Patrick Emery speaks to James Williamson of Iggy and the Stooges


Posted February 1, 2011

Don't Slander This Stooge:
James Sets The Record Straight

Photos by RICHARD SHARMAN of Blackshadow Photography

Share "Please Kill Me", Legs McNeill and Gillian McCann’s oral history of the abrasive edge of American rock’n’roll centred in New York City, offers a salacious narrative of the genesis and evolution of punk rock.  Tales of drug excess bleed into escapades of sexual perversion, egotistical wrangles and mindless fuck-ups.  The chapters devoted to The Stooges fall into two basic categories: the early years, when Michigan natives James Osterberg, brothers Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander supplanted the wild-eyed wonder of psychedelic rock wave with the hard-nosed industrial edge characteristic to Detroit youths; and the second, darker period, when the band’s creativity was sapped by heroin addiction, industry indifference and dysfunctional personalities. 

It’s in the second party of the Stooges journey – which culminated with the now infamous gig at the Michigan Palace in 1974 – that the name James Williamson appears, a dominant figure in the Stooges’ decline.  Legendary photographer and scenester Leee Black Childers’ disdain for Williamson is palpable; Kathy Asheton describes Williamson as a ‘black cloud’ descending on the group.  Almost 40 years after he joined The Stooges, and thirty years after he took leave of the music industry for a successful career in the electronics industry, Williamson isn’t noticeably bitter about such assessments – though he has made an effort to rehabilitate his reputation. 

“I think I have done that at various times recently when I’ve been giving interviews,” Williamson says.  “Please Kill Me is total rubbish – it’s poorly researched, it’s complete hearsay from people who either didn’t know me, or didn’t like me.”

As a teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, Williamson’s life seemed headed for the same skid row territory that engulfed many of his contemporaries.  At age 16, Williamson’s step-father gave him an ultimatum – cut your hair, or go to juvenile home.  Williamson chose the path of greatest resistance, and his long locks remained.  Around the same time Williamson had joined a local Detroit band, The Chosen Few, alongside Scott Richardson.   It was through his brief tenure in The Chosen Few that Williamson made the acquaintance of Ron and Scott Asheton. 

“I helped found the Chosen Few with Scott Richardson,” Williamson recalls.  “It wasn’t til later that they got Ron Asheton into the band, but it was through that band that I met the guys from The Stooges.”

Williamson describes Detroit in the mid 1960s as “a hot bed of music – music was all pervasive”.  Motown’s Hit Factory provided a pop focus, releasing a string of classic pop tracks that bridged the then obvious racial divide that pervaded the music industry.  Being a pop star was in the career aspirations of just about any Detroit youth.  “In addition to the big Motown hits there was also the British invasion,” Williamson says.  “It was a time of change – a lot of people wanted to grow their hair long, and be a part of that scene.  Our band was an attempt to get into that.  We always wanted to be pop stars.  We even used go down to the airport and pretend to be pop stars coming from overseas,” he laughs.

Williamson first joined The Stooges in the aftermath of the release of "Fun House".   Until the release of the "You Want My Action" and "Electric Circus" live records over a couple of years, the Asheton-Williamson twin guitar line-up (with Jimmy Recca on bass) remained the stuff of fading memory and Stooges mythology.  Williamson agrees it’s disappointing the five-piece Stooges never made it to the studio. 

“Very much so,” he says.  “We thought we were going to record.  When I joined the band it was six months after Funhouse.  We thought we’d do a third record with Elektra, and I was introducing new material,” Williamson says.  Tired of the band’s behaviour – notably, Iggy’s increasingly erratic ways – and unimpressed by the new material , Elektra declined the option to make a third album.  “We had some record executives come over and they couldn’t deal with it,” Williamson says. 

With no record deal, The Stooges folded, entering a hiatus.  Iggy and Williamson decided to start a new band, and headed across to the UK at the instigation of David Bowie.  Faced with a deficient backing band recruited by Bowie, Iggy and Williamson called up the Asheton brothers and invited them to travel across the Atlantic.  “It didn’t take long for us to realise that the musicians we auditioned weren’t compatible, so we decided to bring the Ashetons over,” Williamson says. 

The result was "Raw Power", a tangibly different album to the previous Stooges record, and a crucible for the English rock’n’roll scene, at that time taking the first ginger steps from glam to punk rock.  But it was "Metallic KO", recorded at the violent end of The Stooges’ existence that captured the greatest attention amongst English punk protagonists such as John Lydon.  Looking back on the album, with its sonic backdrop of Iggy’s taunts and broken bottles, Williamson suggests the record contributed to a romanticisation of rock’n’roll violence – a romantic image that would become an unfortunate, and unnecessary, part of the English punk rock scene. 

“Those shows were pretty dangerous, yeah,” Williamson says.  “We didn’t have enough sense to leave the stage.  I think it [Metallic KO] romanticised and glorified the violence in the show.  Maybe a lot of things in the punk scene might not have happened without our part,” he says.

After the implosion of Iggy and the Stooges, Williamson and Iggy collaborated on a new album, "Kill City", released subsequently on Greg Shaw’s Bomp! label.  There’s a suggestion in Paul Trynka’s biography that the 1977 release was nothing compared to the original masters recorded by Iggy and Williamson.  Williamson doesn’t agree. 

“I was totally involved in all of it,” he says.  “The original masters were used in the early release – the early tracks just weren’t finished.  When Greg Shaw approach me he asked me to go back and finish the tracks in the studio, which I did,” Williamson says.  In early 2010 Williamson was given the opportunity to remaster Kill City for its re-release.  “The multi-tracks were still there, but the stereo tracks weren’t,” he says.  “But I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”

By this time Williamson’s focus had moved from playing to production, and he was tired of Iggy’s unreliability and antics.  Williamson’s last musical dealings with Iggy had been the recording of Soldier in Wales in 1980, an unhappy event and unsatisfactory outcome from everyone’s perspective.  Trynka’s Iggy biography describes an agitated Williamson prowelling around the studio with a gun and a bottle of vodka.  “What a loaded question!” Williamson laughs, when I ask him if the stories are true. 

“What happened with 'Soldier' is that we’d finished New Values just before, and the record label wanted a more punk record – we were always out of step with record company expectations,” Williamson recalls.  “So the record company put us out in Rockford with these punk rock musicians [including original Sex Pistols bass player Glen Matlock].  Early on I wasn’t too enamoured with those musicians.  It seemed like a recipe for disaster, so I focused on the technical things.  And it went on, the more unhappy I was, and the more unhappy I was, the worse it became,” Williamson says.

Iggy Pop’s "Dum Dum Boys" from "The Idiot" had already noted that James was “going straight”, and Soldier was the last straw in Williamson’s dealings with Iggy.  Williamson went back to college, started a family, qualified as an engineer and began a career in the electronics industry that saw him reach the heady heights of Vice-President in Sony, as well as an office bearer in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (they’re the tech-geeks who came up with Wi-Fi, in case you didn’t know). 

When Williamson returned to the Stooges’ fold in 2009, it came as a surprise that this mild-mannered businessman had such a colourful history.  “Not many of them knew,” Williamson says.  “It’s been a surprise for them.  Maybe I could have been more open at the time, but people get used to it and are comfortable with it.  And they get to live vicariously as a rock star,” he laughs.

Ron Asheton’s death in January 2009 was the catalyst for Williamson’s reuniting with Iggy.  “He called when Ronnie died,” Williamson says.  “He wanted me to fill me in with the funeral arrangements.  When someone dies like that it makes you talk.  So we started talking about playing.  At the time I was still working at Sony, so it wasn’t really an option.  Then I took an early retirement and the opportunity to play in the band again arose,” Williamson says. 

Now into his 60s, with his rabble-rousing days well behind him, and Williamson is enjoying playing alongside Iggy again.  “With us you can’t really separate the two,” he says.  “We’ve known each other since our 20's.  If you separate us out we’re good musicians, but if you put us together it makes something special.”

Possibly with The Stooges’ flawed 2007 record, "The Weirdness", in mind, Williamson says he’s contemplated the possibility of Iggy and the Stooges putting down recorded versions of bootleg-only Stooges tracks such as "Rich Bitch" and "Cock in My Pocket" – but only if they match the quality of the band’s original material. 

“We have discussed doing it, but we haven’t done it.  If we do them today because they’ve already been out on bootleg they’ll be compared to the originals,” Williamson says.  “I’d love to do new material, but it has to be of the calibre of the stuff we’ve released previously.”