Posted September 20, 2009

James Williamson in 2009. Robert Matheu photo


If the postman slips your mail to you under a boulder instead into a letterbox or you've recently come out of a medically-induced coma, then you might just have an excuse for not knowing that the modern era Stooges are reforming a second time.

The fact that You Can't Kill The Stooges is all-too apparent. A self-evident truth. So is the actuality that there were two distinct phases of the band, each very different.

Discounting their very earliest days as avant-garde performance artists who could barely play their instruments and got by mostly on shock value, the first was as wigged-out creators of a fresh and stripped back form of music that took primal rock and roll back someplace before its origins. Two albums, "The Stooges" and the more out-there and stone(d) classic "Funhouse", tilted the world on its axis - even if no-one noticed at the time.

The next configuration was as focused but anti-social outsiders; a gang. This line-up was a re-tooled and more conventional muscle car that was the antithesis of what commercial music was about, while pointing the way to its not-too-far-distant future. More Chuck Berry with a nasty streak than Sun Ra, their isolation from music's mainstream bred contempt - on both sides - as frontman Iggy Pop set new benchmarks for crowd confrontation. The band more than kept up their side of that bargain.

That the second band (let's call them "Iggy & the Stooges" because that's how they were billed) became locked in a desperate and ever-declining merry-go-round of drugs and bad behaviour to become the Ultimate Death Trip Bar Band probably counts less for posterity's sake than the sole album they left behind.

The sonic qualities of "Raw Power" might be oft-debated, but no-one of sound mind argues that the LP's groove isn't home to the most violent guitar-playing ever committed to vinyl. The perpetrator was James Williamson.

Iggy & The Stooges were laid to rest on February 9, 1974. You can hear the coffin nails being pounded in by the audience on the semi-official live album "Metallic KO". The band slipped under the waves, various members drug-fucked, rejected and worn out. And we thought that was that - until the "Funhouse" Stooges re-appeared in 2003 to blow us all away.

If validation was needed that this was one of the most important bands in the history of modern rock and roll, re-animation provided it. Even an ill-executed reunion album ("The Weirdness") couldn't de-rail it. That took the premature death of founding guitarist Ron Asheton in January 2009.

But Iggy & The Stooges are back. At the time of writing they're booked to play two shows with Suicide at the All Tomorrow's Parties shebang in London on May 2 and 3. James Williamson has replaced the late Ron (as he did in the second phase band for most of its life) and I'm talking to him via the wonder of Skype from his home south of San Francisco on a sunny (for me) Sydney September afternoon.

On-stage with the Careless Hearts. Nicola Krest photo

It's the week after his first live performance since October 1974 (in Hollywood with a then solo Iggy Pop.) Williamson had joined local band the Careless Hearts at The Blank Club in San Jose for a rollicking set drawn from the Stooges oeuvre and the "Kill City" album he made with Pop.

Fragments of footage that have made it to YouTube have convinced UK legacy label Easy Action to release the Careless Hearts show in some form and that's probably a smart move in the lead-up to Iggy & The Stooges dates. And yes, James has his chops in place.

"I felt great by the time we actually went on stage but I did a hell of a lot of wood shedding from July until the gig on the 5th of September," Williamson says. "There were a lot of rehearsals and a lot of (solo) practice time I put in.

"We (the Careless Hearts) started out in late July and did a few rehearsals. Then I went away to LA and did some rehearsals with the Stooges."

The set list in itself opens some interesting possibilities for the Stooges and it was noteworthy to see sax player Steve Mackay was part of the fun.

"We're doing a lot more than the Raw Power album," James says of the forthcoming Stoogeshows.

"The set list we're working on is over 30 songs right now so it covers everything, from Raw Power and the first two albums right through to Kill City. Plus the stuff we didn't record but played live, later to be released on bootlegs."

If you think seeing the Stooges back together again in any form is weird, how must it have felt for Williamson to join them in a rehearsal room three decades after they split?

"I was really looking forward to it. I had spoken with, but not seen, Scott Asheton since the Long Beach gig (2003) I saw with the Stooges. So it was really fun to catch up.

"Steve Mackay - gosh, apart from Long Beach I hadn't seen him for a gazillion years. The last time I really remember him way back at the Grande Ballroom when he had to play drums for us. Which is a whole other story.

"We're going to do a few gigs ahead of All Tomorrows Parties hopefully, to work out the bugs and get going, and then the rest of the year is up for grabs at this point. We're being pretty selective but on the other hand we're available."



Williamson speaks in measured stanzas, punctuating well-considered answers with easy laughter. He's a gracious interviewee and easy-going to the point of putting a lie to one of his Stooge nicknames, The Skull, bestowed all those years ago by the Asheton brothers.

At 59, the prospect of touring for a year as part of the re-born Iggy & The Stooges shapes as a new and great adventure for Williamson, who has spent plenty of time overseas in Japan in his day-job career.

I venture that jet travel and five-star hotels are a polar opposite of the dying days of the '70s version of the band and he doesn't disagree. For the record and an unashamedly parochial standpoint, Australia and New Zealand are close to the top of the list of places he wants to see, subject to a suitable offer from a promoter.

James Williamson is an intriguing guy for a number of reasons. He moved laterally into production in the '70s, working on Iggy's "New Values" and "Soldier" albums (more on that one later) but effectively left music for the widening vistas of electronic engineering.

He recently retired from Sony Electronics where he was vice president in charge of quality standards and remains a governor of the worldwide Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

"I'm kinda like Spiderman - I have a day job and a night job," Williamson laughs of the vestiges of that double life. I wonder if many people picked up on his Stoogehistory in his 16 years at Advanced Micro Devices or 12 years at Sony?

"Very few people. Initially, when I changed careers, of course no-one recognised me. That wasn't surprising!

"But as time went by, the Stooges became more and more popular…years later authors would track me down. They can be pretty crafty at that. Here and there guys would find me. Sometimes I would do an interview and sometimes I wouldn't.

"It's pretty hard to hide on the Internet. It got to be everyone knew about me. I was working for Sony - and nobody there cared. They thought it was cool. They didn't think anything negative."

One of the crafty authors was our own Ken Shimamoto who sprang the first-ever online interview (and first in living memory, with VH1 following) with James for the I-94 Bar back in 2001. Williamson only granted access on the recommendation of Ron Asheton - which might surprise a few people given misconceptions that the pair weren't friendly.

Keen observers will note that James displaced Ron from guitar to bass when the Stooges were re-constituted in London to record "Raw Power".

Photo courtesy of John Catto

"I have to say that Ron always had a kinda sour grapes thing about that but the true fact of that matter is that if it wouldn't have been for me, Ron and Scott Asheton wouldn't have been in the Stooges beyond 'Funhouse' after we went to London.

"I was the one that said I didn't want to play with another band in London. I wanted to bring those guys over. It wasn't Iggy, it wasn't his decision, so I don't know why I get the bad rap for that. It's really not fair. I'm the one that got them back in the band.

"OK, maybe it felt funny for him to move from guitar to bass - but I don't know why, in my opinion the bass guy is the second-most important in a band, bet to the drummer. The guitar guy gets all the glory I guess, but he's not that important."

The connection with Ron went back to the days when both were in (at different times) an Ann Arbor band called the Chosen Few. Ironically, Ron was on bass back then.

Of course it's OK to love both versions of the Stooges. James was a fan of the earlier line-up but maintains that his co-opting into the ranks came at a time when change was vital for the band's ongoing existence.

"I think the band, after the first two albums, had kinda burned out on a lot of things. They had achieved tremendous things. I can't even express what it was to see them - and I saw them before they were the Stooges.

"It was an entirely creative effort on their part. They created an entire music that was unique to themselves. And going from that to the first two albums they did was an astonishing effort on their part.

"But by the time that was over, everybody was burned out. Creatively, they didn't have what they needed to write new material, to take it to the next level. And that's where I came in and where things changed a little bit.

"I have the deepest respect for everybody that was involved but it took a new person to take it to the next stage. And that's where 'Raw Power' came in."

There was a time when the post-"Funhouse" Stooges boasted both Williamson and Asheton on guitars. This era is being properly documented for the first time by Easy Action on "You Don't Want My Name", a 4-CD box set of audience recordings which was shipping at the time of writing (after being delayed by a botched pointing job.)

"I haven't got my copies yet but I've heard little bits and pieces. They sound pretty neat.

"That was a very interesting but short time in the history of the band. I know I was working up new material at that time and working it into the set. I have no recollection of what it was or what it was called but it did sort of sound cool."

This transitional period presents another intriguing aspect of James Williamson and his impact on the band. Specifically, how he copped the blame for instigating the band's slide into (harder) drugs. Fact is it was already well underway. I wondered if the bad reputation apportioned to him bothered him down the years.

"Not really. There's a couple of things published that were just trash. 'Please Kill Me' by Legs McNeil - that's garbage.

"Basically, it was a poorly researched book. He took most of his sources from guys who actually hated me and he never took the time or trouble to track me down and get the other side of the story.

"It is what it is. He sold a lot of books. He's actually on my Facebook page. I put him on there so I could torment him from time to time. He's never admitted to the inaccuracy but who cares?"

Paul Trynka's Iggy bio "Open Up And Bleed" graphically and forensically chronicled the rise and fall of the Stooges - the latter, of course, in squalid and graphic detail - and presented a more balanced story. (You can read the author's blog talking about its writing here.) Has that set the record straight for the man bandmates dubbed Strait James?

"It does, definitely. I'm happy with that book. I think that people's impressions of others are always very subjective. When you're talking about musicians, what matters is the music. The rest of it is, you know, whatever."

The Trynka book touches on the vexed concept of whether anything could have saved the Stooges at that stage but it remains unresolved, even for the principals.

"It's such a difficult question in many ways. The Stooges was a kinda three-legged stool. One of the most important legs was Iggy himself. He periodically would super-achieve and self-destruct, in cycles."

That self-destruction has manifested in some spectacular falls and falling-outs. One of the latter was during sessions for Iggy's "Soldier" album at Rockfield in Wales in 1980 when Williamson's role as producer was aborted - something that might have precluded future collaborations on both sides.

"People might think that but I don't think we do. We always had a very strong underlying friendship and it was deeper than any differences we might have had.

"We certainly fell out during the 'Soldier' album. I was not all happy with a number of aspects of that record including the band, the material and the recording facilities. So I was unhappy in general and vice versa - I kinda quit and he fired me at the same time.

"We didn't talk to each for 20 years after that. We have spoken to each other off and on since then.

"When Ron passed away in January - which was a very, sad sad for such a young guy to pass away like that - a couple of months went by and Jim called me. He couldn't really put the Stooges together without me.

"I was about to take early retirement from Sony and said: 'What the hell, let's do it'. I went down to LA to see his show, that benefit he did with the Chilli Peppers. We had a long talk, sorta ironed things out and we're back."

With ex-Pistol Steve Jones at Iggy's LA show earlier in 2009. Robert Matheu photo

While Williamson is diplomatic in his comments about "The Weirdness" ("I think it was their impression of what they ought to be doing right then") he certainly seems keen to push ahead with new material. He stresses that if it happens, it will be a collective effort.

"Well, it's not just my idea of what things should be, but as you might have seen from what I've done in the past, my ideas and musical tastes are different. I like to think I'd bring another originality to the band.

"I think it's a pretty good bet we'll do some new thing but time will tell.

"We have some time before we go touring . We already have some things kicking around.

"One of there things that was always a problem with our band is we had - probably still do have - a tendency to get bored really quickly. We tend to write new stuff all the time.

"That was an issue for us because the audience had never really heard the music before that night. It was too hard for them to relate to. So now we're touring with stuff people actually know and leave the new stuff off until we have a chance to do it properly."

Curiosity meant I had to pose the question about whether the guitarist on "Raw Power" prefers the original abrasive David Bowie mix over Iggy's 1997 faders-to-11-and-needles-in-the-red makeover.

"I do. I was originally critical of it. I have to say I'm not real thrilled with Jim's mix but I have to give him credit. He revived that album and a lot of people heard it because it was remixed by Iggy Pop.

"But I have to say I'd like to see the original mix back on the market as a CD - and I think I'm gonna get my wish."

Ron's passing aside and certainly before it occurred, the last few years really have marked a golden era for the Stooges. Live shows, two box sets, books and DVDs. There's another tome coming down the pipeline, this time by back-in-the-day fan and photographer Robert Matheu and Alice Cooper biographer Jeffrey Morgan, "The Stoogefiles."

Williamson was consulted, supplied photos and corrections and has seen the pre-print version.

"I think it's fantastic. I saw the proofs of it and it's beautiful. I contributed quite a few photos and comments. Robert did a great job, him and Jeffrey Morgan."

Is adulation strange after so long in the shadows?

"It's wonderful to be accepted (laughs). It's always wonderful for people to appreciate what you've done. I just try it temper that with the understanding that I'm just a guy like anyone else.

"Sometimes it's kinda advantageous. Now, all of a sudden. I'm getting approached for endorsements. Free stuff is good! I try not to get too carried away with it."

Being outsiders didn't always hurt. Back in '72, The Stooges were sharing management company Mainman with (and through the patronage of) the higher-priority David Bowie.

James feels the freedom of recording "Raw Power" in a situation that was "without parental supervision" was definitely a plus.

"Everything we tried to do when we first got with Mainman was rejected because it wasn't commercial enough.

"One thing I felt that hurt my music was getting too involved in the business of music.

"The business side really sucks. It's the music that matters. If you cross the line in to the business of music and go too far, you lose the music. It's a very fragile thing.

"I don't want to lose my music. I've found it and I don't want to lose it again."

An important part of that music is slack key guitar, a relatively little-known form of music from the Hawaiian Islands that's a million miles removed from the stuttering, serrated edge sound that made James famous.

"Over the years, my wife and I have spent a lot of time in Hawaii. We now live over there part-time, so I've grown interested in the history of Hawaiian music.

"It's an outgrowth of when the Spaniards were invited to Hawaii to help the Hawaiians understand how to herd cattle. They had cattle but they couldn't herd them.

"Anyway, the Braceros (imported Mexican workers) came over and brought their guitars. When they left, a lot of them left their guitars.

"As a result, the Hawaiians had guitars but a lot of them didn't know how to tune them. They had their own tunings and over time that became quiet a competitive thing, with each family having their own.

"Slack key developed over generations. So I got into that.

"Beyond that, I got into lap steel. I really enjoy that music - but I'm lousy at it."

James and friend. Robert Matheu photo.