RIP Ron Asheton

Ron AshetonRon WHO??? you may be thinking. And I wouldn’t blame you. Because, while that name will be instantly familiar to some people, their numbers are small (and shrinking). Ron Asheton was the original guitarist for one of my favorite bands of all time, The Stooges. He was found dead on Monday in his home in Ann Arbor, MI.

I don’t really know what to say, since I didn’t know Ron, obviously. But with musicians you really like and whose music you know well, it often can seem as if you do know them, even if you’re quite aware that you don’t. So rather than embark upon some muddled first-person account, I think now’s a good time to reach back into the musty, mildewed back-pages of perhaps the greatest rock journalist ever (also sadly deceased), Lester Bangs, in the December, 1970 issue of Creem magazine, Part 1 and Part 2. Keep in mind, as you read, that this was written in 1970, an almost-unimaginable (in pop-music time, where last month is old) thirty-eight years ago. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether “old” is a good description of the piece. Just enjoy a little taste, to whet your appetite, of what made Lester Bangs great – describing in his own style what he thought made Ron, Iggy and the Stooges great:

Well, a lot of changes have gone down since Hip first hit the heartland. There’s a new culture shaping up, and while it’s certainly an improvement on the repressive society now nervously aging, there is a strong element of sickness in our new, amorphous institutions. The cure bears viruses of its own. The Stooges also carry a strong element of sickness in their music, a crazed quaking uncertainty and errant foolishness that effectively mirrors the absurdity and desperation of the times, but I believe that they also carry a strong element of cure, of post-derangement sanity. And I also believe that their music is as important as the product of any rock group working today, although you better never call it art or you may wind up with a deluxe pie in the face. What it is, instead, is what rock and roll at heart is and always has been, beneath the stylistic distortions the last few years have wrought. The Stooges are not for the ages—nothing created now is—but they are most implicitly for today and tomorrow and the traditions of two decades of beautifully bopping, manic, simplistic jive…

Sheer adolescent drive. Banal, too. Who needs music with a theme like that? What does it have to do with reality, with the new social systems the Panthers and Yips are cookin’ up, with the fact that I took acid four days ago and since then everything is smooth with no hang-ups like it always is for about a week after a trip. Feel good, benevolent. So what the fuck does all that Holden Caulfield garbage Iggy Stooge is always prattling about have to do with me? Or with art or rock ‘n’ roll or anything? Sure, we all know about adolescence, why belabor it, why burden “art” (or whatever the Stooges claim that caterwauling is) with something better left in the recesses of immature brains who’ll eventually grow out of it themselves? And how, in the name of all these obvious logical realities, can any intelligent person take Iggy Stooge for anything but a blatant fool, wild-eyed, sweaty and loud though he may be?

Well, I’ll tell ya why and how. I’ve been building up through lots of questions and postulations and fantasies, so not one dullard reading this and owning a stack of dated, boring “rock” albums but no Stooge music can fail to comprehend, at which time I will be able to get on to the business of describing the new Stooges album. So here comes the payload. Now, to answer the last question first, because the final conclusion of all Stooge-mockers is definitely true and central to the Stooges: you’re goddam right Iggy Stooge is a damn fool. He does a lot better job of making a fool of himself on stage and vinyl than almost any other performer I’ve ever seen. That is one of his genius’ central facets.

Ron, Iggy and the rest of the Stooges were truly dangerous Godzillas – and by that, I mean vividly real – at a time when the influence and hype of Incense and Peppermints and Strawberry Alarm Clocks had never been higher while paradoxically, its promises and vision had never been more bankrupt. From the vantage-point of 2009, it might be difficult (but it is critical) to keep in mind that, in late 1970 when Bangs wrote those words (and do yourself a favor and go read all of them), all of the hope of whatever transformative wave the ’60s might have been able to stir had receded into self-parody or disillusionment. Prague Spring and Woodstock were gone. Altamont was the latest big event. Hendrix was gone (tragically), and within a year (albeit more farcically than tragically) Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison would join him.

The beginning of the ’70s marked the launching-pad of art-rock and prog-rock. Tiring, boring self-consciousness and self-aggrandizement and a sense of “responsibility” descended in force upon those supposedly visionary musicians and artists who suddenly seemed to think their places in the universe were as crucial as if they were heads of state. What so many bands, in their virtuosity and self-importance, seemed to have forgotten, but which The Stooges never lost sight of, was that their “mission” – to the extent a rock band can even be said to have one – was in the end only to be trying to give us a Real Cool Time tonight, not hammer out a new existential consciousness. If you click that last link, keep in mind, as you listen, that the track you’re listening to was recorded in early 1969, and probably written in 1968. It doesn’t sound so unusual….for today. But in the world of Flower Power and patchouli and grooviness, it was something else. Still is, in fact.

After the first album or two, bands like The Doors put on airs and tried to act as stewards and conjurers of a new way of being. What they achieved, ultimately, was nothing more than looking like depressing hucksters and fools, who “drink in self-defense,” as Elvis Costello would later wryly observe; grotesque mockeries even of their former selves from only a few years prior.

The Stooges, in contrast, never denied that they were genuinely screwed up, confused fools. They put it all up on stage for the world to see, and to participate in if they chose (or dared), and in the process, owing to that willingness and sheer aaaargh!!, The Stooges showed us enough integrity that they avoided the “hucksterism” trap. And more importantly, they allowed anyone ready to receive it (few) a glimpse at the understanding of a new way of existing.

Rest easy, Ron.