Like everyone in the protopunk musical community, I'm saddened by this week's reports of Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton's passing: my heart goes out to his family, band cohorts and friends at this most difficult time.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ron on several occasions between 1993 and 2000 for a major GOLDMINE retrospective ("Night Of The DumDum Boys: Revisiting The Stooges": March 1995), and profiles that appeared in VINTAGE GUITAR ("And The Compromise Was Nine: Ron Asheton Revisits The Funhouse": January 2000), and GUITAR PLAYER.
I also interviewed Ron for his impressions of the MC5 ("Edge Of The Switchblade: To Hell And Back With The MC5": DISCoveries, December 1995), and the year of 1974, among other related projects. We always had a good time whenever we talked.
In any band, there's always somebody who takes on the historian's role: Ron definitely fit that to a "T". I never ceased to be amazed by his crystal-clear recall of so many pivotal events in his life from 30-odd years ago. Normally, when you write articles, people's memories tend to get hazy, and they begin pulling the truth like taffy, until it's unrecognizable.
Suffice to say, I never had that problem with Ron, whose input made my GOLDMINE article one of the most rewarding exercises I've ever had as a journalist -- especially since reliable information about the band was so hard to come by, and many of the shopworn legends were already being recycled with a reckless disregard for the folks who created the music.
Throughout all our conversations, Ron was gracious, unpretentious, and accessible -- although, as I'd discover, that last quality could have its limits.
Once, I remember Ron saying, "Hey, I got a call from the Mayor's Office today."
"What on earth for?" I asked.
It turned out that a group of French fans had sent Ron a package, care of Ann Arbor City Hall -- "because they said that they'd know how to find me!" he said, laughing.
Stooges fans could be a dedicated lot It wasn't the last time that I'd find out -- hence, the deep and breathy answering machine message left for the unwary freak caller who'd somehow stumbled onto Ron's number: "Yes...you have reached the Asheton residence...please...leave...a... message!"
My introduction to the Stooges came through FUNHOUSE (1970), during my first year of college. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for what barreled down my headphones, because this record came from such a different place than whatever I'd heard before.
I liked it, and wanted more, which put me in the minority aching to resurrect the band from its nether status. Don't forget, this was the '80s, when bigtime rock 'n' roll was busily hardening its collective arteries well past the point of return or redemption.
Calling yourself a Stooges fan gave other people a license to stare at you funny, or voice their disgust when they'd ask you to yank the record off...and, of course, the visceral fury of Ron's guitar was a big part of that equation. Punk rock's DNA would have been hell of a lot poorer, and more monochromatic, without his imprint.
Still, I take issue with those who've filed Ron neatly away under the category of "Mongolian barre chorder" -- can you think of three albums (THE STOOGES, FUNHOUSE, RAW POWER) that sound so totally different from one another? I rest my case.
The same goes for Ron's later projects, which are unfairly overlooked, but equally essential to understanding his playing style. My favorite non-Stooge moment would have to be his solo on "November 22, 1963" from the New Race live album (THE FIRST & THE LAST) -- right on the heels of that command, "Hit me, Ron!" If you don't get goosebumps after hearing it, well -- I can't fix that!
Of course, a lot of people trying to emulate the Stooge style missed the point, too, something that bemused -- and amused -- Ron to no end.
One time, I remember him telling me about getting a tape from some Kansas disciples who worked at a meatpacking plant, and wanted his seal of approval. "Well, how was it?" I asked.
"Oh, it was Godawful," Ron laughed. "But I didn't really want to tell 'em...they kept on calling and calling here for a few more months, and then they finally gave up."
As Ron himself pointed out, all sorts of music went into the Stooge blender: don't forget, this was a band that began its career by playing avante garde music on homemade instruments.
And that's before we even mention the likes of Ravi Shankar, and John Coltrane, as well as blues players like Albert and B.B. King, to whom Ron was introduced in his pre-Stooges Prime Movers days. As Ron told me for the VINTAGE GUITAR piece, "There's a great blues influence in the Stooges."
This eclecticism is an apt object lesson in an era when so much pressure is exerted to make everything look, sound and feel alike. The Stooges were always men out of time, which is the ultimate tribute, to me: nothing sounded like them at the time, and nothing does now.
Of course, nothing came easily in the Stooges, and I'm not surprised that it's taken three decades to assimilate their sound into popular culture. The biggest objection to the Stooges has always focused on their lyrical and musical simplicity-- which is like visiting a Chinese restaurant, asking why there aren't any hamburgers on the menu.
Given that dynamic, I'm equally unsurprised that the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame failed to embrace the Stooges during Ron's lifetime. Even so, I feel that the people's will matters a hell of a lot more than all these colorless, faceless "suits" who miss the boat without a whiff of shame or embarrassment.
The proof came in the reactions to the 2003 reunion. I was glad to see that Ron, Scott and Iggy finally got some recognition for all the blood and sweat they put into making that music leap, snarl and pounce to eat all comers -- "Search And Destroy," indeed!
Regardless of the ups and downs, Ron never gave up, and managed to keep his wicked sense of humor intact ("Hey, man, I don't read rock mags, I read GUN mags!") -- two qualities, in my mind, that are as important as the guitar playing that turned rock 'n' roll upside down for good.
The world is already a poorer place without Ron's wit and wisdom, but we'll have the energy and strength of his music to sustain us for the long run. For that alone, he deserves our thanks...and will always have my vote.