Iggy Pop’s brilliant reaction to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
In 1982, horrified by the meanness, tedium and depravity of my existence as I toured the American South playing rock and roll music and going crazy in public, I purchased an abridged copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
I would read with pleasure around 4 am, with my drugs and whisky in cheap motels, savouring the clash of beliefs, personalities and values, played out on antiquity’s stage by crowds of the vulgar, led by huge archetypal characters. And that was the end of that. Or so I thought.
Eleven years later I stood in a dilapidated but elegant room in a rotting mansion in New Orleans, and listened as a piece of music strange to my ears pulled me back to ancient Rome and called forth those ghosts to merge in hilarious, bilious pretence with the Schwartzkopfs, Schwartzeneggers and Sheratons of modern American money and muscle-myth. Out of me poured information I had no idea I ever knew, let alone retained, in an extemporaneous soliloquy I called ‘Caesar’. When I listened back, it made me laugh my ass off because it was so true. America is Rome. Of course, why shouldn’t it be? All of Western life and institutions today are traceable to the Romans and their world. We are all Roman children for better or worse.
Iggy Pop reading Fall and Decline put me in mind of Bob Dylan’s account in Chronicles Pt. I of reading Thucydides and others while staying with Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel when he first came to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. The passage has that odd sense of Dylan’s voracious passivity that recurs throughout the book, of being formed by finding himself in a space where “you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness”:
I usually opened up some book to the middle, read a few pages and if I liked it went back to the beginning. Materia Medica (the causes and cures of diseases) – that was a good one. I was looking for the part of my education that I never got. Sometimes I’d open up a book and see a handwritten note scribbled in the front, like in Machiavelli’s The Prince, there was written, “The spirit of the hustler.”
Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General – a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.
“We are all Roman children,” “It’s like nothing has changed” – what is this attraction of musicians to the classics? Is it any different from anyone’s attraction to the classics, just more unexpected? Perhaps Pop and Dylan’s broadly anti-establishment dispositions – we’re talking at the beginning of their careers here, before Iggy Pop let cruise ship companies have “Lust For Life” in their commercials and Dylan released a Christmas album – made them more open to the idea that empires rise and fall, that Greek and Roman political arguments (especially in the West) can be a useful gloss for modern life.
But these are the conclusions available to anyone who cracks open Gibbon or Thucydides. It’s their receptivity we should admire.