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(Above: The Stooges do “1969” in 2007.)

By Joel Francis

When Ron Asheton started playing electric guitar in the mid-’60s, there were no signs pointing the way he wanted to go. The Beatles were just starting to experiment with feedback and backwards instrumentation on their albums; Pink Floyd was buried in the London underground and Andy Warhol had yet to champion the Velvet Underground (not that many were paying attention anyhow).

The closest things to the sounds in his head were Pete Townshend’s guitar riff on The Who’s “My Generation,” the surf guitar instrumentals of Dick Dale and the dirty blues of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

By the time Asheton, his brother Scott, and their longtime friend Dave Alexander hooked up with fellow Ann Arbor, Mich. musician Jim Osterberg there were a few more road signs. Home state natives the MC5 had kicked out their jams, and the free jazz freak-outs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were regularly released on the Impulse label. But there still weren’t many fellow travelers on the Asheton brothers’ weird road during the Summer of Love. Osterberg, who would soon call himself Iggy Pop, was one hitchhiker they had to pick up.

Four years later, it was mostly over. In retrospect, it’s amazing the band lasted that long. The Stooges two albums, released in 1969 and 1970, were rawer than razor burn, more violent than the 1968 Democratic Convention and as combustible as the Hindenburg. When it was over, Asheton’s guitar work pointed the way that nearly every guitarist since has followed, or at lease acknowledged.

It’s difficult to imagine the furious stomp of the White Stripes and the six-string perversions of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr without the expanded palette Asheton created. The Sex Pistols and the Damned both covered “No Fun” in concert. Heck, the blueprint of the grunge movement was mostly hijacked from the Stooges’ designs.

Of course David Bowie prodded the Stooges to reconvene in 1973 for “Raw Power,” but it wasn’t the same. Iggy’s name was out front and Asheton was confined to the bass guitar by Ig’s new best bud, James Williamson. There was even a piano player! Asheton’s rightful place on lead guitar was restored when the Stooges reunited a generation later for a couple guest shots on Iggy’s solo album, an R.L. Burnside tribute and, finally, an album of their own, but by then they were no longer leaders.

Ron Asheton’s name rarely comes up in “Guitar God” discussions. The music he made nearly 40 years ago remains difficult to assimilate by mainstream tastes. And like his long-overdue adulation, it took people a while to figure out he was gone. Six days after dying from a heart attack, Asheton’s body was discovered in his Ann Arbor apartment.

There was no obituary in the New York Times and little mention on the 24-hour news channels, but somewhere in heaven a white cloud is tarnished with soot and Asheton’s scary noise is driving the harp-plucking cherubs out of their minds. Which is as it should be.

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Above: “Comfortably Numb” from the 1994 tour.

By Joel Francis

Seven a.m. Saturday morning, is a brutal time to be awake, particularly when you’re 16. It was even worse in the cold weather we faced that day, standing in line outside the Hy-Vee grocery store. But no one among the 300 or so of us lined up where complaining: Pink Floyd was coming to Kansas City.

It was the biggest crowd I’d seen at Hy-Vee. Guys were walking inside to buy six-packs of liquid warmth, passing cans along the line and relieving themselves against the wall. Elderly, crack-of-dawn shoppers paused in front of the assembly and asked if they could go right in. One old lady asked why we were all waiting in the cold. One guy responded we were hoping for a sale on melons. That drew a big laugh.

In the days before the Internet, you had to buy tickets in person. Although the gonzo days of camping out at the box office were long past, it still paid to show up somewhat early. At some point management would pass out line numbers to the assembly, then draw a number at random. The person holding that number was first and the line started from there. If you showed up after line numbers were distributed you (hopefully) got bad seats or heard those two dreaded words – sold out.

Finally our effort was rewarded. Upper deck, 40-yard line. Not the greatest seats, but we were in. The remaining tickets were long gone by dinnertime. Even though the band was playing Arrowhead Stadium, the largest venue in town, it was one of the fastest sell-outs in local history.

Winter gave way to spring and the excitement built. At long last the tour commenced at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. As the psychedelic trio snaked their way across America I was inadvertently trailing them. A church trip found us in Columbus, Ohio the night of the show. I remember the drunken revelry waking me in our motel room as the joyous throng returned. It was hard falling back asleep with that much energy flowing just outside the door. My summer job took me to Minnesota the day after the band played Minneapolis. Everywhere I went people were talking Pink. It was the summer of Floyd.

On June 20 the Pink Floyd descended on Kansas City. Our newspaper, The Star, ran a two-page chronicle of the band’s history. One fan interviewed for the story bragged about the line of dates he had tattooed on his arm – one for each time he’d seen the band. Some lucky, longtime fans had seen them play Kemper Arena on the Animals Tour in 1977. A lot more had seen them play Arrowhead just seven years earlier on the Delicate Sound of Thunder tour. I had never seen them before, but I didn’t care. I was getting to experience them now.

As the sun lowered over Interstate-70, Stadium Drive was gridlocked. People were openly smoking weed and drinking in their cars. They hopped out to take a leak behind trees and bushes in lawns along the way. One large bush was particularly popular, but when an overweight woman decided to use it about a dozen guys hurriedly scattered back to their vehicles.

There was a popular grocery store commercial where Arrowhead Stadium was transformed into a BBQ grill and smoke rose from the bowl as meat sizzled on its field. I imagine passing cars were treated to a similar spectacle as everyone inside lit whatever they brought to mellow out before the show. The band opened with “Astronomy Domine,” but thanks to The Star we already knew that. They didn’t do the complete “Dark Side of the Moon,” but we got several of its stronger tracks, including “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Breathe.” Two vicious pigs emerged from the speaker towers during “One of These Days.”

The most powerful moment for me was “Comfortably Numb.” During “Numb” a huge mirror ball emerged from the soundboard and effects area near the back of the field. At the point where the song fades out on record, David Gilmour was just getting started. He laid into a ferocious solo as the mirror ball opened and slowly rotated. The 80,000-seat stadium was transformed into an intimate campfire as Gilmour, keyboard player Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason and their accompanying musicians kept building and building. After what seemed like a rapturous eternity, the song thundered to an end and the band said left the stage. The encore set of “Hey You” and a searing version of “Run Like Hell” was a great coda to a spectacular evening.

Preserved for nearly 15 years, these memories came flooding back to me when I learned that Rick Wright lost his battle to cancer today. I saw Roger Waters on his solo tour at Kemper Arena in 1999 – he premiered the song “Each Small Candle” at our concert. I was surprised at how excited I got watching the quartet finally reunite on live TV in London just hours before the Get Up Kids final show at the Uptown Theater in 2005. Honestly, though, the Floyd haven’t been a major part of my listening diet for a long time. I guess the same thing that kept me away from their records for so long brought me closer to Rick Wright today – I can cue up any of his notes from any of their albums any time I want in my head.

Set list: (opening set) Astronomy Domine, Learning To Fly, Whad Do You Want From Me, On the Turning Away, Poles Apart, Take It Back, Sorrow, Keep Talking, One Of These Days //(second set) Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Breathe, Time, Breathe Rep, High Hopes, The Great Gig In the Sky, Wish You Were Here, Us and Them, Money, Another Brick in the Wall (part two), Comfortably Numb//(encores) Hey You, Run Like Hell

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