James Williamson’s story is one of the weirdest that rock & roll ever threw up. It was he who played guitar on the third Stooges album, Raw Power, a true punk-rock masterpiece that was shrouded in glamour and controversy as David Bowie held court over the Iggy show. Original guitarist Ron Asheton was switched to bass, they recorded in London, egos ran wild — it should have been a disastrous shitshow. And in many ways it was.
Raw Power in 1973 was the last Stooges album until 2007’s The Weirdness (which didn’t feature Williamson) and then 2013’s Ready to Die (which did). The band split in February ’74, as the influence of heroin grew. Pop and Williamson recorded the Kill City album together in 1975, though it wasn’t released until late ’77. In 1979, Iggy’s New Values album reunited the pair again, Williamson producing and playing some guitar.
After that, though, Williamson slid away from music pretty much completely. In ’82, he graduated from California State Polytechnic University with an electrical engineering degree. He spent 15 years with Advanced Micro Designs in San Jose, and then, in ’97, was taken on by Sony as its vice president of standards. This wasn’t a “necessary day job” for Williamson. This was a real career that saw him win awards and earn great acclaim for his work in Silicon Valley.
He lived a full life, had a family and was a tech guy surrounded by colleagues who had no idea what he had done in his youth. During the recession in 2009, Williamson accepted an early retirement buyout offer from Sony. That same year, Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton died. The band had re-formed six years earlier with a lineup of Iggy Pop, Ron and Scott Asheton, and new-guy bassist Mike Watt, and played to huge crowds around the globe. Ron Asheton’s death rocked the remaining members and fans to the core. If the band were going to continue, the only valid option was to bring back Williamson.
That’s what they did. The guitarist returned, the Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was business as usual until Scott Asheton died in 2014. That, as far as a touring Stooges was concerned, was that.
“I got a chance to go full circle with The Stooges,” Williamson says. “I got the tail end of it, where really we were at the peak of our careers, and got all the validation, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the victory laps around to large crowds, arena-rock kind of stuff. So I did all that, and I think I saw the band to its logical conclusion. In the end, it was only Iggy and I left alive. That said, I really didn’t feel like I was finished quite yet with music. I just had the ability to sort of do what I wanted at that point. I didn’t need to prove anything anymore, and I didn’t need to really do it if I didn’t want to. So now it’s just a labor of love. Just enjoying playing with really great singers and musicians, going out there and doing what I want.”
When Scott Asheton initially became sick, some tour dates were completed with Toby Dammitt on the stool. However, no real thought was given to moving forward as a band without either Asheton brother.
“By the time Scott passed away, we were not in a cycle of concerts and stuff,” Williamson says. “At that point, I really didn’t want to continue. I felt like it was kind of ridiculous. I’ve done things just with Iggy, but we couldn’t really be The Stooges with just me and Iggy. That wouldn’t ring true.”
Williamson recorded the Re-Licked album in 2014 — new recordings of songs demoed and performed live by The Stooges in the mid-’70s but never officially released. Williamson used a variety of awesome vocalists, including Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream), Lisa Kekaula (The Bellrays) and Carolyn Wonderland. He played a few gigs, but Williamson needed a band. Enter The Pink Hearts, which sees the guitarist join forces with Frank Meyer of the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs and Petra Haden of The Decemberists.
“Cheetah Chrome [The Dead Boys] recommended Frank,” Williamson says. “I had met Petra Haden through Mike Watt, [and had used her] on the last Stooges album, Ready to Die, on a number of different things, both as vocalist and as a violinist. So I knew about her talents. I knew I wanted to use her again. The only thing I didn’t know is what the combination of Frank’s gravelly voice and Petra’s super-pure voice would be like. So I decided, once we had written a few songs, I came to L.A. and recorded them with the two of them, and it was immediately magic. So it’s been a great thing having this arsenal of different vocal capabilities, and I think they’ve enjoyed it as well.”
Behind the Shade, The Pink Hearts’ debut album, is released on June 22 and, while Haden’s voice does add a new element, the combination of Williamson and Meyer, the latter a longtime Stooges aficionado, results in a trademark raw, rock & roll noise. After all, the name of Meyer’s other band, The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs, is a reference to the Stooges song “Search and Destroy” from that Raw Power album.
“It’s like, OK, so I don’t have to explain The Stooges to him for sure,” Williamson says. “He’s just generally a good guy to work with. His lyrical capability is amazing. That was one of the biggest things I was looking for — somebody who could write lyrics, because I can’t. I was so impressed immediately. He was turning around lyrics overnight, and good ones. That part of putting the band together has been really straightforward.”
What has been a little more complicated has been the commute for the band members between their bases in Northern and Southern California. That resulted in some delays getting the album out, but it’s all worked out well. And this week, we get to hear the results of those endeavors in a show at the El Rey.
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“It’s gonna be a rockin’ night,” Williamson says. “The album is 11 songs, and so obviously we’re not going to have a whole set with just the album. We’ll play some of my back catalog as well, and that’ll be fun. You’ll hear stuff in a slightly different way, given the talents that I have to work with. It’ll be a fun night. I’m really looking forward to it.”
After that, the band are working on booking a full tour. Beyond that, the future is wide open for Williamson and his Pink Hearts.
“As long as we’re having fun, I think we’ll keep trying to do it and take it from there,” he says.
James Williamson and the Pink Hearts play with Prima Donna and DJ Judith Christ at 9 p.m. on Friday, June 29, at the El Rey.