Ángel Altolaguirre: The unexpected fate of Spanish Iggy Pop: “It wasn’t my time to die, I survived and I’m here to tell the tale” | Culture


He had prepared an impressive number for when the public came grumpy and looking for a fight. He would come out with his band on stage all naked, with dyed green hair and a bottle of Jack Daniels in hand. “Faggots, sons of bitches…”, thundered the male spectators waxed in alcohol. It was the end of the seventies and in some places in Spain it was difficult for them to tolerate rock with an extravagant aesthetic. He was approaching the center of the stage, with a quiet, defiant step. He would hit the bottle with the microphone stand until it broke, grabbing the sharp glass and slashing his chest. When the blood ran through his belly, he went down to where the spectators were and splashed his blood on the bad guys, who were left speechless. Then, as cool as he had come down, he would go up and start the concert. He had earned everyone’s respect. This is how Ángel Altolaguirre spent them, who was called “the Spanish Iggy Pop”.

The life of this important musician in the Spanish rock of the seventies and eighties has been so frenetic that it is strange to see him relaxed, having a breakfast of tea with a sweet in a Madrid cafeteria where elegant jazz is playing. Some information about his journey: he founded one of the first bands of glam rock Spanish (Negative), suffered an ETA attack by means of a bomb, played with Permanent Paralysis and Pegamoides, was one of the first modern sound technicians in Spain, produced records for Dinarama and Gabinete Caligari, was addicted to heroin for 10 years, he was a sound technician for 14 years at the Benicàssim Festival, he starred in one of the most popular videos of Lto Crystal Ball… And today he mostly talks about meditation, sadhanaofferings and spiritual discipline.

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Rafa Balmaseda, Ana Curra, Eduardo Benavente and Ángel Altolaguirre in Rock-Ola's dressing room in the early eighties before a performance by Permanent Paralysis.  / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS
Rafa Balmaseda, Ana Curra, Eduardo Benavente and Ángel Altolaguirre in Rock-Ola’s dressing room in the early eighties before a performance by Permanent Paralysis. / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS

Ángel Altolaguirre (San Sebastián, 63 years old) currently works as a yoga teacher. He wakes up every day at five in the morning “like a rocket”. He washes himself and makes an offering at an altar installed in his house in the Madrid neighborhood of Malasaña. There is water, food, flowers… Then a moment of meditation. At 6.45 he is ready for breakfast and a little later he starts his work activity as a yoga teacher. Wearing green horn-rimmed glasses and dressed in brightly colored patterned clothing, he has a reassuring, almost hypnotic tone of conversation. One hopes that it will grow wings and leave the place in a light flight. Unexpected fate for a guy who lived the punk life for 25 years. “I survived because it was not my time to die. And I’m here to tell the tale,” he notes.

Altolaguirre remembers himself as a child, in the family home in San Sebastian, listening to Beatles records by his older brother (music producer Iñaki Altolaguirre, now deceased) with the speakers pressed to his ears. “The volume was beastly. He had no helmets. There I began to understand music, to place it in space and to organize sounds, something that helped me a lot when it came to producing records”, he points out. He was one of the first sound technicians with a professional stamp.

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He worked with the Basque singer-songwriters of the time and with an incipient Mondragón Orchestra. And he formed Negative, a band influenced by New York Dolls, The Stooges or David Bowie. The life of the group was brief (just over three years, from 1977 to 1980); its first singer, Pablo Gascue, shot himself, and a bomb ended with the band. Gascue was replaced by Borja Zulueta. His brother, the legendary Spanish filmmaker Iván Zulueta, designed the cover of an album that never came out. Today it sees the light after an almost miraculous rescue effort. “They were some poorly preserved tapes that were in a drawer. A lot of work has had to be done to edit it on disc”, points out the protagonist.

Rafa Balmaseda and Ángel Altolaguirre at the El Huerto pub in San Sebastián, where they suffered an ETA attack in 1980. / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS
Rafa Balmaseda and Ángel Altolaguirre at the El Huerto pub in San Sebastián, where they suffered an ETA attack in 1980. / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS

El Huerto was a popular Donosti bar within the scarce rock scene of the city at the end of the seventies. It functioned as Negative’s headquarters. When everything closed they went there to listen to music and have drinks. One night in 1980 a bomb exploded. Altolaguirre was putting on a record. He fell on a board and some bottles, everything was filled with dust. There were no casualties: the 2-rubber was of low power and blew up in the bathroom when no one was there. “I suffered a shock indescribable. It was a terrible mental and emotional impact: I spent seven days driving around on a motorcycle and without going home”, he recounts. The musician verified that the attack was the work of a group related to ETA that was on its own. Why this aggressiveness towards them? “It bothered them that rockers like us didn’t give a damn about the kale borroka”, indicates.

Altolaguirre, who could not overcome the incident, decided to move to Madrid. Negative was over and exciting and dark times were coming. It was 1980. “I tried heroin for the first time in Donosti. They invited me. At the end of the seventies it was quite present. She was pure and came from Thailand. At first I snorted it, but soon I started injecting it,” he recounts. When he arrived in Madrid he found himself with a problem: the drugs in the capital were of poor quality and he had to buy large quantities to cover his addiction. He earned a lot of money in a year of touring as the guitarist for Dinarama (replacing Carlos Berlanga, who was doing his military service), but he spent it all on drugs.

Negative at a concert in the late seventies.  From left to right, Rafa Balmaseda (bass), Borja Zulueta (voice) and Ángel Altolaguirre (guitar).  / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS
Negative at a concert in the late seventies. From left to right, Rafa Balmaseda (bass), Borja Zulueta (voice) and Ángel Altolaguirre (guitar). / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS

It was an intense creative time. He became the sound technician for the office of the manager most important of Spanish pop music: he worked with Nacha Pop, Alaska, Mama… In 1983 he produced Dinarama’s debut albums (profane songs) and Caligari Cabinet (May God distribute luck). Later he launched Ángel y Las Guais, which left two EPs, many amphetamine performances and an appearance for the story of The Cristal ball, where Johnny Screw is invented. “Getting into heroin was like being forced to carry crutches. You leave home and you have to lean on those crutches; if you take them off, you fall. The heroine insulates you from physical pain, but also mental and emotional pain. You are always fine while the effect lasts. If not, you are unable to do anything. This, if it goes on over time, gets complicated because you need a lot of money. I earned a lot and I never needed to rob a bank or steal, but others did”, says Altolaguirre.

Leaving those crutches was a long and dark task. He was consuming continuously for about 12 years, from 1977 to 1989. He did not want to access any clinic or centers like Proyecto Hombre, to which some musicians of his generation resorted. “As a good yogi, I said: ‘Without help, whatever it takes,'” he stresses. It was a journey of a year and a half. And he got it… with a little relapse. In 1992 he set up a gang in Barcelona and the heroine reappeared. “There I related my lack of time to dedicate it to creativity with the drug. He couldn’t take care of family and art well. I was always on the fucking crutches. And I decided to get away from everything, not because I related music to drugs, but to get rid of the character. There was a character who attracted drugs like a magnet. The Spanish Iggy Pop, a rough guy… a character that was eating me”.

The cassette demo from which part of the material of the album that has just been released by Negativo has been taken.  / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS
The cassette demo from which part of the material of the album that has just been released by Negativo has been taken. / COURTESY SUBTERFUGE RECORDS

When he left the front line of music, he dedicated himself as a freelance sound engineer, both for music venues such as La Riviera and for productions at the Teatro Español. He was dedicated to this task throughout the nineties. “It went very well, but I had been interested in the world of yoga for a long time,” he says. He went to India, and when he returned in 2000, he had already decided to dedicate himself to cultivating the spirit. He met his partner, an architect who ran a bookstore in Malasaña, and they decided to convert it into a yoga teaching center. They have been married twice (once in the forest and once in the Church, officiated by the popular Father Angel), they have no children, “although they do have a dog, Tai.”

Altolaguirre has been drug-free for 30 years, does not smoke, does not drink (“well, a very occasional beer”) and is a vegetarian. He has released eight mantra albums and wants to return to pop with a work that he has already recorded and to rock with a concert with Negativo, taking advantage of the redemption of the songs. With the two vocalists dead (Pablo Gascue and Borja Zulueta), the one who will sing will be his nephew.

He comments that he sees himself very occasionally with musicians of the time, recently with Alaska or Ana Curra, and that the three great talents of that time were “Antonio Vega, Nacho Canut and Carlos Berlanga”. Why didn’t he transcend more at that time? “Because he was scary, he was very crazy. Between that, the inconstancy and the drugs, I diluted myself. One day, when I got clean, I asked my friends what I was like before. They told me: ‘The same as now’. The difference was in me and in my pain, in the happy crutches”.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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