Ron Asheton - King of the Stooges
Ron and Scott Asheton were the nucleus of the Stooges, the greatest punk band in the world. In Iggy's words, “These guys were the laziest delinquent sorts of pig slobs ever born." Ron passed away in 2009, but not before I sat down with him for ten...
Ron and Scott Asheton were the nucleus of the Stooges, the greatest fucking punk band in the world. Having attended high school with Iggy Pop (né James Osterberg), the Asheton brothers were hoodlum types who attracted other punks with their erratic, wild behavior. Iggy said of the Ashetons, “These guys were the laziest delinquent sorts of pig slobs ever born. Really spoiled rotten and babied by their mother. [Their] dad had died, so they didn’t have much discipline at home.”
Ron was the lead guitarist, his brother Scott was on drums, and Dave Alexander was the bassist. And, of course, Iggy was the front man and lead singer of the Stooges. That was the original lineup, and they released two amazing albums, the Stooges and Funhouse, before breaking up the first time.
When David Bowie rescued Iggy’s career in 1972, the band was reformed with James Williamson on lead guitar and Ron on bass—Dave Alexander was incapacitated by alcohol and died in 1975. Scott Asheton came back on drums and Scott Thurston was added on keyboards and electric piano. Their third album, Raw Power, was the most magnificent punk-rock record ever recorded, and remains the greatest lesson on how rock ’n’ roll ought to be played.
Unfortunately, Ron Asheton died of a heart attack and was discovered by friends on the first day of 2009. He was the best guitarist the punk world had ever seen. He was a great guy, with tons of stories. We sat down for ten hours one night in the basement of his mom’s house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the Stooges were formed in 1967.
BIRTH OF THE STOOGES
Iggy lived in a trailer park on Carpenter Road, on the fringes of Ann Arbor. His father and mother were both schoolteachers, but later his mom became a housewife. I always really liked his parents.
We would drive over there when the parents weren’t home, when they were both teaching school. One time we went over to the trailer park to use the common-area clothes dryer to dry a bunch of pot. We had a great big laundry bag with a few pounds of pot in it, and it was tumbling around the dryer. Well, we forgot about it and Iggy's father came home unannounced and went, “What's that smell?” So we're outside, squeezing the laundry bag of pot through the window of his room.
I think Iggy was attracted to Dave Alexander and my brother, Scotty, because they were stone punks. They'd just hang out in front of Discount Records in big packs of guys, cruising, looking at girls, and spitting on cars.
My brother was just kind of a thug and Dave was the first guy I knew who was drunk throughout high school. I wasn't so much a stone punk or a kinda hoodlum guy, like those guys. I was just the weird guy, you know? I was the first guy in high school to get kicked out for long hair.
It was Michael Erlewine who gave Iggy Pop his name. His real name is Jim Osterberg. In high school he was the drummer in this band, the Iguanas, and they used to joke about him. Michael Erlewine used to call him Ignacious. Then it got simplified to Iggy.
They had Iggy up on a drum riser—he was so high up there, he couldn’t even hear the band. Iggy was kind of a clown and the Iguanas played surfer-ballad kinda stuff. Iggy was still a straight guy then, he didn't smoke cigarettes, he didn't get high, he didn't drink alcohol, and he couldn't drive a car. I don't think he can drive a car now, actually. While he was in high school, he totaled three cars because he just couldn’t drive.
After high school, Iggy went to the University of Michigan, but he wound up quitting after six months 'cause he didn't like it. I wound up going through night school, but I hated it and quit, too. So Iggy decided he was be a blues drummer and that Sam Lay, of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was gonna be his mentor. So he went to Chicago and stayed with him. That was the beginning of deciding, Well, why don't we start a band?
When he got back to Ann Arbor, Iggy would take the bus from the trailer park to our house to rehearse. He'd get here about 11 o’clock in the morning to wake us up. We'd get up and make some tea. Then smoke some joints and maybe spend an hour just bullshitting. Then we’d rehearse.
I'd fixed up the basement, put a bunch of Christmas lights around the rafters. It's an unfinished basement, but I put a Persian rug down and we had incense, so I tried to make the basement more comfortable.
In order to get some money to buy an organ, Iggy’s mother said, "I'll buy the organ for you, if you cut your hair."
So Iggy got what I called a “Raymond Burr haircut.” Raymond Burr plays the mentally retarded, insane guy with Natalie Wood in A Cry in the Night. Burr’s haircut was just these teeny, little bangs and almost a crew cut kind of thing. For some reason Iggy got that haircut and wound up wearing these baggy white pants, like a coverall.
That went on for a long time, Iggy would take the bus over to our house and we’d rehearse. Then my mother would come home, blink the lights, and say, "Time to stop."
So we'd stop at five, then Iggy would just take the bus back home.
We did that every day for a long time, but there was still no singing. When it came closer to the time of starting to play jobs, like the Grande Ballroom, I said, "Hey let's just get Dave Alexander to play the bass, I'll pick up the guitar and my brother will play whatever weird drums we got for him."
That was the first time Iggy wasn't encumbered by an instrument, at our first show. And we had invented some new instruments. I came up with a blender with a little bit of water in it and put a mic right down in it and just turned it on and let that be the whole sound. Then we had a washboard with contact mics and Iggy would put on golf shoes and just kinda shuffle around on it. That made a neat sound.
Then we had 50-gallon oil drums that my brother played. We rigged up hammers as the beaters, but it would break after two minutes, so that was always a problem. I also borrowed my ma's vacuum cleaner, which made a jet-engine sound. It made a noise like a killer tornado or hurricane or something.
The first time we played at the Grande Ballroom, the audience was utterly stunned. They were like, “Huh?” There was actually dead silence. It was like, What the fuck was that?
THE FIRST RECORD
I remember meeting Danny Fields. He was working at Elektra Records at the time and he came to Detroit to check out the MC5. We were opening for them. After the show, we kinda filtered back to our dressing room, and in walks Danny in a leather jacket and shades. He looked at the whole room and said, "How would you like to be stars?"
Danny introduced himself, and then he took Iggy aside and kinda explained what the situation was. So Danny went back to Jac Holzman, the president of Elecktra Records and said, "Trust me, sign these guys, take my word for it; it's the best deal Elektra ever got!”
So we signed for $5,000 and then a couple weeks later, Jac Holzman and his partner, Bill Harvey, came with Danny to Ann Arbor and we played this place called the Fifth Dimension. I think we had three songs, and one of them was “I'm sick.”
Jac asked, "Well, you guys got enough material to do an album, right?" We said yes when we didn't, so we just busted our asses, and I came up with the riff to “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
When we went to New York to record the first Stooges album, Elecktra asked us again, "You’ve got more stuff, don't you?"
We said, "Oh sure!"
So I went back to the hotel and in one hour came up with “Little Doll,” “Not Right,” and “Real Cool Time.” Once I had the music, Iggy came down and listened to it, and then he went up and came up with the lyrics. The next night we rehearsed one time and then we went and recorded each song in one take.
We'd never been in the studio before, and we set up our Marshall Stacks and put the volume on ten. So we started out, and John Cale, our producer, said, "Oh no, this is not the way!" But we couldn't play unless it was high volume, we didn't have enough expertise on our instruments. It was all power chords, and the only way we could get it done was to play big and loud.
Cale kept trying to tell us what to do and being the stubborn youth that we were, we had a sit-down strike. We just put our instruments down and went in one of the sound booths and just started smoking hash. We just said, “Fuck it,” and he kept trying to talk to us and talk to us. He tried to tell us about recording. Cale said, “You can't do this with these big amps and stuff that just doesn't work, you can't record with your amps set to ten!”
So our compromise was, "OK, I'll put it on nine..." Finally Cale said, "Fuck it," and went with it.
Iggy would fucking whip his cock out at the drop of a dime. It got real boring. I remember sitting in hotel rooms, even before the Stooges were signed. Some girls were with us, and Iggy would whip it out, and I was going, “Oh, just put it away!” Iggy would bring girls home after a gig and they’d come downstairs crying, because he just banged 'em and said, “Get out!”
Even though he had lots of girlfriends and stuff, Iggy didn't actually fuck a girl until we had our first band house. I think he was nineteen. And just to show that it wasn't just Iggy, that was the same for me, too.
I remember Iggy was so jazzed. He came back to the house without his bicycle. He'd been in such a daze from fucking that he biked head on into a car. He flew over the top of the car and landed on his feet, but it wrecked the bike. So he came back to the house with his story about getting laid for the first time.
His dick got him into trouble a few times. We were playing this show somewhere, to a kind of a young crowd, and they had this old security guard there. Iggy was wearing his brown vinyl, Jim Morrison-type pants with no shirt. So we're just playing and it was totally innocent and by accident the whole crotch of his pants ripped out.
So he left the stage and came back wearing a towel. I guess his dick was exposed a little bit. As luck would have it, one of the girls in the audience saw it. Her father happened to be a state trooper, and the post was just down the street. She ran to her father and said, “Some guy showed his dick!”
So the state trooper told the old security guard, I guess they called the old dude and said, “Keep him there until we arrive!”
The old dude comes to me and says, “Man, you guys better get that guy outta here—the cops are coming for him!”
So I go up to the dressing room and tell Iggy, and he splits. I'm sitting up in the dressing room with some band, we wanted to smoke dope and I thought nothing was gonna happen, so I was like, “Put the dope out…”
Next thing I know the door flies open and there’s the state police with their guns drawn, and they’re looking for Iggy.
I really didn't know where went, so I said, "He left, sir, and I really don't know where he is," which was the truth.
So the cop goes, “You’re all under arrest until we find that guy!” I would’ve told them where he was at that point, but Iggy got caught anyway. He was in the trunk of a car, hiding. When he tried to make his escape by getting out of the trunk and going to get into another car, the cops got him.
Iggy was in jail overnight. I called up his father and his parents bailed him out the next day.
So his big dick didn’t always work on his favor.
One day in 1972 I got a call from Iggy, and it was perfect Iggy, 'cause he said, “Well we auditioned a hundred bass players and drummers and we can't find anybody good, so do you guys wanna come over to London and play on the new album?"
My first thought was, “Yeah, thanks a lot, asshole.”
I was pissed off for like five seconds, but, of course, I went, "Yeah, sure man, yeah, we wanna go to London…"
James Williamson and Iggy had been there for a while, they kinda hung out with T. Rex and they were partying—but when my brother, Scotty and I got there, we pretty much got down to business. I'm a night person, so Iggy said, "Well, when shall we rehearse?"
I went, “We should do it just like the Pretty Things song, midnight to six.”
So midnight to six in the morning, every night, we rehearsed. We were very regimented; we worked and practiced our butts off. I had a great time. It was mostly working, but occasionally I could slip away to the Imperial War Museum. I also went to this great restaurant, the Bagdad House, right there on Fulham Road. I met a girl who worked there who was there the night Jimi Hendrix died. She told this great Stones story about how she closed the bottom of the restaurant for the Stones and the Beatles—and she started doing it for us—closing the bottom of the restaurant. It was just cushions and low tables, and I’d sit there and get fucked up on free bottles of wine. She’d always say, “Oh, let me get you another bottle of wine!
It was really cool.
The first time I met David Bowie was the first day I arrived in London to work on the Raw Power album. Bowie was drunk, and he brought two Jamaican girls with identical, carrot-top David Bowie hairdos with him. They went down the basement to the kitchen, or the dining room area, and drank wine and stuff, and I didn't really participate a bunch with them.
Then Bowie got kinda disorientated in the house. I showed him the front door, and he grabbed my ass and kissed me.
I went to coldcock him, but then I thought, Huh? Whoa, it’s David Bowie!
So I didn't do it, but then he didn't really want to talk to us anymore.
When Bowie was rehearsing for his show at the Rainbow, we went to the rehearsal. We were watching these guys get ready for their first, big Spider from Mars show. So we were at the show and we'd gotten prime seats and he was playing, and the place was packed, and my brother and me were going, "Ah, we already seen this shit, let's go get a beer!"
We went to the bar, and there was Lou Reed. He was drunk and on pills, so he gave us each a Mandrax. The next day I got a phone call to come down to the Main Man office. Bowie’s manager Tony chewed me out for getting up in the middle of David’s show and walking out. He was furious.
I was like, “Fuck you, man. I mean every seat was full, and I just didn't wanna be there!”
But when we went over to London to work with Bowie, it was a good situation. It was all top-notch stuff. We had a muse house with four stories and a driver. Main Man, at that time, was just top notch.
I must say, Bowie helped Iggy every step of the way. I don’t know how many fucking times Bowie got him deals. If it wasn't for Bowie, Iggy would be dead. The only reason Iggy is playing music today is because of Bowie. I mean, Bowie admired Iggy—and in a way, he wanted to be like him.
When we were in England, working on the album, Vietnam was still going on, and I used to watch the news every night and they always used to say, “Search and destroy,” when they were referring to some mission in Vietnam. I thought that was really cool.
Iggy was always quick to pick up on stuff. He left the house and went to the hotel and came back with the song. James Williamson wrote the music and Iggy did the lyrics. Basically, James used standard Stooge stuff that I taught him. I gave him the Stooge style. He had more of a Stones-y, bluesy kind of sound, not the Stooge style. He wasn't a better guitar player, but he was just a little bit ahead of me. I gave him my fucking style and he ran with it, especially on “Search and Destroy.”
ANDY AND NICO
John Cale took us over to the Factory to meet Andy Warhol when we were in New York. We’d met him before, sorta. We’d played in this old, burned-out apartment building next to John Sinclair's building that we called the Castle. It was the MC5, Sam Sham and the Pharos, and Bob Seeger, and afterward there was a party at the Castle.
It was me, Dave Alexander, and my brother, Scotty. We were just sitting around talking and then we saw this weird-looking guy with silver hair and sunglasses and a leather jacket. He was just sitting there looking at us and he had a tape recorder and he was taping us. We didn't know he was taping us, so we got up and moved, but he was following us around, and my brother said, "Hope I don't have to hurt this guy."
We didn't know it was Andy Warhol, and that's the first time we ever saw him. We never talked to him, we just kept trying to avoid him and he was following us around everywhere with a tape recorder. Someone said later, "It’s good thing one of you guys didn't hit him or something man, 'cause that was Andy Warhol!”
The Factory was all tin foil, that's all I remember, it was all tin foil and kinda grungy. We hardly stayed at all, 'cause we were freaked out. We were just Midwestern kids, and it was way too weird for us.
Once we were at the Scene, one of the better clubs in New York City, and Jimi Hendrix came in. Iggy and I had a beer with Jimi, he was wearing the same outfit he wore on the “Are You Experienced?” album. Iggy was speeded out, ya know, so after we had a beer with Jimi, Iggy starts walking around with Nico.
I'm sitting at the table, snickering 'cause she's leading him around like her kid. Nico’s so tall and Iggy’s short and they're holding hands, it was real lovey-dovey. She wouldn’t let him out of her sight.
Then Iggy comes up to me and says, “Nico's coming to Ann Arbor!”
I was like, “Hey, well cool, we don't care...”
So Nico wound up actually coming to the Stooge Hall and living there for a few months. At first we hardly saw her at all. Iggy had a room in the attic and they stayed up there a bunch and the only time we saw her was when we practiced. We had a big rule that nobody was allowed in the practice room, so we resented her at first, but then she'd make these great curry dishes and just leave it on the table with really great, expensive bottles of wine. Like four or five expensive bottles of wine—and we finally broke down and let her come to our practices. That’s when we actually started to drink as a real part of our lifestyle, because of the great wine Nico turned us on to. So we all got to like her. I think she was kinda shy, and we all felt kinda weird about infringing on their thing.
Iggy never told me he loved Nico or anything. But he was like that, especially then. He’d find a girl, it would last a couple months or so, and then he'd move on to somebody else.
I remember after Nico left, Iggy came downstairs and goes, “Well, I think something’s wrong…”
I was always the kinda the guy that everyone went to for advice about health issues, even with David Bowie and Elton John. So Iggy comes down and says, "Well, something’s wrong, maybe you can tell me what this is?"
Then he whips out his cock and squeezes it and green goo comes out.
I go, "Buddy, you got the clap."
Nico gave Iggy his first dose of the clap.
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk Magazine, which is part of the reason you even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, pleasekillme.com. You should also follow him on Twitter - @Legs__McNeil
Previously - Dee Dee Ramone: Portait of a Punk