Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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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… 

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Johnnie LeMaster

July 31, 2008
 Untitled 

Below are a couple sketches of the obscurely infamous alter ego of the slight, scraggly, plainly obvious baseball imposter pictured here, from the classic but extremely difficult-to-find book I have excerpted from before here on Cardboard Gods, Dead on Arrival: The Oral History of Giant Prospects, the Greatest Punk Band No One Ever Heard Of:

From page 134-5:

Greg Johnston [bass]: Yeah, I guess because of that whole fake baseball card flyer thing, we started seeing people in ripped-up baseball shirts at our shows. It was right around when The Warriors came out, so maybe that helped add a kind of violent edge to it. You’d see these sketchy speed freak characters in their old little league jerseys and eyeblack, just itching to break a pool cue over somebody’s head.

John Tamargo [aka Johnny Tomorrow, drums]: Joe [Strain, legendary frontman of Giant Prospects] hated those baseball fucks. He was starting to crack around then anyway, but that whole thing didn’t help. He’d stop songs in the middle to scream at them.

Ned Alvin (club owner): It got ugly. He stopped right in the middle of the set and started lecturing them. He thought they were violent fascists. I don’t know about the fascist part but they were pretty violent—they’d pretty much cleared the floor of anyone not willing to have their head caved in by one of the souvenir mini bats they held in their fists as they flailed around to the music. Anyway, Strain kept calling them stormtroopers. They didn’t get the reference. I clearly remember one of them screaming back, “Fuck Star Wars!”

Johnston: Finally one of them walks toward the stage, toward Joe. This skinny unshaven derelict in a jersey just like the ones we posed in for the flyer. He’s staring at Joe so insanely that Joe stops haranguing them and stares back. It’s a showdown! The guy grabs a bottle off a table. Joe grabs a bottle from the edge of the little stage and steps down. These two skinny nutjobs just stare at each other, both of them smiling, then finally the guy smacks the bottle against his own head, not breaking it. Joe does the same to his head. They both look kind of woozy but they do it again, whack! Whack! They’re trying to break the thing but they’re [laughs] they’re fucking complete weaklings! Even with all the speed coursing through them! Eventually the bouncer breaks it up, everyone in the place looking like they don’t know whether to laugh or puke. Weirdest fight I’ve ever seen. Anyway, that was how Joe Strain met Johnny Disaster.     

From page 137:

Eddie Toth (band manager): Errors. That’s how I would characterize the Johnny Disaster era of Giant Prospects. Things probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway. When Greg Johnston left the band [to take a job as a sous chef] he did so because he was the first to see that the ship was sinking. But Johnny Disaster didn’t exactly help slow that process. He just could not play bass. I mean, his whole thing was that he was bad at everything, that he was a failure. I’m sure that’s why Joe paired up with him. Joe was always going on and on about the “Redemption of Failing,” even before he met Johnny Disaster. Sometimes I wondered if Joe Strain had created Johnny Disaster. You know, like Frankenstein. His perfectly awful creation. Anyway, it made the shows into a comedy of errors. Make that a tragedy of errors.

Tamargo: Thing I remember about Johnny Disaster is he had the word “BOO” tattooed on his chest in big block letters. He’d show it off when people started throwing things at the stage because we sucked so bad.  

From page 238:

Johnston: Whatever happened to Johnny Disaster? Funny you ask. I ran into him not too long ago in an airport. I didn’t recognize him, but I guess he recognized me. He said he was on his way to San Francisco to take part in some Giants’ reunion. He’d completely lost it and thought that he’d actually been a baseball player! I was looking at this crazy glint in his eyes as he was telling me all the great teammates he’d had and I was wondering to myself, “How the hell did this guy get through security?” It has made me a little nervous about riding on airplanes, actually.

(Love versus Hate update: Johnnie LeMaster’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

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Joe Strain

May 9, 2007
 

 
“Punk rock changed our lives.” – The Minutemen, “History Lesson, Part II

Here is a small, cheaply made cardboard flyer that the punk band Giant Prospects somehow managed to get into a few packs of Topps baseball cards in 1979. (Note characteristic typo—”GIANTS PROSPECTS”—at top.) From what I can deduce, the flyer was an ingenious (though perhaps misplaced) bit of guerilla-punk publicity intended to spread the word about the band’s would-be debut album, 1979, which for a myriad of reasons was never actually released.

That has to be the explanation for this baffling artifact. How else to explain the profound anonymity of the players? How else to explain the unsurpassed graininess of the photographs? How else to explain the eerie look of each of the pairs of eyes, which all seem as if they have been drawn onto the grainy photographs of the faces, or, worse, that the faces themselves are clammy rubber masks with eyeholes? How else, above all, to explain Joe Strain?

No, this is not a trio of baseball players. How could it be? This is a punk rock band. John “Johnny Tomorrow” Tamargo on drums. Greg Johnston on bass. Joe Strain on vocals and guitar.

The following excerpts from Dead on Arrival: The Oral History of Giant Prospects, the Greatest Punk Band No One Ever Heard Of shed some more light on the band, and on the card at the top of this page:

From pages 11–12 :

Tamargo: Yeah, I was working at a Jiffy Lube. I was a little older than the other guys, who knew each other from a community college typing class, I think. I’d played drums a few years before in a band in high school, but we fuckin’ sucked. All we did was play the same three Bachman Turner Overdrive songs over and over again to the girlfriends of the guitar player and lead singer. I ended up getting thrown out of that band for beating the shit out of the lead guy, I forget why. [Pause.] He was a dick. [Pause.] He had this long Robert Plant style hairdo and thought we were holding him back from selling out arenas. He ended up making a lot of money though, but not from music. Huh? Oh, uh, he started a business that rented out port-a-potties. [Long pause.] I actually ended up having to ask him for a job one time. I heard they needed a driver. What? No, nope, he didn’t hire me.

Johnston: Well, I was sick of taking the bus. What choice did I have? I had no car, no money to buy a car, and it was a 9-mile walk from my job at Hardee’s to my mom’s apartment, where I was staying. And it was at night, and a lot of the route was along a highway. Fuckin’ miserable. But I don’t know, I was just sick of the fucking bus, the monotony of it, mostly, pay your money, sit there staring out the window, do it all over again the next day and again and again until you’re dead. So one night I just decided, fuck it, I’m walking. Before I get to the highway I pass this Jiffy Lube that’s empty and all lit up and there’s this music coming out of it. This sound. I mean it was the sound I wanted to fuckin’ be. That’s how I met Johnny.

Tamargo: The funny thing is I mostly cranked AC/DC when it was slow. Maybe some Nugent. But I’d recently bought this new cassette because I liked the cover. I was like Bollocks? What the fuck is bollocks? I think it was “God Save the Queen” that was playing when Greg was walking by in his fuckin’ Arby’s suit. You know [imitating Johnny Rotten]: “No future, no future, no future for you. . . .”

From page 86:

Dave Peretz (friend/fan): Those early shows, in a way, those were the best. I mean, in a way they were the worst, too, because, I mean, objectively, or, like, musically, they sucked. Especially Joe, who could barely play three chords in the beginning. But that was enough. All of those shows ended with Joe injuring himself. That’s how he got his name, because he kept giving himself groin pulls and hamstring tears in the middle of the closer, “Worth Something.” Joe would start thrashing around while screaming the chorus, you know, “Throw me in the dump/wait a thousand years/maybe by then I’ll be worth something!” Over and over until everybody in the place was yelling “worth something” right along with Joe every time it came around, and Tamargo was smashing the shit out of the drums like they killed his mother, and Greg, Greg always had his face shining up at the ceiling during that song, all smiles, eyes closed, like a fucking blissed-out Hare Krishna. All of us jumping up and down, sweating our balls off, yelling “maybe by then I’ll be worth some-thing! Maybe by then I’ll be worth some-thing!” I still hear it in my head, man. Thirty years ago almost. I don’t believe it. [Long pause.] I honestly don’t believe it.

From page 131:

Tamargo: The baseball card thing came about because Joe got to be friends with this burnout who came to our shows, Smitty, that used to work at the card company. Huh? Yeah, Topps, I guess. He got fired because he’d get stoned every day out by a dumpster during his lunch break then go in and just, you know, make a mess of things. The cards would come out all crooked. [Laughs.] But he still knew people who worked there. I think he actually sold shrooms to one of them. So that was our window, I guess. I don’t know, Joe was the driving force on that one, like with most of our, uh, “professional musician” type shit.

Johnston: The baseball uniforms were Joe’s idea. He was reading a bunch of these anarchist pamphlets that this weird older woman kept feeding him. She was tall and bony and had a really pale face which she made even paler with powder or something. She kind of looked like a puppet. Tell you the truth it kind of gives me the creeps to think about her. Anyway, Joe got on this whole kick about uniforms. He was like, “From the moment you take your first step you are in a uniform. If it’s not Cub Scouts it’s little league. It’s fascism!” Me and Johnny laughed at him a little. I mean, we both played little league and it didn’t make us want to go sign up with the Nazis. But he was always going off on some insane tangent or other, not that I didn’t agree with him most of the time, actually. Anyway us being in uniforms helped the first few of the cards slip past quality control or whatever at Topps, I guess.

From pages 247–248 :

Eddie Toth (manager): That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Or one of the two questions, which are each really the same question. My opinion is the answer to one is the answer to the other. Find Joe Strain and you find the tapes from the recording session. They’re in the same place, guaranteed. Dead or alive, who knows, but same place for sure.

Johnston: Yeah, well, Eddie and Joe never really saw eye to eye. Joe always suspected Eddie was, you know, the fuckin’ man or something. “The Oppressor.” I was always like, come on, man, Eddie’s just some fat fuck who owns a bankrupt record store. He’s not the head of the friggin’ world bank. But anyway, yeah, maybe Eddie’s right. I mean, the tapes went missing just a few days before Joe disappeared. [Pause.] So much for Giant Prospects.

Tamargo: Last time I saw Joe for sure was the day before he flaked out. He was acting weird, but he was always acting weird. You know, jittery. Never stopped moving, never really looked you in the eye. But the weirdest thing about that one time was that he did get quiet and still for a second and he did look me in the eye. He said. Heh. You know what he said? He said, “John, you oughta be more careful when you drive. You go too fast.” [Pause.] Hm? Oh, well, you know how things are when you start to be an old man like me. Yeah, I mean there’s been a couple times when I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eye kind of thing. But that’s just probably my messed-up mind. I mean, Joe Strain? Joe Strain was barely possible in this world even way back when. How’s there going to be a Joe Strain now? [Long pause.] But I guess you never know.

 
Postscript: There seems to be no video or audio evidence of the band described above. In lieu of that, below are a few links to footage of some of the bands that helped bring Giant Prospects to life, at least for a short while:

Iggy and the Stooges, 1970

Richard Hell interview 

The Ramones, January 1975 

The Sex Pistols, August 1976

The Clash, late ’70s

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