Ron Asheton Says Pay Attention

The Core Belief

The headline on the Detroit News website screamed out the information that made me wish I had stayed in bed today.  The ancillary stories of the morning and afternoon were the same, trouble in the Middle East, more screw ups from the incoming Obama administration as to cabinet appointments and my hometown going down the economic toilet. 

That was simply the usual.  Why would I pay attention to any stories that could be found anywhere else in the world’s papers or other media outlets?  This headline, however, made me sick to my stomach:

Stooges Guitarist Ron Asheton Dead At 60.

Asheton was what Bob Dylan called a ‘secret hero’ in the liner notes to his Biograph boxed set in 1985.  Although happy to see his obituary so prominently displayed by our hometown newspaper, it was nasty knock and a truly rotten way to start the day.

Ron Asheton, his brother Scott, Dave Alexander and Jim Osterberg, a singer who went by the name of Iggy Pop, formed the Stooges in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the mid 1960’s.  Although they had no idea of how to play their instruments at first, their stage show became legendary in the metro Detroit area.  Over the course of a career that spanned 8 years, the Stooges, along with the Velvet Underground and MC5, invented what is now known as punk rock.

However, unlike the 5 and the Velvets, the Stooges weren’t poetic, art school graduates or high on the politics of the era. They were brute force put to music and Ron Asheton’s guitar was the main instrument with which they bludgeoned audiences into submission.  The vast sound of that guitar, reminiscent of the Detroit auto plants, was thrust into the sinuses of the listener by the taught Motown drumming of brother Scott and the whiplash bass of Alexander.  When Ron Asheton wore Nazi armbands on stage it seemed more like a statement of purpose rather than the act of a petulant adolescent.  You will bow down to my guitar.  You will not dissent or demure.  You will bow down.

The Stooges broke up in 1974 and the underground rock world did  bow down, although the mainstream of ‘70’s wimp rock would avoid the topic of Asheton and brethren in noise.  It would take until the late 1980’s for the music world to realize just how influential that Stooges guitar growl was, with ‘icons’ of college rock such as Thurston Moore, J Mascis, and Paul Leary singing Ron’s praises.

During the band’s hiatus, Alexander died, Iggy became a star and Scott and Ron became Detroit demi-gods.  Ron produced acts, played in Destroy All Monsters and became friends with one of his heroes Larry Fine of Three Stooges fame.  (He visited Fine weekly throughout the early ‘80’s while the curly haired Stooge was in a retirement home.)  Although interviewed frequently, Asheton said he despised Iggy Pop and there would never be a Stooges reunion.  Much of that changed when the first two Stooges records were re-issued in the mid’80’s.

I discovered the Stooges re-issues in High School and played them incessantly (along with the Velvet Underground) for my friends, who thought I was suffering from brain rot and made sure they told me so.  However, I didn’t care.  The music made me want to jump up and down, like all great rock should.  Plus, the more people it annoyed, the better.

It was once I was safely at NYU that I found other Stooges fans and we played all their songs in our bad college bands.  Frankly, they pre-dated the Ramones with their minimalist musical approach: six great chords, four great records.

In 2003, my college roommate Schwa and I went to see the re-formed Stooges play at Jones Beach.  I wanted to see if Ron Asheton had progressed any as a musician, he hadn’t.  However, his guitar playing and solos still commanded attention and respect, whether you wanted to give it or not.  Not even his bad guitar tech, who couldn’t seem to get one of the three guitars he used that night to achieve a volume greater than 5 when 11 was needed, could destroy that authority. 

Ever the iconoclast, Ron refused to speak more to Iggy Pop than was necessary and made sure the press knew this tour was only for the money.  I remember points during the concert when Iggy asked the audience what we thought of ‘his band.’  We would, of course, clap like crazy, but Ron Asheton always threw him the look of death.

Ron Asheton always looked like your uncle who had just retired form some blue-collar job and would always send you for more beer because he was too drunk to walk up to the fridge.  He was fat, with glasses and horribly unkempt hair, just your ordinary guy.  However, it was that guitar sound that always made you stand up and salute.  His playing reminded me of the chorus to Bob Seger’s 1978 tune ‘Feel Like a Number.’


                  I Feel Like a Number

                  I Feel Like a Number

                  I’m not a Number

                  Damnit, I’m a Man.

And that was his power, his gift.  He was one of us but made the world stand up and take notice through his totally unique guitar voice.

Rest in peace brother.

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