‘I was born in a trailer camp, the days were cold and the night’s were damp.”- Iggy Pop
The boy who would become, on and off, Iggy Pop was born James Osterberg near Ann Arbour in Michigan. He was raised in a 500 square foot trailer home situated by a cornfield by a mother and father he describes as inspirationally decent, hardworking and kind.
This is the problem, for me, with biography- there is too much to it. Those first two sentences have so much in them, so much resonance and potential that they make my temples throb and my pulse race.
How am I to properly tease out and develop all the history and emotions implied by the picture they paint?
How am I to interweave all that with the bells it rings in my own psyche?
In fiction you can play around with the scenes you choose; the facts of an actual life are so demanding, the responsibility so great.
“There should be a painting,” that is my first thought. A painting would capture this so much better:
The Osterberg family outside their trailer home with the golden corn waving in the background. The father is study, steady of gaze but not aggressive. He has a neat, short haircut and neat clothes. The mother is smiling, her shoulder length hair is gently held back from her face with a single pin. She too is neat and combines a look of strength and gentleness.
A simple, clear painting. Perhaps with the perspective slightly flattened; nothing too dramatic, nothing that draws too much attention, but enough to give the viewer a slight ‘iconistic’ feeling. A certain sense of transparency that makes the viewer feel that they might see through the painting, for just a moment, and catch a glimpse of something transcendent.
And then my mind skips, as it does so often, like a vinyl record. I wonder why Americans are so keen on describing their homes in terms of square feet. Does it come from the abundance of space? Would it not be more likely to occur in countries where space it at a premium, like Japan? Is it some kind of shadow of the urge to occupy space expressed in the move west, the cowboy movies of my youthful Saturday mornings?
It puts me in mind of a story that the Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski tells in an interview from the book “Kieslowski on Kieslowski” published by Faber. He had made a film called “Three CoIours: Red”. It was the last in a series on the symbolism of the colours of the French flag.
The film was about to be released in the States and there was a problem. The problem was that in one scene a young female character, after the break up of a relationship goes and visits an older man. Apparently, American test audiences found this confusing. Who was this old guy? What was she doing there?
It was, of course, her father. The director didn’t feel there was any need to make that explicit but perhaps there was such a need.
On the plane on the way to the States to try to fix the problem he was sitting beside a European manufacturer of windows. This man also had business to do in America and a story to tell.
His firm had manufactured windows in Europe for generations. They were very proud of the quality of their work and they offered a lifetime guarantee to back that up. Not long ago they had started doing business in America. Business had not gone well at first. They were puzzled. Did they not offer the highest quality window at a fair price with a lifetime guarantee? What did these Americans want?
Then an American business colleague suggested that they should reduce the length of the guarantee to twenty-five years. It didn’t really make sense but it was worth a try. Anything was worth a try at this point. They did it; and sales of windows went up. They reduced the guarantee still further, to fifteen years, and sales went up still more.
Now they were doing a roaring trade and he was on his way to New York to organize the legal end of reducing the guarantee still further.
Form this, the businessman had taken a lesson about Americans; they did not enjoy the feeling that they would be in the same home for a lifetime. He thought they were motivated by the unconscious desire to be always moving to a bigger and better place- more square feet. He suggested that the director’s problem may be that the idea of one, fixed home might not be the most immediately available to the American psyche.
Who knows? At lot of ‘maybes’ and large generalizations there but I find it interesting. I would genuinely appreciate suggestions, especially from my American readers.
Young Jim Osterberg’s father was a veteran of WWII, educated on the GI bill and by the time Jim arrived in the world, a high School teacher.
The topic of fathers and sons hits home hard here. Mr. Osterberg was a man of intelligence, imagination and ambition who, like a lot of people for his generation, found that when he should have been fulfilling those ambitions he was off to fight the Nazis and when he got back it was time to settle down and be responsible.
I should say that no doubt the same thing and worse was probably true for mothers. It was true for that generation of Americans; it was equally through for my parents generation of Irish. I notice it was true for people like Nick Cave, whose father sounds very much like Iggy’s. It is probably a good bet that if someone is able to spend a decent amount of their time and energy on expressing their thoughts and feelings, exercising their artistic muscles, there was likely to be a generation before who sacrificed their opportunity to do the same thing so that they could work jobs and keep homes that nurtured within their children from a young age the feeling, the expectation that they had the chance and the right to try to do fulfilling work and even follow an artistic path if they choose. The people who open those doors make up many ‘great generations’.
Of course you still have to put the work in, and it helps if there is some support outside the family.
It seems that Jim Osterberg found that in the public school system in the Ann Arbour area which was an example of excellent progressive educational programming. He mixed there with the sons and daughters of ‘the great and the good’. The children of Robert McNamara attended his school for example. From a young age, Jim thought he should find a way, a decent way, to “syphon off some of that power and money”.
The Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott (a.k.a. Rock Action), who would become the guitarist and drummer in the Stooges, also attended Iggy’s high school. They were not the children of ‘the great and good’, they were what people called ‘Townies’ back then, which gets me to wondering how a word can carry with it such weight of condescension even when you have never lived in an environment where it was current.
The Ashetons would be dropped off by their mother at the back door, walk through the school and out the front door again. Presumably to go stand on a corner and smoke. My grandmother would have called them ‘corner boys’ or ‘guttersnipes’, I think.
But that’s not exactly how it started.
It started with Jim Osterberg learning to play the drums, or just starting to play the drums, he taught himself with endless hours of practice in his trailer home.
In fact his bedroom was too small to fit his drums into so he took over the living area. After about a year of that his parents ceded the large bedroom to him and moved their own sleeping quarters to his child’s bedroom. Parents again.
That’s it for this instalment. Next time we’ll see where all that noise in the trailer home so productively lead.
Jamie Lynch is an Irishman living in England. He is the author of numerous short stories, poems, child’s stories and a novel entitled “Opinion Pieces”. He has been published online and in print. He also writes the lyrics for the band “The Two Man Travelling Medicine Show”, who play at the crossroads where David Cronenberg and Merle Haggard meet. He maintains a blog at www.thestoriesihaveinme.wordpress.com.
Read for free: “Bodies” https://thefictionpool.com/2017/01/15/bodies-by-jamie-lynch/; “The Night I got lost on the way home from China” http://www.litro.co.uk/2015/02/the-night-i-got-lost-on-the-way-home-from-china/; “The Pleasures of Reading Short Stories” http://www.litro.co.uk/2014/12/the-pleasures-of-reading-short-stories/
& any- and every- single thing on http://www.thestoriesihaveinme.wordpress.com
The Two Man Travelling Medicine Show on soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/medicine-show-136232208
And the debut album “Weeding out the Wicked” is released worldwide on April 28th 2017.
Children’s Stories on Kindle: ”The True Story of how Plopinton got its name” https://www.amazon.co.uk/true-story-how-Plopington-name-ebook/dp/B00DY8S2XM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1485361666&sr=8-1&keywords=The+True+story+of+how+plopington+got+its+name