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Death of a Stooge (Ron Asheton, 1948-2009)

January 7, 2009
 

Untitled“In many ways Ron was the heart of The Stooges, and The Stooges were the creators of punk rock. If you don’t understand Ron, you don’t understand The Stooges, and if you don’t understand The Stooges, you don’t understand punk rock.” – Paul Trynka, author of the 2007 biography Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed

In the early 1970s in Los Angeles, when his doomed, addiction-addled band was lurching the last tortured miles of its perversely majestic self-destruction, Ron Asheton met Chris Lamont, granddaughter of Larry Fine. Lamont introduced Stooge to Stooge at Fine’s cramped room in the Motion Picture Rest Home. Asheton told the story in the great oral history Please Kill Me, which I perused for Ron Asheton passages last night over a couple stiff drinks after hearing that Asheton was just found dead at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

He had had a few strokes, and when I first met him, I could hardly understand a thing he said, but I wanted to keep going back, and Chris didn’t want to go back as much as me, so I finally called him up and said, “Hey, Larry, can I come by?”Larry said, “Oh, yeah.”

I used to go and sit with him all afternoon, swap tales. He let me smoke cigarettes and he’s going, “Oh, that smells good, man. I wish I could have a cigarette . . .”

He told me all the Stooges stories—Moe was the business guy, and Curly was the party guy—all the great Stooges stories. And I did all this fan mail—I licked and addressed the envelopes. He had a form letter. He’d sign them and I’d send them out. I paid for the postage with my own money. I helped him decorate his place, which is cinder block walls painted white. The kids would send him so much mail. I’d say, “Well, let’s see what we got here, man.” The kids would draw Three Stooges stuff, so we plastered the walls with all the drawings the kids sent him. It was great.

I wound up talking to him so much that his speech improved, but I didn’t really notice it because I’d been with him so much. One time I was leaving, and the doctor comes up to me and goes, “Oh, I’ve really got to thank you, you’ve so improved Larry’s speech. He’s so much better. I’d really like to thank you for spending time with him.” (p. 441)

That passage was the first in Please Kill Me that I revisited last night, because I’ve always found it funny and touching, especially considering that while Ron Asheton was pulling Larry Fine back into the land of the living his bandmates were gazing with stony apathy at their drug-addled leader Iggy as he dabbled in his mostly involuntary hobby of nodding off face down in a swimming pool. As I worked my way backwards through the Ron Asheton passages in the book, I noticed that Asheton had a habit of positioning himself at the edge of chaotic situations, and of pulling something valuable and alive from the chaos.

I’d been to New York with Iggy a few times before we went to record the first album. The first time we went, before we got signed to Elektra, was when Iggy took STP for the first time. He didn’t know it was a three-day trip, so guess who got to watch him? Me.I tied a rope around his waist and led him around town. Iggy kept saying, “Wow, I can see through buildings, man.”

Iggy kept having to get up and do stuff and I said, “Oh, man, I’m tired.” So when I wanted to go to sleep, I tied the rope around his waist to my wrist, so every time he moved he would wake me up.

That was our first trip to New York. When we showed up to do the record, Jac Holzman had asked me, “You guys got enough material to do an album, right?””

We said, “Oh, sure.”

We only had three songs. So I went back to the hotel and in an hour came up with the riffs for “Little Doll,” “Not Right,” and “Real Cool Time.” (p. 54)

Iggy has always gotten a lot of the credit for the Stooges, as he should, but as the above passage suggests, without Ron Asheton Iggy might have been just another unleashed madman wandering aimlessly through the night with pupils the size of nickels. In the passage below, describing a moment from before the Stooges ever existed, when Asheton and future Stooges bassist Dave Alexander took a trip to to England, reveals that Asheton may have been the first Stooge to get a vision of the uncharted territory the band would one day explore.

We went to see the Who at the Cavern. It was wall to fucking wall of people. We muscled through to about ten feet from the stage, and Townshend started smashing his twelve-string Rickenbacker.It was my first experience of total pandemonium. It was like a dog pile of people, just trying to grab Townshend’s guitar, and people were scrambling to dive onstage and he’d swing the guitar at their heads. The audience wasn’t cheering; it was more like animal noises, howling. The whole room turned really primitive—like a pack of starving animals that hadn’t eaten in a week and somebody throws out a piece of meat. I was afraid. For me, it wasn’t fun, but it was mesmerizing. It was like, “The plane’s burning, the ship’s sinking, so let’s crush each other.” Never had I seen people driven so nuts—that music could drive people to such dangerous extremes.

That’s when I realized, This is definitely what I wanna do. (p. 34)

You’re lucky if you hear the life you’re supposed to be leading calling to you, even luckier if you’ve got the courage to follow that call. Ron Asheton heard and followed all the way until the end, as evidenced by this recent clip of the reunited Stooges. Asheton’s the guy using a guitar to light a fire… 

12 comments

  1. 1.  Hey Josh, nice tribute to one of the more underrated guitarists of all time. Ron also switched over to bass for the “Raw Power” era Stooges. I saw Iggy solo several times over the years, and could kick myself for missing The Stooges when they toured last year. I always smile when I hear the killer riff opening “TV Eye”, and now I’ll feel a little sad. RIP Ron.


  2. 2.  2 : Yeah, the guy quoted at the top of the post, Trynka, spent some time in his book praising Asheton’s innovative latter-era bass-playing, especially in the doomed post-Raw Power phase, when they were making some fantastic music (Open Up and Bleed, Johanna, I Got Nothing, etc.) that would sadly never get on a proper studio album.


  3. 3.  Josh,
    Just when I think I can’t possibly like this site more you raise the bar by writing about the Stooges. The Stooges Funhouse remains one of my favorite records ever. The world is a better place thanks to Rock Action.


  4. 4.  I’ve been reading Cardboard Gods a lot lately and digging into the archives, and just love what you do here. And now you write about Ron Asheton! Awesome. I’m with betheboy, I didn’t think I could possibly like this blog more, and now you have indeed raised the bar – Ted


  5. 5.  Wow, Josh.

    Yet another piece that happily justifies why you are my favorite living writer. Amazing stuff, as always. You will be widely disseminated (I don’t want to say “rich and famous” for obvious reasons) before we know it.

    Really beautiful writing. I always approach your new pieces with great anticipation and relish. (Condiment thoughts!)


  6. 6.  Around 1989-90, my Strat-O-Matic team was named the Stooges, both for Iggy and the boys and Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp.

    I did get to see them play a short set at the 2004 Underground Garage Festival (where the New York Dolls played as well), but I really wish I had taken my wife’s advice and gone to see them at the United Palace last year.


  7. 7.  Josh, Tis a distorted twangless day my friend.

    I wrote a bit about the Stooges connection a while back…

    http://bronxbanter.baseballtoaster.com/archives/1129457.html


  8. 8.  I see on Wikipedia that his day of death is posted as January 1. Not sure if that’s official, but if it is he joins Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt as New’s Year Day perishers.


  9. 9.  “But did Ron Asheton ever have his picture on a bubble-gum card? How can he be great if he never had his picture on a bubble-gum card?”

    Seriously — I was hoping you would write about Ron Asheton. Thank you for another excellent entry.


  10. 10.  The great Mike Watt, who played bass for the revived Stooges, just had this to say in a message to people on his email list:

    friends,

    I’m thinking of ron asheton, a beautiful man who I learned from much and shared many joys w/and always played my heart out for him. he was a pioneer w/a guitar sound all his own and was very very kind to me… “you’re a good sailor” he would always say. I can’t find the words to really put it right here but he was truly a righteous brother, much deep respect. I miss him so so much.

    big big love from watt


  11. I just found your blog while looking for info about Ron’s death and love the combo of rock and baseball. I used to be a music writer and did a few articles about the Ramones back in the 70s and early 80s. Johnny and I disagreed violently about politics, but we always got along because of our love of punk rock and baseball cards.

    I am really impressed by the level of writing and interesting takes on baseball here. I’ll definitely be checking in regularly.

    RIP, Ron.


  12. Thanks for checking in, mekons. Yeah, Johnny was always my favorite Ramone when I was a pimply lad; maybe I intuitively understood that he was into baseball cards and comic books, like me. I wonder what happened to his cards when he died.



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