Ron Asheton- Stooges interview, Pt 2
by Jason Gross
PSF: Even though you were talking about the Beatles, it sounds like what you were doing wasn't like that at all. How did that sound come about with the band?
We wanted to do something totally original. I liked the idea, and Iggy did, what Pete Townshend was talking about with rock operas. I loved "Happy Jack." So I'm going "yes, we have to write some kind of rock opera." And we actually started. Iggy then was playing Farfisa keyboards and he'd come up with little vignettes. He wasn't a player, he couldn't play at all. He could play enough though and being a percussionist, he would play more percussive patterns. DIN-DIN... DIN-DIN... DIN-DIN. It would be in a key and I would have the bass with a fuzz and wah pedal and try to make some melody line or some other musical patterns over it. Mostly because we didn't know how to play. And that was the beauty of it. We wanted to do something original.
I could play bass because I could play all those Stones, Beatles, Yardbirds, popular stuff. We'd play teen centers. We were the Teen Heartbeats, looked like the Stones. "Oh those Stones are a nasty lot. Take that bubblegum out of your mouth!" That kind of crap. But I knew how to play all those songs on the bass but not really on guitar. We wanted to do something VERY different.
So that was the start. We just wanted to experiment. We used to listen to Harry Partch, lots of Ravi Shankar. Shankar would be on all day. We also liked to listen to the Mothers of Invention so (you had) a little comedy in there! I also admired Frank Zappa, a really under-rated guitar player.
Any kind of strange music. Any electronic stuff. Also, I loved the Tibetan monks playing those great big horns. The big gongs and tambourines and the horns going RRRRRRRRRRRRR. And Gregorian chants. Iggy had a record of that and he loved it. "OK, let's see, we take Harry Partch, Buddhist music, Gregorian chants and try to throw in a little Stones and a little Beatles and see what happens." And then add our madness and our own inexpertise. When you don't know what to play, you're not restricted by a style. So many people are TAUGHT to play a certain way. When you have that free mind, ignorance IS bliss and you come up with some really interesting stuff.
The guy who was the manager of the Chosen Few was our manager before we got a record deal. He went to the Monterey Pop Festival and he came back with a Jimi Hendrix record. He woke me up when he got back. "I got this album you won't believe." He had these fat joints so we got stoned and he put it on. We wouldn't give him the record back for three days. "Alright, now we got another..." So that was the start and basically, we just plugged away.
PSF: That sounds a lot different from what you hear on the first Stooges record. How did the music change to get to that point?
Of course we knew we had to play. We wanted to play. It was just using all of this. Nowadays, if someone heard what we did back them, it would be like "wow, that's amazing! What accomplished musicians! How did they ever come up with that?" We knew that we wanted to get a record deal, get in the mainstream and get out there and play. We went on to take that stuff as far out as it could go and then put a little structure to it. We took it down into what eventually became riffs like "Little Doll" and stuff like that. So we said "we're going to have a three piece here, our sets are usually about 18 minutes to a half hour, we're going to do this section of music and then move on to this..." So the songs slowly evolved. They became more structured rather than just going out there flat out and just being pure energy.
Then what really kicked it off was when Danny Fields saw us play at the Michigan Union Ballroom with the MC5. They'd gotten signed and we were lucky that we played at the Grande (Ballroom) at least twice a month. We actually learned to play on stage. The noise and high-energy jams became a little more structured. Danny saw us, went to Elektra records and said "sign them guys, sight-unseen." One of those guys came to a big party to sign the MC5 and they agreed to sign us also.
At that point, we were still jamming. Our set was still "18 minutes to a half-hour." So he (the Eletrka guy) says "you guys do have an album's worth of songs, right?" "Oh yeah, sure we do! We like John Coltrane and stuff- we're just making some sort of statement." So I got to basically sitting down and saying "OK, let's get a little structure in this, man." And I just started writing riffs like "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "1969," "Real Cool Time," "Not Right," "Little Doll." Then Iggy and myself working on structuring that into song formats. Amazingly, we knew we had a record deal so the screws were on. All of a sudden, "we have tunes."
PSF: Did you think there was any kind of kinship between the MC5 and the Stooges?
As a matter of fact, the first time the Grande Ballroom was opened was with the Chosen Few, which I was in and the headliner was the MC5. I actually struck up the first note ever at the Grande. We were doing all that great Stones stuff. They had this great EP (Got Live If You Want It) with "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," "Pain In My Heart" and "Route 66." That was our BIG opener! So I first met them there. "Wow, these guys are cool!"
Then as the Stooges got together, the MC5 were always playing also. So we got to do a bunch of shows together. I always admired them because I loved the big sound. They had the Marshall stacks. It was never like competition. We played with them a million times. In those days, bands rooted for the other guys where today, it's just like... big corporations. "FUCK THEM, THEY SUCK." No one's really friendly or anything. Back then, everyone was really supportive of each other. So the joke back then was "yeah, our little brother band, the Stooges." But, as even Dennis Thompson will tell you, Kramer and Smith used to think Dave Alexander and myself were lousy players. They liked Iggy and they thought my brother wasn't bad but behind our backs, they used to put us down.
Once we got going, we never played with them again. We were always friends but then they went their way and they had their big fall. Eventually, we did also.
PSF: Do you think what they were doing musically had any impact on what you were doing?
No, other than liking the big sound. I liked them for the high energy. They were a great band. If you appreciate that music now, imagine how it was to see them live. They were at their peak and I was a big fan. But as far as emulating them, we really didn't do it. The only common thing was the energy and sound of the guitars, which we enjoyed. Nowadays, it's standard. Back then, a lot of people didn't play with Marshalls on 10. "What'd mean I gotta turn it to 8? It's gotta be on TEN!" Even when we did the recording sessions, we had Marshall stacks and they said we couldn't play on 10. The compromise was something like eight and a half.
So that was the only common thread. I would learn things by watching them. "How do they do that Chuck Berry, regular rock and roll thing?" So I learned a lot of things that I thought were more complicated. I always watch guitar players' fingers. I learned from them, being around the dressing room. They were pretty accomplished musicians for way back then when we really weren't. Our thing was a little more spookier, I don't want to say Doors-y but I guess we're semi-equated with that. They had a lot of great tunes and they were original but I think that we were more original. I think that we never tried to emulate them but just hanging around, I learned stuff from them.
PSF: How were the Stooges seen by other bands, audiences and writers at that time?
A joke. Clown band. A novelty act. "Those guys can't play." Iggy's antics, a lot of the focal point was on that. "That Iggy sure is crazy. What's he gonna do now?" That kind of stuff. People were friendly, bands were a little bit more friendly but I think we were always kind of a little looked down on. We weren't as good. There were a lot of great musicians out there who weren't doing anything because they didn't have anything original or the breaks perhaps or the balls to follow through. But we actually learned to play. By the time that we got up to the second record, we learned how to play that quickly by being on the road all the time. We learned our trade by being on stage.
PSF: What did you think of Iggy's antics onstage? Did that add anything to the music?
It was a part of it. I used to laugh so hard that I'd think "Oh, I'm playing." I'd be so wrapped up in seeing what was going on. "Oh shit, I forget. I'm playing." What's great is muscle memory- when you play long enough, you're hands'll just do it without thinking. "Wait a minute, where am I in this tune?" I'm looking at my hands, saying "Please! You know what to do!" and they'd go right to it. But I'd just be watching (Iggy) and just cracking up.
It got to be a little dangerous. "Oh my God- a mike stand's just missing my head." At first, I was terrified where I'd have to keep my wits about me when the laughter started to subside. "I could get hurt here." When someone's swinging a mike stand by the end of it and the base of it is a pretty heafty chunk of metal and WHOA, it just missed your head by an inch, (in a parent's voice) "somebody can get hurt up here..."
The audience was always "we're so cool, we don't react." You get them to participate and then uh-oh, they're participating too much. LIT CIGARETTE BUTTS! The two things that terrified me the most were lit cigarette butts landing in your hair and coins. When they got into throwing coins... A well-thrown coin, when it hits you, it feels like you've been shot. I've been hit with a quarter in my face on its rim and it just split my forehead. When they started tossing shit like full beer cans, that's when I'm going "you know, Iggy antics are now becoming an endangerment to my life."
PSF: Did you think it was a little too much for you?
No, it was up to him and I'm not going to tell anybody what to do. He totally refined. He got to the point where once we became more accomplished on our instruments, he got smarter and he used it. He used more of his own sexual gyrations and whatever and using the stage and using his athletic ability. It was more of a stage show without having to go into the audience all the time and starting trouble. He would still go in, he'd have to go in every now and then. But he lessened that and that was cooler.
The precedent had been set and now that he wasn't totally going in there all the time, they wanted it. "Hey we got access to you now, dude." So when they start becoming him, WHOH, all the little things he did to them like climbing in their faces and doing the swan dives off the stage, I used to laugh so hard. This sounds weird but he used to do the swan dive and the crowd knew. "When's he gonna dive?" In the beginning, they were surprised- they'd either be flattened by him or they'd catch him. The next thing was "When he dives, MOVE!" I've seen a huge crowd and he starts his run and by the time he hits the area, it's completely vacant- he'd swan dive into folding chairs and no one's there. I was laughing so fucking hard, man. I was going "Oh dude, they got your number." It was awesome. That's when he starting refining his stage act because they got his number and then they thought "Uh oh, it's funny."
When he first started going in there (the audience), most people weren't angry. It was hard to get anyone angry. They were scared, shocked or like "huh?" It was a snake, they were mesmerized. Then they enjoyed the participation. A lot of people would beg "Come over here!" When they started participating, (they'd think) "OK, he's going on the floor tonight!" People would purposefully save their beers to dump all over him. He'd be laying all over the chairs all fucked up and the kids would be throwing beers at him. To me, that's what really cracked me up and that's when he really started refining it. He got 'em goin'!
They expected it and even towards the very end of the Stooges, all that fun and games turned violent. It all got REAL ugly and dangerous. And that for me was like "Shit, do I get myself one of those riot helmets and flack vest when I'm going out to play?" It's terrible to go out and play when you're on the road for months at a time when it's not fun anymore and you don't have that much of a good time and you also feel endangered. The lit cig butts, the coins, the beer bottles. "Oh fuck, man." I always had to keep my eyes open and keep my head down. I hated that.
PSF: But you did go through with that for a number of years. You could have split.
Hey, it's the band, man. You don't quit in combat. Just because your band's on the point, because you're in combat, you can't bug out on your buddies. It was literally war that we staged to the bitter end. Most times, it was Iggy (who) had completely mentally and physically ruined himself, exhausted by work and burned out by heavy drug use. I couldn't have done what he did. I was surprised that he's even alive with all the shit that he's done to himself.
PSF: Did you find that it was kinda hard to capture what the Stooges were doing live onto a record?
Yeah... because the music was real simple, I think it was in a way. In the beginning, the important part was to see the Stooges live. I think it made a pretty good transition. I think we did a pretty good job with the limited capabilities that we had. I'd never been in a recording studio and I knew that Iggy had only been in a recording studio a few times. The Iguanas made a couple of 45's. I don't think Iggy had much of a handle on the studio. But I think we did a pretty good job and that's why we wound up with John Cale, because that was his first job working (as a producer).
PSF: What kind of effect did he have on the first album?
He made it much easier. Anyone else would have been like "Huhhhhh? What?" Being that he had been in the Velvet Underground and had become a staff producer, that was his first job for Elektra. That's why he was chosen. "You can handle this shiiiiit! Look at all the CRAP that you did- you handle this, this is a bunch of shit!" So they were thinking "Oh god, what are we going to doing with them? SOMEHOW we'll get SOMETHING out of these crazy guys..." They had some faith in us. Lord knows that we made Elektra Records millions of dollars on those two albums while we made pennies.
PSF: Do you think that the first record fairly captured the band at that time?
I do. I'm happy with it. When I first heard it, I was VERY happy. The thing I didn't like was the compromise to clean up the guitars. I used a Flying V (guitar) on every song except "Real Cool Time," "Not Right" and "Little Doll." Also "We Will Fall," but that doesn't count. I used that Flying V and (on record) it's kind of clean- the way they treated the guitars and bass... we were really much more raucous than that. I think "Real Cool Time," "Not Right" and "Little Doll" were played much closer to the way we played than the other songs. All in all, I'm going "gee, the guitars aren't loud enough. They took away the balls from all of it."
But we were just happy to have a record. Of course as it was back then, the vocals are always bigger than everything. Something even Iggy was good about then, "Well, I don't want the vocals to be bigger than the whole band." He was right. It's the sound and he's not being proud or anything. Why should his voice be singled out, even though what he's saying and the way he's singing is interesting. But all in all, not a bad effort. Even today, somebody will still come up to me today and say "I love that first Stooges album, it's like poppy and it isn't but I love these songs." It still holds the test of time. When I listen to it, it brings back good memories.
See Part 3 (of 4) of the Asheton interview
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