By Catherine Bremer
PARIS (Reuters) - Punk music pioneer Iggy Pop - famous for onstage mayhem like smearing his sinewy torso with olive oil and diving headfirst into crowds - is mellowing in old age with a solo album of crooning classic covers, half of them in French.
But at 65 years old it's all part of pushing new boundaries, and making sure he's not categorized as nothing but a punk icon.
"I don't want to get in a box. I'll get in a box when I'm dead," he said, explaining his decision to defy record companies, who would have preferred he make a punk-rock tribute, and independently record songs by Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf.
A world away from his own raw standards like "The Passenger" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog", his new CD "Apres", released this week, features slow covers of Sinatra's "Only The Lonely", Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" and Beatles hit "Michelle". Five of the tracks are sung in French.
Pop's French, which he likes to practice on the staff at the upscale Bristol hotel in Paris, is surprisingly smooth for the man who inspired a generation of badly behaved rockers and still sports long blond hair and wild eyes.
"When I did the stuff that was punky, people were more surprised than with this," Pop said, sporting his trademark skinny leather pants and a black shirt slashed to the navel to expose his wiry, tanned chest.
"When I was 16, 17, I was listening to Sinatra and Ravel and Debussy and Bo Diddley so it's kind of all the same to me. I just wanted to do something like this once," he told reporters, perched incongruously on a pristine chair at the Bristol.
"I wanted to do this before I die."
Even crooning, Pop's voice is deep, gravelly and just a little bit irreverent. Plus, he says, he doesn't rule out doing some stage diving if he performs the tracks live.
Born James Osterberg and raised in a trailer park in Michigan, Pop formed groundbreaking rock band The Stooges in 1969. They recorded three albums before breaking up in a haze of drug addiction and Pop, who had already invented the stage dive and raucous antics like smearing peanut butter over his chest mid-gig, launched a solo career.
His 16th solo album, "Apres" is on sale online via private French-based shopping club vente-privee.com after Pop decided to try breaking free from record labels he finds too confining.
"Pretty much they're just throwing 'mierda' at the wall to see what'll stick," he says of today's record executives. "It was just nice to do it this way."
The French tracks, like Serge Gainsbourg's lilting "La Javanaise", follow Pop's 2009 foray into the French language in his album "Preliminaires".
French songs often go deeper lyrically than Anglo-American ones, he said, describing the three basic English constructions as essentially: "If you ever leave me I'm going to fucking kill you", "Oh no, please don't go" and "Wow look at her ass."
French music aside, Pop's tastes today range from 1920s to 1970s jazz and blues through to heavy metal and Jamaican dancehall. Early influences on The Stooges included North African, Tourag and Bedouin music and Lebanese bellydancing.
While he has been back touring with The Stooges since they reunited in 2003, growing older is prompting new experiments.
Asked how he deals with the passing of time, Pop said: "I'm a little edgy about how to use it and whether to waste it. There's how you spend your time and the manner of your decline and death. I think about that stuff."
Then there are the accountants, he said, with a wink to his jewel-bedecked Nigerian-Irish wife, Nina Alu, a former flight attendant he's been with for a decade.
"You get to my age and you have professionals telling you: 'Now Iggy, the actuarial tables say you may live to be 87'," he said. "Well how much money do I have to save to be 87 and not work any more? Couldn't I just spend it all now and die in four years?"
(Reporting By Catherine Bremer, Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)