When Ron and Scott Asheton walk onstage March 15 to perform songs from the first two Stooges albums, we will be witnessing a genuinely special occasion. The last time the Asheton brothers played a full set of this material — songs like “No Fun,” “1969,” “T.V. Eye,” “Loose,” “1970” and of course “I Wanna Be Your Dog” — was in 1971. Since then, the albums they recorded with Iggy Pop and bassist Dave Alexander have leaped in status from commercial and critical bombjobs to classics of the first order: ecstatic-savage compositions that continue to speak poetic truths, musically and lyrically, in the simplest of ways. They have, in short, become standards for successive generations of rock musicians and audiences.
“They’re all so basic,” says Stooges guitaristco-songwriter Ron Asheton, on the phone from his Ann Arbor, Michigan, home, explaining the songs‘ continuing appeal. a “They’re really good songs to learn guitar on, because you can tell that you‘re making progress. You can learn them and then as you become more accomplished, do a lot with them.”
“They’ve got a great drive,” says ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, conferencing from San Pedro. “And feel. Stooges is about feel, it‘s not really about chord changes. It’s different than an Emerson, Lake and Palmer song. It‘s more like Little Richard or something . . . it’s like a train you can hop on. There‘s a lot of emotion in that stuff.
”As you play longer and longer, you pick up the ability to play more and more notes, which is kind of destructive. You need an antidote to that, or else you’ll end up with fusion. Stooges is perfect medicine.“
”These songs are really fun to play,“ says ex-Dinosaur Jr guitarist J Mascis, on the phone from his home in Massachusetts. ”I dunno, I guess it‘s our folk music, for our generation, you know?“
Mascis and Watt will be accompanying the brothers Asheton (Ron on guitar, Scott on drums) for this show. Which makes sense. In the last year, J Mascis & the Fog (featuring Watt and drummer George Berz) have been joined regularly by Ron Asheton during the second half of their shows for a ferocious run-through of Stooges covers from that band’s 1969 self-titled debut and its follow-up, 1970‘s Funhouse. (The group does not play any songs from the later Raw Power era when Ron was switched to bass guitar.) Mascis’ gigs are legendary for their high volume, but somehow, after the slightly sheepish, pudgy Asheton was called to center stage last April at El Rey, the band not only got louder, it shifted into some previously unachievable supercharged gear. With Watt handling vocals as well as bass, ”Down on the Street“ was pure power rock; ”1969“ a tuff mantric groove overlaid by consecutive, endless acid-burned guitar runs by an enthusiastic Asheton and a grinning Mascis; and the closing ”TV Eye,“ just plain staggering. (Other shows last year were equally explosive: A highlight was in San Francisco, when the band was joined by Steve Mackey, the tenor saxophonist who played the horns on Funhouse; the low point was in London when Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie finished his rendition of ”No Fun“ and promptly split a heckler‘s head open (stitches, no charges pressed) with his mic stand.
Given the opportunity by curators Sonic Youth to reprise these performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Mascis asked Ron if he could coax his younger brother Scott — the Stooges‘ original drummer — back behind the drum kit. Scott agreed.
”I’m ready to go,“ says Scott, on the phone from his home in Sarasota, Florida. ”To tell you the truth, I don‘t know anything about [Watt and Mascis]. But if Ron likes them, they gotta be good.“
With original Stooges bassist Dave Alexander gone (he died in 1975 from pneumonia, several years after leaving the band), this leaves Iggy Pop as the one living original Stooge not scheduled to appear at the ATP show.
”I dunno, Iggy just doesn’t seem to be interested,“ says Ron. ”He called me in ‘96 just before Halloween, and said, ’Well, uh, you know this reunion thing, I don‘t really like the idea of getting together and playing shows, but Rick Rubin approached me with an idea of original guys doing a new bunch of music, with the original players.’ And I said, ‘Wow, that sounds cool, like when?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’m booked in ‘97.’ He never called me back. The other time was like 2:30 in the morning — he was trying to stay awake ‘cause he was catching an airplane after they threw that party for him remixing Raw Power. Other than that, he hasn’t called. I mean, we had good times together! We had such great times when the Stooges were doing well and the only drugs anyone took was smoking marijuana, basically. There was lots of good times. You would think that when Iggy came to Detroit he would call and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys come down to the show, I‘ll put you on the guest list.’ He doesn‘t call anybody — and I don’t have his number.“
Scott: ”I thought I would see Iggy when we did the VH1 Behind the Music episode on Iggy, ‘cause we did it in Miami Beach, and that’s where he was living. But I didn‘t get a chance to see him.“
Referring to the band’s demise, Scott says, ”I always felt bad for my brother because he kinda got the raw end of the deal. Me and James [Williamson, the band‘s guitarist in its later Raw Power–era phase] and Iggy were having some problems, and as a result the band fell apart. But I have a lot of good memories too. I’d still love to do some type of reunion. I think the people would like it, I think it would be cool. It‘s all up to Iggy. I used to call up his management and kinda bug ’em about if there‘s a chance we could get together, him and myself and my brother, and do an album. His manager was a nice guy, he used to tell me, ’Well, Iggy‘s not opposed to the idea, but he’s busy.‘ But the last time I called, the number had been disconnected.“
Ron: ”My brother, he misses Iggy, ’cause those guys, they chummed a lot, they went through all the heroin bullshit. That kinda makes me the outsider, ‘cause I didn’t go through all that crap. So . . . a reunion would be fun, but I doubt that‘s gonna happen. I’ve told Scott, playing with these guys [Watt and Mascis] might be as close as you get.
“They know the songs inside and out.”
The Ashetons, Watt and Mascis play at UCLA‘s Ackerman Grand Ballroom, Friday, March 15.