OBITUARY - RON ASHETON, 1948 - 2009
The engine house of The Stooges, Ron Asheton, always maintained he knew what it was like to be Muddy Waters. Ensuing generations would tell him what a hero, what an inspiration he was, among them the likes of Steve Jones and Kurt Cobain. But like the original bluesmen who influenced Clapton, Hendrix, et al. at the time they existed, The Stooges had been roundly ignored. Indeed, Asheton found himself suffering financially for years in the wake of their demise.
“Like the guitarist from Pearl Jam would say, 'My favorite guitar player is Ron Asheton,'” he complained in the mid-90s. “The guy's maybe ten years younger than me. So he's a millionaire and I've got 100 dollars in the bank...”
Asheton had a naturally anarchic take on life – many have suggested he was the character that the more bookish Jim Osterberg modelled himself on when he became Iggy Pop. Certainly, he was the first of the pair to get kicked out of school, and the guy who supplied the drugs at the beginning.
The son of a US Marine Corps pilot, by 14, first the Beatles, then the Stones had blown successive holes in his brain and he'd begun to develop a fixation with Nazi memorabilia that never really left him. To look at, he was blooming into what he dubbed a "Stones punk"—a Brian Jones-quiffed smoking-jacketed British Invasion mod.
As rock n roll bit hard, by 16 he was in what he later described as a "fake band"—who'd practice in a garage, hang around the local record store, look smart, and talk themselves up. Without ever playing a gig, Asheton recalls local kids would tell each other they were the best band in the neighbourhood.
At 17, he and Stooges bassist Dave Alexander flogged their motorbikes and headed to England on a whim to try and meet The Beatles. The winkle-pickered duo rocked up on the doorstep of the parents of a friend who had moved to Southport, near Liverpool, and simply asked to stay. After one night, they were driven to a local bed & breakfast. They did, however, manage to catch Pete Townshend smashing his guitar on the low ceiling of the Cavern club, even collecting a splinter as a holy relic. The experience galvanised Asheton's musical zeal—he later talked about how he'd never seen teenagers going so ballistic to anything. More importantly, a lot of the other bands the pair saw on their daily trips to the Cavern were at the same beginner level as Asheton. The dream of turning up on stage and being a part of 'the rock n roll thing' suddenly seemed possible.
Already nodding acquaintances with Iggy, the pair met because he was in "A band that actually played"—The Iguanas. The Stooges began in the Asheton's mother's basement—along with brother Scott and Alexander, and immediately embarked on their legendary “psychedelic phase”—playing hoovers, experimenting with feedback in a wild freeforall vortex of sound that drew as much from Harry Partch as Brian Jones. After becoming famed for their live performances, the band signed to Elektra, and only then started to carve out the songs—‘Doll House’ and ‘No Fun’, which made their self-titled debut so far ahead of its time.
Asheton's guitar work was still primal sludge and always his greatest charm as a guitar player was his idiosyncrasy. He made up a style to fit his technical limitations, perhaps best realised on “No Fun,” where his half-assed, proto-punk solo chimes with the bored, hormonal delinquency in Iggy's lyrics.
Asheton loved the road, despite having to dodge an increasing rain of coins and lit cigarette butts, lobbed by Iggy-inspired nihilist in the crowds. “It seemed like a new adventure then,” He recalled, "Yep, some new pussy tonight, a new city, a new girl.” But he never fell prey to the heroin brought into their circle by a tour manager that progressively eroded the wits of the other three members. He merely was made to witness Iggy and the others selling-off various bits of band kit day by day to finance their brown spoons.
Next came the molten magma of FunHouse, “One of those rare albums that never sits still long enough to actually solidify into what it previously seemed," as Lester Bangs had it. On the sleevenotes to the reissue, Jack White went one better and dubbed it, "By proxy the definitive rock album of America."
As heroin began to eclipse music as the driving force of the band, it looked like The Stooges were over, until Stooges superfan Saint David Bowie swooped down and rescued them. Though he rescued some more than others. He produced Raw Power, and groomed Iggy for stardom, but Ron was demoted from guitar duties.
“I saw [Iggy] at a party,” Ron recalled, “And he offhandedly said, 'I'm going to England. Oh, by the way, I got a deal and I'm taking James.' I'm thinking, 'Thanks a lot, pal. You shit on your two fucking buddies who started the band.' I was shattered. A couple of months later, he calls up from England: 'We auditioned about a hundred bass players and drummers and none of 'em are any good. You guys wanna play?' My first reaction was 'YOU MOTHERFUCKER!!!' That's what's going on in my head. If I could just reach through the phone! So I'm going 'Yeah, sure, we're not doing anything.' He says, 'Uh, OK, we'll send you all the pertinent information.'
The trip was luxurious, and the resulting album was the splendorous overclocked wallop of Raw Power, but when it barely grazed the Billlboard top 200, The Stooges were back on the dumper of history.
“It was the exact opposite Hollywood story. At the top of San Fernando Valley, with a swimming pool full of naked girls, a Cadillac car and total luxury—even then, we'd rehearse the same thing every fucking night, six hours a day. From that, we went down to the Rivera Hotel for 75 bucks a week with the drunken women at the desk trying to fuck me every night.”
He got around $15 a night for shows. By 1976, he'd formed a new act with MC5 drummer Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson: The New Order (nowadays generally subtitled “no, not that one”), which produced one minor classic: ‘Rock N Roll Soldiers’, later covered by The Hellacopters and Radio Birdman.
He ground his axe through various subsequent incarnations, most notably Destroy All Monsters (who The Horrors' Faris Badwan regards as almost-equals of The Stooges) and Dark Carnival. The former never released an album, but the esteem in which they were held is evident in how Thurston Moore compiled their tracks into an anthology in 1994.
In 1997, he got the chance to repay the favour, teaming up with Thurston, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and Minutemen's Mike Watt to form 'supergroup' The Wylde Rattz for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. They re-recorded six Stooges classics, plus two new Asheton originals for the soundtrack. It's evident that Asheton desperately wanted this project to solidify into a proper band. It never happened.
Throughout the nineties, he found more time for his other pastimes: painting (he put on shows), and movies. When not happily churning out unfilmed scripts, he acted in low-budget pictures, most notably 1994's Mosquito. He had a few irons in Hollywood fires, and once boasted that he was likely to make a $30 million movie in the near future.
After a mooted 1997 reunion fell through, The Stooges did get one final bite of the cherry in 2004: their widely-panned fourth album, The Weirdness. Producer Steve Albini focused on the rhythm section, limiting Asheton's guitar scope, and resulting in a flat, one-note record. Looking forward to touring England that year, Asheton confessed he was also hoping to check out the Imperial War Museum, including “The stuff you have to make an appointment to see—like Goebbels's uniform.”
Pop may have described him as, “My best friend” in the past day, but Asheton was for a long time far more ambivalent about Iggy, widely quoting what Ig had said at the time of the re-issue of Raw Power: “The Ashetons? They couldn't put a home aquarium together without me.”
Since his death, the ensuing generations have been ever-more gushing about his influence: “Ron's was a totally original style: really fucking sexy and wild and reckless and free,” Bobby Gillespie reckons.
“Ron Asheton renewed my interest in loud guitars after I thought I'd lost faith in the early part of the century,” acclaims Klaxons' Jamie Reynolds, “Listening to the first three Stooges records on repeat persuaded me that it was time to put down the synthesizer and start writing noisy songs with three chords.”
“They've influenced pretty much everyone,” commends Faris Badwan, “I never realised it fully until I heard their live stuff; but like Nick Cave for instance, The Stooges are basically the blueprint for all of Nick Cave's early stuff.”
But Paul Trynka, author of the 2007 biography Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed, perhaps put it most compactly when he said on Tuesday. “If you don't understand Ron, you don't understand the Stooges, and if you don't understand the Stooges, you don't understand punk rock.”
Ron Asheton: 1948-2009