Stooges drummer Scott Asheton died of a heart attack on March 15th, and Iggy Pop still has trouble talking about his friend and bandmate of five decades without breaking down into tears. He called us from his Florida home to pay tribute to the man known as Rock Action.
I first met Scott Asheton when I was working at Discount Records in Ann Arbor to augment my drumming. He used to stand with [future Stooges bassist] Dave Alexander at the corner of State Street and Liberty, which is grand central for the University of Michigan campus. Scott impressed me immediately by his obvious physical gift. He remembered this better than I do, but he would bug me to teach him how to play drums.
Things didn’t get very far until I realized it would better for me to work with a good drummer rather than continuing as a drummer myself in blues bands. Also, you could just look at this guy and tell that he had it. He was just a likable and attractive person, and he picked the drums right up. I gave him my kit and showed him a couple of things. I’d be like, “Here’s how you do a Stax Volt beat. Here’s a Bo Diddley beat. This is a Middle Eastern one.” He got it very quickly. I didn’t have to show him much.
Scott played drums with a boxer’s authority. When he wanted to, he had a heavy hand on the drums. He hit the drum very hard, but there were never a lot of elbows flying. He wasn’t showy. He didn’t have to make a physical demonstration to get the job done. When he played with you, it was always swinging. He brought a swinging truth to the music he played and extreme musical honesty.
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The thing that Flea and Chad Smith always understood is that Scott always played a little behind the beat, always a little back. He would hold the band back, just very slightly, from where it might have gone if it was going to rush ahead. It gave authority and a kind of trance to the music. He always, always, always played the song. He never got up there and started playing the kit to show everyone what he could play.
When we reformed for Coachella in 2003, we hadn’t played together in years. He used to ride [bassist] Mike Watt and say, “Watt, that note isn’t on the song.” He wouldn’t say, “It’s not on the record.” He’d say, “It’s not on the song.” He just always understood that he was playing a part in a song. We were a group that worked with a real simple vocabulary, and you need a lot of help if you haven’t got a Burt Bacharach or Paul Simon. How do you bring in songcraft and hold it together? He helped with that a lot.
Scott dealt with some addiction issues between [1970’s] Fun House and [1973’s] Raw Power. But it never affected his playing anywhere near as much as it affected the ability of the group as a whole to communicate with each other and write clearly. That’s down to everybody in the group, including myself. But drugs did not take him down. A strong, young person, if you have a little time off and you’re fortunate enough to have some limit to the money you can spend on that crap, then you can make a comeback or two, physically.
We weren’t communicating well when I went to England with James Williamson to make Raw Power in 1973. I would have tried other musicians on drums and bass, but James Williamson wasn’t comfortable with that and he suggested we got Scott and Ron. There might have been some bitterness on Scott’s part about that whole situation, but he never brought it up to me. I only read about it later in various interviews.
I brought him on my solo tour in 1978 along with Sonic’s Rendezvous Group, with Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 on guitar. We were in Europe for a month, and I don’t recall Scott taking his hat off once. We’d tease him about it constantly. We were macrobiotic marijuana fiends and we just ate a ton of Middle Eastern food together. Scott would always say, “Come on, let’s get some baba ghanoush. Let’s go to the falafel house!” He made that tour a lot more fun than it would have been.
Near the end of the 1980s, I was getting ready for a solo tour and he came up and wanted to jam and talk about the group. I knew that, by nature, he wasn’t anyone’s employee. That would have been crappy, anyway. He said, “If the group can’t be together, can I come out and play with you?”
I said to him, “Let’s wait.” It really wasn’t time for the Stooges. If we had shoved it back together, there wouldn’t have been the kind of support that enabled it to thrive. But he did come and we jammed together. It was really good to see him. A while later, when Ron was jamming with J Mascis, and someone said that he wanted to get together. I thought, “Well, if the two of them are comfortable, I’m comfortable.”
After the reunion at Coachella, Ron said to me, “You know, I really didn’t hang with Scott or talk to him for many years. This really brought us together. Also, he had acquired a beat down look and he’s lost that. He has a new spring in his step.” Ron and Scott were dissimilar peas from the same pod…When the group reunited, Scott said, “I played in all these other groups, but it never really felt right. And now I feel like I’m home.” The reunion was also great for him because he was able to do all sorts of things for his family and his daughter. That was really, really important to him.
To me, we reached a peak around 2005/2006. The group laid down these massive, ferocious, spacious grooves. It was so much fun. I hadn’t lost 50% of my hearing at that point, so I was doing things I’d do when I first started playing with Ron. I’d get excited and bum rush his amps and stick my ear right in his amp to get that illicit vibe. I can’t do that now. I have to avoid loud people.
Scott just had a certain dignity about him and everyone was always glad to have him in the room. He looked like he could be a tough customer, but I never even heard of him flicking a fly. He looked like the Marlboro Man. Late in his life, he had property on Drummond Island, which is a place that very serious fisherman go in northern Michigan up near the Canadian border. He would go there and fish and do some bow and arrow hunting. He was a man’s man. He also got seriously involved in bird watching, so there’s a lot about him that people wouldn’t expect.
This past Memorial Day weekend, he and I had a jam session together, just the two of us. We did some stuff I’d written. I played guitar and he played drums, and then we had a drum circle. We played conga and a kit together. He wasn’t playing as heavy as he used to, but he could wrap up his wrists and get a heavy sound. We also went over some jam taps he had with Ron. Then I got him to sit down with Jim Jarmusch for an interview in his Stooges documentary.
He died of a heart attack. What happened to him in 2011 while we were on tour has to remain private. There was a mishap and he had to go to the hospital. He was able to recover from various underlying health problems to the point where he had a very normal and secure life. And he was able to play on our last album.
When Scott couldn’t tour with us, we brought in Toby Dammit so we could fulfill our commitments. Everything we did without him, I felt we were representing him. I’ve since read that I said we were taking a year off. I never said that or made plans with anybody about coming back next year. I don’t like to see anything be over. That’s death and death is a terrible thing. But I did tell everyone in the group well in advance that I wasn’t going to work with them this year.
I’m busy doing other things and I have my own limitations, which is a big part of it. I can’t go out year after year and not suffer terrible consequences. I don’t like hokey announcements, so I just said, “Let’s leave the door open.” I felt like everything was getting overheated. I felt things needed to quiet down and resolve themselves; let some resolution take place. I think this is part of a resolution, frankly.
I don’t want to say that I’m done with the band. I would just say that I feel like the group has always included the Asheton brothers. When Ron passed away, Scott represented him. Nearly everything we play, Ron played on originally. I don’t feel right now like there’s any reason for me to go jumping out onstage in tight Levi’s. What am I going to scream about?
I just can’t see the band playing in the near future. It would just be wrong. But if something comes up, you should be open to it. It depends on the feeling of the family and the surviving members. James Williamson was in the group and I’ve been there since it started. It would depend on the realities and the musical truth.
A good rock group is a musical gift as well as a social phenomenon. What usually happens is that at various times within the timeline of any of these groups, divisions emerge and feelings mount that have no outlet. Those can cause destruction. They can cause falsehood. I think they can be recognized and best dealt with by stepping back.
I have no plans to tour solo. I definitely have no plans to be a touring musician for the next couple of years. I’ve toured almost every year out of the past forty years. I’ll probably tour again at some point, but I don’t know when and I don’t know how.
Getting back to Scott, he started playing with Ron in their basement with a little equipment and some dreams. Now they’re back together again in some sense.