Posted December 21, 2005

Interview by PATRICK EMERY
Live pictures by PETER WHITFIELD

The Stooges. To know them is to love, fear and adore them. The Beatles can lay claim to being the ultimate pop band, producing a sequence of multi-layered pop classics that will never be surpassed, The Rolling Stones brought the blues to the middle classes and in doing so created a rock’n’roll legend that refuses to lay down quietly and die and The Doors wrote the soundtrack to the baby boomers’ self-indulgent historical moaning. But The Stooges are something else. In an era when the mainstream entertainment industry began to appropriate rock’n’roll, The Stooges were the original outsiders. The Stooges wrote the book on rock’n’roll excess, produced a set of songs frothing with industrial excitement and proved that great rock’n’roll is 10 percent technical capability and 90 percent attitude.

Known originally as The Psychedelic Stooges, and comprising Detroit hoodlums James Osterberg (who adopted the now notorious punk nom de plume Iggy Pop), Ron (guitar) and Scott (drums) Asheton and the late Dave Alexander (bass) the band was signed by Elektra Records on the recommendation of the MC5. The Stooges released two albums with Elektra before imploding in the early 1970s under a weight of drug abuse and excessive behaviour. The band reformed a couple of years later – with James Williamson on guitar and Ron Asheton relegated to bass – under the tutelage of David Bowie, recording the anthemic Raw Power album in 1973. In a shower of broken bottles and Iggy’s increasing madness – captured for all eternity on the brutal Metallic KO live album – The Stooges ceased to be.

2003 saw the seeds sown for a Stooges reunion when Ron and Scott Asheton helped out with a few songs on Iggy’s new solo album. The success of the partial reunion led to a full blown reunion tour (with former Minuteman bassist Mike Watt taking over bass duties) that took in the United States, Europe and Japan. The band has focused on tunes from the first two albums (ignoring songs from Raw Power) – and critical and popular reviews have been nothing short of salivating. In Australia we’ve been waiting patiently – but still fidgeting on our seats – waiting for formal announcement of a Stooges tour down under. Finally, after a plethora of threats and rumours, it was announced that The Stooges will play on the Big Day Out bill in early 2006. Fuck yeah.

It’s 12 midday on a Saturday, my two-year-old son’s watching a video about trucks (I figured the industrial/vehicular theme was appropriate) and I’m talking to Ron Asheton from his home town of Ann Arbor about arguably the most anticipated reunion tour in Australian music history. For various technical reasons my digital recorder picks up only a wail of white noise – which is quite appropriate, given the Stooges’ modern day legacy – so I’m forced to revert to hand written notes in reconstructing the interview.

Although it’s almost 40 years since The Stooges first got together Asheton has no difficulty remembering the band’s first gig – and the beginning of the band’s outsider reputation. “Our first show was supporting Cream. Our set was about 18 minutes long. After that we did a lot of clubs, we tagged along with the MC5 a lot. As for audiences, we were pretty lucky. People came along to see us more out of curiosity, just to see what would happen. But they liked the music as well. Music was the great leveller at the time. We got better and better as time went on. We did the same circuit; we’d go to Boston and play the Boston Tea Party. I remember once we opened up for Ten Years After. After we played the first song there was just total silence. We played in Philadelphia supporting Buddy Miles and we got the same reaction,” Asheton laughs.

The Stooges’ sonic aesthetic – loud, raucous, nasty balanced with a inherent flexibility that owed much to the free jazz movement championed by John Coltrane – is recognised now as a seminal influence on the evolution of rock’n’roll. It's common place now to cite the Stooges as a seminal influence on the rock’n’roll genre. Although it’s unlikely they knew exactly how much their music would come be revered Asheton does confirm the band was trying to do something substantively different to other artists around at the time. “That was what we were always trying to do. Iggy rang up one day and said he wanted to play in a band with me and Scott. We went to Chicago and picked Iggy up, and Dave Alexander and Scott Richardson. We messed around with different sounds; I played bass with a fuzztone, we had a farfisa organ, even golf shoes on a washboard. We did gravitate back to a more regular type of music but with our own style stamped on it,” Asheton says.

The first two Stooges albums are both classic but for much different reasons. The self-titled album, produced by John Cale, is dominated by short and simple garage tunes (apart from the freefalling Yiddish chant inspired We Will Fall); in contrast Funhouse has some seriously sprawling free-jazz influenced jams. Asheton says he likes both albums equally, because of their respective dominant characteristics. “I like them both for the reasons you’ve just said. After the first album we got better because we were better with our instruments. We were also listening to a lot of John Coltrane – when we’d get home we’d put the ‘Trane on. The second album was partially written on the road.”

Along with The Velvet Underground The Stooges are often described as one of the first ‘punk’ bands, before punk became a musical commodity. Yet punk in late 1960s Detroit wasn’t a category impressionable teenagers aspired to in the slightest. Far from a complementary label, Asheton the term punk was “derogatory”. “You’re no good, you’re not streetwise, not cool. I always remember John Sinclair looking at the cover of the first album and saying we looked like a bunch of punks – but he wasn’t dissing it. It was like we looked like guys from a movie, all fresh-faced. But you did not want to be called a punk at high school,” Asheton recalls.

With its notable musical progeny Detroit is regarded as Mecca modern garage rock aficionados. But the story of modern Detroit is as much about social upheaval, economic downturn, violence and racial conflict as it is about industrial strength guitars and pummelling rhythms. How do you compare Detroit – the city, the people, the social environment and the music – of the 1960s to Detroit now? “Detroit has now lost its status as number one violent city in the United States – it’s now only number two”, Asheton laughs (apparently there’s a city in New Jersey that now boasts the number one reputation). “There are still plenty of bands around the city, and people like Jack White keep up the reputation. Ann Arbor is still good and there are a lot of good bands playing around there.” Asheton notes the significant demographic changes caused by the riots in 1967 (the city is now about 80% black, compared to 50% before the riots), adding that “they tried to build it [the infrastructure] back up but it hasn’t really been a success.”

Heritage rock – the reformation of '60s and '70s bands to pander to the insatiable desires of modern audiences – has become a modern day phenomenon. Asheton had been playing with J Mascis when he received a call from Iggy who “wanted to see if we could really do it.” The reunion shows have proven a major success, seeing the band tour the United States, Europe and most recently South America. “It went so well that we’re still doing it – we’ve just come back from Brazil”, Asheton says. And what about the reaction of audiences? Asheton says the band has been surprised and flattered at the popular reaction. Asheton goes on to highlight the contrast between the reaction this time around, and the original audience response in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I think The Stooges are like a fine wine or a good cigar. Or maybe a Rubik's Cube or Ulysses– it just takes a while to work it out,” Asheton muses humorously.

Gillian McCain and Legs McNeill’s oral history of punk Please Kill Me describes the Stooges’ decadence and indulgence in all too graphic terms. Yet while the reformed Stooges continue to play music with the same raw intensity of 35 years ago, the band’s off stage behaviour has tempered to manageable levels. “We’re enjoying playing, but we’re also really enjoying hanging out together, going out to dinner and stuff like that,” Asheton remarks. I note to Asheton that the image of the band having a civilised dinner after a show is a radical departure from the decadence and human depravity graphically portrayed in Please Kill Me. Asheton agrees. “Yeah, it’s a lot different now. Jim will have a glass of wine after the show – he won’t have more than two glasses. He doesn’t do drugs, and times have really changed.” Is it a miracle that Iggy is still alive, given his lifestyle and propensity for excess over the years? “Oh yeah. Sometimes Iggy and Scott will sit around and reminisce about the old days. It’s pretty scary hearing those stories. But Iggy’s probably more intense now than he was in those days, jumping around, jumping off speakers. He’s still having a great time.”

It’s become de rigeur for a rock band to cite the Stooges as a major influence. I ask Asheton if he’s ever come across a band that purports to be influenced by The Stooges but has no obvious musical or other association with them. “I know there is someone but I can’t remember anyone at the moment.” But Asheton suggest the Stooges’ influence is more about the how than the what. “Thurston Moore and Mike Watt both said the music was really accessible; you could pick it up and just play it, so maybe that’s part of the attraction,” he says.

Asheton confirms that the band is writing material for a new Stooges album, which he hopes will be released in the near future. “We’ve been writing new songs. I’ve written about 31 songs. Iggy’s been putting lyrics to some of them. We will definitely release an album soon.”

The teleconference operator cuts in to the conversation to tell me I’ve got a minute left on the call. I use the time remaining to tell Asheton just how much excitement and pleasure the decision to tour Australia has brought to Australian punters. “That’s great. I love coming to Australia. We’re looking forward to coming and playing down there.” Dropping his mid-western American accent for a brief moment to adopt his best broad Orstralyan accent, Asheton concludes “we’re looking forward to saying gudday maaate”. Normally I have nothing but contempt for American attempts at Australian accents. But this is motherfuckin’ Stooges, OK? A bit of respect, please.