Ron Asheton

Revisits the fun house
Revisits the fun house

what more must be said about the Stooges and guitarist Ron Asheton’s role in crafting the molten landscapes of their albums, The Stooges (1969), Funhouse (1970), and Raw Power (1973)? Twenty-five years before “grunge” became an industry buzzword, the original Stooges – Asheton and his brother, Scott (drums), the late Dave Alexander (bass) and Iggy Pop (vocals) – rewrote rock’s rules of order by blurring the lines between noise and expression.

In the early ’60s and late ’70s, the Stooges’ Michigan stomping grounds of Ann Arbor and Detroit forged the epicenter of a scene whose sustained intensity has rarely been matched. In that time, the Stooges and peers like the MC5, Rationals, SRC, and the Up, drew on blues, free jazz, and R&B to meld their own defiant personas.

The Stooges’ creative differences lay in its approach, as shown by their earliest gigs in 1967, where Ron might play bass through a fuzz pedal, with Scott hammering oil drums with mallets, and Iggy amplifying a vacuum cleaner through a contact mic.

Such willful fearlessness made the Stooges immune to trends and drove them to ever-dizzying heights. Where classics like “No Fun” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” used droning, repetitive rhythms and terse, incisive lyrics to implosive effect in The Stooges’ guitar/bass/drums trinity, Funhouse‘s atomic rifferama blew off the hinges with a highly charged in-studio rawness, and Raw Power‘s trebly, overdriven paranoia (“Search And Destroy,” “Gimme Danger”) confounded all prior expectations.

Asheton’s deft guitar led the way throughout. Deceptive simplicity has always been his most enduring trademark, such as the stark single-note volleys on The Stooges “1969” (“Another year for me and you/Another year of nothin’ to do”), “Dirt”‘s march to a corrosive climax on Funhouse, or treating his bass like another rhythm guitar on Raw Power.

Not everyone understood the band, not even ex-Velvet Underground bassist/viola player John Cale, whose initial lack of production rapport ignited a literal sitdown strike during the Stooges’ creation.

“We were used to playing on 10, and he’s saying, ‘No, that’s not the way it’s done!'” recalls Asheton. “When we finally got down to compromising, I think I had the amp on nine. We actually did go in and sit down, saying, ‘We’re not playin’, we gotta do it our way!’ So that was the compromise – nine.”

But compromise adds zeroes to paychecks; despite initial excitement among their Midwestern stronghold, Elektra Records dropped the band in ’71, even after hearing the boys play material for a projected third album. The band dissolved that year, amid a creeping heroin problem that left Ron as the sole non-addicted Stooge.

Inevitably, the nonstop intensity onstage could not be contained off of it; Alexander died, aged 27, from complications of pneumonia, and five years of heavy drinking. Later that year, a drug overdose claimed roadie and sometime bassist Zeke Zettner.

A regrouping with guitarist James Williamson in ’72 pushed Ron onto the bass, and they recorded Raw Power, which began Iggy’s longtime alliance with David Bowie. But a linkup with Bowie’s management company, MainMan, soured after the Stooges were confined to the occasional gig, while Bowie crisscrossed the U.S. to eternal fame and fortune.

MainMan cut the Stooges loose in mid ’73, leaving their final months to grind down in a blur of three-month gigs, with the occasional week-long layoff, culminating in the notorious Metallic KO double album, taped at Detroit’s Michigan Palace on February 9, 1974.

Amid Iggy’s taunts ( “Ya almost killed me, but you missed again. See you next time”), and audible crunching of bottles, cans, and cigarette lighters pelting the Stooges’ equipment, Metallic KO contained a brutal audio verite still unmatched in this age of seamlessly-doctored live albums.

Shortly afterward, Iggy called Ron to say he could not continue, ending what had long been one of rock’s most exhilarating and exhausting rides. The world has needed two decades to catch up, and while Asheton has long stopped reading rock magazines, he has little doubt where the Stooges stand.

“Thurston Moore said when he couldn’t play guitar, he’d put on the Stooges, and play along with the songs. All these guys [like him] came through the ranks as Stooges fans,” said Asheton.

But Asheton had more pressing matters on his mind in the summer of ’67 or ’68, when “…the Stooges needed money for a summer sublet apartment” – and he sold a Martin guitar he’d owned since age nine.

“My first electric was a brand new Telecaster because [Yardbirds guitarist] Jeff Beck was playing a Telecaster,” he said. “I wound up not keeping it, because it was too clean. I was looking for a more dirty sound.” He pauses to deliver the punchline, “Because the distortion hides your lack of prowess and technique.”

Asheton then bought a Gibson Melody Maker from Dave Alexander, when he started playing bass – it still wasn’t dirty enough.

“I just found better fuzzboxes, like the Fuzz Face; I had the Jimi Hendrix ambition.”

Hendrix and his debut, Are You Experienced?, had an atomic impact on Asheton’s sensibilities, especially after he caught the late guitarist in ’67 at Ann Arbor’s Fifth Dimension club.

“That’s when I’m goin’, ‘I gotta learn about feedback!'” said Asheton. “He had the Marshall 100-watt, but it had a bad speaker, and it was rattling. He’d just hit the speaker cabinet. His roadie came out, and actually said, ‘No, stop bashing it. We need it for a dozen more shows!'”

The Stratocaster soon became Asheton’s main guitar, but as fate would have it, a Gibson Flying V he bought from SRC guitarist Gary Quackenbush (“for $200”) grabbed center stage on The Stooges.

“I used it for all the songs except ‘Little Doll,’ ‘Not Right,’ and ‘Real Cool Time,’ where I really got back into the Stratocaster,” said Asheton. “We’d recorded, and they [Elektra] thought, ‘Oh, well, it’s not enough material.’ So I sat in the hotel room, at the Chelsea [in New York], came up with the music, Iggy bashed out the lyrics, and we [recorded the three songs] in one hour.”

Asheton’s finest Stratocaster – a ’57 Strat with a maple neck – ended up as the proverbial “one that got away,” into the hands of Dan Erlewine, guitarist in the Prime Movers, a pre-Stooges blues band for whom Ron played bass.

“That guitar now is worth $25,000,” said Asheton. “The only consolation I had was the Stooges needed some money – and we’re not gonna get a job! He’s [Erlewine] still got it, and he knows what he’s got.”

By ’69, Asheton had nearly a dozen Strats, which came from Manny’s Music, in Chicago, for $150 each. He liked them for their ruggedness, as one Stooges gig proved.

“At the end, we’d do this little freeform feedback jam [immortalized on side two of Funhouse as “L.A. Blues”], I’d throw the guitar up in the air, turn my head, and grab it before it hit the ground,” he said. “But I remember one big pop festival – we’d partied hardy the night before. I’d never had Southern Comfort before – and haven’t since – but we had to play this big show in the Flint area, and I tried my little gag, ‘Ah, no, I’m not gonna catch it!’ And I was too weak, and I just watched it go, bam! And I think the E string was [still] in tune.”

The Stratocaster remains one of Asheton’s primary guitars today (“..because of the whammy bar, and that good, clean sound it gets with wah-wah, that biting, hurts-your-ears sound”), but he also owns three Guild X79s (“It had the good pickups, and it just barked“), a Gibson SG Junior, and a 1969 Gibson Les Paul, which has “great sustain – but if you’ve got it on for a couple hours, it gets heavy on your shoulder,” he said.

“I’ve also got a late-’60s, three-pickup Epiphone, like the one Fred Smith played in the MC5,” adds Asheton. “Not as nice as that, because whoever owned it before sanded off all the paint and rounded out the body shape. It still sounds good, but doesn’t have proper edges.”

Asheton boasted an equally Herculean bass setup in the Raw Power era, which is evident on existing live tapes, no matter how poorly-recorded; his runs just slice through the haze, particularly on such driving, unrecorded nuggets as “Head On,” or “Open Up And Bleed.”

That style came down to the influence of Asheton’s favorite bassists (The Who’s John Entwistle, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman): “My brother said, ‘We never had a bass player that played off the bass drum pedal! Man, that’s so cool!’ ‘Huh? What’d I do?'”

Asheton’s early bass-playing days in the Prime Movers and the Chosen Few (“…a teen cover band that dressed like the Stones”), grounded the Stooges in a way few fans realized.

“Well, Iggy was originally a blues drummer, and thought he was gonna be a bluesman. After school, I’d hit the practice room with him, so he’d learn the double shuffle, like [drummer] Sam Lay [of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band] could play – not many people could play the double shuffle. There’s a great blues influence in the Stooges.”

Primary basses included a Gibson EB-3, on which he recorded Raw Power, and an Epiphone with three pickups, “Which was stolen at the airport,” said Asheton. “I could get that really tinny sound on ‘Raw Power,’ that trebly, abrasive, tinny sound.”

For bass amps, Asheton relied on Sunn 2000s.

“It was a bigger improvement of the old Sunn 200s I had, and that was a mighty setup,” he said. “At times, I would get to use doubles [stacks] for awhile, and when you’re standing behind that, it rattles your chest, really shakes your innards up.”

Asheton satisfied his guitar amp needs with the Vox Super Beatle (“Because the Beatles and the Stones had it”), until the Stooges supported Cream at Detroit’s famed Grande Ballroom.

“They were in front of these giant triple Marshall stacks – it was the funniest picture to see this dinky [Super Beatle] stuff! So after that, it was, ‘gotta get… ‘”

Marshall 100-watt amps were mandatory to cut through the often-sludgy sound of that era’s arenas and coliseums, Asheton points out. In time, he crafted a double or triple stack, “Where they take 200-watt heads, and they’d use a 50-watt head as a preamp – so I had the big sound,” he said. “If I may use the overused word – it’s awesome.”

“Now, you can sound big with a Pignose [amp],” he notes, because live sound is drastically improved over the Stooges era – when amps went without mics, PA systems were basically for vocals, “…and there weren’t a lot of monitors, maybe the singer would get one,” said Asheton.

Asheton now uses several amps, including a 100-watt 4 X 12 Marshall with a slant cabinet, and two 50-watt heads. He’s also excited by his 30 and 80-watt 4 X 12 Naylor amps, for different reasons.

“It has everything a Marshall has, but more clean on the high end. You can distort it, and still get a pure sound.”

For practice he prefers a Honeytone and the ubiquitous Pignose.

For effects, Asheton stands by an Ibanez box with a 60-watt chorus, tube screamer, and compressor.

“I’ve still got the standard DOD distortion pedals, Boss pedals, flangers, the distortion box, and the graphic equalizer,” he said. “I collect those like candy boxes. They’re more expensive now – in the old days, I used to get Vox wah-wah pedals for $35. Now they seem to go for as much as $200.”

Asheton uses Ernie Ball Slinky strings (.046 to .009, .038 to .010 for his Strats), and Fender medium picks.

“I started out using Fender heavy picks, because [MC5 guitarist] Wayne Kramer (VG, December ’98) used Fender heavy, and I’m goin’, ‘Man, that’s too stiff.’ I went to thins for a short time – there’s nothing there, you don’t feel anything.”

While much of his Stooge style came from distortion and volume, Asheton also got plenty of mileage from other tricks.

“I use the old three-finger [barre chords] – you can have the whole space, and cover the two adjacent strings, and get your finger up for a ninth [chord].”

His advice to young players is straightforward as his setup.

“You can see the vast improvement from the first record to just a year or less, into Funhouse,” said Asheton. “We learned our trade by going out and playing live. Something I used to do is play along with the TV. I learned a lot doing that. If we weren’t playing music, we were listening to it.”

When Asheton wasn’t gigging, he’d see shows and watch other guitarists’ hands, which made Hendrix’s Ann Arbor debut such an important personal experience, he notes: “Don’t be ashamed to ask another guitar player, ‘Well, how’d you do that?’ A lot of people have too much pride.”

To make the Stooges’ instrumental trios sound bigger, “I started out liking drones, like the open-neck on ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog,'” said Asheton. “It’s not a barre [chord]. You make a three-fingered chord, and keep that first E chord droning; that gives you that mysterious, ‘what’s going on there?’ sound. Same thing with ‘TV Eye’ – you keep that A string droning, it gives you a bigger sound.”

Asheton lifted the idea from sitar players like Ravi Shankar, “…because they keep that drone going, while he’s picking all those notes.” His other influences included blues guitarists Albert and B.B. King, to whom he was introduced in the Prime Movers, along with Jimi Hendrix.

Jeff Beck earns equal admiration, because “…he’s good at picking proper holes in a piece of music – that’s one thing I like about myself,” said Asheton. “I know where to put the little lines.”

Asheton cites the Stooges” “We Will Fall,” a 10-minute slow-burner whose lack of drums does not compromise its intensity. In it, Iggy chants “goodbye” near the fadeout, dogged by subtle wah-wah shadings.
“Most people don’t like that song, but I knew where to put in the little licks.”

After the Stooges imploded, Asheton joined ex-bassist Jimmy Recca and MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson for an album (1976) with the ill-fated New Order. He reunited with Thompson and ex-Radio Birdman guitarist Deniz Tek – as The New Race – for an ’81 Australian album and tour.

Dark Carnival, Asheton’s major outlet since ’85, is on indefinite hiatus; singer Niagara has focused on her artwork, while drummer L.J. Steele had been splitting time between his own band, The Impossibles, and working as a grip for commercials and movies.

“It’s hard to have a band when your drummer lives in Atlanta and he’s making a really good living,” jokes Asheton.

Asheton himself has written four movie scripts, harking back to a discipline that captured him long before rock and roll became his calling.

Asheton’s contributions to Todd Haynes’ glam-rock blowout Velvet Goldmine yielded what he regards as his most satisfying musical experience yet – teaming up with Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm, ex-Minutemen/Firehose bassist Mike Watt, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, and drummer Steve Shelley, as the Wylde Rattz.

The unlikely quintet knocked out a “pretty mighty version” of the Stooges’ “TV Eye,” off Funhouse, and Asheton’s “My Unclean,” of which only 30 seconds is heard (“… where the Curt Wilde character is too stoned in the studio”) Asheton reports.

The results proved so stunning the lineup reconvened, minus Arm, at the old Hit Factory (now called Sear’s Sound) in New York City – where the late John Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy, was cut. Lennon’s son, Sean, played keyboards.

“I got to sing a couple songs and Thurston sang three songs. Sean came and did some electronics,” said Asheton. “We do a great cover of ‘Funhouse’ – we used this great jazz saxophone player. We actually used 52 reels of tape and jammed for three hours.”

Velvet Goldmine musical coordinator Jim Dunbar, who got Asheton involved in the soundtrack, wants the Wylde Rattz to tour Japan, where the tapes could win release as an import. Till then, the players are awaiting the fallout of the Warner Entertainment buyout of London Records, for whom the original tapes were cut; if nothing else, a Wylde Rattz tour is in next year’s cards.

For Asheton’s money, the Wylde Rattz will probably be the closest to a Stooges reunion, which the ever-mercurial Pop apparently contemplated in 1996.

Scott broached the subject during several trips to New York, where “he hung out with Iggy for a few days, and they actually jammed,” said Ron. “My brother says, ‘Well, how about it?” and Iggy’s demeanor totally changed: ‘My management thinks it would be detrimental to my career.'”

The subject has not recurred since, all blurbs to the contrary.

“A couple of days before Halloween ’96, Iggy called and said Rick Rubin would like to do a record with the original members,” said Asheton. “Iggy’s thought was, ‘Gee, that’s a way to go around, and not do a tour’. I’m going, ‘Gee, it sounds great to me,’ He says, ‘Yeah, but I’m booked solid for ’97.’ As soon as he said that, I knew he was entertaining the thought, but it wasn’t gonna happen.”

Nor, it seems, will anything come of former Creem writer Ben Edmonds’ recent trawl through the Stooges’ original master tapes, which were actually shipped from New York City in preparation for a potential rarities album.

“He [Edmonds] found some jam thing that had never been put on vinyl, and some interesting alternate takes,” said Asheton. “We were gonna go in and produce it together, but Elektra backed out…got cold feet about spending the money.”

Such news doesn’t imply a wealth of Stooges outtakes awaiting excavation. Most of the unheard nuggets have surfaced on scratchy live bootlegs hailing mainly from the Raw Power era, and its outtakes, or “…20 versions of the same 10 songs” Asheton is tired of seeing bootlegged.

Instead, Rhino Entertainment jumped into the breach with a CD compilation of the three Stooges albums, and some new Iggy Pop material – bypassing novelties like the fully-extended, fuzz-laden fadeout of “Ann,” from The Stooges, “…which was a song in our original act,” said Asheton. “We wanted to keep it in, [because] we liked that piece of music. Stooge fans would have enjoyed something they’d never heard before.

“We did three to four takes on every tune, and they’re all there – because when we played, we’d always do something different. I’m hoping some day that [original concept] will happen, or at least I’ll get to listen to it.”

Asheton’s thoughts these days turn away from his past. His long-awaited solo album, to be produced by Fleming, will still happen. And when it does, the results should be outstanding, because there’s nothing digital in Fleming’s purely analog studio, said Asheton. “You got the really good sounds and the $50,000 German mics.” He’s also playing on a record for singer/guitarist Dara Albro’s new band.

All this buzz of activity is a lifetime away from Asheton’s only job, when he was “…baggin’ nails in a shack half the size of [his living] room,” he said. “This guy saw my motorcycle, ran out and said, ‘Get that hippie out of there!’ Fired me after 20 minutes on the job. Never look back.”

Photos: Leni Sinclair.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.