The guitar anti-hero who started the Stooges and changed the sound of rock 6-string’s future, paving the way for … everything.
Late 1960s Ann Arbor, Michigan—a sleepy college town about 45 minutes west of Detroit—is the unlikely birthplace of punk. But it was there, led by a local band called the Stooges, that America’s most visceral, degenerate export was born.
The Stooges weren’t Eastern Michigan’s most popular band at the time. That honor went to the MC5. But the Stooges may have been the most important—even compared to Michigan artists like Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, and Ted Nugent, that would go on to sell out arenas in the next decade. The Stooges classic songs, like “T.V. Eye” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” have been covered over and over by numerous artists. The chaos they inspired is today standard behavior at most punk, hardcore, alternative, indie, and metal shows. They embraced noise. They were aggressive and confrontational. They weren’t hippies, despite their late-’60s pedigree. They were ahead of their time and—this isn’t clichéd or hyperbolic—pioneered the next half-century of alternative rock.
In addition to his band’s influence, the Stooges’ guitarist, Ron Asheton, made a significant impact as well. He embraced power chords. His tone was grating and jagged. He didn’t play with that vintage tube warmth associated with many of his contemporaries. And he loved feedback and noise. As his band’s only guitarist, he found ways to make his 6-string sound like more than one instrument. He explored non-Western tonalities and experimented with drones.
In hindsight, the Stooges are famous for their nihilistic, antagonistic performances and their lead singer’s self-destructive antics—some say Iggy Pop invented stage diving and crowd surfing—as well as their straightforward, no-nonsense songwriting, and Asheton’s innovative guitar playing. But at the time, no one was interested. The Stooges released three albums that didn’t sell well. They played to half-empty clubs and were taunted and harassed by their audiences. They didn’t have a loyal fan base and they weren’t popular overseas. In 1974, plagued by drug use and mismanagement, the Stooges broke up.
Not that anyone noticed.
But payback is sweet. The mainstream may have ignored the Stooges, but the underground grew to adore them. Over the next three decades, young bands dissected their music, copied their sound, and used them as a starting point to invent new genres and movements. Their legend grew and their albums, while never radio-friendly, continued to sell.
In 2003, after a 29-year hiatus, the Stooges regrouped with Mike Watt on bass for a one-off performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. That performance led to a tour, which led to a full-fledged reunion. But unlike the old days, the reunited Stooges headlined major festivals and played to enthusiastic crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. What’s more, they weren’t a nostalgia act. Their audiences were young and the old-timers kept their distance. It was as if the culture had finally caught up with them.
Ron Asheton died in 2009, and although the Stooges’ story has been told many times over, those retellings usually focus on the band’s iconic countercultural status and Iggy Pop’s larger-than-life persona. Much less has been written about Asheton’s guitar playing, sonic choices, and gear. Our hope is to remedy that. We spoke to his family, roadies, old friends, collaborators, and bandmates, and bring you this picture of an important and influential talent.
Ron Asheton was born in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 1948. His father’s business took the family to Davenport, Iowa, and then, following his dad’s heart attack, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Our mom’s parents and family were in Michigan,” Kathy Asheton, Ron’s younger sister says. Ron was the oldest of three siblings. Stooges drummer Scott Asheton was in the middle. “They decided—not sure how our dad would be doing—to move so we could be near family. Sadly, about a year later, our father passed away, in December, 1963.”
Asheton’s mother, while still in Iowa, encouraged her children to take music lessons. Ron studied the accordion, Scott—years before discovering rock ’n’ roll—took drum lessons, and Kathy sang. Those music lessons stopped with the family’s move to Michigan—along with the uncertainty that accompanied their father’s illness and early death—and Ron put his interest in music on hold.
At least, until the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. “The Beatles came in February of ’64, right after our father passed away, and that got Ronny going,” Kathy says. “From that point on, that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to play guitar. He wanted to be the Beatles. So that’s how that started for him.”
With “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “1969,” the Stooges’ 1969 debut alone would be enough to qualify Ron Asheton, at right, just behind Iggy Pop, as a guitar giant. His drumming brother, Scott, is at center, with bassist Dave Alexander at rear.
He also traveled to England, along with future Stooges bassist Dave Alexander, during his senior year in high school. “There was a good friend of his—also from a very good family in Ann Arbor—and they had moved to England,” Kathy Asheton says, putting to rest a number of myths about her brother’s early days. “It wasn’t like he was just floating off into a land of strangers. He had a family connection there, which was part of the, ‘yes, you have permission to go.’ It was the biggest thing. He’d write letters. Ronny wrote letters to Bill Cheatham—who was his best, dearest friend [Editor’s note: Cheatham was a roadie for the Stooges and also played second guitar in the band for a short period, before being replaced by James Williamson.]—saying that he met Ringo. They started a rumor in high school that ‘Ronny met Ringo.’ But it was really a joke. He never did meet anybody. He saw the Who there, but he didn’t meet any of them.”
After he returned, Asheton played bass in a number of local bands, often running through a fuzz pedal and wah-wah, including the Chosen Few, which included future Iggy and the Stooges guitarist James Williamson. He also shared a stage with the Prime Movers, whose drummer was Iggy Pop.
“He met Iggy at the local Discount Records,” Kathy says. “That’s where Iggy worked, and that was the music hub of Ann Arbor, where everybody connected.”
Ron—as a guitarist—started the band that would eventually morph into the Stooges original line-up, featuring Pop, Alexander on bass, and his brother Scott on drums. “We were all shook up when our father passed away, but Scotty took it very hard,” Kathy Asheton says. “He was hanging out with, say, the wrong people and our mom was concerned about that. Ronny took Scotty under his wing and took him to all the Chosen Few shows, just to keep an eye on him. Scotty was like their little roadie at the gigs. He would help out with the drum kit, and that’s when he started taking more interest in playing drums.”
The band’s original name was the Psychedelic Stooges, which was a tip of the hat to the Three Stooges. “Ron was a huge fan of the Three Stooges,” says Deniz Tek, the guitarist in the legendary Australian punk band Radio Birdman and an old friend of Ron’s from Ann Arbor. “At one point, when he was a kid, he was the president of the Three Stooges fan club. Later, when Ron was living in Hollywood, he knew Larry Fine from the Three Stooges. Larry was in a nursing home in Beverley Hills and Ron would often go visit him and help him out with answering his fan mail and stuff like that. He would get cigars and whisky for him.”
The early Stooges didn’t sound like anything else. They were loud, raucous, raw, free, and improvisatory. They didn’t have a set list—or even established songs—and crafted each performance to fit the event. Their focus wasn’t developing a repertoire, but putting on a show and making each night an experience.
“They were doing what they called ‘Energy Freakouts,’ or jams,” Tek says. “It was fascinating to me as a teenager to attend those shows, because I never saw anything like it. Scotty would bang on 44-gallon oilcans with steel pipes. Iggy made noise, putting mics in blenders and things like that. Ron just had this raw guitar mayhem. They would adapt it to the gig.”
“The gigs were one big jam,” Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehose) says. Watt was the Stooges’ bassist throughout their 2003-’14 reunion. “Ronny told me about making noise with an electric blender, Dave Alexander throwing the amp down to make sounds, and Scotty beating oil drums with their horoscope signs painted on them. It was a whole different thing than what we know from Stooges’ albums.”