James Williamson talks: Raw Power 30 years on
By KEN SHIMAMOTO
James Williamson staked his claim to rock'n'roll immortality based on just eight songs, but what songs they were...the ones comprising Iggy & the Stooges' epochal 1973 "Raw Power" album, still cited as a prime influence by purveyors of Rock Action from Stockholm to Seattle to Sydney. Later years have seen the release of a plethora of rehearsal, demo, and live recordings of that seminal band, which have only broadened and deepened the extent of Williamson's accomplishment. Following the Stooges' dissolution in 1974, he soldiered on with Iggy through the "Kill City" album before putting down his guitar to start a career as a recording engineer and take his degree in electrical engineering, resurfacing briefly to produce what many consider the Pop's last album of merit, 1979's "New Values."
For the last couple of decades, he's been an elusive figure...the only one of the principal surviving Stooges not interviewed by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in their research for "Please Kill Me," he appeared briefly in the segment of VH-1's "Beyond the Music" devoted to Iggy, but other than that...silence.
These days, he makes his living in the electronics industry, and has logged a couple of decades far from the rock'n'roll circus, in the pristine corporate world of California's Silicon Valley.
James graciously consented to break his silence on April Fool's Day, 2001, joining us at the Bar from his California home to provide his insights and perspectives on the Stooge saga.
J: Where are you from in Texas?
K: Fort Worth, Where the West Begins.
J: I was born in Texas.
J: I was born outside of San Antonio, in a little town called Castroville.
K: And your dad was in the army?
J: No, my stepfather was. My dad was a doctor in Castroville.
K: When did you start playing music?
J: I was about 6th or 7th grade when I got my first guitar. It was an old Sears f-hole guitar. The strings were sticking up about two inches above the frets, and it was a real challenge to play it. I guess that's when I first started out, and at that time, I used to live in Oklahoma. So the guys that could show you how to play around there all played country and western music. Those guys were all awesome. Some of those guys could really play guitar. I was just in an environment that was a lot different than I ended up with, but pretty musical guys.
K: What were some of the influences you had when you started playing?
J: Down there, of course, that was it. I just tried to learn how to play back in those days. When I was in 8th grade, I moved to Michigan, and it turned out I moved next door to a family the oldest son of which was in a folk music band, a la the Kingston Trio or whatever in those days. This was in the mid-sixties. And his younger brother was a good guitar player too, and we used to hang out and play a lot. He showed me a lot of stuff, so I rapidly got influenced by all the Detroit guys. In those days, that was a pretty broad brush in terms of music. In terms of songs, I guess the Beach Boys, all the typical teenage song guys, the Ventures and all them. So I learned how to play all that stuff and about that time, the Beatles broke and so I was learning all that stuff, and it progressed from there into bands.
K: Were you in bands before the Chosen Few?
J: No, that was my first band. I put that together with Scott Richardson; I guess I was in 9th grade when we did that. I played with guys in garages and stuff, at parties and so on, but that was my first real band.
K: Ron [Asheton] played bass in that band, did he not?
J: He did towards the end. It was together kind of part of 9th grade for me, then I kind of got in a lot of trouble and went to juvenile home, and so then the band kept on going, and it went through a few incarnations, and then finally when I was in 10th grade, 10th going into 11th, kind of the end of it, if you will, was when Ron played bass in the band. A lot of stuff up in Ann Arbor. The band was really based out of the Detroit area.
K: What kind of music were you doing?
J: It was mostly Stones, basically, and then we'd do a few other ones. On the side, I was writing songs, and that's how I actually met Iggy for the first time. One time when I was home - from juvenile home, I went to New York, and lived there for awhile - I sat in when the band was playing up in Ann Arbor at a frat house. He came to the gig and on the side I was playing him some songs I was doing; we kind of hit it off. That was when he was playing in the Prime Movers.
K: Why'd you get sent to juvie?
J: I was incorrigible. (Laughs) Basically, I was kind of stupid, young, and I wouldn't do what anybody told me to do. It was an interesting season. I was trying to grow my hair long, and they didn't like that at my school. I thought that Bob Dylan would never cut his hair, and they said you have to, and we didn't agree, so I got sent to juvie and then they buzzed all of my hair off! I guess I found out a little bit about fighting city hall.
K: What did you do in between the Chosen Few and when you encountered the Stooges at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, when they were recording their first album in '69?
J: I was younger than most of those guys. One of the things I did was I tried to finish high school, so the way I ended up doing it was having to go to night school and so forth, so it took me a little while to do that. Anyway, I graduated high school and I went to New York that summer when they were finishing up on the first album, and I met up with those guys in New York and listened to some of the tunes. It was pretty cool.
K: How much did you know about the Stooges and their music when you ran into them in New York?
J: Oh, plenty. I had seen them at gigs and stuff. 'Cos I knew those guys. I didn't hang out with them that much, 'cos I was more in the Detroit area than Ann Arbor at that point, but I'd seen a few of their gigs, and they were down at the Grande and so forth, I'd see 'em down there, and they had a very unique show that was different, really WAY different than anybody else. I thought they were cool. I not only knew 'em, but I liked what they were doing.
K: How'd you wind up joining the band?
J: It just kinda happened. I ended up moving up into Ann Arbor, and eventually I ended up moving in with a coupla guys that were in the band, and we ended up hanging out more and more together and starting playing with each other, playing some jams and so forth, and then eventually, that incarnation of the Stooges started falling apart. Bill Cheatham and those guys were never really musicians, they were just kinda buddies of the band, and they just kinda played with the band for a little while, but they never could pull it together. I sort of fell in with them because I could play guitar, and they needed somebody. We started playing, and that was kinda the last couple of phases of that first wave of Stooges stuff.
K: When did you actually join?
J: Somewhere in the neighborhood of late '71, '72. So I was only with that wave of the band for maybe a year. After I started, we had Zeke [Zettner on bass] for awhile, then Zeke fell out, and we had Jimmy Recca for awhile, and then Jim was all screwed up. Not only that, but I got sick with hepatitis, and so the whole thing just kinda fell apart.
K: What was the band like when you and Ron were both playing guitars?
J: I dunno. We were trying to pull it together, but I think it was pretty disorganized at that point. I would not call it exactly a professional rock'n'roll band, let's put it that way.
K: Was Ron playing lead predominantly, or were you?
J: Kind of a mixture of things. It depended on the song, really, more than anything else.
K: The songs on the Starfighter bootleg kind of have the same quality as your songs on the "Raw Power" album. Were you actually writing for the band at that point?
J: Yeah, I was starting to write right away to sort of add the new songs to things. For a time there, we tried to get Elektra Records interested in what we were doing, and it was just way too soon for people. Our sound in those days, even with "Raw Power," was so far out for the average A&R guy. It just blew their minds when we brought them to Ann Arbor and had them listen to what we were doing. They were APPALLED. Truly, it really was bad...I'm not saying that the MUSIC was bad, but they really could not relate to it at all.
K: The REACTION was bad.
J: Yeah, the reaction was bad.
K: So how did you and Iggy wind up going to the U.K. in '72?
J: There was a period of time there where the band disintegrated. I was sick with hepatitis, and so I went back to Detroit and just sort of did nothing for six months, and meanwhile, Iggy was tooling around, trying to figure out what he was going to do with himself for the rest of his life. I hear all kinds of things. I wasn't even involved in that. I was sick, so I was out of commission. Maybe about six months into that, he started coming around every so often to visit me and he started trying this and trying that, and eventually he went to New York, he ran into [David] Bowie and hooked up with [Bowie manager Tony] DeFries. I remember one time I had to get out to Metro Airport and meet some guy who was working for DeFries to talk about what we were going to do, and the next thing you know, he's got us landing a deal with Columbia and we're off to England.
K: How was it decided to bring the Asheton brothers back into the fold?
J: We got over there and they put us up in a hotel called the Kensington Gardens, which was a very nice hotel. I've been over there fairly recently, where they've remodeled it, and it's absolutely gorgeous now, but it was really nice then, too, especially for guys like us. So we're sittin' around, trying to figure out what we're doing, and we're being introduced into all these English rock circles that David Bowie's in, and basically, we don't like any of these guys, because we're DETROIT guys, and it's just not our scene. The kind of music they play and the way they are is just not what we're into. So we look at each other one day and I think I was the one who brought it up, I just said, "Hey, we know a coupla guys that know how to PLAY," and Ron, in my opinion - I know I've taken a lot of heat on this, and there's a lot of different opinions about this - but in my opinion, Ron was always one of the greatest BASS players there was, and so I said, "Hey, we'll get Ron over here and put him on bass, and get Scott over here, he knows how to play drums, and just DO IT." So Jim agreed with that, and that's what we did.
K: How did Ron react to being "demoted" to the bass slot in the band?
J: Eventually, he didn't react very well. To this day, I think he has negative things to say about that, but I think at the time, he was happy to get the job, and so he didn't even hesitate at the time.
K: It seems like you guys recorded a lot of material prior to the "Raw Power" sessions. Talk a bit about that time.
J: "I Got A Right" was actually written back in those last phases of the Ann Arbor days. That was something we took over to England with us...material that had never gotten recorded. It would have been something that was recorded on Elektra, if we'd recorded an album back then. So when we got over there, we started practicing our asses off, and it appears to be a little known fact that everybody was really straight over there. Everybody was off the drugs and might have a beer or two, but basically, it was a pretty straight deal over there. We were practicing almost every day...not every day, every NIGHT, almost all night long, and then we'd sleep all day and practice again all night long, so we were practicing, maybe five, six, seven days a week, and we were pretty tight as a band. We went in and did some demos early on with some of the tunes we already knew, and trying out some different things, so that's where all those tapes come from.
K: Why did that stuff never make it out on record?
J: Just because we wrote newer things as we went along, and once it came time to actually record in the studio, we had a whole new set of material.
K: So you were just wanting to cut the new stuff?
K: That "Raw Power" album remains highly revered and influential. How did you feel while you were recording it?
J: We felt great. You're asking me, and I didn't have any context, because it was my first album. How am I supposed to feel? I felt I was doing the best I could! (Laughs) We just went in there and played our hearts out, all of us. I think it shows. Definitely a unique situation.
K: How do you feel about it now?
J: I'm proud of it. I think it holds up pretty well, considering what transpired in the meantime with the various bands; you can see the influence and so on. (Laughs) There are a lot of tracks I'd like to take back and redo, maybe, but I don't have that option, so overall I'm pretty happy with it.
K: It was a big shift in terms of guitar styles from Ron's real fluid, kinda Hendrix-influenced thing, with certain technical limitations which he had at the time, to your style, which seems a lot more jagged, particularly the leads. Nobody was really playing that way then. Did you have any sense that what you were doing was ground-breaking?
J: No, but on the other hand, I've always been a guy that sort of just did his own thing and made it up as he went along, so it sort of worked out that way. I was influenced by a lot of guitar players, no question, but I never did PLAY like 'em. I just sorta did my own thing.
K: Can you name some of those players?
J: From a lead guitar perspective, certainly guys like Jeff Beck were very instrumental. Keith Richards, of course. All the good guys...there's so many of them! But from my own playing, I never did try to imitate them. Rather, I just sorta enjoyed their playing, and I always tried to play the way that I play.
K: Were you pretty much a straight-through-the amp guy?
J: Just straight through the amp.
K: That sunburst Les Paul through a Marshall?
J: No, on the album, primarily for most of the stuff, I used a Vox AC-30. I know that's a little-known fact. A lot of guys think I used a Marshall, 'cos I always used a Marshall onstage. On some of the lead stuff, I would use a Marshall, but most all the rhythm stuff is AC-30. SOME of the lead stuff was AC-30. I LOVE those amps! Those still are, as far as I'm concerned, some of the greatest amps there ever were!
K: At what point did the drugs start creeping back in?
J: Not really at all in the U.K. Some guys would smoke some hash or whatever, but it's not really a drug scene over there. After we got back to the States is when all that stuff came back. Before we ever left for the U.K., that was a real problem for Jim. Before we left Detroit was the problem. That's what basically broke the band up was drugs. And of course, Zeke died, right? So it definitely was a problem. Then [Iggy] cleaned himself up. I had been sick for six months, so I was completely clean, and when we went to England, we were all pretty straight and narrow, just the usual beer and so forth.
And then coming back, we didn't go to Detroit. We came through Detroit on the way to Los Angeles. Jim went to Los Angeles first.
By that time, we had finished the "Raw Power" album, but I don't know whether it was Columbia or just DeFries that didn't like the mix of the album, and so then we arranged that Bowie would mix the album, and Jim and Bowie were in Los Angeles, starting to mix the album, when the rest of us, a couple of weeks later, came through Detroit. I went on to Los Angeles to sit in on the mixes.
Actually, even at that point, it was not a problem, but eventually the whole band was out in Los Angeles, and we were living up on Mulholland Drive in a rented house, and that's where the whole scene came back.
K: Have you heard the mix of "Raw Power" that Iggy did?
K: How do you compare that with the Bowie mix?
J: I personally think it sucked. I gotta tell ya that I like the IDEA of what he tried to do, and I talked to him about it, and there's a lot of factors involved, but at the time, none of us liked Bowie's mix, but given everything, Iggy, when he went in to mix it, he found out that the guy who had recorded it originally had not gotten a lot of level on certain things, like the bass and drums, especially the bass, so he didn't have a lot to work with. Then Iggy, on his mix, he left a bunch of guitar stuff on there that probably shouldn't have been left in, and just odds and ends. Bowie's not my favorite guy, but I have to say that overall, I think he did a pretty good job.
K: The way it seems to me, the Bowie mix emphasizes vocals and lead guitar, while the Iggy mix emphasizes RHYTHM guitar.
J: Yeah, maybe. Just trying to leave some stuff in there that he thought should've been in, but I would've liked it to have been a better-recorded session in general. Then there [would have been] a lot more he could do with it. But it is what it is.
K: The excesses of the '73 Stooges are pretty legendary. What are your recollections of that time?
J: They were so legendary I can't remember! (Laughs) I have a lot of fond memories. For most of the time that I lived in L.A., I lived with a girlfriend and so did Jim, for that matter, and we had some pretty good times. There were some wild nights and so on, but more than not, it was mostly the touring that was tough on the band, I think.
ON TO PART TWO