Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ron Asheton: The Coltrane of Psych Guitar

"C'mon, Ron... I say, c'mon, Ron... C'mon and tell 'em how I feel!"

So pleads Iggy Pop at the height of the Stooges' classic punk rant "No Fun," from their 1969 self-titled debut release -- because there comes a point in this song when even Iggy Pop can't express with voice, dance, exposed genitals or peanut butter what he feels. For that, he needed guitarist Ron Asheton. For the first 2:43 of the song, Asheton anchors the song with steady, distorted, rhythmic riffing from the right channel -- and just when we think we've heard everything this anthem to teenage boredom has up its patched denim sleeve, Iggy's pleas prompt Asheton to launch into the fuzziest, dirtiest, squiggliest, squealingest, noodly guitar solo ever heard, absolutely merciless in its full-on drilling against the hard stone walls of ennui.
"Well, come on! Well, come ON! Well, COME on! Well, COME ON!"
THE STOOGES was produced by ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale at a time when multi-track recording was already a couple of years removed from extreme stereo separation, but Cale went ahead and placed Ron's separately recorded solo in the left channel only, which made its sonic attack more focused and insistent, with the added bonus of embodying an especially excruciating "fuck you" to any hippie stoner of the era who might attempt listening to the record through stereo headphones. I once made the mistake of listening to the album this way, cranked way up, and the solo drilled straight into one of my molars and loosened a filling.
So minimal that any kid with access to two strings can play it, "No Fun" has become a standard of its genre, covered by many different (well, other) artists, but none of the cover versions can compare to the original because Asheton's solo is actually thematic, starting out with lazy, unfocused, mondo-distorto notes that gradually find focus and fire, only to succumb once again to boredom -- bee bee boop BLEEEEEEEEEER, bee bee boop BLLLLLEEEEEEEEEEEER -- as if he's too bored to continue being one of the hands-down-greatest psych guitarists ever to wear a shoulder strap and iron cross.
"Yeaaaaaaah, my MAN!" Iggy congratulates him, right there on the record. As always with the Stooges, it was when they were least brilliant that they were most brilliant.

And today comes the ultimate bore: the news that Ron Asheton was found dead today in his Ann Arbor home at the age of 60. The victim of a likely heart attack, no foul play suspected. He died alone, discovered by police notified by concerned neighbors who hadn't seen him in a few days.
More than just introducing "No Fun" to the world, THE STOOGES opens with "1969" and "I Want to Be Your Dog" -- already two inarguable petitions for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Every year that self-styled church of music locks the Stooges out, they flaunt their ignorance of their own gods.) Throughout the record, Ron Asheton (who, on the cover, looks like the real Max Frost) takes the late Sixties gimmick that was the Vox wah-wah pedal and wields it like Jackson Pollack wielded paint, ladling its molten liquidity over ballads and trances and odes to teenage solipsism.
The group's next album, 1970's FUN HOUSE, produced by Don Gallucci, has at various times been called The Greatest Rock Album of all time by Joey Ramone, Lester Bangs, Jack White and yours truly. I actually bought the first two Stooges albums without having heard them, except in my mind's ear as I read Lester Bangs' "Of Pop and Pies and Fun" essay in the pages of CREEM magazine (reprinted in the PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG collection). The music more than lived up to its promise: "one of those rare albums that never sits still long enough to actually solidify into what it previously seemed," Bangs wrote in one of his most inspired insights. Lester hated FUN HOUSE on his first listen, but having gone through his process with him in print, I loved it on mine. It's a descent into the maelstrom that drops you down on the street where the faces shine, drags you through the dirt, and leaves you standing in the midst of Los Angeles in flames. (I hadn't thought about it till just this minute, but in some ways, FUN HOUSE is, or might as well be, a rock opera based on Susan Strasberg's STP freakout scene in PSYCH-OUT.) Ron's guitar sound on the album is enormous, silvery, modal, oceanic, godly -- but, during the epic ballad "Dirt," with the taint of human emotion.
One of my proudest possessions is THE FUN HOUSE SESSIONS, a delirious Rhino Handmade limited edition box set that collects every second of music laid down by the Stooges during their week-long recording sessions for the album, with one entire disc turned over to take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take of "T.V. Eye," a song that surely features one of hard rock's top twenty-five power riffs. Of course I took the dare, the plunge, or whatever it was, and I may damn well take it again later today.
When Iggy brought guitar wiz James Williamson into the band, Ron was demoted to bass guitar, the instrument formerly played in the Stooges by Dave Alexander (who died in 1975). Their third album, RAW POWER, credited to Iggy and the Stooges, is a classic in its own right, despite the curiously shrill and tinny mix given it by David Bowie for its 1973 release. It was remixed in the 1990s by Iggy, who showed how important Ron's thunder was to the overall sound -- the remix never fails to make me run to the volume control to turn the sucker down. This is an album that wants to trash your house.
The audio document of the last Stooges concert, METALLIC K.O., is the Altamont of vinyl -- less compelling as music than as a sociology documentary/thriller combination, as Iggy taunts and insults an audience of abusive bikers. MKO was all it took for me to become a compulsive collector of Stooges bootlegs, and I know that I was not alone in my habit as countless releases began emanating from Skydog, Bomp and other indy labels to drain my vinyl budget. It was an expensive but worthwhile indulgence, bringing to my attention lost live and studio gems like "I've Got a Right", "Gimme Some Skin", "Open Up and Bleed", "Rubber Legs", "Shake Appeal", "Heavy Liquid" and the unspeakably wonderful "I'm Sick of You."

Cool portrait of Ron Asheton by Rick Chesshire, found in the Caricatures slideshow here.
The original lineup of the Stooges reformed (with Minuteman Mike Watt now on bass) in 2003 after a nearly 30-year hiatus, during which time Ron had toiled in bands like Destroy All Monsters, The New Order and New Race, and also did some acting in minor league horror movies (one of his pet enthusiasms) like MOSQUITO, FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO and LEGION OF THE NIGHT. Asheton went right back to playing Stooges guitar as if none of the intermediary years had passed, maintaining a tight steer on the shows as Iggy went his own dionysian way.
The group's only reunion album, 2007's THE WEIRDNESS, is as lyrically stupid and musically monotonous as the first two Stooges albums, but producer Steve Albini emphasizes the heavy-handed rhythm side of the band, downplaying Ron's ingenuity as a soloist, and unlike the classic albums, there's not much musical variety. There are no ballads, and too many of the songs share the same kick-off, the same key, the same shtick. Nevertheless, in live concert, the reunited Stooges -- the original members now at least pushing 60 -- continued to cook like eternal teenagers, Iggy continuing to dismantle the traditional boundaries separating artist and audience by diving into the mosh pits and inviting ticket buyers to come onstage and share his microphone, while Ron stayed by the amps as designated band driver, standing zen-still as he continued to perfect his searching squall.
When I call Ron Asheton the Coltrane of Psych Guitar, I'm not being colorful or facetious. The two musicians, one uber-respected and the other uber-unpretentious, one a musical maestro and the other an autodidact who came to guitar from the accordion, actually have a great deal in common -- in their modal approaches to soloing, their brave explorations of the glory of noise, even the ways in which they made a spirit of love spurt like paydirt from music under the hard drill of probing persisitence. It doesn't take exceptional ears to hear glimpses of "A Love Supreme" in "We Will Fall" from THE STOOGES, and in the course of my own bass-ackwards musical education, I first heard music that fit the description "sheets of sound" on FUN HOUSE, courtesy of Ron's dense soloing, years before I discovered Coltrane.
A few years ago, Elektra/Rhino Records reissued the first two Stooges albums in deluxe editions that incorporated additional discs of alternate and extended takes. Anyone craving a superdose of what made Ron Asheton so special need look no further than the previously unreleased "full versions" of "Ann" (7:52!) and "No Fun" (6:49!) appearing on THE STOOGES' second disc -- and we can also share in how misunderstood and undervalued he often was when his sizzling extended lead on the end of an alternate "Real Cool Time" is followed by producer John Cale drolly asking, "Can we cut that off at 2:20?"
Stranger things have happened (The Who touring minus the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle, hello?), but I would imagine the Stooges are behind us now. Iggy Pop is Iggy Pop, but goddamn the past tense, Ron Asheton was the Stooges. We might think our teenage years, when the Stooges' music was most relevant to us, are behind us too, but as modern life conspires to make us spend our adulthood in rooms with computers, texting each other, craving human interaction, hating to be alone and having to troll on Facebook for friends, their music continues to speak to us more directly than we may be willing to admit.
Another year with nothin' to do.
Don't let me be alone.
Ain't no wall.
Can I come over 2night?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:39 AM

    nice article. more ron asheton / stooges at http://stoogesforum.freeforumboard.net/


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.