Ron Asheton- Stooges interview
Raw Power Stooges- James Williamson, Iggy Pop, Scott Asheton, Ron Asheton
by Jason Gross
What exactly do you say about the guy who lit up the music on some of the best records ever created? As much credit as Iggy Pop gets and deserves, compare his solo output to see how important the input of the rest of the Stooges were to his creation of great, timeless music. It wasn't just that Ron Asheton blared his six-string mercilessly all over their records but that he was also instrumental (so to speak) in shaping and firing up those songs, which have become standards for thousands of bands to come later, all as elemental and fiery as Jerry Lee or "Louie Louie" or later, the Sex Pistols.
The problem is that Iggy keeps his exploits well in the public eye but what about Ron? Since he was such an important part of the story, and thus a part of rock and roll history, a long interview with him seemed more than appropriate to find out how he saw the whole history of the band, its influence and his latest projects. So... in October 1998, I let the tape roll and got Ron to tell his side of the story, and what a story it is...
UPDATE: The Stooges did reunite in 2003, touring and putting out a new album (The Weirdness, 2007). On January 6, 2009 though, Asheton was found dead at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Special thanks to Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson, Dave Lang (who happened to write a great article on the Stooges for PSF) and Aaron Goldberg for their help.
PSF: Could you talk about Velvet Goldmine recordings that you recently did?
Don Fleming produced the music, which was the Stooge-ese segment with the Iggy character. Before that, he was in a band called Gumball, which I'd gone to see. Our drummer, Larry Steel, had been following Don, bugging him for a couple of years. So Don had a little free time and we got a deal together with Sympathy Records. He only had five days and then had to split so I had to mix it. This became the Dark Carnival CD. Sympathy, John Long Gone, doesn't do a damn thing about publicizing things though. He just ships boxes all over so we had to gear up our magazine stuff. It didn't really do too much but it was cool and that's how I hooked up with Don. Michael Stipe (producer) and Todd Haynes (director) knew that Don and Thurston Moore had done the music for Backbeat. "Hey, we got everybody, let's try to get a Stooge-ese guitar player." So Don says "why not just get Ron Asheton?" So everyone thought it was a great idea and got to go out there for the sessions.
That was the sort of catalyst that I need to get back into music. I've pursued it (before) but no one seemed to be interested in it- record companies and sending out tapes and stuff. It was like 'Shit man, everyone says I'm their favorite guitar player but I can't get no record company to give me a fuckin' deal.'
I tried though. I spend a lot of money and shipped out TONS of tapes. But due to this and all the great press, I was in New York to do press and everything else with Thurston and Mike Watt, who could only be there for a couple of days. We did photo sessions for magazines and I've done a number of other interviews. Everyone's been good 'cause they know about the Stooges and they're actually fans of the music. We had that Wild Rats record after the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. I liked playing with those guys so much that I kept bothering Jim Dunbar, who was sort of the go-between between the record company and us. "C'mon Jimbo, you got to get them to make a record with us!" Surprisingly, we did that (the soundtrack recording) in February and then in July, we did an actual record with the same people: Thurston, Steve Shelley, Mike Watt, myself and Sean Lennon. It was really fun. They're calling it the Wild Rats because that's the band we did the music for in Velvet Goldmine. It turned out well and it's good stuff. It's really Stooge-ese- if you like the Stooges, it's STOOGES 2000! I think I've got five original songs that I got to write and some Pretty Things covers and some jams that got worked in between cuts.
I've just been waiting for it to come out but I guess the plan is... movie, movie soundtrack (which we only have one song on), then we put this out. That's all the record company will say now. For the soundtrack, they have Brian Eno and a whole bunch of other people doing the English music. For the Iggy-type character, it was one tune ("TV Eye"), an original tune that I wrote for the picture. It turns out that the tune is used for a scene where the Iggy-type character is SO fucked up in the studio that he can't even sing. So here comes my moody beautiful song and it's in the scene and as the music builds, here's this guy totally fucked up. He can't sing the song at all. All the engineers and managers are saying "I'm done with this guy, he's a total fuck-up!" I'm going "OH NO! MY SONG!" I was hoping that it would make it onto the soundtrack album but in the movie it was used in a bad context. But fuck it, it was fun. I'm just hoping that the record will come out early next year ('99).
When I was there doing the Wild Rats, we talked about doing a tour with Thurston and Watt. Those guys wanna do it. It's just a matter of getting out schedules together and that's a pain in the ass. "Yeah, let's go out for six weeks" and then "let's go out for a month' and then 'maybe we could do a week." I think we really need a month to do this right. It's an interesting combination that jells together well. People would come out to see a group like that. They're all great players.
It's kind of along the line of Dark Carnival. Niagra and I had Destroy All Monsters, that broke up. Then I went into the MO-TION PIC-TURE business. They wanted to play so her husband would get together fairly well-known guys from Detroit to play. They got me aboard. About three times a year, we'd have ten different people. My brother played, I came up for a couple of gigs, Niagra would do most of the singing. Along that line, which I'm really excited about, is that kind of all-star review thing, to do with at least with Wild Rats. Even when I talk to Dennis Thompson, I tell him that's the way to go. Hopefully, what'll come from this Wild Rats record is that I'm going to get my own deal and then finally I'm going to get the chance to do all the music that I wanna do. And make my MUSICAL STATEMENT! (laughs)
Then after that, do the same thing. Dennis wants to play, my brother wants to play. Just put together something and go out and play. I miss it but it's also gotta be done right. I can't just go and play the stupid odd job. That's why I'm sick of playing here in Detroit. We go to New York, play Coney Island High and I wind up PAYING to play. You gotta have some product to back it up and do it right, otherwise I'll just sit home and write movie scripts. Financially, I'm not totally strapped so I don't have to be assistant night manager at the Burger King. I don't have to go out and play all the little shit jobs. "Gee, weren't you a star at one time?" "Not really but..." I already did that with Destroy All Monsters. We went up and down the Eastern sea board, a couple hundred bucks a night, if that. I was thinking "Fuck this, I'm crazy, what am I doing?"
PSF: Before you even picked up a guitar, what got you interested in music in the first place?
My great-aunt Ruthie and my great-uncle Dick-Dick were vaudillean performers. When I lived in Washington D.C. as a child, they lived in Virginia so we were near Chesapeake Bay. The whole family would get together in the summer and have big ol' clam bakes and get all sorts of crabs and oysters. Dick-Dick would always sit at the piano and she would play the accordion and violin along with a pair of trained parakeets. He'd play for me and be drinking his whiskey. While everyone was partying, I'd sit there and was just fascinated. Ruthie would come in and they'd put on a little show. It was just too cool to hear live music when you were five years old. She'd play the banjo and then she me gave her old violin, one of the old crummy ones. I started sawing away on it until my ma took it away from me and turned it into a planter. She asked me if I wanted to be involved in music. I said I wanted an accordion 'cause that's what Ruthie played so I started taking lessons. I went from a tiny one to a full sized accordion. I actually wound up doing recitals because my teacher was good and I was anxious to learn. So here's this little kid playing this huge accordion. I wasn't really rocking out but I was playing well for a year's worth of lessons. They had to parade me out for the music schools. I'd play in ensembles and as a soloist. I thought "wow, this is cool!" So I wanted to be TV star then instead of being a policeman or a fireman.
Also, my mother used to sing on the radio in Detroit when she was a teenager. So she always had lots of records and there was always music going on in the house. I just enjoyed music. That got me. I wanted to be in show business.
PSF: Yeah but you didn't go into vaudeville.
As time progressed, my dad's business took him to Iowa and I was taking guitar lessons. I didn't want to play accordion anymore- I actually started taking lessons when I was in D.C. I took lessons for a couple of years until we moved out here and then I lost interest. My dad was a flyer in the Marine Corps and he knew that there would come a time in my life when I would have to join the service. He flew in WWII and he inched me towards the military.
When I was about 14, I needed glasses so back then it meant that I couldn't fly. "Well, I have a friend who's a tank commander..." I was saying "NO, no, I don't wanna be in fuckin' tank..." All of a sudden, here comes the Beatles. "Wow, hey..." But I was still thinking about going into the military. But then he died and when he was gone and that influence was gone, I said "fuck the military." So the Beatles and then Stones just blew me away and I was totally into it. I never looked back. By 11th grade (1965), I quit and went to England with Dave Alexander. Dave had already quit school. He lived down the road from me and he loved the Beatles. We used to sit out on our front porch with my brother Scott, spit tobacco and talk about getting a band together. So when Dave said he was going to go, I said "YES, I gotta go!"
So I sold my motorcycle and amazingly, my mother let me go. I actually had a friend who lived there in Southport, five minute train ride from Liverpool. Of course, his family didn't know that we were coming. Dave and I just flew there, spent a few days in London, went out to Southport, got there at 10 at night and this guy's parents just totally flipped out. Here we are with Brian Jones haircuts, blue jeans, Beatle boots, leather jackets. They were very religious and conservative. They let us sleep there one night and took us to a Bed and Breakfast place the next day. It worked out for the best because we had freedom and we could do whatever we wanted.
PSF: So why did you and Dave go over there?
To meet the Beatles. (laughs) Also, we would go over there and see a total utopia where everything would be accessible. You would see rock stars walking on the road! That wasn't true of course. We got more aggravation than we did here in this sheltered college town, by Rockers and Mods. English people still had prejudices against that kind of look in '65 so we got a lot of flack. We were kinda shocked that "where's Ringo? We haven't seen him yet!" We got to Southport which was a little calmer but still got into trouble with some of the Rockers there- they'd kick your ass if you didn't run fast enough.
The whole thing was that we wanted to start a band. We thought that if we went there, we'd learn something. I can't believe I did it now. It was amazing to be 16 and to take a train to Liverpool to go to the Cavern. For one dollar in English money, we could go to afternoon sessions where five local bands would play. I'd never been around electric music so to go there and see all the cool electric guitars that we dreamed of having... they just had. We befriended some of these guys too. This guy Rob would take us around Liverpool and say 'here's where the Beatles lived.' That was going straight to the roots. We actually got to do it. We went there, saw music, saw these up and coming bands. One time, we went to a club for one pound for all-night and got to see the Move and the Who play. "My Generation" just broke out and Townshend was feeling pretty good so he broke his Rickenbacker on stage. Rob ran up there and got me a little piece of it, a little splinter. That was so cool.
We went back to London because we were really broke at that time. We had just enough money to go home. But that's what changed everything. From then on, we saw everything totally differently, to have that total freedom to see that scene. Here's all these local guys, they have their funky little mini-vans and they're making music- THAT'S WHAT WE WANNA DO! It was VERY hard to go back to school, which I did do. But that's what kicked off the whole thing.
PSF: After you came back to the States, how did the Stooges eventually get together?
When I came back, Dave and I decided that we'd get my brother and we'd start a band. We just started plugging away but we realized that when we played by ourselves and turned off the record player, we didn't sound very good. "We're getting really good, let's try it without the record." About ten seconds in, there was really nothing. Basically, we met Iggy as we were casual nodding acquaintances. I had the long hair- I was the first one to get kicked outta school. He was in a band that actually played called the Iguanas. "Holy shit, look at this guy with the leather vest, corduroy pants, turtleneck and Beatle boots. Man, that's not what kids wear to school."
So Dave, Scotty and me would hang out every day and we'd go to Discount Records. Iggy wound up working there. He was in charge of the rock and roll music so he'd always have the best music. "We're getting in the first Stones album but not too many 'cause they don't want me to have them here." We used to be able to go into the store and they'd play the records for you so that's where kids hung out.
A friend of mine auditioned for a band called the Prime Movers where Iggy was now playing blues. So, I'm going "No way! You can't even play." By that time, I COULD play- not very well but... This kid couldn't even play. I went up there and said "he got the job just 'cause he looks like Ringo?" So they auditioned me and I jammed with them. They made me sing and ran me through some things. They said "you have an interesting voice." I think what won me the audition was that I could sing "The Girl From Impanima." I got to sing "Not Fade Away" too to show my range. But they were older, in their mid-twenties, and I was 17. They were really accomplished musicians- they really played well. They were as good as the Butterfield Blues Band. So they found someone in their age range who could really sing. There was that fateful night when I showed up to practice- "We gotta talk to you... you're fired." But I was still using their equipment man and they'd let me jam sometimes.
Iggy was still working at Discount Records so he called me up and said "there's this guy here named Scott Richardson who plays in a band called the Chosen Few. They do the Stones and all the stuff that you like." I talked to Scott that afternoon and got the job. I spent a year playing all the teen clubs, pretending I was Brian Jones. We were way into the Stones and we dressed that way. But when those guys graduated from high school, their parents said "forget this bullshit, you're going to be a lawyer." So mostly it was just Scott and me. Scott found a new back-up band. I was torn between Iggy quitting the blues and saying "let's start a band" or Scott saying "I got money and this great set-up." So I would either go back to playing covers with a good bar band that was paying (later becoming SRC) or going with my true buds, my brother and Iggy.
So that was the beginning of the Stooges. I turned Scott down and we just hammering from there. We rented a band house and just started. The first step in being a band is living together. That's what we believed. This was about '67, '68 'cause we got signed in '69 and this happened pretty fast. Summer of '67, we got a sublet where Iggy worked as a waiter in a restaurant and I worked in a head-shop to pay the rent. That was the beginning.
Then after we left there, we rehearsed here in my mother's basement or Dave Alexander's parents' basement. Of course, this was when the parents where gone 'cause at 5 o'clock, they'd be saying "you're going insane!" We were making sounds that to them, they would have called the mental institution to pick us up or something. "My son is making that horrendous noise! Do you hear that?" My mother would come home and we'd just be blasting. She's flick the switch to the basement light like a strobe light. She's had a stressful day at the office and she comes home to WRRRRRANGG, BEEEEP, ZZZZZZZ. I could tell that she was looking like "is there something wrong with your equipment?" We'd say "yeah, wasn't that cool!" Imagine what they thought.
See Part 2 (of 4) of the Asheton interview
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