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Rock historians regard the glory years of the Stooges to be 1969 and 1970, when the proto-punk act released The Stooges and Fun House, their two most influential albums. But according to Ron Asheton, the voluble guitarist for the combo, which is close to intact after coming apart more than three decades ago: "This is really the best time. The past is the past, and we did what we did, and it was cool. But now is the really fun time, when the songs are accepted and the crowds are great."
Asheton came to this conclusion the hard way: by struggling for half his life before reaching it. His tale of the years between his early-Seventies exit from the Stooges and the new-millennium reunion of the original quartet's three surviving members — Ron, his drumming brother Scott, and vocalist/provocateur Iggy Pop — is a virtually unbroken string of professional disappointments. Ron delivers this narrative with hangdog humor that only makes his current optimism that much more telling.
The Detroit-based group, complete with Dave Alexander on bass, got together in 1967, debuting with a gig on Halloween — an appropriate date considering that even boosters thought of the Stooges as something of a freak show. Most of the attention was lavished on outrageous Iggy, and rightly so. Still, Ron's work was equally impressive, splitting the difference between garage rock and pre-metal to arrive at a sound that inevitably led to punk and plenty more.
Elektra inked the Stooges, and their self-titled first album, produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale, is now regarded as a classic thanks to rousingly snotty slabs of nihilism such as "1969" and "No Fun." Despite this last title, Ron enjoyed himself thoroughly back then. "We were young; some of us were teenagers," he says. "That excitement of fun, of travel — and you know those Sixties times, with all the easy sex and picking up girls."
Unfortunately The Stooges initially sold squat, as did Fun House, an even more extreme outing supplemented by Steve Mackay's saxophone squeals. As a result, Elektra gave the band the heave-ho. Meanwhile Iggy and Scott were mired in heroin addiction that's documented in 1996's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, an illuminating book by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in which the Ashetons, along with Iggy, are painfully (and hilariously) candid. Alexander left during this period (he died of pneumonia in 1975), and guitarist James Williamson joined, forcing Asheton into the role of bassist. David Bowie championed these four, helping arrange a deal for them with Columbia Records and agreeing to oversee their third platter, 1973's impressive Raw Power. Sales were slight yet again, though, and Iggy's smack habit put the Ashetons into a vulnerable situation made even worse by business complications.
"In reality we were just hired employees by the management company to back Iggy up," Ron allows. "And that had a dismal ending, with losing management like three times and winding up with a booking agent that put us on the road insanely and all the time. Every show we could possibly play. We were really playing and traveling seven days a week, and it just burned everyone right out — especially Iggy, who had to go out there and be Iggy every night. After that, he said, 'I'm mentally and physically exhausted.'"
In the end, Pop dropped out to launch an erratic but enduring solo career, leaving the Ashetons to make it on their own. Over the years, Ron played in Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival, groups that achieved only a middling level of popularity — and his attempts to increase that were often in vain. "I got a big music book with all the record companies' addresses," he says. "I must have spent $10,000, money that I saved, doing a recording and sending out my stuff, and I started with every label. I went from the top to the bottom, and I didn't even get rejection notices. Two called back with rejections — a label called Lime Green Spider and a record label called Slap a Ham. And I thought, If I can't get on Slap a Ham ... but Slap a Ham didn't even want me.
"I wasn't very successful in my endeavors," he concedes, "but I kept on playing. I never got a regular job. I didn't have anybody to support, like my brother has a daughter. He had to go out and work." However, times were often tight. "I played for as little as $15," he recalls. "If I made $50 a night for playing, I was happy. That was big bread. And just getting along with being able to pay for the rent and cat food. Rent and cat food were the first most important things. Then comes alcohol and cigarettes."
Iggy's world didn't intersect with Ron's very often. Ron saw him play live a couple of times in the early Eighties and talked to him on the phone twice in a quarter-century. But others remembered Ron's Stooges lineage — among them the makers of the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, a Ewan McGregor/Jonathan Rhys Meyers glam-rock pastiche inspired by the relationship between Bowie and Pop. They were looking for what he refers to as "a Stooges-esque guitar player," and since he more than fit the part, he wound up performing onscreen with a slew of other indie-rock notables. From this gig sprang Wylde Ratttz, whose roster featured Ron, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, Mudhoney's Mark Arm, the Minutemen's Mike Watt, and Sean Lennon. London Records snapped up the outfit and an entire album was recorded, but just prior to its release, the imprint folded. "Waaah, waaah, waaah! Bad luck for me again," Ron says.
Things finally began to turn around a few years later, when he and Scott teamed up with Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis and former Minutemen leader Mike Watt to play Stooges tunes on the road. After hearing the buzz generated by these gigs, Pop asked the Ashetons to play some songs with him on his collaboration-heavy 2003 album Skull Ring. "I was a little nervous when we were sitting at the hotel, in that little plaza there, waiting for him to show up. Because I haven't seen him face-to-face in, like, 25 years," Ron says. "Then he shows up, and it was all right, and we go across the street to get something to eat. And always when there's food and wine, the gap in between just closes. Once you start reminiscing and laughing, you know. And we got in the studio, and everything superclicked."
The once-and-future Stooges were so pleased by the Skull Ring sessions that they agreed to appear at 2003's Coachella Music and Arts Festival, with Watt handling bass duties. For Ron, the experience was beyond surreal. "We hadn't played together as the Stooges for years, and on the side of the stage, there was the Chili Peppers, Cameron Diaz, and — who's that guy that played on Taxi, who played Louie De Palma? Danny DeVito! Danny DeVito was there, and I'm like, 'Goddamn it! As if it's not scary enough.'"
He needn't have worried. The assembled throng was rapturous, convincing Pop to make the Stooges' get-together a long-term project. The reconstituted band subsequently played Europe and a few concerts in the States and made a new CD, The Weirdness, with Watt, Fun House saxophonist Mackay, and engineer Steve Albini. The fairly lukewarm reviews generated by the disc thus far haven't lessened fans' affection for Iggy and the Ashetons, and neither have they put a damper on the good times for Ron, who sees the Stooges continuing to make a righteous racket indefinitely. "Musicians can go forever," he argues, "unless you want to stop — and no one wants to stop."
Especially not him. After all, he's finally making a decent living.