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A Journey Through the Michigan Underworld
By Brett Callwood
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2008 Brett Callwood
All rights reserved.
If the MC5 were Detroit's political spokesmen for the disenchanted youth of the 1960s, then The Stooges were the loutish kids, heckling the imposed semi-intellectualism from the back of the famous Motor City venue, the Grande Ballroom. 'Fuck politics, let's party' they would cry; they were performance artists before there was such a thing. They were punks when the term was only being used to refer to the unfortunate fellow deemed worthy of sexual abuse by the big cheese in prison. Initially at least, they could barely play their instruments. The Stooges were a mess, and the majority of people that heard them despised them for it. This was, after all, the era of the virtuoso. Cream and Led Zeppelin were the top rock bands in the world, and yet The Stooges were performing on stage with household appliances masquerading as instruments. It took a long time for the general public to appreciate The Stooges. True, bands like Dinosaur Jr and Primal Scream have been singing their praises for years, but at the time they were just too 'arty' for Joe Public to enjoy. Nowadays, of course, frontman Iggy Pop is a household name and The Stooges have reformed, thrilling some while leaving others cold all over again. They're certainly playing to bigger audiences and making more money than they did in the 1960s, but then that was a very different time ...
Ron Asheton was born on the 17th July, 1948 to parents Ronald and Ann. He was followed by brother Scott on the 16th August, 1949. While living in Washington as a child, Ron's great-aunt and uncle – both of whom were former vaudevillian performers – had a huge impact on his young mind. Before long, Ron had taken up the accordion in an attempt to recreate the awe and splendour that surrounded the past lives of his relatives. By the time the family had moved to Iowa, Ron's interest in that instrument had waned, replaced with a love for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as was so common at the time.
When Ronald prematurely passed away in 1963, Ann took her two sons and daughter Kathy from Davenport Island to Michigan, settling in Ann Arbor. Though Ronald senior had organised a pension, Ann had to make sure there was always enough for four people to live on, so she got herself a job at the local Ramada Inn.
By the time he reached the eleventh grade, Ron dropped out of high school with his friend Dave Alexander and journeyed to England, visiting the haunts of their heroes, including Denmark Street in London and The Cavern in Liverpool. Speaking in the excellent study of Detroit rock 'n' roll, Grit, Noise and Revolution, Ron remembered the excitement of two young friends taking a musical journey of exploration in a foreign land. "We thought that if we went there, we'd learn something. It was amazing to be sixteen and to take a train to Liverpool to go to The Cavern. For one dollar in English money, we could go to the afternoon sessions where five local bands would play."
Ron's travelling companion, Dave Alexander, was born 3rd June, 1947. When his family moved within Michigan from Whitmore Lake to Ann Arbor, he attended Pioneer High School with the Asheton brothers. He dropped out of school after 45 minutes of his first day, to win a bet, a move that was sure to make 'Zander' popular with the Ashetons. In order to finance his trip to England with Ron, Dave would sell his motorbike. The friendship between the two was quickly cemented. Speaking in Joe Ambrose's Gimme Danger: The Story of Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton said: "That trip to England was a really great thing. That was what totally changed my life. I could never look back again. Y'know, it's like, 'Nope, I'm never gonna go back to school.' I was a good student, even though I was kicked out – the first guy with long hair. Going back was like, 'This sucks. I don't belong here.' After that giant taste of freedom, to go to The Cavern every afternoon ... now it's sitting in the classroom, listening to somebody try to teach me something that I don't give a damn about. 'Fuck this!' So that was the brace that was put on my backbone, to have the guts to go out and do the music thing."
Upon their return to Michigan, both Ron and Dave were expelled from school due to the length of their hair, which by now was considered beyond even controversial. Ron formed a band with his brother Scott and Dave, which would be called The Dirty Shames. Playing guitar alongside Ron would be old friend Billy Cheatham. During an interview for Plan B magazine, Ron would tell Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, "We started The Dirty Shame, which was a band that couldn't really play. We knew two songs – 'We'll Take Our Last Walk Tonight' by The Sir Douglas Quintet and 'The Bells Of Rhymney' by The Byrds. We never really played, but we bullshitted our way into pretending we were rock stars because we looked it and dressed it, and got the job."
Speaking to Paul Trynka, former Mojo editor and author of Open Up And Bleed, Billy Cheatham recalled his time in The Dirty Shames. "At that time, Ronnie, Scotty, Dave and I were all childhood friends from 13, 14 years old. Then at high school they all dropped out, and I lost touch 'cause I stayed in school. So from that point on it was sort of a wave association, they were off doing different things – at that time Scotty and Dave weren't playing with anyone when Ron was in the Prime Movers [the local blues-based rock 'n' roll band that created a name for themselves around Detroit with their prolific gigging]. Dave started out playing guitar, and Ron was playing bass. Then when the band formed, Ron wanted to play guitar, he was advancing constantly. You have always been able to hear the bass influence in a lot of the guitar leads, and Dave started playing bass."
Cheatham has fond memories of working with Dave Alexander. "He was a great guy, one of those guys you thought you could size up by looking at him then realise later there were so many facets to him. But he was nuts, deep down, just a crazy kid! He was first to experiment with anything that came along; he was the guy that would get booze before reefer. We knew reefer was there, and he had his sights set on it. [He] was ready to go all out. He was very interested in the occult. Had a real spiritual bent to him. I think he was raised catholic, lost interest in conventional Christianity, introduced me to a lot of things, introduced me to Aleister Crowley ... and Madame Blavatskty, he was into her. He also was fascinated by George Harrison, used him as a compass. But he was really into spiritualism."
Cheatham also recalls his early opinions of the Asheton brothers. "We were all outcasts for one reason or another. Ron was heavy ... (not real heavy) for a kid. Then they had the added stigma of being new kids in town ... Ron and I made friends soon after I got here. Scotty and I made friends too. I didn't know they were brothers. I was friends with both of 'em, Ron through a couple of classes we shared. We shared a sense of humor – Mad magazine. Scotty and I were friends again on a level of absurdity. I met him playing football. It was really kind of a shock finding out they were brothers. They were different externally. Scott was ... bigger, and had a good frame on him ... and [the way he] used his eyes, that scowl he gets! I don't think he ever had to fight, never had to fight to prove himself. They weren't intimidated by Ron. He was smaller, came across as more intellectual, a different kind of guy. Once you get to know them, there are so many common threads like with Kathy [Asheton, Ron and Scott's sister], they have a shared sense of humor, I guess from being close when they were growing up. [Iggy] felt he was an outcast 'cause he grew up in a trailer park, he hated that. He probably felt like an outcast. Ronnie, Scotty and I – we were, no doubt about it."
Iggy doesn't remember exactly how he met the brothers. Speaking to the author, he said, "Y'know, I probably don't but in my mind, somehow Ron was involved with a group of people that were kind of called the beatniks in high school, and that was Bill Kirchen who went on to have a solid career as a country/bluegrass artist in the US. There was a fella named Ricky Hickinbottom too. And he was just around the campus. I don't quite remember how I first ran into him. His brother, in my memory was one of a group of three, including Dave Alexander, his brother and their friend Roy. The three of them used to hang around the corner of State Street and Liberty in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in front of Marshall's drug store, just watching people go by and being classic US street corner layabouts. I worked across the street at a record store. That's my memory anyway. Later, pretty early on, I was aware of Ron playing the bass and somehow I'd seen him playing in a cover band called The Chosen Few. I remember Scott asking me if I would show him some stuff on the drums ... That's about as much as I remember."
Speaking in his book, I Need More, about the Ashetons, Iggy would say that, "These guys were the laziest, delinquent sort of pig slobs ever born. Really spoiled rotten and babied by their mother. Scotty Asheton – he was a juvenile delinquent. His dad had died, his and Ron's, so they didn't have much discipline at home."
Ronald senior may have passed away early, but his love of the army still had time to rub off on Ron, who would develop an interest in German military memorabilia that would over the years be described varyingly as either unsavoury or harmless.
Bizarrely, The Dirty Shames managed to build up their own reputation by word of mouth to such a degree that they received an offer to open for The Rolling Stones, despite never having played a show in public. Perhaps wisely – and certainly bravely – Ron declined the invitation.
When that first version of a band with Scott and Dave didn't seem to be working out, or at least wasn't working out as fast as he would have liked, Ron joined an already established band called The Prime Movers. He had been recommended to the band by an acquaintance from a local record store that they used to hang out at, Discount Records. The name of the helpful one was Jim Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop.
Very little needs to be added to the masses of words written about the man who would become Iggy Pop; back then, Jim Osterberg would join The Prime Movers from his former charges The Iguanas in a drummer capacity, and because of his association with his former, more 'pop' band, the very serious Prime Movers re-christened him 'Iggy'. The Prime Movers formed in the summer of 1965 and featured the talents of Michael and Dan Erlewine, and pianist Bob Sheff. While speaking with the website I94bar.com, Michael Erlewine recalled Iggy's impact on the group. "Iggy played in a local band that mostly played for fraternities, called the Iguanas. That was how we met one another. Iggy liked what we were doing and soon joined up as our drummer. He came across as a shy, active, and ambitious young man. The band liked Iggy and vice versa. Girls loved him, as he had long hair, long eyelashes, and appeared bashful around them. He loved to look down at the floor, when they crowded around him, and bat his eyelashes. They went wild ...
"The Prime Movers was the first hippie-style or new-style band in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area. Along with the MC5, who in the beginning appeared in suits, we helped to mark a change in what bands were. We had been to Chicago and seen the blues greats (like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Magic Sam, etc.) play, so we had no real interest in groups like The Rolling Stones, who, like us, used the blues greats as their mentors."
Despite their disaffection with The Rolling Stones, manager Jeep Holland would try to push The Prime Movers towards a 'British Invasion' sound, something that the band resisted fiercely. Michael Erlewine: "We resisted a lot ... we tried the suits, but soon abandoned them. We tried going to the teeny hideouts and the teen circuit, but they did not get what we were playing and we did not feel like playing 'Louie, Louie' or whatever they might have liked all night."
Notably, Iggy would eventually be ousted from his drum stool in The Prime Movers by future MC5 master of ceremonies Jessie 'JC' Crawford. Michael Erlewine: "Iggy moved on from us, just like he had from the Iguanas. There was no big fallout that I can remember. Iggy was ambitious and sought to find his way toward the limelight. J.C. Crawford was his replacement and a good drummer and great guy, at that."
Very quickly, Ron realised that he was out of his usual zone playing with The Prime Movers. "They were very serious. I played with the group for a while. That's when I really learned how to play. I dug the blues, but I wanted to play more straight rock 'n' roll."
Iggy Pop: "The Prime Movers were a working campus far-advanced band. I think Ron played with us for a while and got fired for not coming to a rehearsal or something like that. It was my fault that he got in the band. The guys in The Prime Movers were an older crowd and they'd had an older drummer who was named Spider Wynn, and he wasn't really socially cut from the same cloth as the rest of us. They were sort of hippy neo-beats and he was an old school greaser. So they got me and I was about six years too young, and then I brought in my young friend. He didn't last long. He was too easy going for that band."
Ron's time in The Prime Movers came to a fairly abrupt end and then it was Jim who would help him get a job with Scot Richardson's The Chosen Few; while with that band, Ron would have the honour of playing the first note on the first night of the newly opened Grande Ballroom – perhaps the most legendary venue in Detroit's entire music history.
Ron Asheton: "That was a great time for me. We were high school kids and we were making some pretty serious money at weekends, without any bills to pay because we were all still living at home. We had a bus to maintain, but that was all. I enjoyed playing bass with [The Chosen Few]. Not all guitarists can play bass, or at least not the way it's meant to be played. But yeah, that was a fun time. It was also while with The Chosen Few that I first met James Williamson."
James Robert Williamson was born on the 29th October, 1949, in Castroville, Texas, where his father was a doctor. After his mother remarried, he found himself with a stepfather who was in the army. When he hit eighth grade, his family moved him to Detroit. Before long, he had formed The Chosen Few with Scot Richardson, but time spent in a juvenile home would seriously hinder his chances of being taken seriously by his colleagues and friends. James Williamson: "I was incorrigible. Basically, I was kind of stupid, young. I wouldn't do what anybody told me to do. It was an interesting season. I was trying to grow my hair long, and they didn't like that at my school. I thought that Bob Dylan would never cut his hair, and they said you have to, and we didn't agree, so I got sent to 'juvie' and then they buzzed all of my hair off! I guess I found out a little bit about fighting city hall."
Speaking to the author, James Williamson explained: "I started The Chosen Few with Scot Richardson when we were both in high school. We developed the band for a couple of years and then I got into that trouble and I had to go to juvenile home and then I went off to school in New York, so I wasn't with the band anymore. When I came back, Ron had joined by that point and I got a chance to meet him. He was a good bass player. One night up in Ann Arbor, they were playing a fraternity job, which they frequently did and I went up with them, and Iggy was there as well. So I got to meet him at the same time. That's kind of the beginning of getting to know those guys."
The Chosen Few were led by legendary Detroit musician Scot Richardson, who would go on to form the Scot Richardson Case (SRC). Rusted Chrome, an on-line guide to Michigan rock 'n' roll, would describe Richardson's Chosen Few as, "one of the original Hideout club bands [a venue which, along with Hideout Records, was a collective that helped fuel Detroit's scene in the 1960s] – tho' they were also the first to play on opening night at the Grande – and among the best (maybe even ahead) of their time, Chosen Few was a seminal Detroit outfit which ended up notable more for its contributions to other groups than for their own musical endeavours. They passed their vocalist Scot Richardson along to the Fugitives which, in turn became Scot Richardson Case (SRC) and guitarist Asheton later joined his brother Scott and [Iggy] in forming the Psychedelic Stooges, which eventually included Williamson as well."
Excerpted from The Stooges by Brett Callwood. Copyright © 2008 Brett Callwood. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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