Behind the Spirit-Lifting History and Meaning of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Like the famed Iggy Pop song “The Passenger,” his hit “Lust for Life” (1977) was co-written by David Bowie. The track, which was originally written on ukulele, has gone on to help define Pop as an all-time rock figure and the song even earned a resurgence more recently.

Let’s dive into both the track’s history and meaning. From the uplifting vibe and maxim to the origin of its timeless appeal.

Meaning of “Life”

The song offers a feeling. It’s vibrant, lush, and golden-hued. It’s the sound of, well, enjoying a lust for life. Or lust for life’s excesses. A verve to get out there in the wide world and accomplish your dreams (such as they are). Indeed, the song is the soundtrack for that emotion, brought to the world by the at times-depraved genius of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, who also plays piano on the track.

[RELATED: Iggy Pop Announces New Album, ‘Every Loser,’ Arriving Next Year]

The song has come to be known for its rollicking opening drumbeat, performed by percussionist Hunt Sales. The rhythm for the song was rooted in the call signal for Armed Forces Network, which Pop and Bowie overheard while waiting to take in an episode of Starsky & Hutch. The drumbeat has gone on to be imitated by songs like Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” and others.

Sales, however, got the inspiration for the beat from songs like “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes, and “I’m Ready for Love,” by Martha and the Vandellas.

The Lyrics

The song lyrics include several references to William S. Burroughs’ wild novel, The Ticket That Exploded, including nods to “Johnny Yen,” who is described by the author as “The boy-girl other half strip tease God of sexual frustration,” and “hypnotizing chickens.”

Burroughs, of course, has had a big impact on rock music in past decades. His book, Naked Lunch, is the source material for the band name Steely Dan.

In a 1995 interview, Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors, along with manager Danny Sugerman, said that the opening lyrics in “Lust for Life” were about their dead heroin dealer, known as “Gypsy Johnny.” He arrived at Wonderland Avenue, which is a reference to Laurel Canyon, a site of much music and much drug use in California, with his heroin and his “motorized dildos.”

Looking at the lyrics, one can easily see the song is about adoration for life’s feasts, from drugs to at times-depraved experiences to sex and more. Here are the opening three stanzas, which show just that:

Here comes Johnny Yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And a flesh machine
He’s gonna do another striptease

Hey man, where’d you get that lotion?
I’ve been hurting since I bought the gimmick
About something called love
Yeah, something called love
Well, that’s like hypnotizing chickens

Well, I’m just a modern guy
Of course, I’ve had it in the ear before
Been on a lust for life
‘Cause of a lust for life

Reception, Then and Now

After its release in 1977, the song did well in Holland and Yugoslavia, hitting No. 3 on both countries’ Top 40. Its success was often credited to a shirtless performance by Pop on the Dutch TV show, TopPop, during which the artist wrecked part of the stage. Complaints were filed by the show’s viewers, but the show’s producers knew about the planned wreckage ahead of time and, they said, there was minimal damage.

More recently, the song earned renewed appreciation in the 1990s after it was featured in the 1996 British movie Trainspotting. It hit No. 26 on the U.K. charts after being reissued as a single. Later, a remix by The Prodigy was included in Trainspotting’s 2017 sequel, T2 Trainspotting.

Pop spoke of the song’s renewed popularity in a 1999 interview, saying, “When I made Lust for Life, I really thought America was gonna rock to this motherfucker. And it took 20 fuckin’ years, which is a really long time to wait. I guess what happened is that there was this system that wasn’t gonna fuckin’ give me a break, and I outlived the system. The movies and advertisers have subverted the stranglehold of radio in America, and there are now other ways for people to hear music. All of a sudden—a few years ago when Trainspotting came out—I was walkin’ down the street and I’d heard Raw Power comin’ out of the bars.”

Photo by Linda D. Robbins/Getty Images

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