Iggy Pop’s ‘Haitian Nightmare’ turns into a quirky album
Zombie Birdhouse, Iggy Pop’s strange and long out of print album from the early 80s, is being reissued in June 2019 by Caroline Records. Most listeners were pretty confused by the album, which wasn’t like anything else in his discography (and remains unique) and it quietly disappeared into the used vinyl and CD market. It’s interesting to hear the record now being marketed as something of a ‘lost classic,’ but the time may be right to hear what the influence of this album might have been.
In 1982 Iggy Pop found himself in the throes of one of many lulls in his career. He had just come off his contract with Arista having released three albums which, while interesting, became an investment with sharply diminishing returns. Once again the Ig found himself in a position to rely on the comfort of strangers, in this case Blondie guitarist and co-founder Chris Stein. Stein had his own label, Animal, an offshoot of Chrysalis, the label that had signed and released all of Blondie’s albums. Blondie had just broken up after canceling a planned European tour and Stein volunteered to produce the next Iggy Pop album.
After being dropped by Arista Iggy decided to go to Haiti with then-girlfriend Esther Friedman. A native of Manheim, Germany who moved to West Berlin in 1974, she met Iggy in 1976 during the residency he and David Bowie took in the city. She took many photographs of their daily life together in Berlin and she shot photos of Iggy in Haiti as well, one of which served as the cover for Zombie Birdhouse. According to Friedman, the time in Haiti did not go well:
“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.”
The Early Years of Pop by Von Christoph Amend und Daniel Haaksman, Zeit Online, October 17, 2013
Iggy’s collaborator for this project was Rob Duprey, who had been the guitarist in a punk band called the Mumps. According to Paul Trynka, who wrote the Iggy bio Open Up and Bleed, Iggy spent six weeks living at Rob Duprey’s apartment so that they could work on new songs and experiment. Duprey ended up sharing writing credits on all but two of the twelve tracks that were recorded for Zombie Birdhouse, and it sounds like the relationship was fairly amicable. “He really associates with the people he needs to associate with” Duprey commented. “I was just a bratty kid, and I got treated really well, even if Zombie Birdhouse turned out to be his most pretentious record.”
Duprey played all the guitar and keyboard work on the album and did some background vocals. Stein played bass on some tracks, and Clem Burke (Blondie), one of the greatest rock drummers ever, handled drums and percussion. It was recorded for under $50,000 at Blank Tapes, a 16-track studio in NYC.
I’m not sure that the record justifies the ‘pretentious’ label, but it is definitely a quirky curiosity in a discography that, despite Iggy’s erratic behavior and personality over the years, is really not all that diverse. That quirkiness, coupled with the album’s lengthy time out of print, has helped elevate it to “near-legendary status for its oddity,” in the words of PopMatters’ Charlotte Robinson.
The sound of the music is different: rhythmic and driving at times but generally not the kind of piledriving stomp that Iggy had used in the past. There were definitely attempts by Iggy to be poetic and artsy, and some of these–the most frequently cited being “Watching the News”– are pretty shabby, but there are some great songs as well: “Ordinary Bummer” is as good as anything from his Berlin days.
Esther Friedman was credited as the photographer on the album, and her photos of Iggy in Haiti have been used in a promotional video with animations by Marta Kacprzak. The images are haunting and evocative, especially in light of her harrowing stories about the time she and Iggy spent in Haiti. In Open Up and Bleed she says that she burned the clothing that she and Iggy had worn in Haiti in order to break the curse put on them by the voodoo priest. Given all that, perhaps it is fitting that Zombie Birdhouse sounds more than little like a kind of rock and roll exorcism.