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on a live audience.”

For Bernard, the experience ranks as a career highlight. “When Iggy did “Love Will Tear Us Apart” it made me laugh on stage,” he says. “It was that big beaming smile. It was like I was on a high.” He was by no means the only one.

Follow James Brown on Twitter: @jamesjamesbrown

This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.

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