THE TWO STOOGES
RON & SCOTT ASHETON on their past, present and future.
by Jay Babcock
Photo by Peter G. Whitfield, art direction by W. T. Nelson
Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003)
Following the second (and final) split of the Stooges in 1974, Ron and Scott “Rock Action” Asheton’s next joint effort was to form New Order, who released a single eponymous LP that gained little critical or commercial notice. Scott did some work with ex-MC5 Fred “Sonic” Smith’s band, Sonic Rendezvous, while Ron went on to work briefly with the second, post-Mike Kelley/Jim Shaw version of Destroy All Monsters, a sort-of Detroit supergroup, before forming The New Race with Stooges acolytes Deniz Tek and Rob Younger of the Australian power rock group Radio Birdman. The New Race released a single quasi-live album, in 1981, and then was no more. In the ‘90s, between taking roles in his beloved low-budge horror films (his filmography includes Hellmaster [‘92], Legion of the Night [‘95], Mosquito [‘95] and, of course, Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo [‘96]), Ron recorded with a group called the Empty Set, and performed and recorded with singer/Destroy All Monsters alum Niagara in a new group called Dark Carnival.
Ron’s participation in the Wylde Ratttz sessions in ‘98 [see sidebar] eventually led to an invitation by J Mascis & the Fog to play songs live dates with his band, then featuring ex-minuteman Mike Watt on bass. Watt, who had been playing the Stooges songs for years (see “From a minuteman to a Stooge”) was the singer on the Stooges songs the band performed each night for the numbers when the group wasn’t being joined by guest vocalists, which was often. These shows attracted enough heat for Sonic Youth, curators of the 2002 All Tomorrow’s Parties, to ask Asheton, Mascis and Watt to do an all-Stooges set at the UCLA festival, with secret guest vocalists.
At this point, Scott “Rock Action” Asheton was coaxed back into the spotlight. Working on a piece for the LAWeekly to coincide with that ATP show, I caught up with Scotty down in Florida to ask him what he‘d been up to. “I’ve been playing with various musicians and bands, did some touring, did some recording with Capt. Sensible from the Damned and Sonny Vincent,” he said. “But I’ve got a daughter now, and mostly I’m just busy being a dad.”
Although Scotty had kept in contact with Iggy, his dreams of some sort of reunion of the Stooges hadn’t come to pass. “I used to call up his management and kinda bug ‘em about if there’s a chance we could get together, him and myself and my brother and do an album. He used to tell me ‘Well he’s not opposed to the idea but he’s just really busy.’ I think the people would like it, I think it would be cool if me, my brother and Iggy do some things… You know, there’s a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories. It’s too bad that the band had to fall apart when we did, but it was due to things that were out of our control. Me and James [Williamson, the band’s second guitarist] and Iggy were having some problems, and as a result the band fell apart. I always felt bad for my brother because he kinda got the raw end of the deal. It really wasn’t his fault that things went the way they did.”
Although he was aware that the Stooges’ records had continued to win the band fans three decades after their initial release, Scotty had obviously long lost interest in contemporary rock. As I read off the names of the people he’d soon be performing with, he said, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know anything about ‘em. I was asking other people, and they were saying Well [J Mascis] is from Dinosaur Jr. And I’m going Well, sorry again, then. Never heard of them. But if Ron likes them, they gotta be good.”
They were good—it was a lineup of singers that included Watt, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Eddie Vedder and Queens of the Stone Age’s Joshua Homme—but, in the end, none of them, of course, was Iggy. (By the same token, as good as his solo work has been, Iggy has never had a band that approached the utterly primordial, shamanic genius that was the Stooges, either.)
After several months of tantalizing rumors, in February 2003 the Ashetons reunited with Iggy Pop to record some new Stooges songs for Iggy’s new solo album. The sessions, produced by Iggy at a studio near his Miami home, yielded four songs and a tentative interest in performing live as the Stooges again. I caught up with Ron—Scotty remained elusive—to find out how this all went down. The following Q & A is culled from two phone conversations with Ron—one took place just prior to the 2002 ATP show, and the other, less than a week before this issue of Arthur went to press in late July. — Jay Babcock
Arthur: So, how did this happen?
RON ASHETON: Well, Iggy called up and he goes, ‘Well hey, what’s happening?’ We did small talk for about 20 minutes and then he goes, ‘Well the reason I called was I was wondering if you’d be innerested in a project. You can say yes, or you can say no, and I don’t care, I understand. And if you say yes, you can call me back in two weeks and tell me to go fuck myself.’ [laughs] But I said right away, Yes, sounds cool to me.
I went down to Florida. My brother, who lives there part of the year, was already there. Jim—most people know him by Iggy but we call him Jim, usually—came to the hotel and he goes, Well I know a fun place to eat. So we went. I was a little nervous, I hadn’t seen him up close, shake-hand close, since 1980. He’s a guy that was one of my best friends, that I haven’t really talked to, or seen, in many years—and I’m there to work, to do music! Whoa. So I go, [mock melodramatic voice] ‘God, please make it good.’ So we talked and had dinner. The next day we went to his house and we visited for about an hour and a half and then we went to the studio. And it was easy. From then on, it’s like there was no time in between… It was great. I think I appreciate it and enjoy it more now. I like the things we talk about. And I’m proud of what he’s done.
You guys weren’t just in a band—you all lived together in the old days. That stuff doesn’t really go away, does it?
We started out with our first band house, our little summer sublet, and then we moved on to a farmhouse and then another farmhouse and then out in L.A. Not to mention all the thousands of shows on the road through the years. So we’ve got a lot of time between us.
How were the new songs written?
I had some things and I got pieces and I started workin’ on stuff. So we talked as the time was approaching to go to Miami, I had a talk with him and he goes, You know, you can bring stuff down, or you can bring pieces, or you can bring down nothing at all. So I decided to bring nothing. [laughs] But the night before I left, I’m going, Well I gotta have an icebreaker. So I came up with that thing for “Skull Ring.” And we jammed on that. That got turned into a tune. And then I said, “Well Jim, why don’t you stay at home and give me about four or five hours before you come to the studio tomorrow, and let me see what I can come up with.” Before I went to bed that night at the hotel, I’m lyin’ in bed and I got a riff stuck in my head. I started out on that the next day and it just came quickly—I wrote “Little Electric Chair” in 15 minutes. I did three things. One of ‘em didn’t make it to the record cuz we didn’t have time. So I wrote ‘em, brought my brother in, taught him the song, recorded it and then I laid a bass track on it. One hour later, I brought him back in. He goes, “Ready already? You just taught me the other one!” And I go, “Yeah well I got this other one.” And we just did that. It just was flowing out of me, cuz I was excited about doing it and I liked that studio. I felt real comfortable there. I knew that it was important, and I knew that we didn’t have a lot of time. But luckily it just worked out. The stuff just flowed right out. Then Iggy came and he goes, Yeah this is cool.
You use the same little riff on the bridge for ‘Loser’ as there is at the beginning of ‘Dead Rock Star’…
Iggy had that basic piece, and I kinda toughened it up, played into that more. I used that descending riff on ‘Dead Rock Star’ just to show him it was good. I gave him a lot of options to choose from. And he wound up going, Well I like both of ‘em. I go, Just do it man. It’s great how they cut it up. He was a little hesitant to play ’Dead Rock Star’ for us. He goes, Well I got this idea for this song but I don’t know… I go, [mock impatience] Just play it for me! And I go, No man it’s cool. I really like that. He didn’t know what he thought about it. Then he started liking it. I go, No it fits it, I really like that, cuz you got different things on our stuff. You got Stooge voice, and…you’ve got your crooning and even on the other Stooges songs, the voices are a little different. And I get a kick out of the album—[mock DJ voice] ‘It’s Iggy playing with Green Day. It’s Iggy with Sum 41.’ On the record [as a whole] he does all kinds of stuff. It’s cool.
On a couple of the songs you do a sort of prelude riff before the ‘proper‘ riff comes in, like you did on ‘1968’ and ‘Loose’ —
Yeah, we talked about this also. He goes, People are gonna expect it to be kinda like the Stooges. Cuz I’d sent him a bunch of stuff I did with the Wylde Ratttz and that was not very Stooge-y. He liked the stuff, but he was also a little worried that I might be too good. [laughs] Which, you know, in all my other songwriting with other bands they’re always going, ‘It’s a great song but you wouldn’t think that was a Stooges song.’ Well you know, I got a little better! And I’m having fun experimenting and it’s boring [to play simple stuff] as I learn more. So [getting more technically proficient] has kinda been a blessing and a curse for me. And Iggy was concerned and I also was concerned, that I needed to think primitive for this. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was, just to go back into that feeling.
What was really amazing for me was playing at Coachella, because I was figuring, I’m a little a bit better player so maybe I’ll rip off a couple slicky riffs or something for leads, but when I started doin’ it [at rehearsal], uh oh I’m kinda stuck all of a sudden. But once I was up there onstage and doing it, it was like I switched back to primitive mode. I just started playing simpler and a lot of those old riffs came back to me. I’m going ,Well goddamn I rehearsed this, but just being up there, it made some kind of magic that brought it all back to that kind of primitive stuff.
Has it been strange, the three of you doing Stooges again and Dave Alexander not being there with you?
No… because I’d been doin’ it a bunch with others. But Dave was there with me in spirit, because…I thought about that a lot, and I talked to my brother about it. He goes, Well Dave’s right here with me now, man. That’s how we all felt, and that’s why my brother gave Mike Watt the Dave Alexander t-shirt to wear, and Watt was so into it he wore it every day at practice too. We thought about Dave. When I took breaks I would say, You know thanks to you, Dave. You were part of this, and…you should be proud. Cuz I’m so proud that you were a part of it. He was a very inneresting bass player. Watt goes ‘Man just listen to him, he was a tripped out bass player, that thing he does on TV Eye that just kinda rubber bands around your thing, that’s brilliant.’ We always miss him—I think about him every day, I always have. There isn’t a day go by that I don’t think about him a bunch. I’ve had many other bands, so I didn’t miss him in that sense. But I wish he coulda been here.
I think listeners and the audience have always thought of Iggy as being fearless and spontaneous, but you’re talking about him being uncertain about songs…
Well, for me, I like that edge for playing. I like to know that everyone knows the song, and there is a format: you got your basic song. But I enjoy what might happen within the tune. With Jim what’s amazing is he is—and we talked about this—he’s really worked hard on his stage show. He’s perfected it. He’s a better showman. He doesn’t beat the hell out of himself like he used to. If something came into his head, bam, he’d do it. But now he paces himself better. I mean, if you coulda seen some of the shows way back when, it was like, man, the guy just went out and played a whole game of football in an hour. He’d always be battered up. He always hurt himself, almost all the time. Mostly at the beginning by accident: hitting the mike stand, take a tumble, do a swan dive off the stage and people got hip to it, here he comes, they thought it was funny, the parting of the crowd sea, and I’d go, Uh oh shit, they all moved! To see him just swan dive into a bunch of folding chairs and a fuckin’ floor.
At the time, did that recklessness seem stupid to you? As in, if he hurts himself, how are we gonna do the show tomorrow?
I knew he would never really hurt himself. I’m surprised he didn’t break any bones. But he got cuts and bruises and stitches. I would have so much fun watching him—even at Coachella I was going, Oh shit, I gotta get my head back in the ball game, I’m watching Iggy. I got this smile on my face and I’m just watching him. [laughs] I never smiled in the Stooges! That’s part of my THING. I’m just supposed to stand there, no smile on my face. Which I always did, it was kind of a natural thing for me back then. That was my schtick, kind of: I was holding down the fort. But it was fun just to have enough muscle memory with the tunes at Coachella where I could kinda step out of myself for a couple seconds and see what’s goin’ on. I had a good time. [laughs] I was going, Man he’s sure knocking himself around. I’m going, Uh oh he’s not gonna really go into the crowd. And there he goes. I go, Goddamn dude. For all the things, the battering he’s taken onstage, and all the abuse he’s done to himself, he’s fared very well.
It was an extraordinary performance. A lot of us were losing it—I don’t think anyone really ever expected to get to see the Stooges again. Could you tell from onstage how astounded the audience was?
You know what, I never thought it would happen either. I’d thought Jim was pretty happy with his solo career. He’s very proud of it, and he should be. He likes being…Iggy Pop. But, this will help him also. And yeah, I could tell, I could see the faces. You know [people are in shock] when mouths are open and eyes are wide and they’re really just trying to drink it all in. It was very cool. At first I was nervous, until we started the first song and then I was fine.
And what a trip to have Steve Mackey there for “Funhouse” and “L.A. Blues”!
Yeah! He goes, ‘It’s my same horn.’ I go, ‘No way, you didn’t throw it in the San Francsico Bay or something by now‘?!? Talk about somebody who hasn’t changed! He’s the same gregarious talkative guy. It was so much fun to see him. I had played with him with J Mascis in San Francisco. That was fun.
How did you got together with all those guys?
The Wylde Ratttz thing. Don Fleming invited Mascis along for the second set of Velvet Goldmine sessions. We were sitting around, Steve Shelley, Thurston Moore, Mike Watt and Mark Arm and Don Fleming the producer goes, Well let’s just jam every Stooges song that we know. And I’m going, Oh god, I don’t want to teach those songs to those guys. But they’re going, Oh no man, we know em all! So we just jammed. I didn’t have to teach them anything. Watt and J Mascis, they know the songs inside and out. Thurston and Watt said that’s how they learned to play guitar: playing along to Stooges songs. They’re really good songs to learn guitar on, because you can tell that you’re making progress. Watt’s such an eccentric perfectionist. [In mock outrage] What! You don’t even know your own song?! And I’d go, Mike I haven’t played in 10 years. It was ‘1970.’ I knew all the other ones. And then one time we were doing ‘Loose’ and then J just didn’t play, and he stood there with this look on his face, and he goes, You forgot the whole beginning. You haven’t been playing that beginning part! And I went, Oh that’s right, I completely forgot about that E chord intro. And so I go, Well you do it! So he played it, and I knew what time to do the riff, I just came in. So those guys remember stuff… It was fun playing with J because I was always telling everyone, [mock pretentious voice] Well yes, you know the Stooges songs, they lend themselves to sorta like free-form jazz. And J goes okay and he would just take it wherever he thought was fun to take it. That was very cool. But Watt was always saying, Gee you know I love J but it’d sure be neat just to play the songs with you sometime too. So it wound up that Mike got his wish.
If anyone in the Stooges story has anything to be bitter about, it would have to be you. I mean, those guys sold your guitar for drugs!
Yeah, that was in New York. I told this roadie, I’ll take the guitars. And this roadie was like, No I’ll grab that guitar, I’ll take it back to the hotel. I knew something was up. I found out later that what happened is it went right to Harlem, right into the hands of a black guy that was gonna get em heroin. And the black guy said I’ll be right back, lemme take the guitar and he went right up the stairs and right out the back door. No heroin—and no guitar. They didn’t even score! [laughs] They got ripped! And I didn’t find out til later. They did the same old bullshit, my brother wouldn’t even fess up. The roadie goes, Oh yeah, I put it down at the gig, man, and turned my back, and it’s gone, I looked everywhere. Even though I didn’t know that’s what had happened, I was going, This is bullshit, this has never happened before. But I did right, I fired him right then and there.
I didn’t go along with the heroin bullshit. It was really hard to see the guys you hung out with, and try to build a dream with, just going down the tubes, man. To wake up everyday and see possessions missing. Wait a minute, where’s the electric piano? 6-7-800-dollar electric piano went to get 40 dollars’ worth of heroin. Bullshit like that.
How did you stay straight amidst all that stuff?
It wasn’t easy. Probably what really helped me, when they really got badly into heroin, for a good period I had my first live-in girlfriend. And pretty much, they didn’t like that. ‘Hey you’re not one of the dudes anymore, man!’ We had an apartment in the Stooge house. It was a big house that the original owners had turned into separate apartments, and we had our own apartment. And those guys, we didn’t even see them. I just hung out with her. Then Bill Cheatham [who played piano and bass with the Stooges at different point], he got into doing some heroin for a while, but he realized it was bullshit. So he really did just cold turkey. He locked himself in his room for a week, and I would take him orange juice or whatever he wanted—chocolate milk!—and he did, he just kicked. So I had him to hang with now too. Even he stayed away because it was so bad.
After Dave Alexander was fired—Iggy had fired him, I knew there was no point in arguing—James came in and played [second] guitar. James and Iggy somehow hit it off, they formed that junkie relationship. Even though things were already really in bad shape, once James came aboard, it was the total swan song. I mean, it was some of the worst times of my life, just to see everything you had done fall apart, only because of drugs. It was fun when we were smoking marijuana and hash, and we had our little acid phase, for me that was about as far as it went, then…BA-BA-BA-BOOM… Our road manager, who had been clean for those couple of years, he got back into it, and he drug those guys in, and that was like… Oh man, it was a terrible ending. ‘Cause it didn’t have to end, but the drugs killed it.
Later, for Raw Power, Iggy asked you and Scott back. Only now you were the bassist and James Williamson was the guitarist. And Iggy and James were writing the songs on their own…
Iggy said he couldn’t find a bass player or a drummer—‘we’ve auditioned a hundred people, we can’t find anybody’—and how would we like to play. I said, Well you know, cool. I had a good time playing bass then because I started out playing bass in my high school rock band, so it was fun at least to go in and do it. I enjoyed it playing it myself, just [in pretentious voice] to show the world that I can play some bass guitar.
But you won’t play these songs now.
I enjoy some of those songs, but I never played ‘em on guitar. I don’t want to learn to play ‘em. What little input I did have, you know, writing little pieces or helping a song develop, they didn’t even give me credit. I came up with just little things here and there—nothing major—but still, my feeling is, I’m not gonna play something that I didn’t write or wasn’t given any credit for. But my problem with those times was that it wasn’t a band. Iggy was signed with MainMan, it was his record deal, his management deal, and basically, in reality, we were just signed as backup people. We didn’t even see him that much a lot of times when we weren’t working. He’d already had established his whole little group of friends and cronies that were into his kind of shit. The three of us—Williamson, my brother, myself—did tend to stay together a bit more.
MainMan finally wound up dumping Iggy, and we got new management and a booking agent, but they had it so we were constantly playing! Every day, just about, on the road. And when we did come back, it was just for a week or two before we’d go back out on the road for months again. It was like some bizarre Twilight Zone: you can never get out of being in the band, your stage clothes are so dirty you don’t really have time to wash them that often, and just living out of a suitcase, it was maddening. It was like Goddamn, this isn’t fun at all, this is like some sort of weird hell—a bad dream I can’t wake up from.
Do you ever talk with James Williamson? What’s he up to now?
He works with Sony, something to do with computers. He travels a lot, he goes to Europe and Japan all the time. He’s visited a couple times, to see me and my brother and our sister. It was cool. We had such great times when the Stooges were doing well and the only drugs anyone took was smoking marijuana, basically. There was LOTS of good times.
What happens with the Stooges after you do those September shows in Europe?
We probably won’t play again cuz Jim is interested in not going out too much now… Going with the material we have now would be fun but Jim’s gotta promote his record, he’s got a whole agenda of stuff he’s gotta do, and he’s excited about doing a Stooges record. I’ve gotta come up with a lot of stuff. One of my quirks, which I’ve done well with, is when I get a deadline is when I really start cranking. But that’s just too nerve-wracking to have to come up with a whole lot… I can come up with like 10 or 12 things, but not 30. You need that much cuz you’re gonna throw half of it away. So, basically for me, after September I’ll just be writing tunes. I’ll have enough time to do it so I don’t get all jammed up. I’m hoping next year we’ll go and do some stuff.
Now, what does all this mean for your horror film career?
My buddy Gary Jones who did The Mosquito picture, eh’s partnered up with Gunnar Hanson, who was Leatherface. They’ve written a screenplay, he’s got his little company together, Gary, and we’re gonna do an independent film called The Last Horror Picture Show. It’ll be starring Gunnar Hansen, Robert Englund, who was Freddy Krueger, and Kane Hodder who was Jason. They’re gonna play evil guys, but not those particular characters. So it’s kind of an inneresting premise, it’s a horror picture WITHIN a horror picture. I’m excited about it, it’s a good story. So we’re trying to raise dough now. The producers of the film asked if the Stooges might do the theme song, and also I will do other bits of music in the film, so besides my small acting part I’ll be doing some music.
What would your character be?
I would once again be what I always play: a goofy, wacky something-or-other. It’s a small principal part, because pretty much the focus of the movie is on the three main bad guys, and then the younger people that all get offed. [laughs] In this one, I’m the loser musician…who [in mock sentimental voice] turns out to be a hero in the end.