I wasn’t going to write anything about the death of Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, because it seems like a million articles have popped up on line since his death, written by the millions of people who loved him and loved the Stooges. Maybe the internet made the Stooges famous, because 30 years ago you couldn’t give a Stooges record away (they made their first record 40 years ago, in 1969).
But I digress. I have been thinking a lot about Asheton in the past couple of weeks because I’ve been listening to the ridiculous, excessive, riveting and at times downright spine-tingling seven disc box set of The Complete 1970 Funhouse Sessions.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Funhouse was the second Stooges album, and it was a masterpiece in 1970, and remains one today. Ron Asheton’s guitar playing on Funhouse inspired and gave hope to a lot of grubby little goobers like myself.
Guitar players are a funny bunch. Not funny like they make you laugh, but funny like they are all profoundly weird. You may be surprised to learn that there are only a couple of different kinds of guitar players. They break down roughly into ‘schooled’ and ‘unschooled.’
A lot of the schooled players exhibit disturbing and awkward inadequacy-based biases when it comes to any guitar music that is not technically perfect, however they happen to be defining perfect this year. That’s one sure way to identify them in the wild.
There is a kind of, “Hey, I had to study and learn theory and how to sight read, and if you think you’re going to come out of your skeevy teenage bedroom and share a stage with me, you are sadly mistaken!” attitude. A practiced air of superiority and smugness that is very funny – in the make-you-laugh way – to witness.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to say that learning music theory is bad, or that going to a classroom to learn how to play rock and roll is necessarily asinine (though I want very badly to say that), but I am saying this: schooled players do not rock. Not even slightly.
Oh, if I need a “rock” solo for my jeans commercial, I want a schooled player for that. Because they can come in and read the music and turn all the knobs on their rack mounted computer rig to dial in the “Eddie Van Halen,” or “Yngwie Malmsteen” sound you want and they’ll knock out the piece for you quickly and with no fuss, and you won’t have to pay ridiculous studio bills. That’s super!
So these types do have their place. There are also people who actually enjoy entire bands made up of these kinds of players, like Rush or Yes and those sort of prog rock dinosaur twats. So even if you can’t cut it in the studio, maybe you can get a gig in a Rush tribute band, bro.
But real rock and roll – these guys will never be within sniffing distance of it. You can’t write it out in musical notation. You can’t imitate it or fake it. You’ve either got that rock swing in your gut – in your balls – or you ain’t. And the tendency of people who do have it is generally to stay far away from schools and book learning.
Which brings us to Frank Zappa.
Ha ha! See, I made a funny guitar player joke! No, no. It brings us to the incomparable Ron Asheton. Stooge.
Only the Stooges could have made Funhouse. Only Ron Asheton could have played the guitar on Funhouse. Maybe you’ve heard the Stooges album Raw Power. Well, that ain’t Ron Asheton playing guitar on that squeaky, bitchy little headache inducing slab. No sir. Raw Power is like a stale tortilla chip in comparison to the thick Porterhouse steak that is Funhouse.
In fact, if you have Raw Power, go throw it away right now. It’s one of the most overrated (by people who have apparently never actually listened to it) rock records of all time. It doesn’t deserve to live in the shadow of Funhouse, brothers and sisters.
The first band I was ever in was called the Reactors. We played in St. Paul in the late 1970s. You probably saw us on Saturday Night Live back then. But we didn’t start out on SNL. No, our first paying gig was in the theater at Harding High School.
A local rock band that had very grand stadium aspirations invited us to open a show for them. They were called Paragon or Paradox. Or was it Paraquat? The Reactors, if you haven’t guessed, were a punk band. The first punk band our audiences had ever seen. Certainly the first punk band that the lads in Paragon had seen. And the first time they saw us was when we played the gig with them.
We only played for 25 minutes or so, but somehow managed to stir up a bit of mayhem in that time, what with the smashed guitar (unplanned), whiskey openly consumed (planned) and spit onto Paragon’s expensive mixing board (unplanned), theater seats torn up, etc. The natives were restless, and somehow we spoke to the most restless among them.
Why am I bringing up my first live gig here? What is this, more nostalgia? More of the same late 70s you-kids-get-off-my-lawn crabbing from old man Phillips? No, not completely. I bring it up because we played only one original song that night, a 30-second nugget of genius called FBI. The other 24 and a half minutes we played Stooges songs.
Learning to play the guitar parts off Stooges records was an interesting thing. Because you actually could learn the guitar parts without being what might be considered a great, or even adequate, musician. But also, there is a swing there in the Stooges. “What’s that?” you say, “Swing, as in swing dancing?” Why, yes!
All great music has one thing in common; it swings. Punk rock can swing, big band music, reggae, country, blues, folk – all great songs swing. And the songs on Funhouse swing, baby! So learning those songs at an early time in your musical development kind of burns that swing into your permanent memory and ruins you forever.
Here’s an amusing do-it-yourself project: play Funhouse for one of your talented, manicured guitar player friends and watch them chortle. Watch them snicker, roll their eyes and mock. Then ask them to play one of the songs. Any song, doesn’t matter which one. They will not be capable of playing it. I guarantee this to you my friends, I guarantee it or I will give you your money back, plus shipping and handling.
Oh, they may be able to decipher the notes and chords, and approximate their order, but it will not sound like Porterhouse. It will sound like a Dorito, or maybe a Cheeto. Because “good” musicians don’t rock. Period. They can’t. It’s not their fault. A certain percentage of the population can’t roll their R’s to speak proper Spanish either, it’s a genetic thing.
And that’s why a guy like Ron Asheton was dismissed and overlooked most of his life. Because the consensus has always been that only lunatics, subnormals, bikers and dirty Detroit assembly line workers listened to his shit. Not people of taste and culture and education, and certainly not “real” musicians.
Dismissed, overlooked, pissed upon, and now in death, lionized and celebrated. Sound familiar?
If the Stooges are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this time around (they have been nominated and passed up 9 times – apparently the rock music “establishment” still fears Iggy, even though he was de-fanged decades ago), I will not be among the audience for that sad, TV Eye wank fest. I will be sitting in a dark room playing Funhouse at a neighbor-disturbing volume, with my guitar on my lap and a bottle of whiskey in my hand.
Suck on that, Cleveland.