Friday, January 09, 2009

Ron Asheton

Ron Asheton, guitarist of The Stooges, whose droning technique influenced a generation of punk rock outfits, passed away Tuesday at age 60. He was found dead in his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he had lived since his parents originally moved there in 1963.

As a teen, Asheton visited England with a school friend, Dave Alexander. While visiting, the two saw The Who perform live at the legendary Cavern Club. The power and fury of The Who's performance in that intimate setting convinced Asheton and Alexander to start their own band when they returned home to Detroit. With Asheton on guitar and Alexander playing bass, they added Ron's brother Scott on drums. For a vocalist, they found a skinny record store clerk named Jim Ostenberg, later to become known to the world as Iggy Pop.

This quartet christened themselves The Stooges (they supposedly asked Moe Howard for permission to use the name, to which Howard replied, "I don't care what you guys call yourselves so long as it's not the Three Stooges!") and set out to play some of the rawest, most uncompromising rock 'n' roll heard anywhere, with an outrageous live act highlighted by Ostenberg's stage antics to match. Signed to Elektra in 1969, they released a pair of LP's, The Stooges and Fun House, that stand as classics of rock at its rawest and crudest. Asheton played a major part in shaping the group's sound with his loud, thundering two and three-chord riffs, playing his guitar with an open, droning, low E string tuning providing an extra measure of foreboding.

Coming out of the era of flower power, though, audiences simply weren't ready for The Stooges' raw noise, and the two albums sold poorly at the time. Money woes, endless touring, and Iggy Pop's growing heroin habit nearly brought an end to the band until David Bowie, a fan of Iggy's, befriended the singer and got him cleaned up long enough to return to the studio for a third album. For that disc, Pop decided to replace Asheton on guitar with the more technically adept James Williamson. At the time, Pop had decided to dispense with bassist Alexander as well, but three months later, still needing a bass player, Asheton was invited back to the group to play bass. Under Bowie's guidance, the reconstituted Stooges recorded Raw Power, another thrash-rock classic once again ignored by the record-buying public.

After the Raw Power tour, Asheton and Pop parted ways, not to see each other for over 25 years. During this time, Asheton kept busy playing in such outfits as The New Order (not to be confused with the British group of the same name), Destroy All Monsters, and Dark Carnival. While Asheton labored in these obscure groups, though, Iggy Pop became a cult hero, and a new generation of musicians looked to The Stooges' early albums, and Asheton's guitar work, as inspiration. In the late 90's, The Minutemen's Mike Watt and Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, two musicians who admired The Stooges, teamed up with Asheton for a tour featuring some of the old classics. This led to the reuniting of the Asheton brothers with Pop, and a subsequent world tour where The Stooges were treated nightly to sold-out audiences of younger fans who regarded the group as heroic forefathers of punk.

New Musical Express has put together a compilation of Ron Asheton's five greatest riffs so I don't have to. Essential stuff, both for Stooges fans and those unfamiliar with the group's exquisite white trash noise.