The Early Years of Pop
The Story of Esther and Iggy
Esther Friedman was 19 when she left the West German city of Mannheim and moved to West Berlin in 1974. Two years later, she met Iggy Pop, who had just moved to Berlin himself – along with his friend David Bowie. The two rock icons lived in the same apartment building in Berlin-Schöneberg, where Iggy Pop was hoping to get over various personal and artistic crises.
Shortly after their meeting, Esther and Iggy became a pair and stayed together for seven years. Throughout this time, Esther documented their everyday life in countless photos. They remained unpublished until she offered them to ZEITmagazin earlier this year.
Iggy Pop, whose real name is James Osterberg, is now 66 years old. Prior to his solo career, he had been the front man for The Stooges from 1967 until 1973. The band was not a commercial success at the time, but today The Stooges are worshipped around the world, partly because their raw, minimal guitar riffs and excessive stage shows became an early inspiration for punk rock.
Iggy Pop recorded the albums The Idiot and Lust for Life in Berlin’s Hansa Studios, close to the Berlin Wall. Some of Iggy’s best-known songs, including The Passenger and China Girl emerged from the collaboration. (Bowie later recorded his own cover version of China Girl .) Bowie also produced three of his own classic albums at the Hansa Studios: Low , Heroes and Lodger .
So far, Iggy Pop has made 16 solo albums. He has toured the world several times over and has had roles in films by Jim Jarmusch and John Waters. Today he lives near Miami.
Esther Friedman, meanwhile, lives in Frankfurt and works as an advisor to art collectors.
You were Iggy Pop’s girlfriend in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you meet him?
It was in 1976, at a party after a fashion show in Berlin. He arrived with Coco Schwab, who is still David Bowie’s personal assistant. David himself did not show up that night.
David Bowie and Iggy Pop had just moved to Berlin from Los Angeles. They were both going through personal crises.
I can’t speak for David. I just remember that he had just finished a movie. And that he was very thin. Apparently, it was all a bit much for him. That was certainly the case with Jim. He was in bad shape, really bad shape.
Did you call Iggy Pop "Jim" from the start?
Yes. His real name is James Osterberg. I always called him Jim, never Iggy. He had named himself Iggy when he was 18, because his first band was called The Iguanas. David always called him Jimmy when we were in Berlin. His parents called him Jim. Iggy is his stage name. And they really are two different characters. There is Iggy. And then there is James.
What is the difference between them?
It’s a pretty big difference. Iggy is 99 percent intolerable. And James, Jim, is 99 percent tolerable.
Iggy never made a secret out of the fact that he was taking lots of drugs at the time.
Berlin was a leave for rest and relaxation. Recuperation.
But wasn’t West Berlin one of the world’s drug capitals at the end of the 1970s?
Yeah, but those two didn’t know that before they arrived here. They found out quickly, though.
So where did the rest and relaxation bit come in?
I meant it more in terms of an inner reconciliation with himself, in spite of all the wild parties. Berlin left Jim in peace. In Berlin, he could simply be Jim when he wanted to be. He could just sit in a bar next door and have a beer. He loved that. David was already interested in literature and art that had come out of Berlin or was set in Berlin. Like Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel, Goodbye to Berlin , or the paintings from the artists of the group Die Brücke. These things fascinated David, and he brought Jim along. They often went to the Brücke Museum. The Passenger …
… Iggy Pop’s biggest hit …
… is a hymn to Berlin’s S-Bahn, the city’s train system. Jim rode on it nearly every day. The rides inspired him to write that song. Especially the S-Bahn to the Wannsee lake. Jim and David also regularly traveled into East Berlin, in a Mercedes with David’s driver.
What had brought you to Berlin?
I moved here with my boyfriend Norbert. We had met in Mannheim, where I grew up. Norbert did not want to be drafted into the West German army. And if you lived and studied in West Berlin, you were exempt. So we decided to go together.
The Early Years of Pop
What was the mood in West Berlin like in those days?
It was quite special. On the one hand, you had many young people from West Germany who were stranded there. Students, dropouts, all kinds of characters. And on the other hand, there were lots of old Berliners who were born there. There was nothing in between. It was an extreme place, and that’s the way we lived.
So, you went to a party and met Iggy Pop. Did you know who he was?
No. I didn’t know much about music at the time. I had never heard of Jim’s earlier band, The Stooges. That may seem strange today, when The Stooges are considered to be the first punk rock band. But back then, they meant nothing to me. The night I met Jim after the fashion show, he was just a cool guy who did music and had just moved to Berlin.
Your first impressions?
He was very shy and didn’t talk much. He actually asked the drummer Klaus Krüger to introduce me to him. It was all new to Jim, the language, the city. I gave him my phone number, and he eventually called. We met for a cup of coffee. Our relationship developed slowly, because I was still living with Norbert. Jim often came around to visit. Norbert was an excellent piano player, and we would have music nights together. Jim would sing songs like My Funny Valentine , tunes from Cole Porter and Gershwin. It was actually all very harmonious.
And at some point you became a couple.
I had completed my training as a photographer and was looking for assignments. One day Jim asked me if I wanted to come along as the photographer on his next tour. I said yes, but that I wanted money for it, and my own room. I didn’t want to be dragged along like a groupie. Then his management called and offered me a contract. That’s how I got to travel to Copenhagen with Jim, to start off a two-week tour. Those two weeks turned into seven years.
And in those seven years he wrote his biggest hits, like "The Passenger" and "China Girl."
Yes. On that two-week tour, David Bowie had accompanied Jim on the piano. And David’s assistant, Coco, was also along. She e-mailed me recently to ask whether I had any photos of David from that period. I just had to laugh: In those days, I didn’t dare point a camera at David Bowie.
It’s hard to imagine today, when everyone is constantly taking photos with their mobile phones. Back then, photography was something special. Every image counted. And David was especially conscious of photographs. Anyway, I was so in love with Jim that he was the only one I wanted to photograph anyway.
What were your plans in those days?
Looking back, I really think that I had simply made a plan for the next two weeks. I went on a short trip and didn’t come back for seven years. Isn’t that just like a dream? You need so little. A pair of shoes, a few jeans, some T-shirts. This is one of the things that I learned back then – that all material things can be replaced.
After the two-week tour, you moved into Iggy’s apartment at the now legendary address in the Schöneberg district, Hauptstrasse 155.
At first I had my own small place on Savignyplatz. I didn’t move to Hauptstrasse until later. David lived there at the front of the building, Jim’s place was in the back. It was a beautiful, old-fashioned building. We heated it with coal ovens. I can still remember how excited Jim was when the man came up to deliver the coal, and he was carrying it on his back on a wooden rack. It was a very cheap apartment. The rent was 170 Deutschmarks. There was a gay café in the neighborhood called Anderes Ufer. It was one of the first places in Berlin where you could get a real cappuccino with steamed milk. Some toughs from a motorcycle gang came in one day and destroyed the place. David had just come home and found the people there crying amid the ruins. So, just like that, he donated a new window. I think the people there were forever grateful.
Is it true that Iggy Pop got locked into a phone booth one night by a punk?
Yes, it happened at three o’clock in the morning. Phone booths in those days really did have locks on them. Jim had just left the Dschungel disco on Nürnbergerstrasse and called me. He said, "Hey, I’ve just been locked in a phone booth and you have to help me!" I said, "You’ll have to come up with a better story than that. What are you doing calling me at three in the morning and waking me up?" Then I hung up.
Why would you do that?
Maybe the best way to explain it is like this: At three o’clock in the morning it wasn’t Jim who was calling. It was Iggy.
The angry punk rocker.
Yes, the poor guy. He sat in that phone booth until six o’clock in the morning. A taxi driver found him and got him out with a master key. To this day, we don’t know who locked him in there.
There was the Dschungel in Schöneberg, and in Kreuzberg there was the club SO36, founded by the artist Martin Kippenberger.
I remember the time Martin called me at midnight and asked if I could bring along a few slides from Jim’s tour. He wanted to have a small slide show in the club. We often went to SO36, David, Coco, Jim and me. David was already pretty famous, but he could still show up without bodyguards. Kids would come up to him, but it was all very peaceful.
The Early Years of Pop
Iggy Pop and David Bowie played hard and worked hard. Iggy said later that the album "Lust for Life" was written "on a diet of German beer, red wine, black bread, cocaine and German sausage."
Well, I couldn’t cook at all back then (laughs) . But during those years, David did produce his Berlin trilogy, the albums Low , Heroes and Lodger . Jim made The Idiot and Lust for Life . I still think these are their best albums.
Can you remember the very first time you heard "China Girl"?
Yes, I remember Jim playing it for me before it was finished. At first, he was staying with David while his own apartment was being renovated. He had to sneak me in, because the rule was that no one was allowed to go into that apartment unless David had agreed. So I was sitting in one of David’s seven rooms. Jim gave me headphones, and I listened to the recording.
Did you get to join them when they were working at the Hansa Studios together?
Not at first. But eventually, David learned to trust me. David was very good at producing Jim, even though their sounds were so different. That’s one of the great things about David. He has the ability to take himself back a little and concentrate on the artist he is producing. He did this with Lou Reed too. David really wanted to get the best out of Jim.
You stayed in Berlin together for two years, then you moved on. In 1980, Iggy Pop was quoted by the magazine Sounds as saying: "Berlin was special for a while. Today there are too many artists, too many people in carrot jeans. Idiots. I gave up the apartment in Berlin and am moving to New Orleans."
We never moved to New Orleans, of course, but Jim liked the idea of living in an American city where they spoke French. We actually went to New York City. It was a crazy time. Just everyone seemed to live in New York then. We kept running into Andy Warhol. David was performing in a theater production of The Elephant Man . For us, leaving Berlin and going to New York was definitely the right thing to do.
You also spent three months in Haiti together. That’s where you shot the cover for Iggy Pop’s "Zombie Birdhouse" album.
That was in 1981. Jim had been there before with a friend and liked it. We wanted to relax there for just a few weeks, but it turned into three months. It was horrible.
On our first night there, we went to a voodoo ceremony. Jim took his clothes off right away and danced. The voodoo priest didn’t think it was very funny. He put a curse on us. I don’t believe in things like that, but still, the following weeks were unbelievable. Jim was always getting lost, he spent all our money on drinks, and eventually we found him on one of the streets. He was out of control. We were broke. I had to work for a Belgian dentist as an assistant, and pulled teeth to finance our return flights. The worst night was at a restaurant, when suddenly everyone around us stopped talking. A boat docked on the beach, and a group of men came into the restaurant. Among them was the brutal dictator of Haiti, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc. I told Jim: "Please pull yourself together. Don’t look his way. Don’t speak to him. He gets people killed when he doesn’t like them." I was so afraid. But luckily, Jim listened to me this time. Haiti was a nightmare.
How did your relationship actually come to an end?
It was after one of Jim’s tours in Japan. He was exhausted, and so was I. I flew back to Europe by myself. And it was obvious to both of us that it was over.
Just like that?
Yes. He didn’t want a big discussion, and neither did I. I stopped calling him. He stopped calling me. That was it. That was in 1983. His mother still called me though. And then Jim married a woman from Japan. He is not a nostalgic person. He never looks back, only forward. And I’m like that too. Nostalgia is nice, but you have to keep looking forward, otherwise you get stuck in the past. Over the last few years, we’ve been back in touch. If he is doing a show somewhere close by, I go there, and we chat a little backstage. Then I go back home.
Why do you think you got together in the first place? Did you discover any parallels in your biographies?
Jim came from a difficult family situation. His father was an orphan, adopted at 14 by a family living in a trailer park. Jim lived a pretty restless life from an early age. He loved being on tour, being on the road.
And your family?
I come from a Jewish family. My parents were Holocaust survivors. In the 1950s, they moved to New York with me. After my mother died, I returned to Germany. But the idea of having a home was never that important to me. Jim and I were both restless.
During the period you were together, a British journalist described Iggy Pop as looking like a bodybuilder who had just risen from the grave.
Jim is blessed with a good body. He just looked great without ever having to do much for it.
And he liked to take his clothes off onstage.
It was his way of attracting attention. He is very perceptive and very sensitive. I remember the first time I saw him purposely cut himself with a broken bottle on stage. That’s how he got everyone to give him their undivided attention. He did that frequently in those days when he felt the audience was getting distracted.
The Early Years of Pop
Did you ever expect that he would live this long?
Yes, Jim always had a good constitution. David was physically more tender. Today you barely notice all those things Jim did to himself. Sure, you see his age; after all, he is in his mid-60s. I was recently watching a video of him on YouTube and could tell that he was in some pain onstage. He was performing, but I could see that he was limping. A few years ago he was hurt badly after diving into the audience. They had to call off the tour. But otherwise he still looks fit, and he still has long hair. I would rather see him in shorter hair, actually – I think he looks better with it. In the days we were together, it would never have occurred to him that he would ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Never. He wasn’t selling many records back then. But in his own way, he left his mark on rock ’n’ roll.
And he survived …
Right. And he even survived without selling out.
After the two of you had broken up, you became a successful art gallery owner, first in Heidelberg, then in Frankfurt. Among the artists you represented was the light artist James Turrell. Today, you advise art collectors. Have you not thought about returning to Berlin?
I have. After the Wall came down I even rented some space in Berlin because I was thinking about moving my gallery there. But it was strange. I couldn’t get the years with Jim out of my head. And I wanted to be looking forward. So, I stayed in Frankfurt. But sure, if I were 20 years younger, I would move to Berlin tomorrow.
Earlier this year, a new song by David Bowie came out of nowhere, "Where Are We Now?" It is dedicated to his time in Berlin – your time in Berlin.
I liked it right away. Coco sent it to me. It seems like he feels pretty much the same way as I do about those times. It is nostalgic, but not sad. It is a nice memory.
What made you decide to publish your photos from that era?
I had this basket at home, full of photos and other souvenirs of the years with Jim. I was actually going to throw them away. I thought, "My God, what would you want to keep them for?" Then I talked to my neighbor Stefan Weil, a designer. It turned out he’s a big fan of The Stooges. He convinced me to save the photographs. He told me they should be published, and he never stopped reminding me.
One final big question: When you look back on those years, what do you think is the defining trait of your generation?
We never thought about our future. When older people admonished us to think ahead, we never listened.