<i> Times Pop Music Critic</i>

Curly, Moe and Larry aren’t the only Stooges emblazoned in American pop culture.

There’s also Iggy.

If they ever get around to a Punk Hall of Fame, he’ll be a charter member.

As leader of the Stooges in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Iggy Stooge--as he called himself then--was responsible for albums and concert performances that were unrivaled in their punk outrage and intensity until Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols came along in England in 1976.


While proud of the Stooges, Iggy Pop (that’s the name he later adopted) worried in recent years that his early image was keeping people from taking his post-Stooges work seriously, even though the music had moved far beyond the early search-and-destroy sensibilities.

Sitting in an office at A & M Records in Hollywood, he said: “I got to the point where I felt (mainstream) radio was never gonna play Iggy Pop . . . (and) that the press was always going to think of me as a certain destructive cliche. Maybe the image had become too giant a load for me to carry.

“It got so bad that I felt I’d just give up or maybe change my name . . . go be an actor or something else different. This was about ‘82, ‘83, and my last album hadn’t done much commercially.

“But, in the end, I would never give up being Iggy Pop because I’m stubborn as hell and I wasn’t gonna give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me quit.”

Iggy Pop’s eyes, when he’s absorbed in conversation, can be so glowing that they seem powered by batteries. But those same eyes once radiated, at least on stage, a much darker message--the fury and desperation of a displaced soul trying to find acceptance and purpose.

In the early days the Michigan native--whose real name is James Osterberg and who picked up the Iggy nickname while a member of the Iguanas band--made records that were so bizarre and beautiful, from a punk perspective, that they were hailed as “twilight-zone masterpieces.”

On stage Iggy seemed to resort to any device to arouse the audience--and himself. Among the tamer feats: diving head-first into the crowd. Some of the more radical and legendary moments: cutting himself with pieces of broken glass and pouring hot wax over his body.

Iggy Pop is 39 now and he’s back with his first album in four years--a collection, “Blah, Blah, Blah,” that shapes up as his biggest seller ever. The LP, co-produced by longtime friend David Bowie and Queen engineer David Richards, is slicker and more accessible than his earlier solo LPs. But even a dance-floor consciousness in some tracks doesn’t smother the underlying emotion.

From its title, one LP selection, “Real Wild Child,” may sound like an ode to the old life style. But Iggy sings the song with a gentle, Buddy Holly-ish flavoring that suggests you can be a rebel without sacrificing your sanity or health.

The single from the album, “Cry for Love,” is more the point of the new collection: a willingness to reach out with clear mind and pure heart. He sings it--and other songs on the LP--with endearing freshness and enthusiasm.

“I think a lot of the strength you hear in my singing has to do with my health,” Iggy said, speaking with the enthusiasm of someone who has just made his first record. “I’m talking about my mental health and my physical health. In the past, I have taken large quantities of drugs and liquor and it has affected my life and my work.”

About the openness suggested in a song like “Cry for Love,” he added:

“It’s not just about wanting to be loved so much as it’s about a refusal . . . a refusal to destroy yourself. There’s something about this album that says it’s OK to be happy and sane and free. There’s a lesson I had to learn. . . . “

Iggy Pop didn’t just wake up one morning with a more positive attitude.

Rather than quit the music business during the frustration of the early ‘80s when he no longer had a record contract, he simply took a break--to get his life in order.

With royalties from Bowie’s hit recording of “China Girl” (a song Iggy co-wrote), he actually settled down for the first time in years. He leased an apartment in Los Angeles and began a relationship with a woman whom he eventually married. He also joined a health club, became conscious of his diet and hired a business manager.

Secretly, he admits, he worried about this tranquillity smothering his artistic instincts.

“I was very nervous about that,” he said. “I felt, ‘Oh my God, am I going to lose the state of grace of the artist?’ I didn’t know if it was possible to be an artist Friday night and wake up Saturday morning and carry on my more mundane responsibilities.”

Encouraged by his increased energy and self-discipline, Iggy moved to New York City and enrolled in acting classes.

“It was a real splash of water for me,” he continued. “I was in a class with about 20 other young intelligent, hungry people who were not going to place me on the rock star pedestal. And I had to learn how to focus my energies so that I could find new ways of expressing myself--not merely by jumping up and down or moving around the way I had done on stage.”

Iggy landed bit parts in the films “The Color of Money” and “Sid and Nancy,” but music remained his main interest and by the summer of ‘85, he was ready to resume his recording career. He wrote some songs with former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. Bowie liked the tape and offered to produce the new album. Bowie, a longtime supporter, produced some of Iggy’s albums in the ‘70s and played keyboards on an Iggy Pop tour in 1977.

“I felt really free in making this album,” Iggy said. “In the past, there were times when--out of fear of losing the interest of an impatient audience, I would limit myself in what I could put on the record. I had the feeling the album had to just keep boppin’ along or people would lose interest.

“But this time, I felt I could go in any musical direction. Maybe that’s the difference. I’m more comfortable with myself . . . but I’m not sure the message has changed that much. I think there has always been in my music, a sense of searching for love and attention . . . something that confirms you are alive.”