Thinking about Ron Asheton

So I said I would get to this at some point, and here we are. As Fun House plays, and the herky-jerk slash of “Down in the Street” rides along the groove, chopping deep and snarling up, a perfect compressed howl.

There’s a lot I can’t say, because I don’t have the knowledge or the sense of it, the feeling of either being there or of feeling it afterwards when it seemed like nobody else in the world but a few random freaks knew about it. Mike Watt was one of the latter, of course — this piece by him at the LA Times in memory of Asheton gives the details. If you read his tour diaries with the Stooges over the past year — here and here — you get a sense of what it was like, playing bass with personal heroes, at once dedicated and professional and yet happily amazed at his good fortune.

He said this in a mass e-mail yesterday:

friends,

I’m thinking of ron asheton, a beautiful
man who I learned from much and shared many
joys w/and always played my heart out for
him. he was a pioneer w/a guitar sound all
his own and was very very kind to me…
“you’re a good sailor” he would always say. I
can’t find the words to really put it right
here but he was truly a righteous brother,
much deep respect. I miss him so so much.

big big love from watt

I’ve read comments from fellow journalists who interviewed him, other musicians, people who just had the chance to talk to him, and the refrain is common and constant — one of the good ones. One of the truly good ones, and more on that later.

As for me? It all began like this:

Back in 1987 or so I saw some of the various repeats of The Young Ones on MTV, including the episode featuring this performance by the Damned. I filed away the name and soon thereafter had purchased my first CD player. The local record store in Coronado had a copy of a two disc overview of the band’s career up to then, The Light At the End of the Tunnel, and I duly picked it up. The lead off song — which I discovered later was titled differently than the original version, “1970” — was a cover of some act called the Stooges, called “I Feel Alright.” They did it back in 1977 for their debut album Damned Damned Damned and while I can’t find that recording online immediately, here’s a live version on YouTube from the mid-nineties, one of several:

Loud, celebratory, thrashy — good fun, I liked it.

In late 1988, soon after starting my undergraduate days, I went and saw a Robert Plant show (very good it was too) with Joan Jett opening. Good performance by her and the crowd dug it, and I remember one song in particular besides more familiar ones, a really strong performance of something that had the chorus “Now I wanna be your dog.” Turned out it was on her album from that year but since I first heard her do it live, you should too. There’s a few clips out there as well, try this one:

I talked to one of my coworkers a few days later, both of us student workers at the library at UCLA we worked at, and mentioned the song. “Oh yeah,” he said — Jon Edmundson by name, last chatted a few years back, hope you’re good! — “that’s a song by the Stooges.”

“Hmm, I know that name.”

A few months after that I picked up the CD version of the final Stooges album Raw Power and liked it well enough — ‘Bowie mixed this? Okay then. Hmm.’ — and started hearing more about the Stooges and all these other bands, so it seemed — the Velvet Underground, the MC5 and so forth. I was also figuring out more about punk bands in general, and discovered that the Sex Pistols had done a song called “No Fun,” which I later found out was a Stooges cover. They ended their sole American tour — well, at the time, at least — with it:

Then a few months after that I picked up the still underrated junk culture classic by Pop Will Eat Itself, This is the Day…This is the Hour…This is This!, with the band and, notably, producer Flood creating something that might be the only English equivalent to Paul’s Boutique released that same year. The lead single was “Defcon One” and at a certain point it sunk into me that I knew one of the riffs from somewhere, the one that played behind the “Watchman…we love you all!” chorus. It was from that song about wanting to be your dog, or at least, it was that riff. Listen in, you’ll hear it:

And somewhere along the line I finally ended up with the first two Stooges albums, the self-titled debut from 1969 and Fun House from the following year, and I played them.

A lot of things made perfect sense after that point.

I’ve argued for a long time that one of the most important things about bands like, say, Joy Division or Bauhaus or the like is that when they started, they didn’t do so consciously thinking, “Oh yeah, let’s invent goth rock.” They just took their inspirations and created something that ended up being listened to and ripped off and studied and tagged in retrospect as something else. And this of course applies to any number of artists in any number of fields, music’s just one, but it’s the one I enjoy the most and enjoyed thinking about the most.

And so with the Stooges and those others who got lumped into proto-punk or whatever fake genre name you want to give it. There’s plenty out there to pick from, those genre names — just grab whatever it is you want that makes the most sense to you. They weren’t out to invent that, they were just out to make music, make it good and make it loud. They’d ended up with a major label offer almost by accident, thanks to the right place/right time luck of being buds with the MC5 when that band had its stint on Elektra, and they recorded those two albums I mentioned and they bombed and went out of print and that was that. When Raw Power surfaced a few years later the guitarist was someone else and Ron Asheton was playing bass and then things fell apart again and then there’s this whole tangle of bands and groups and performers and one-offs and then there’s eventually this reunion and all that.

But there were those two albums, and Ron Asheton was playing guitar on them, and they were exquisitely recorded for all the basic lyrical sentiments of the songs and their blunt power musically, and Iggy’s howl and moan were fierce as hell, of course, but that Dave Alexander/Scott Asheton rhythm section sure knew what it was doing — tight beats without apology, a sense that dance never fully left them even at their most trancelike and zoned. And…that…guitar.

That guitar.

Over on the Idolator report on Asheton’s passing, my friend Nate Patrin had this to say:

Dude sits right between Eddie Hazel and Deniz Tek in my list of the greatest guitarists that people underrecognize. And his work on Fun House is fucking godhead; combine that, the first two Sabbath albums and the first two Funkadelic albums and I’m ready to declare 1970 the year guitars went Sam Peckinpah.

Listening as I am right now to the messy sprawl of “LA Blues,” the apocalyptic mess that concludes Fun House, this sounds about right. There’s blood and heat on the album cover, why not in the music? All the distortion sounds like something being ripped apart, Iggy’s animalistic grunts adding to the effect.

But if this was all it was — well, it’d still be impressive as hell. (The amount of acts that pretty much just used this arrhythmic masterpiece as a template kinda can’t be counted, and that’s just ONE song on an album where I think every other song on it has been covered countless times.) But would people be as prone to covering songs from it or the previous album, or the one after that, if it wasn’t for the fact that Asheton was an absolute god at simplicity being a virtue, of knowing the power of an almighty hook and how it can be played, twisted around, tweaked, but never fully let go, just powering down and in and never letting go? (And if you think that’s somehow a limiting or a bad thing, consider James Brown at his many peaks as just one instance of how that principle can produce endless rewards. And the Stooges knew their James Brown and much more besides.)

Fetishizing either virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake or simplicity for simplicity’s sake are roads I’m not entirely interested in walking down, when middle roads exist all along the way. Ron Asheton found that spot so perfectly it’s almost easy to miss, but it’s understandable — again, if the songs he helped create and shape weren’t so immediate at their core, then they wouldn’t have had the reach that they’ve had all this time, a subcultural growth that eventually became a common standard, something that was just part of what was out there to pick and choose from.

So wherein the distinct characteristics of Ron Asheton’s work, and why the appeal beyond that knack for a great hook? For a lack of a better term, richness — the sense of depth, of impact, that there’s infinite details in the thick, crunching sound. For songs that ‘just’ had three chords, it felt like there was something endlessly intimate in the way they were recorded, that you were in the center of something overwhelming. It wasn’t that Asheton was the only guitarist so blessed with that knack, or that the Stooges were the only band. But this was theirs, and there’s something so perfect about their blend — something that drew on what had already come before them but found new connections — that it became something else.

Ron Asheton didn’t set out to invent punk or protopunk or metal or hardcore or anything else that followed that has its roots in whole or in part from the work he did and the sounds he made. It was rock action he wanted to create, and he created it with the help of everyone in the band, and if you need further proof, once again, “TV Eye”:

Or if you like, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”:

Or “1970”:

Or “No Fun”:

And just marvel at that sound, and there are other examples I could pick. I could put all the songs from those first two albums up, or all the live clips or…

Or, well, I could link this page, a series of tributes and testimonials, and quote this bit in particular from MC5 veteran Michael Davis:

Ron was the Christopher Columbus of rock ‘n’ roll. He knew there was a new world out there and from Day 1 when he was a teenager, he knew that was what he wanted to do. That was his calling, his mission in life. … Ron didn’t have a musical background playing in bar bands and that sort of rootsy stuff — he taught himself everything….It turned out to be something that was completely unique. It was a breakaway from the traditional way of playing guitar. He had a great sense of rhythm and harmonics. The whole thing always sounded good. That’s the bottom line — if something sounds good, it is good.

I haven’t said anything about The Weirdness, the band’s reunion album from the other year, since, well, I haven’t heard it. I’m not against reunions per se, but some of them just don’t feel like they should be necessary, and in a way I felt this about the Stooges. But that was referring to recorded work — live? Well, I missed those shows and now, of course, I’ll never have the chance — the fault there’s mine, can’t cry over spilt milk, I’ve done that plenty now over the years. (I still can’t believe I never took the chance to see Grant McLennan, in the Go-Betweens or solo.) But among the many stories I heard, I like this one from friend Chris:

Saw The Stooges at the Matt Groening-curated ATP Long Beach in 2003 when the reunion was still in its infancy and the audience didn’t really know what was going to happen. An 70min-long jaw-dropping “hooollleeeeyyyyysssshhhhhiiiitttt!” that still imprinted in my memory as fresh as it was walking over the bridge back to my car afterward. I can’t think of many guitarists that in their 50s still pile a mound of Marshall stacks on stage and go like that.

Last year I got to chat to Groening briefly following the premiere of the first Futurama movie and I asked him if he would ever consider curating another one. This quickly dissolved into a utter fan boy raving about how fucking great the Stooges were.

There’s plenty more like that out there, all expressing something between shock, amazement and joy at how great the Stooges were, for all the various tours going on over the past few years. In combination with this was a sense of satisfaction, that all the surviving bandmembers from the original lineup — less so Iggy, simply because of his solo fame — were finally getting the full recognition so long deserved in a tangible way: crowds, monetary reward, touring all over the place to high demand. Praise and respect is one thing but getting something back out of it all is another, and on that front the Stooges ended up luckier than most.

There’s something else too.

I mentioned earlier that sense that he was ‘one of the good ones,’ and I mean that sincerely, if in his case at an obvious remove. I never met him and could not speak to a true personal encounter, but so many people have mentioned, in private talk and in public stories, just how warm and friendly he was, how approachable — an honestly good guy. I’ve spoken before about the dangers of confusing those whose music you admire with always being nice people — politeness is not always warmth.

In an interview a few years back (quoted near the end of the article), Asheton said this:

“When I was a young guy coming up, going to the Grande Ballroom every weekend, I got to see my heroes play. Jeff Beck, the Who, everyone. I didn’t want to be a fanboy, but I’d stand there and wait — ‘I just want to say hi, this was great.’ I saw them walk by me with blank stares like they were zombies. I said to myself, you know, if I ever make it, I’ve got at least one minute for everybody who wants to say something. So I talk to people, and that’s what’s exciting now.”

I think this sense of generosity, in however brief the encounter, might have something to do with being from Michigan. Strange to say, perhaps, but I’ll say this — I’ve known many natives of the state over the years, including a number of musicians. There’s all sorts of stereotypes about being from the Midwest one can invoke, I’ve encountered a few and probably dished a few out as descriptions. But there’s a core of people in particular from that state I know who really are good people as much as they are good musicians, or good other things in life — you’d want them in your corner and you know they would be if you needed it. Is it the location, or is it something else, an ethos in the air? Perhaps both, perhaps more — it’s always dangerous to oversimplify — and yet I can’t but sense it clearly.

I’ll end with another link and a quote, the man’s own words — from an extensive interview done for Arthur in 2003 which Jay Babcock relinked up in tribute on the day of Asheton’s passing. In talking about one of his intriguing side careers — that of horror movie actor — he concluded a discussion of a potential project with what Jay rightly said was a great last line:

Q: What would your character be?
RA: I would once again be what I always play: a goofy, wacky something-or-other. It’s a small principal part, because pretty much the focus of the movie is on the three main bad guys, and then the younger people that all get offed. [laughs] In this one, I’m the loser musician…who [in mock sentimental voice] turns out to be a hero in the end.

No need, now, to say it with any self-mockery.

RIP and thanks. Rest well.

2 Responses to “Thinking about Ron Asheton”

  1. Maya Rasheed Says:

    Wow. this looks interesting but I dont understand. This is very good. You have made a very impressive site so far. I look forward to reading and learning more.

  2. Mark Reed Says:

    But,…. THE WEIRDNESS! Get it. Aside from the occasionally so-simple-it’s-just-dumb lyic, it’s awesome.


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