Ron Asheton 1948-2009: Why Stooges Guitar Ruled
by Mike Mosher
We had just visited the Michigan State Capitol, when the Lansing NPR and classical music station WKAR-FM announced that Ron Asheton, sixty-year-old guitarist for the Punk rock band the Stooges, had been found dead in his boyhood home an hour away in Ann Arbor. One ornate and imposing Michigan monument from a previous century stands tall (the State Capitol had been restored in 1992; the Stooges, in 2003), while another has fallen.
In Ann Arbor, local boys the MC5 and Stooges provided much of the soundtrack to my junior high and high school years, and the Stooges had menaced the Principal when they played at my junior high school. One girlfriend claimed that infections she'd spread around her/our circle had been transmitted to her by Ron Asheton, so defied any criticism. A few years later, another flattered me by claiming she'd slept with Asheton because he reminded her of me. Stooges music has been called infantile and puerile, stoopid and profound, even praised on this website for its laxative qualities.
By the time the Stooges pooped out in 1973, everybody in the band had become hopeless junkies except beer-drinkin' Ron Asheton. Asheton soon started a band with the ominous totalitarian name New Order, about four years before Ian Curtis' British one with that name, but they lasted a couple of years, at most. In 1977, he and ex-MC5 bassist Michael Davis joined younger creatives Cary Loren, Loren's girlfriend the painter Niagara, plus psychedelic UM faculty brats Ben and Larry Miller in the band Destroy All Monsters. Soon Niagara left Loren, and moved in with Asheton and his mother into Ann Asheton's small 1950s house on Ann Arbor's west side, where Ron and his brother Scott had grown up. Without Davis nor the Millers, a version of the band carried on into the 1980s, even after Niagara's marriage to another guy. Asheton also continued to collaborate musically with her in the band Dark Carnival, well into the mid-1990s.
In all these bands, the fluid guitar of Ron Asheton is unmistakable, even when (as in New Order) the songwriting is forgettable. His guitar lines strain like a wet anaconda fighting its losing handlers as it refuses to be subdued; the appropriate cognate for Iggy Pop's stage dancing. Asheton helped rework Stooges songs for Todd Haynes' cinematic imagining of an Iggy Pop-David Bowie romance Velvet Goldmine, which struck a discordant note with most Stooges fans. As an actor, Asheton appeared as a sheriff, lawyer and a loudmouth hunter in a Michigan-made low-budget horror movies. After 2000, he had prefigured the Stooges reunion in appearances with other Michigan musicians of his era.
His politics were supposedly knee-jerk conservative, though the Stooges shared stages with the White Panther Party-inspired bands MC5 and the Up in benefits for radical and leftist causes. And then there were the problematic Iron Crosses, Wehrmacht and even Nazi regalia that Asheton was known to wear in performance, a topic worthy of further exploration. In interviews, he spoke of scrawling swastikas on schoolbooks and making a super-8 movie in high school called "The Strange Jew", who was strange because "he wore a single glove or something." In a spaetzle of contradictions worthy of Gregor von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Asheton lived for several years (down the hall from his mother, in that boyhood home) with Niagara, whose parents were Jewish Detroit suburbanites. This may have been the dour man's longest romantic relationship.
As a band, the Stooges were written off for dead in a morass of sloppiness (the wrong kind) and bad blood in 1973, but competently reassembled three decades later. Though greatly welcomed, the 2007 album The Weirdness proved a bit disappointing. Iggy's mature lyrical topics put him at a disadvantage, for to hear a a sixty-year old man complain that he has nothing in common with other people in his posh neighborhood is decidedly less compelling than to bear witness to a 22-year-old wail (in the voice of a 17-year-old) that he's having no fun or wants to be his partner's dog. Nevertheless, Ron Asheton's guitar, and Scott's simple, solid drumming, were worthy successors to their previous work in the band, much fun and exciting to hear. It sounded as if they'd never left, or were just waiting for the nonsense to end and the band to resume doing what it could do so memorably. It is hoped that the Asheton brothers both enjoyed, as well as profited financially, from the Stooges' final five-year run.
Upon Ron Asheton's death, Iggy Pop claimed to have lost his best friend (which was how, for the intervening decades, he had designated David Bowie). Though one assumes Iggy will continue a solo career, with the death of their musical propellant Ron Asheton, the Stooges are no more.
Mike Mosher often writes about the culture of Michigan for Bad Subjects.