Remembering Ron Asheton of The Stooges

(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.

Reunion bands: Ain’t nothing like the real thing


Above: The two original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and five other guys play “Sweet Home Alabama.”

By Joel Francis

When the Temptations and Four Tops took the stage Saturday night with only one original member in each ensemble, it raised questions of truth in advertising. Can a band be billed by its legendary name if only one of its musicians is an original legend?

Few bands are as fortunate as Los Lobos and U2 to have retained the same personnel since their debut. Some bands, like Wilco, have a different lineup on nearly every album.  But the reunion craze has accelerated hiring ringers to fill in for dead or uncooperative musicians.

When Journey played the Midland a few weeks ago, longtime singer Steve Perry had been replaced with Filipino Arnel Pineda, who was 8 years old when the band’s first album came out. No one complained, but Pineda’s job is essentially to sound like Perry while founding guitarist Neal Schon and the rest of the band deliver their signature sound.

Similarly, Yes were primed for a 40th anniversary tour when lead singer Jon Anderson fell ill. Rather than cancel the tour, the remaining members, who include Oliver Wakeman, son of original keyboardist Rick Wakeman, recruited a new singer off YouTube.

The majority of fans will tolerate a minor substitution. There were no grumbles when bass player Eric Avery sat out Jane’s Addiction’s second go-round. Most fans will recognize that age and time will prevent everyone from taking part. But when the skeleton of the original crew drag new faces out under the old name, it starts to take advantage of the people who kept the hunger for a reunion alive.

There’s also a slight double-standard in play. Few Beatles fans would be satisfied with a Beatles “reunion” featuring Paul, Ringo, Julian Lennon and Dhani Harrison, but The Who have completed not one but two successful (read: lucrative) tours minus the late John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Of course a true Fab Four reunion never happened, while The Who have launched a handful of “farewell” tours, but the rhythm section of Moon and Entwistle defined The Who’s sound just as much as John and George did for the Beatles.

Swapping drummers and bass players is one thing, but the road to finding a new frontman is fraught with peril. INXS failed miserably in their reality TV quest to carry on after the premature death of Michael Hutchinson. However, 14 years after Freddy Mercury died, Queen – minus drummer John Taylor – reconvened with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rogers. Many of the band’s East Coast concert date sold out quickly.

When Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger hired Cult singer Ian Astbury to hit the road as The Doors they were faced with a lawsuit from drummer John Densmore and forced to tour as Riders on the Storm. The moniker didn’t alter any setlists, but it at least let the fans know they weren’t getting the same guys that worked together in the ‘60s.

Then there are the jazz orchestras that continue to tour despite the death of their bandleader. The Count Basie and Glenn Miller orchestras draw decent crowds when they visit the area, despite Miller’s disappearance during World War II and Bill Basie’s death a mere 25 years ago. The Gem Theater will host a Jazz Messengers reunion concert on October even though bandleader Art Blakey died in 1990.

The reason why a musician will resurrect his old band with ringers is obvious: Billy Corgan will sell a lot more tickets and albums as the Smashing Pumpkins than he would alone. And while there’s no clear-cut solution, I think this is a rare example of capitalism and artistry joining forces to provide the ultimate answer.

If a band’s catalog is strong enough, fans won’t mind shelling out $30 to $50 as they did Saturday night at Starlight to hear someone else sing “My Girl” and “Baby I Need Your Loving.” On the other hand, if bands plug on minus crucial components, they might be confined to the state fair/town festival circuit Three Dog Night and the Guess Who have been riding for years.

Martha and the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street”

Martha and the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street,” Pop #2

By Joel Francis

Poor, poor Kim Weston. Had she not passed on this song, she may be remembered for that being Marvin Gaye’s first duet partner. Instead, Martha Reeves got to place another jewel in her crown.

Funk Brother Benny Benjamin’s great drumming and the incessant, propulsive tambourine get the feet going before Marta Reeves opens her mouth. But once she does, Reeves embraces every syllable with her full voice, squeezing each note for maximum pleasure. The single was released at the end of July, 1964, but its not hard to imagine that even in the dead of winter, legions of listeners would heeded Reeves “invitation across the nation” and joined her in the streets.

The growing race riots throughout America soon cast the song in a different light. (Five years later, the Rolling Stones recast the number into the dark, political anthem “Street Fighting Man.”) It’s hard to erase the imprint that history has left on the number, but the heart of Reeves’ words is utopia: Whoever you are, whatever you wear, wherever you’re from, get outside, grab a guy (or gal) and dance. “All we need is music, sweet music.” If only life were this simple.

Like many of Motown’s signature songs, cover versions abound. The Kinks and The Who cut versions earlier in their career. Both fail to capture the joy in Reeves singing and translate the large soul arrangement to a rock quartet. Artists as diverse as Dusty Springfield, the Grateful Dead and the Carpenters also tackled the song.

Van Halen propelled the song back onto the charts nearly 20 years after the Vandellas’ hit. Eddie Van Halen’s post-disco keyboard part transforms the arrangement as Diamond Dave – never one to miss a party – celebrates the lyrics. The song is a high point on one of the group’s most puzzling albums. “Diver Down” contains not one, but two Kinks covers (which should provide a clue as to why they decided to do “Streets”), a polka featuring Alex and Eddie’s dad on clarinet, and closes with “Happy Trails.”

No discussion of “Dancing in the Street” would be complete without mentioning the horrific, oh-my-god-look-away cover performed by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. While the intent was noble – a charity single for Live Aid – the results were anything but. It didn’t help that the song was delivered at the nadir of these legendary careers. Bowie had just completed his dance-happy “Tonight” album and Jagger was in the middle of “She’s the Boss” and attempting to break up his legendary band. The production is sickeningly slick and the vocals sound tossed off. Never ones to be swayed by taste, the public sent the song to No. 7 on the U.S. chart (and clear to No. 1 elsewhere in the world).

The most intriguing version of “Dancing in the Streets” may not exist. I maintain a secret hope that somewhere there is a demo version of Marvin Gaye’s original performance. I have no idea if tape was rolling when Gaye, who co-wrote the song with Mickey Stevenson, presented the song to Reeves or if he attempted to cut a guide vocal, but I am optimistic an unmarked reel in the Motown archives will be unearthed and reveal this treasure. I got my hopes up a few years ago when the “Cellarful of Motown” rarities compilation was released, but so far nothing has surfaced. In the meantime, Martha and the Vandellas will more than suffice.