"I Wanna be Your Dog" from the album The Stooges
The world of rock lost one of its most influential — though under-recognized — figures as Ron Asheton, lead guitarist for primal Detroit rockers the Stooges was found dead in his Ann Arbor, Mich., home Tues. Jan. 6. He was 60 years old. The cause of death is believed to have been a heart attack with no evidence of foul play.
For most casual music fans, Asheton's passing will be barely a blip on the radar screen. But the band he founded alongside brother Scott and the future Iggy Pop, James Osterberg, has been one of the most imitated of its kind for some time now, contributing as much to the future of post-punk rock as onetime labelmates the Doors ever did.
To say albums like Raw Power and Fun House sold poorly on first release would be too kind. The Stooges were the kids who smoked cigarettes behind the gym during school hours and appealed, as Pop once stated, primarily to derelicts and outcasts. Though Pop's unhinged stage persona was key in establishing a wild, unpredictable reputation, much of the actual stimuli propelling them came courtesy of Asheton's guitar.
He was one of the all time "dirtiest" sounding guitarists. Asheton didn't get his frenzied tone from post-production gimmickry or an array of effects. Like AC/DC's Angus Young, Asheton wielded his axe with deliberate measure, making every note count. Why screw up a great tune with unnecessary wankery? His meaty, psychedelia-infused playing and steamroller pace contributed much to the groundwork of the '70s punk era and would later be heard in bands like Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — all of whom, thanks in part to the '90s alternative blitz, spurred more young listeners to investigate the original source.
Fortunately, Asheton got an opportunity to see how many acts he and the Stooges spawned when the group reunited for a series of shows in 2003. They released a reunion album The Weirdness in '07. The band's quintessential anthem "Search and Destroy" (on which Asheton actually switched to bass) was even used in a 1996 Nike commercial promoting that year's Summer Olympics. The songs from the "Search" era were some of the few without Asheton's songwriting credit, but, again, he was being heard by a curious new generation.
I'll always remember watching Asheton's friend and former Minuteman and fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt wield his mighty Gibson SG bass while supporting J. Mascis a few years back. As an encore, Mascis & The Fog performed The Stooges' "TV Eye." Good thing they saved it for last! Watching the small room come unglued as Watt pounded out the deceptively simple intro was testament enough to the Stooges' legacy (Watt did several U.S. and European tours with the Stooges in recent years). The Stooges and the Ramones were as close as rock will ever get to dupilcating a double-shot adrenaline rush.
Unfortunately, in the week since Asheton's death, things became a bit ugly in his home town. The Ann Arbor News reported that there was already a dispute between members of the guitarist's family and a personal assistant over Asheton's collection of guitars. On a brighter side, the article also pointed out, he was named #29 in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitarists" feature in 2003 — and for good reason.
Asheton and his fellow Stooges played loud, fast, and rough. Their greatness was within their simple approach. The technical errors that marked many of their recordings, in some cases, arguably made the sloppy mix sound that much more intriguing. Somewhere, right now, an ornery kid is blasting "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "No Fun," or "Down the Street" for the first time, much to the chagrin of his or her grimacing parents. The originators may pass, but some things never change.