Vintage Q&A with the late Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton
Ron Asheton, the mega-influential guitarist with the Stooges, died yesterday at age 60 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's sad news, but at least Asheton was able to experience some much deserved acclaim in his last few years, when the surviving Stooges reunited for a new album, entitled The Weirdness, and a tour that brought the band to the Fillmore Auditorium for a satisfyingly twisted performance. Read a review of that April 2007 gig by clicking here.
I was fortunate enough to interview Asheton for a profile headlined "Pop Culture," and during our conversation, he seemed absolutely thrilled to have a chance to tell his story -- and he did so with honesty, humor and a profound appreciation for his second chance. The entire Q&A is accessible below. Enjoy it, and then crank up original salvos like The Stooges and Fun House in his honor.
Westword (Michael Roberts): The Stooges never sold a lot of albums, but you guys have been extremely influential. Did you have a sense of that when you were together originally? Or did it take a while for that to sink in?
Ron Asheton: I started realizing it when people started doing covers. Like Joan Jett did something. People started doing covers of our songs, and I went, like, "Gee, something must be happening." Because I've always played, and every band I was in, we'd always do a couple of Stooges songs. Just because it's me, and it's expected and I want to do it. But it was never the same. So yeah, it took a long time. When we were doing it, we really didn't think about it. We were playing, we were young, some of us were teenagers, just about to go out and have that teenage fun on the road. That excitement of fun, of travel, and you know those '60s times, with all the easy sex and picking up girls all the time. There was that party atmosphere. So at the time, we really didn't. We were just going about our lives and having a good time. So it was interesting when people started to look at it and say something.
WW: Was it frustrating for you that the recognition was so long in coming?
RA: Well, not really. A little bit, maybe, but not really. I wasn't very successful in my endeavors, but I kept on playing. I never got a regular job. I didn't have anybody to support, like my brother has a daughter. He had to go out and work, he had to go out and do stuff. But I didn't. I like talking about it because it was a part of my life that was important. But people truly did kind of care more about that than what I was doing afterwards. I got a big music book with all the record companies' addresses and all that. I must have spent $10,000, money that I saved, doing a recording and sending out my stuff, and I started with every label. I went from the top to the bottom, and I didn't even get rejection notices. Two called back with rejections -- a label called Lime Green Spider. I thought with maybe one of the low ones. And a record label called Slap a Ham. And I thought, if I can't get on Slap a Ham! But Slap a Ham didn't even want me.
WW: When did that happen?
RA: This was in the '90s, with Dark Carnival in the early '90s.
WW: You also were in Destroy All Monsters...
RA: We played for a long time. It's weird -- once again, this is really weird. Now that's getting looked at again. Because the Stooges started playing, I'm starting to hear about that music again. That's really interesting. Same thing. We were kind of in a weird time zone with Destroy All Monsters. When we went to England, especially, punk was kind of done. It wasn't the ska and reggae. Bands like Madness. Things were going to a different style. We just kept missing my time slot to make something happen. I was in it a long time, and that was my job, and I played for as little as $15 a night when I was playing. If I made $50 a night for playing, I was happy. That was big bread. And just getting along with being able to pay for the rent and cat food. Rent and cat food were the first most important things. Then comes alcohol and cigarettes. So it's cool to be out now and finally be able to go out and be able to do things the way you always wanted to do them.
WW: Another band you were involved with that I'd never heard of until doing research for this conversation was Wylde Ratttz. You guys made an album that never came out, right?
RA: I was so bummed. Don Fleming and Jim Dunbar were asked to put together some music for the Velvet Goldmine movie. And he always works with his same friends: Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, Mike Watt. And in the picture, they needed a Stooges-esque guitar player. And Don Fleming had just gotten finished recording our Dark Carnival record, so he goes, "Why not just get the real guy?" So I got to do it. Originally, we were only going to get to do two pieces of music. We got back together, we wound up doing a whole album's worth. We had Mark Arm to sing, and even Sean Lennon came. He played some guitar, but mostly, his pieces that he played, he'd do his electronic stuff. He'd get on the synthesizer. And it was music, and he'd play synthy stuff. I never thought it would be anything, and then London Records decided they were going to put all this out, make a record. I was like, "I really think this is going to get me going again. Finally something's going to happen. I'm working with some good people." But then London Records folded. It was bought out and shut down, and all the projects were shelved. Not just ours, but several others. So there we go again: whaaa, whaaa, whaaa! Bad luck for me again. We were only like a month or two away from it when they pulled the plug on London Records. I thought, how cool. That's what the Rolling Stones 45s came out on when I was buying them in the mid-'60s, on that old burgundy-and-silver label. I said, if they put out vinyl, it's got to be on burgundy and silver. But once again, skunked.
WW: Where's that music now?
RA: Some of it's on the Internet. I know Jim Dunbar had a tape, and apparently he put some on the Internet, because people have said they've been hearing it. So I just have my probably a pretty crummy burning of a CD. I'm afraid to play it now, because if it skips out or screw up, I don't have anything. But I think if you go on the Internet, I've heard there's a couple of songs. It's weird; it's a gray zone. They spent a deal of money, and everyone doesn't care, so I was hoping somehow we could take it over and put it out. But there's still some legal crap. So you know how things go. Can't you give me a break? Jeez...
WW: You had quite a run of bad luck...
RA: Yeah, but I do really enjoy the work now. Everything has really turned around. This is really the best time. The past is the past, and we did what we did, and it was cool. But now is the really fun time, when the songs are accepted and the crowds are great. We just got home yesterday from South By Southwest, and on to L.A. to do that Yahoo Nissan music thing. That'll be out on April 1 on the Internet.
WW: Is it strange for all this to be happening so long after you broke up?
RA: Well, you know, there were two breakups. There's the breakup between what I consider the Stooges, and then there was the Raw Power breakup. It was Iggy's contract. We weren't signed, Iggy had the management, Iggy had the record contract. We were really hired by the management company. I signed a contract just as an employee of the management company. It wasn't a band situation. Iggy treated us fine, like we were band guys, of course. But in reality, we were just hired employees by the management company to back Iggy up. And that had a dismal ending, with losing management like three times, and winding up with a booking agent that put us on the road insanely and all the time. Every show we could possibly play. We were really playing and traveling seven days a week, and it just burned everyone right out -- especially Iggy, who has to go out there and be Iggy every night. After that, he said, "I'm mentally and physically exhausted." I thought maybe something would happen, but he wound up taking his time to get his head back together, and he ended up going solo. And in that time, I think I saw him twice. I saw him once in 1980, when he played a club called Bookie's in Detroit. That was a smaller venue, he was on an American tour. And the next year, I saw him at the State Theatre, which was bigger -- like a 3,500 seat theater. But I didn't go backstage. My brother did. And I only talked to him on the phone during that 25 years or so twice. He happened to call me up after he got back from the Raw Power remix party. He wanted to talk to somebody so he could stay awake, because he was catching an airplane to visit his father at 4 a.m., and he didn't want to fall asleep. And I didn't really have any contact with him. My brother saw him. My brother would continually call his manager and try to get at least a reunion thing going, which, you know, reunion things, one-off things, are kind of stupid, and Iggy wasn't really into it. And I really didn't get any calls again until he called me up to do what ended up being his CD Skull Ring, and he asked if my brother and I would be interested in working on that. And that was the beginning of this.
WW: I thought I read something about Rick Rubin being interested in a reunion album before Skull Ring...
RA: No, it started, I think, this way. Rick Rubin is doing an interview for some magazine, or whatever. And they asked him, "What would be the kookiest project that you might want to do?" And he mentioned, "I might like to produce the Stooges." Well, nothing was said. We weren't together. We were still years from getting together. He didn't want to do a reunion, but he thought we could do a recording. So I guess Iggy ran into him at an airport or something, or a party, and mentioned it. But nothing really became of it. But when we played the first show ever as the Stooges, at Coachella, he was there with the Chili Peppers, and so Iggy, we're standing by the trailor and Rick Rubin is there with Anthony of the Chili Peppers. And Iggy said to Rick, "You mentioned in an article before, and you said in passing, that you would like to produce the Stooges. Would you be interested?" And he said, "It'd have to be the best work you've ever done." And I'm like, "Duh. That's what we'd want it to be." So he took Iggy's number and he also took my phone number -- he never called me, of course. And over the years, when we were writing songs -- we kept writing songs when we had time off -- we'd send him little cassette tapes that were made in a teeny practice room with little amps and a toy drum set, just to have the material. But it never came to be. He's busy and he's very expensive. I would have made nothing. So it's either Rick Rubin makes the money and I get something, or we go someplace else.
WW: Some articles make it seem as if there was bad blood between you and Iggy, but you say that's not the case. So where does that came from?
RA: People sometimes make things severe to make things more interesting, and they like making trouble. Sometimes the truth is too nice. My feeling about the reunion was, Iggy's got his solo career, and he's happy with it. He's doing well, and as I've spoken to him now, he goes, "Yeah, back then, it was easy. I just had to worry about me." He was separate from his band. No one ever interviewed his band. And when you saw any kind of video, it was rare that the band would be on it, or any live things. The camera mostly just stayed on him. He enjoyed the solo thing. He said for him, it was easy. "The recordings are already done. I just have to go in a couple of days, do a couple of tracks. Less involvement." And I just thought he'd be happy with that. I know he did say something about he didn't want to hook up with us because of the bad connotations of the past -- that we might bring up more drug stuff, even though nobody was doing any drugs. And for that reason only, I just thought he was happy in his place.
WW: Was there any tension between you guys because of the book Please Kill Me? Because you guys seemed to be brutually honest in there.
RA: There's nothing weird between us. People always try to bring up this supposed feud between Iggy and myself, but there was never anything. I've said with people, with him sitting right next to me in interviews in France, that I was never jealous, and I don't like that word, because it has bad connotations. I was perhaps envious that he was having success, because I wasn't having much success doing what I was doing. I was maintaining, but I really wasn't getting the right group of people to play. It was a good band, good people. But there was never anything really weird about that. People just like to think that, or they enjoy to think that. Like it's really cool if you're feuding. It looks good in the press. People like scandal, they like dirt. And like I said, I never talked to him because first off, I didn't know how to get ahold of him. I called his manager a few times. I found out his number from somebody, just to find out if he could help me. But I never asked for Iggy's phone number. But my brother kept in better contact with Iggy, and he actually went to New York and jammed with Iggy. Scotty played the drums, Iggy played guitar, and they rented a little room and talked about it. It was my brother's idea to try to do a twentieth anniversary reunion, play a few shows across the United States. Because first of all, we didn't have any money. We were kind of broke. But once again, he didn't want to do it. Now, I understand, now that we're back together, he doesn't like reunion tours, because they're stupid, and you're just doing that, and that's the end of it. So he passed on it at the time. I know my brother didn't understand the reason why, but I figured, he's busy. Now I truly understand the reasons why, and he was correct.
WW: So when it came time to make Skull Ring, he just called you out of the blue?
RA: He called out of the blue. I'd been playing... something cool happened to me. Mike Watt called me when he was playing with J Mascis and the Fog. So Mike Watt was in the Fog, and they were playing a local club here, the best rock place in town, and they were doing Stooges songs, a couple of Stooges songs in their set. And Mike was wondering if "you could come down and jam some Stooges songs with the band." And I was like, "Absolutely." So I went and played with J, and I had such a great time. They had a day off the next day, so my girlfriend threw a party for them. She went out and got some stuff and we had them over. And I mentioned to J, "I'd love to do this again sometime." Next thing I know, I'm going to South By Southwest, he's taking me to New York for a couple of shows, L.A., we went to England, we did a festival in Holland. And finally, he's like, "Let's get your brother and we'll do a whole Stooges set." So we went out with J Mascis, myself on guitar, my brother on drums, Mike Watt on bass and singing, and we went out and did every Stooges song except for "Ann" and "We Will Fall," and we didn't do "Dirt," because I refuse to do "Dirt" with anybody but Iggy. He's the only person who can make that song something. It's true. I've tried to do it with other bands, and I'm like, "No way. It sucks." Anyhow, people were really liking it, and word got back to him -- he's said this in interviews. He said, "I started hearing you guys were playing," and there was great interest in Stooges stuff. So he's starting to do his Skull Ring CD, he's got Sum 42 or Sum 41 or whatever they are, and Green Day, and Peaches. And originally, he calls up and says, "Are you interested in doing a project? You can say 'no' right now, or you can say yes or no in two weeks or whatever." And I said, "Absolutely I'll do it. I love projects." So he explained what it was, it's going to be just two songs. Two songs wound up being four, because we were having a good time. I hadn't seen him face to face for a long time. And he said, "You can come with music, or you can come with nothing." But the night before, I thought, I should bring an icebreaker. And I brought the riff that became the song "Skull Ring." I was a little nervous when we were sitting at the hotel, in that little plaza there, waiting for him to show up. Because I haven't seen him face to face in, like, 25 years. I was a little nervous, and then he shows up, and it was all right, and we go across the street to get something to eat. And always when there's food and wine, the gap in between just closes. Once you start reminiscing and laughing, you know. And we got in the studio and everything super-clicked.
WW: Was the show at Coachella the biggest the Stooges ever played?
RA: No, it was mighty big. I don't know how many people were there. But we did two things I know of with that amount of people. We did Goose Lake Pop Festival in Michigan in 1970, I think, or 1971. There were 100,000 people. And then Stevens Point, Wisconsin, another big weekender, I heard there was close to 100,000 people. So in our days, we did our little club venues and a little theater stuff with the Stooges, but we did get thrown on some of those festivals. So it wasn't like we weren't used to it. But I tell you, I felt like a deer in the headlights. Seriously. We only rehearsed a little bit, and I wasn't worried about making a mistake or anything. But I'd played constantly, you know, and never been in front of that many people. When we had Dark Carnival, you know, we'd maybe play for a couple thousand at the most. Usually, we just played clubs. So when I got up there -- there was a little ramp going up the stairs, and there was this little holding pen, almost like going to the slaughterhouse if you were cattle. That's how I felt. I thought, either it's the guillotine tonight or the rocket to the moon. I'm telling you, I was really nervous. So we go out there and the stage is real low. It's no higher than their necks. They're right there, a sea of faces. So the only thing I did wrong, we started with "Loose," and it starts off with just me playing, and I played double the time twice as long as I should have. But once we started, it was fine. It just fell into place, and it was weird. We hadn't played together as the Stooges for years, and on the side of the stage, there was the Chili Peppers, Cameron Diaz and who's the guy that played on Taxi, who played Louie De Palma? Danny DeVito! Danny DeVito was there, and I'm like, "Goddamn it. As if it's not scary enough." And that Kelly Osbourne was there. They're all right there, it's our first time playing in front of people for years. So it was a trip. And also, while we were mixing the Skull Ring CD, Iggy's management started getting calls. People started finding out, and there were already offers. And my brother and I said yes right away, and Iggy was more yes-no, yes-no. Finally, he was like, "Well, you guys really want to do this, don't you?" And we're like, "Yeah, man!" And I thought, this is it. I guess this is the reunion. We got to do four songs on the CD. And even when we were still doing the CD, Jack White offered. He said, "Come to Detroit and I'll do a whole bunch of songs." So people were getting interested. And then it was like, there's our show, there's a couple of bucks. That just might be it. So I'm standing at the trailor with Mike Watt, and Iggy comes up and says to Mike Watt, "Would you be available for more shows this year?" And I'm like, "Yes!" He never mentioned to us there'd be anything else.
WW: This was in 2003?
RA: Yeah, 2003.
WW: Was it easy to line up a record deal, because of all the interest?
RA: No, it was hard, and we didn't say anything in the beginning. But what we did do, when we had some time off between shows every year. We did tours as many as three or four times a year starting in 2003, but mostly 2004 or 2005, and we'd get together and write songs. We'd go down to Florida, and for five or six days, we'd do a seven-hour day, and by the end of those three years, we had 42 songs. So we had a lot of stuff to pick from. And it was always nebulous, because he was on Virgin, and he owed them one more record on his contract. And it was his mindset also that this was the Stooges, not just him, and other people were interested also. And other people were saying, "Hey, we want to make a record." So there was this weird Catch-22 with his record label. But then they started getting excited also.
WW: So was the Stooges album used as part of Iggy's contract?
RA: No, that's what I was going to say. It worked out really great. They liked Iggy enough, and things were really rocking, and since he got back with us, his visibility was raised a lot. So they did a one-off. It's just a one-off deal, separate from his contract. He still owes them another record, I think. He might have re-upped, actually. He didn't say anything, and it's none of my business, but they got a new CEO at his label, and it looks like things are picking up at Virgin. They just merged with Capitol and everyone's really excited. We met everyone at South By Southwest, and everyone's real geeked on the record. So I told him, "Okay, if you can get off Virgin, let's do this right now. Let's do a Christmas record."
WW: A Christmas record?
RA: Yeah, a Christmas record. I've always wanted to do a Christmas record. It was mostly a joke, but I wish we could have done it. You know, just take the standard Christmas songs and rock them out or dirge them out or whatever. I still want to do that, man. I've always wanted to do a Christmas record that was drug out of the closet every year: The Stooges Christmas. That's what we were batting around to give Virgin as their last thing. I know there was some interest from several record companies that were excited about maybe picking us up. And I think that's another reason why Rick Rubin sort of fizzled out. He wanted us on his label, and if he was going to do us, he wants more out of it. Not just the heaps of money he gets for producing it, he wants something bigger. But it worked well that we didn't use him. I never expected after Coachella -- I thought that was it. But once we went out and Iggy saw the response and how much fun it was, it just snowballed, and it's getting better all the time.
WW: Did you go in thinking, "I've got to write songs in the Stooges' style"?
RA: Exactly. We started writing songs. I'd given Iggy my past records and CDs I'd worked on. The songs were still my style, but they were maybe tailored to the specific singer's abilities. And he said, "Now, remember, I know you can play all types of different music, but they should still be kind of Stooges-esque." And I was like, "No problem," because when I'm with those guys, it is what it is. It's the Stooges. The magic that happens when we get together. And when we were doing the songs, we actually have a country song, a country-and-western type song that was one of the 42 things. Of course, we didn't choose it, but just being us and being together, we never worried about it. People would say, "Aren't you worried about trying to capture Fun House." It didn't sell that well. It took years for it to even start moving, but now it's a classic record. So I never thought about the idea that people would say, "Aren't you worried that if it's not like Fun House, people won't like it?" But no, I wasn't. We didn't worry about. Just let it take its natural course and just go about our business. And that's what we did. Otherwise, you're going to think yourself into a hole. You're going to take away from the excitement. You're not going to have fun if you're worrying. And that's what I told Iggy. When we went into the studio, I wanted it to be fun. It would've been a pressure cooker with Rick Rubin, probably. But with Steve Albini, it was fun. There was laughter. He thought I meant partying, and I was like, "No, it's not partying." Just having fun. No one has any beers, of course no one takes any drugs. I didn't even smoke cigarettes when we were recording. I waited until I got back to the hotel to have my cigarette and martini when I was done for the day.
WW: Did you do that because Iggy was afraid he'd get started down the wrong path again?
RA: No, it was more for me. I didn't want anything to alter how I felt. I felt good, I felt anchored. I just liked the way I felt. I was like, I'm not even going to smoke in the session -- and I didn't really smoke that much anymore. But it was fun, and it worked out. The whole process was great.
WW: What mix of people have been coming to your shows?
RA: It's all different. Even the booking agent from New York, she was at South By Southwest. She hadn't seen us since Jones Beach, which was a couple, three years ago, and she said the same thing: "There's all age groups, from teenagers." There were even a couple of kids there, even. Teenagers to people older than us. Here's something that really sets it properly for me. I was in Glasgow, Scotland -- I was there with J Mascis, but I was there to play Stooges songs. And I was in the club, the sound check's finished, and I see this guy who was probably in his early sixties or something, and a teenager. He comes up and he goes [Asheton imitates a Scottish brogue], "I'm 64 years old and me nephews sixteen, and we're both Stooges fans." And I was like, "Wow!" It was really cool. It made me feel really amazing. Teary, almost, even. And they were arguing over the best Stooges song. He was like, "My favorite song is 'Dirt.'" And now we're getting from thirteen to seventy, I think. We haven't played many shows in the States over the course of the past three and a half, four years -- maybe four or five. In Europe, the audiences are amazing. Europe has always loved Iggy. Iggy would do the United States, but his real fame and fortune when he was solo was in Europe. He says that's his bread and butter. "Most of my music sales come from Europe, my touring money comes from Europe." He kept the torch alive all those years, and we'd go to Europe and it was like, the audiences were incredible.
WW: Are you all traveling together?
RA: There's a bus, but we're flying. The band's flying with the tour manager. Everybody else is bussing it. I'm going to take the bus from Boston to New York and from New York to Philly, just to ride on the bus. I hate buses, to tell you the truth. The rest of the time, we're flying. The crew, Mike Watt, Steve Mackay, they're bussing it, and we're going with the tour manager. The tour manager and the three Stooges.
WW: Do you see the band continuing beyond this tour?
RA: Oh yeah. It's already been mentioned. I didn't see it, but people told me in the press, Iggy wants to go through and not take a break or make another record until 2008. We're going to finish it up this year, go into next year. We've got a lot of songs. I can write songs now; they just fly right out of me. And we're enjoying it. Musicians can go forever. Unless you want to stop, and no one wants to stop. I mean, Elvin Jones played a show the day before he died. And I bought records to see Alice Coltrane, they were $125 apiece. I had to play unexpectedly, so I didn't get to go. And she died a month after she played here. And B.B. King is still rocking, and Johnny Cash made a video the week before he died or something. So everybody just keeps going, and we're having a really good time. And I know Iggy's having a really good time, because he's getting a great response from the audience, as we are.