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The Two Stooges: Iggy Pop and Steve Mackay

INTERVIEW. After 30 years of rejection and "run-ins" with death, Steve Mackay mended ties with Iggy Pop in 2003, and has brought his sax skills back to where they belong – The Stooges.

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Photo by Robert Matheu

After his incendiary sax playing on The Stooges’ classic 1970 album Fun House (Elektra), Steve Mackay thought he’d be a Stooge for life, but Iggy Pop had other ideas. Fast forward to 2003, when Mackay, after decades of tough times, found himself getting the nod to play with the reconstituted Iggy and The Stooges live and on their 2006 reunion album The Weirdness (Virgin), and he’s joined them on every gig since, which includes a stop at the Greenville Festival just outside Berlin on Sunday, July 29.

The tide is rolling in like thunder, and Iggy Pop can’t wait for it to come crashing down. “Right now I’m at the beach, and the sound of the waves is really helpful – it’s a lot like dope,” The Stooges frontman bellows, his voice nearly drowned out by that ebb and flow. “The water’s a nice temperature. And as soon as I hang up with you I’m gonna jump in and try to forget a little about whatever we were talkin’ about, and maybe try to remember the good bits.” As he wades deeper into his reminiscences, there are a dozen rock star clichés for those waves to wash clean. Heroin addiction. Record label haggling. But he insists one of those conflicts needs no watery redemption. In 1970 he butted heads with Steve Mackay, the searing saxophonist on The Stooges’ sophomore album Fun House.

“I wanted an energy past what we could reach with guitar, bass, drums and vocals,” Pop says of recruiting Mackay, who stood out amongst all the horn players scouted. “He was fiercely creative. And he didn’t dress up like some fucking leather idiot, or wear a three-piece suit. He just had a nice, natural, classical, American male look that would fit in anytime from the 1950s on up. So I basically approached him after one of his gigs and stole him from his group.”

After finishing the album and a few shows with The Stooges, Mackay wanted more.

“I said ‘I know I’m just putting the sax on top of everything, but I’d like to be a part of the band. I’d like to double the guitar and bass parts, and play solos too,’” Mackay explains over the phone from his home in San Francisco. “But Iggy said ‘This is the next stage of The Stooges, and you’re not in it.’”

Pop says he had no choice.

“I had to tell him ‘Look, it’s a rock band, and you’ve been featured more than sax players usually are in a rock band. But I can’t go farther with it than that.’” So Mackay walked away, leaving not only The Stooges behind but also his big shot at a rock career. His saxophone gigs disappeared. He got a day job as an amateur electrician and engineer that was even more gruelling than touring with The Stooges. His stint at a waste water treatment plant meant days of inhaling hydrogen sulphide, what he describes as the “rotten egg smell” used to clean sewers, leaving massive cysts on Mackay’s lungs, eventually putting him in the hospital.

“It caused me to have a collapsed lung. I had to call 911. I nearly lost my life.”

He survived, but the press had already written him off. In 2000, a San Francisco author named Steve Mackay died of AIDS, leaving many to assume the Fun House saxophonist had passed on. On top of that, influential rock journalist Nick Kent jumbled the saxophonist’s name with Stooges bassist Zeke Zettner (name-checked in the Pop song “Dum Dum Boys”), who died of a drug overdose in 1973.

“I hadn’t heard about it until people asked me ‘Do you know you’re dead?’ And I’d say ‘Oh, that’s why the phone hasn’t been ringing,’” Mackay chuckled that the death rumours appeared to mimic his ailing career.

Pop feels no guilt.

“It wouldn’t have made sense for us to legislate the way our music was made,” the frontman insists, adding that The Stooges felt they’d paid their dues long before Mackay’s arrival. “We had starved together, got rejected and then played gigs where people would throw shit at us. And we had already developed most of the material on Fun House by the time Steve played with us. We had travelled around America and played on records. Steve wasn’t doin’ anything like that. He was just playin’ in this wannabe creative college-type band. Nobody in it was nearly as talented as him. So I thought The Stooges were very good to him.”

Pop adds that he knew nothing about the dangerous jobs or death rumours. “I really wasn’t getting up everyday and thinking, ‘I wonder where Steve Mackay is playin,’” Pop says. “Ya know, I had my own struggles in life and in my career, and I never ever had an easy time until the century turned. At that time I knew fuck-all about the business,” Pop explicates. “These record companies humiliate you by trying to put you in their quick buck mentality. When you’re confronted with that it leads you to take too many drugs. You give up too easy, get too angry, you become too lazy.”

Pop was famously stifled by heroin addiction, band infighting and breakups throughout the 1970s, even as he recorded classics like The Stooges’ Raw Power (Columbia) and his solo hits The Idiot and Lust for Life (both EMI) in West Berlin with David Bowie. At low tide, he spent a stint at UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute, where he hoped to find some semblance of sobriety.

“I think it’s good to leave it at that. I don’t want to do the whole ‘drug interview,’” Pop sighs, before admitting that there were a few benefits to his overindulgence. “It was a quick, cheap, easy way to block out the realities of life that keep you from the right artistic consideration. You do it just to shut the world up.”

Today Pop is clean – preferring red wine and Tai Chi to heroin. And he’s come to better terms with Mackay, recruiting the saxophonist after The Stooges’ 2003 reunion to play as an equal partner in the band.

“He’s like a whole horn section; he brings so much texture,” marvels Pop. “He just blows his fuckin’ ass off with that horn, and you see people in the audience going fuckin’ nuts because you don’t hear that in bands anymore.”

On Mackay’s 2011 solo album, Sometimes Like This I Talk (Radon), Pop provided a guest vocal, and received a dose of humility.

“My feelings were kinda hurt on that one,” Pop laughs, before elaborating. “I had said to him, ‘Hey Steve, I’ll do a guest vocal on your album if you want.’ He said okay, and he gave me the song with the lyrics already written. I said ‘Geez, ya know I’m a pretty good lyricist already, Steve.’ So it was kinda funny – maybe next time I’ll get to write a few lines for him.”

“That’s just the way the business works,” Mackay says wryly, adding he kept repeating that phrase to himself after Pop first turned him down decades ago. “We had to have parallel careers, but I never had any bitterness. And it’s very positive now – I’m always hoping for the best for Iggy, because he’s my dear friend.”

IGGY AND THE STOOGES Sun, Jul 29, 22:15 | Greenville Festival, Paaren/Glien. For more info: www.