Whenever folks talk about the Stooges, the first name mentioned is Iggy Pop, and not without reason -- the man was and is arguably the greatest front man in rock and roll, and a spectacle that refuses to be ignored even today. But the real sonic foundation of the first two Stooges albums, The Stooges and Fun House, belongs to guitarist Ron Asheton, who created a sound that fully equaled Iggy's vision. His primal guitar runs, howling like a glorious scream from the collective id that suggested two decades of teenage angst and delinquent cool given voice through a Fender Stratocaster and a Marshall amp, added bone and muscle mass to the moody blast of Iggy's vocals. Asheton created a sound that easily matched rock's most unshackled singer for sheer explosive impact and mutant soul. Iggy has made records with plenty of worthwhile musicians over the years, but listen to Fun House and it's clear that Asheton is the only guitarist who was truly Iggy's equal and not just an accompanist.
The Stooges were a band ahead of its time, and for many musicians that can be a thankless chore. It took rock and roll a few decades to catch up with what Ron Asheton was doing with the Stooges, but if fate was cruel in claiming his life at the age of 60 -- he was found dead in his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Tuesday, January 6, 2009 -- in his last years he finally began receiving the recognition and reward that he clearly deserved, touring the world with the reunited Stooges and receiving rapturous approval from fans at every stop.
Born in Washington D.C. on July 17, 1948, Ron Asheton spent most of his childhood in Ann Arbor and became a major rock and roll fan in his teens. Asheton and his friend Dave Alexander were big on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Pretty Things, and in 1965 they dropped out of high school so they could travel to England and check out the scene first hand. When Asheton returned to Michigan, he decided to form a band of his own, and did time with a handful of Ann Arbor area groups, including the Dirty Shames, the Chosen Few, and the Prime Movers. Asheton was playing bass for the Movers when he made friends with their drummer, an energetic kid named Jim Osterberg, and in 1967, after Osterberg returned from a sojourn in Chicago (where he claims he took lessons from legendary blues drummer Sam Lay, though Lay contends otherwise), they decided to form a band. Asheton would play guitar, Dave Alexander would play bass, Osterberg would sing, and Ron's brother Scott Asheton would play drums. Osterberg adopted Iggy Pop as a stage name (partly acknowledging his stint in another local band, the Iguanas), and the quartet coined the moniker the Psychedelic Stooges. The rest, of course, is history.
However, while the Stooges would prove to be massively influential in the years to come, the band was regarded as little more than a freak show during their 1967 to 1973 life span. At a time when the vogue among "rock artists" was to buff off their rough edges and adopt a more sophisticated approach, the Stooges were reveling in the power of rock's primitive instincts. The Stooges did not want to compose a rock opera, perform with a symphony orchestra or "get back to the land" they wanted to be the loudest and wildest band on Earth, and their willingness to confront the audience (both in terms of music and Iggy's performing style) polarized the few who heard them during their heyday. A small handful of fans embraced them as something brilliant and ground breaking, as Asheton's guitar ripped through the melodies and Iggy's antics burned their eyes, but most others fled in terror, and the band's descent into drug-addled sloppiness after they were introduced to heroin during the recording of Fun House hardly helped. (Ron Asheton was the only Stooge to avoid heroin addiction, but that didn't slow the band's downward slide much, especially after he moved from guitar to bass shortly before the recording of Raw Power.)
After the Stooges finally fell apart in 1974, Asheton put together a group called the New Order (no relation to the post-Joy Division act from the UK) which also included late-period Stooges associates Scott Thurston and Jimmy Recca as well as MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson, but the band generated little interest, and after touring Australia in 1981 with the intentionally short-lived New Race -- which featured Asheton and Thompson paired with Deniz Tek and Rob Younger of Radio Birdman, the Southern Hemisphere's most devoted Stooges fans -- Asheton's work was primarily devoted to Michigan-based acts such as Destroy All Monsters, Dark Carnival, and Empty Set. Asheton also did a bit of acting in low-budget horror movies (most notably "Mosquito," which occasionally pops up on the Sci-Fi Channel and also features members of the God Bullies and the Demolition Doll Rods in the cast) and helped local bands in the studio, but for the most part the man whose guitar work made The Stooges and Fun House into underground touchstones was pretty much ignored, except by a tiny cult which appreciated the precise chaos of his playing.
Thankfully, a few members of that cult started becoming famous. A new breed of noisy guitar wranglers who clearly worshiped at the altar of Fun House joined the hipster pantheon in the 1980's and 90's -- Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney, and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana were just a few of the players who had clearly learned a trick or two from the thick, heavy throb of Asheton's leads, and they weren't shy about citing him as an influence (or covering old Stooges songs on stage). Just as Iggy Pop finally found a context in which his onstage persona made sense with the rise of punk, the onslaught of noise rock, grunge and "heavy alternative" gave birth to a new musical universe where Asheton's complex simplicity seemed to fit right in. In 1998, when Thurston Moore and Mark Arm were hired to record some Stooges-like music for Todd Haynes' film "Velvet Goldmine," they logically concluded that Ron Asheton would be the ideal lead guitar player for their ad hoc band the Wylde Rattz, and Asheton expertly recreated his manic fretwork on "T.V. Eye" for the soundtrack album. (A full Wylde Rattz album was recorded, but legal woes have prevented its release.) In 2001, Asheton teamed up with Powertrane, a powerful Ann Arbor rock band fronted by former Rational and Sonic's Rendezvous Band singer/guitarist Scott Morgan, for a show that also featured Deniz Tek; the gig led to two other concerts and a short tour which were manna from heaven for fans of Michigan-style rock, and each night Asheton closed out the show with vivid recreations of classic Stooges tunes. (One of those shows was recorded for an excellent live disc, Ann Arbor Revival Meeting.) And in 2002, J. Mascis brought Asheton along for a European tour; eventually Scott Asheton signed on too, and the band of semi-Stooges received rapturous reviews in the British press.
Iggy Pop took notice of this sudden revival of interest in the Stooges, and when he was lining up guest stars for his 2003 album Skull Ring, he proposed the idea of reuniting the Stooges for a few cuts. Pop's record company was enthusiastic, and Ron and Scott Asheton recorded four new songs with Iggy for the album, with Ron handling both guitar and bass. The organizers of the annual Coachella Festival made the Stooges an tempting offer to play the event that year, and on April 27, 2003, Iggy, Ron Asheton and Scott Asheton took the stage (with bassist Mike Watt standing in for the late Dave Alexander) and played a set that amazed the crowd in attendance. The Coachella set was intended to be a one-off reunion, but it wasn't long before the Stooges once again became a going concern; within a few months, they were headlining shows in the United States and playing major festivals around the world, and in 2007 they released an album of new material, The Weirdness. If the world wasn't ready for the Stooges in 1967, they seemed up to speed with them in 2007, and though the group played with an ferocious energy that would tax men half their age and Asheton's guitar work was every bit as strong as it had been in his youth, there was something moving and almost sweet about witnessing the revived band in concert, especially in Michigan -- after decades of being rejected and ignored, the Stooges were finally welcomed as the pioneering heroes they truly were, and they were obviously grateful and delighted to be on stage, especially Ron. The band stayed busy through much of 2008, playing 28 shows between May and September, and two festival dates had already been announced for the group in 2009 before Asheton's passing was discovered.
The scuttlebutt among fans had been that the Stooges were planning another studio album and a few more rounds of touring in support over the next few years, and it's impossible to say what if any future the group has now -- the concept of the Stooges without Ron Asheton seems inconceivable. But while this great band may have come to an sudden and unexpected end, the Stooges' second act reconfirmed what was important about the band and their music, and Ron Asheton's return to the spotlight not only affirmed his vital importance in the pantheon of rock and roll, but gave him the chance to enjoy the acclaim (and a few decent paychecks) that long should have been his due as one of the best and most powerful guitarists of his generation. Just this once, the nice guy didn't finish last.