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Remembered: Ron Asheton


Ron Asheton at the 2008 Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore, Maryland on August 10, 2008. Photo: David Atlas/Retna Ltd.
The news of Ron Asheton’s death on January 6, 2009 spread with an urgency and an emotion that likely would have surprised Asheton himself. Even though he was responsible for some of rock’s most explosive and enduring riffs with the Stooges, penning brutally frank, muscular songs like “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “No Fun” and “TV Eye” that summed up the angst and restlessness of the Rust Belt a decade before punk, Asheton never seemed to garner much respect outside of esoteric circles.

Even with the Stooges’ recent resurgence among an in-the-know swath of fans and musicians – culminating with a triumphant reunion at the 2003 Coachella Festival in Southern California and Asheton’s inclusion in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time (29th) – there always seemed to be a contingent of loud, persistent critics who remained unconvinced that the Stooges’ proto-sound amounted to anything artistic. His was ostensibly a life of constant disrespect from both the mainstream and from those around him, perhaps best epitomized by his last encounter with the outside world: Asheton was discovered alone, several days after suffering a heart attack in his Ann Arbor home. And yet, the news of his passing spread quickly even through the most mainstream of media outlets, proving that Ron Asheton’s contribution to rock history was much more lasting than even he believed.

While Asheton’s spartan playing style was often a target for critics (“The instrumentalists sound like they've been playing their axes for two months and playing together for one month at most,” read Rolling Stone’s review of their eponymous debut), his rhythmic attack and hypnotizing, angular progressions provided both the perfect accompaniment to Iggy Pop’s onstage masochism and a direct counterpoint to the blues and folk sounds that, until then, had comprised rock’s foundation. Borrowing from high-powered pioneers like the Stones and the Who (a band he saw firsthand at the Cavern Club at age 16), Asheton managed to ratchet the intensity even higher with a heavy, focused right hand and loads of feedback. Suddenly the amount of energy a guitarist put into the song mattered just as much as the notes played; the Stooges’ magic happened live. “Everyone thinks it’s really simple: ‘Hey, it’s three chords. I can do that,’” Asheton said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “It’s not true. A song like ‘TV Eye’ sounds simple, but it’s that groove, and I’ve never seen anybody else hit it.”

It was that combination of groove and sheer power that marked the Stooges’ arrival on the music scene, and in turn, an evolutionary step for rock n’ roll. While the Stooges certainly weren’t the only angry band in existence – they often shared the bill with the equally bombastic MC5s – they did represent a stark parting with the rock establishment. While flower power and psychedelia dominated popular culture, the Stooges personified violence and alienation – not just aimed at politics or the establishment, but at society itself. Asheton prowled the stage clad in iron crosses and S.S. pins, mauling his trusty Stratocaster while Pop provoked the crowd in every manner imaginable. It was such a shift in attitude that audiences were initially at a loss for how to interpret the band. “When [Iggy] first started going in there [the audience], most people weren’t angry. It was hard to get anyone angry. They were scared, shocked or like ‘huh?’ It was a snake, they were mesmerized,” Asheton recalled in a 2000 interview with Perfect Sound Forever. “Then they enjoyed the participation. A lot of people would beg ‘Come over here!’ ... He'd be lying all over the chairs and the kids would be throwing beers at him. To me, that's what really cracked me up and that's when he really started refining it.”

We were able to talk with Joe Naylor, owner and founder of Reverend Guitars, briefly following Ron Asheton’s passing. Asheton was a longtime Reverend endorser and collaborated with Naylor to create the Ron Asheton Signature Guitar in 2008.

“I grew up in Ann Arbor, and the Stooges were big hometown heroes. Ron already endorsed Naylor amps before I started Reverend, and he was endorsing Reverend guitars before the signature model. When they started to make their comeback a few years ago, a signature model made perfect sense to both of us. Ron was incredibly gracious, considerate and humble. Here's a guy who changed rock and has played in front of 100,000 people, but had no rockstar ego or attitude. He was just a straight up, cool guy.

To me, on a musical level he represented simplicity and efficiency – he made his point with a hard attack, brutal tone and a few well-placed barre chords. All of us at Reverend appreciated where Ron was coming from: he was established in the underground scene but had yet to gain mainstream recognition... a lot like Reverend.”
Unfortunately for the Stooges, the assault wasn’t simply on the audience. The pressures of Pop’s growing heroin habit and a relentless touring schedule caused the band to flame out just as quickly as they had burst forth. The band decided to take an indefinite break in 1971, and Pop decided to move to England and assemble a new group of Stooges before summoning Asheton to play bass on 1973’s Raw Power (“I was shattered,” he recalled of the perceived demotion). While he would continue to slug it out in the Ann Arbor/Detroit music scenes, playing in underground acts like New Order and Destroy All Monsters into the late nineties, and would even work with fellow Michiganite and Reverend Guitars owner, Joe Naylor, to create one of the coolest signature guitars ever conceived, he was never able to recapture the fire of his Stooges’ days. It was a track record that clearly frustrated Asheton. “For me, it’s business as usual,” he said in 2000. “Ahead of my time, bad timing. Wrong place at the wrong time. Never a groom, always the best man.”

And perhaps that illustrates best what is frustrating for fans and fodder for critics: the Stooges were ultimately only a step towards a final musical destination, not the destination itself. By the time punk and metal arrived, most had forgotten the Stooges’ original, anarchic brew of aggression and noise. Until the recent emergence of entire sub-genres of rock music that owe their existence to Asheton’s style (post-rock, post-punk, math rock, etc.), no one really discussed the band; even today, after a successful reunion, another studio album (2007’s The Weirdness) and a world tour, the cultural disrespect continues. If that sounds paranoid, the proof lies in Cleveland. While the Stooges have been nominated for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2009, exactly 40 years after the release of The Stooges, it marks their seventh attempt to break into the Hall – even after performing two of Madonna’s songs, at her request, for her induction in 2008. Asheton admitted that he liked the idea of getting into the club, but approached it with the same cynical sense of humor that he maintained about everything in life.

“We're still the Stooges, man. Some people still hate our new record. There are some journalists and record industry people who still hate us enough not to allow us in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Asheton told the Chicago Tribune in 2007. “Isn’t the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame supposed to be about people who were innovators in music, who actually helped create music, not just followers or good singers or people who sold a lot?”