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The Stooges' Ron Asheton Remembered

Pioneering guitarist shaped the sound of punk to come

January 6, 2009 3:30 PM ET

Ron Asheton, the guitarist in the proto-punk band the Stooges, whose raw, animalistic playing laid the groundwork for the entire punk rock movement, was found dead in his Ann Arbor, Michigan home last night. He was 60. An autopsy is scheduled, but police don't suspect foul play or drug use. Alongside Iggy Pop, David Alexander and his brother Scott, Ron co-wrote such classics "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "No Fun" and "1969."

At the height of the flower-power and psychedelic period of the late 1960s, Asheton pioneered an aggressive, rudimentary and stunningly loud style of playing that was the antithesis of everything popular at the time. The Stooges never achieved commercial success (their 1969 debut peaked at Number 106), but the punk acts that followed — from the New York Dolls to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones — cite them as their single biggest influence. (Thurston Moore explained the band's impact on Sonic Youth at length for Rolling Stone's Immortals feature.)

Asheton grew up in suburban Detroit and had a fascination with rock & roll and Nazi Germany from a young age. "I didn't have a lot of friends," he said in the punk oral history Please Kill Me. "I'd wear SS pins to school and draw swastikas all over my books." One of his few friends was future Stooges bassist Dave Alexander, who took Asheton to England in the mid-1960s where they saw the Who play at the Cavern Club. "It was my first experience of total pandemonium," he said. "Never had I seen people driven so nuts — that music could drive people to such dangerous extremes. That's when I realized, this is definitely what I want to do." (To watch video of Asheton discussing his early influences, click here.)

Within months Asheton had formed the Stooges with Alexander, his brother Scott on drums and record store clerk Jim Ostenberg — soon to be known as Iggy Pop. After earning a reputation for their outrageous live shows around Detroit, Elektra signed the band and hooked them up with the Velvet Underground's Jon Cale. "We'd never been in a recording studio before and we set up Marshall stacks, and set them on 10," Asheton said. "Cale said, 'Oh no, this is not the way.' We said, 'There is no way. We play loud, and his is how we play.' We couldn't play unless it was high volume." (For evidence of the Stooges' onstage power, click here for a photo gallery.)

Critical reaction to the debut was, at best, mixed. "The instrumentalists sound like they've been playing their axes for two months and playing together for one month at most," Rolling Stone wrote. "They are a reductio ad absurdam of rock & roll that might have been thought up by a mad D.A.R. general in a wet dream. They suck, and they know it, so they throw the fact back in your face and say 'So what? We're just havin' fun.' " Their second album, 1970's Fun House, met a similar commercial and critical fate. The strain of endless touring and Iggy's growing heroin habit lead to the band taking an indefinite hiatus in 1971 that lasted until superfan David Bowie befriended Pop and convinced him to cut a third record under his guidance.

Iggy decided to recruit new Stooges for what would become Raw Power. "It was like somebody punched me in the stomach with a sledgehammer," Asheton said. Three months later Iggy called Asheton from London and told him he wanted him to play bass on the album. Mortified at the demotion, but desperate for work, Asheton got on the next plane. Under Bowie's eye, Raw Power became their third consecutive masterpiece, though (once again) the album bombed and the band dissolved after a typically debauched and disastrous tour.

Asheton went on to play guitar in little-known groups such as the New Order, Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival. "I wasn't very successful in my endeavors," Asheton said in 2007. "But I kept on playing. I never got a regular job. If I made $50 a night I was happy. That was big bread. And just getting along with being able to pay the rent and cat food — they were the most important things. Then comes alcohol and cigarettes."

After the breakup Asheton didn't see Pop for more than 25 years. In 1998 he was recruited for the movie Velvet Goldmine to provide "Stooges-esque guitar playing." The gig lead to a friendship with former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis. They hit the road and began playing old Stooges songs, which caught the attention of Iggy Pop, who invited the Asheton Brothers (Dave Alexander died in 1975) to play on his 2003 solo album Skull Ring. The tracks led to an offer for the Stooges to reunite at Coachella that year. The gig resulted in a whole tour, where they (finally) played to huge, rapturous audiences.

In 2007 the Stooges cut their fourth album, The Weirdness, and continued to tour as recently as this past summer. "It's great playing to an appreciative audience," Asheton said in 2007. "We feel like old bluesman, because we had to wait 30-some years to get accepted by everybody. It took some time for the world to catch up to us. But it was worth the wait, because this is the most fun I've had playing onstage all my life."

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