07 January 2009

Ron Asheton

The news of the Stooges guitarist's passing sent minor ripples through my community, though I'm sure if I'd maintained my hometown ties to Ann Arbor and Detroit I would have heard a far bigger deal being made of it (a quick perusal of the Detroit Free Press and Ann Arbor News produces this touching tribute and this rather squalid one).

Naturally, the news had more of an impact on me than on many of my younger contemporaries to whom Asheton and the Stooges existed mainly as historical relics, not least because it always gets your attention when someone your own age (a bit younger, actually) suddenly drops dead, but also because I knew him slightly, not just from seeing him perform with the Stooges, but also from hanging out with him occasionally during his Destroy All Monsters days in the early 80s.

I wouldn't claim to know him well or even to be more than a casual acquaintance; our principal connection was that I was friends with his girlfriend, which can always put a strain on a relationship. Even though my interest in her was not in the slightest romantic, he never seemed totally convinced of that, and tended to keep his distance when I was around. On top of that, I was typically that guy who's hanging around with the band but doesn't have any real reason other than social for being there. So he was always having to make room for me in the van and listen to my opinions about how to run the band (yes, I was just as bad in 1981; worse, actually, since I knew far less and talked even more).

Even then, not quite into his mid-30s, he showed signs of turning into a bit of a rock dinosaur. Time hadn't diminished his talents at all; if anything, he'd grown far more technically adept than he'd been in the Stooges era. But he was already at the point of not having much interest in the punk rock and new wave bands that had sprung up more recently. As far as he was concerned, they didn't have anything to show him, nor did he see any reason to abandon the lengthy guitar solos that by then had gone totally out of fashion.

In fact, the main attraction of Destroy All Monsters was not the fact that it featured a former Stooge on guitar (or Michael Davis of the MC5 on bass), but their singer, Niagara, a tiny girl with a phenomenal voice, who absolutely mesmerized the largely male crowd who would flock to the front at Monsters shows. Ron showed no sign of understanding this - though on reflection, he must have - and would almost literally push her out of the spotlight so he cold take center stage for his guitar pyrotechnics.

That being said, I didn't think he was a bad guy at all, just a little stuck in his ways, something which seems to be an occupational hazard for Ann Arbor musicians. I note that he died in his home "on Ann Arbor's West Side," and though accounts didn't give the exact address, I'd wager it was either the same house or one not far removed from the one where he was living the last time I saw him some 35 years ago. I thought it a little sad that he'd been dead for several days before anyone noticed, before it occurred to me that the same thing could easily happen in my case: I don't have a lot of company at home, and my habits are irregular enough that it might be quite a few days before anyone started wondering why they hadn't seen or heard from me for a while.

We all die alone ultimately, of course, even if we're surrounded by family and friends, so the precise circumstances of our departure are probably not as important as people make them out to be (unless you're convinced that the nature of your death has some bearing on your progress through the afterlife). Still, it felt sad to think of him going that way, and made me wonder what it would be like to meet a similar fate.

There's only been one time in my life that I genuinely thought I might be dying, when I was taken to the emergency room with what turned out to be an attack of kidney stones. I was in my early 40s and the memory that stays with me most vividly, even more than the excruciating pain, was the breathtaking pang of sorrow that seized me at the thought of all those things I would never do, all those places I would never go, all those people I would never meet or see again. I sometimes wonder if, having done, been, seen so many more of those people, places and things, I would feel the same way if death came upon me now.

I guess there's only one way of finding out, and I'm not quite ready for that yet, and I don't know if any of us ever is. My father died at 91, after several years of a debilitating illness that eventually left him unable to walk, speak or even eat except through a stomach tube, and still he seemed in no particular hurry to close his eyes and be done with it. Surely he no longer harbored fantasies about getting up from his deathbed to conquer new worlds and perform great feats... or did he?

I've kind of given up on being President, a professional baseball player, a male model and - this is the hardest one - a rock star - but there are quite a few other life goals, some of them nearly as implausible, that I'd like to manage before I go shuffling off. Ron Asheton at least got to be a rock star, though maybe prefixed with a "semi." He was part of what turned out to be a very important and precedent-setting band, but which in its heyday was taken seriously by only a few prescient rock critics and a bunch of us Ann Arbor stoners. None of his subsequent bands achieved much more than local success, but then in the last few years he was reunited with all but one of the Stooges and finally received the kind of adulation that he'd deserved all along.

It must have been intense, after all those lean and semi-forgotten years, to suddenly be playing in front of the huge crowds that the Stooges only occasionally drew in their prime, and I wonder if his principal reaction was one of gratification or of wondering "Where the hell were all these people when I was young and beautiful?"

Because the Stooges were a beautiful band, perhaps not in most conventional senses of the word, but in the way that they rose unbidden and unanticipated from an environment where you'd least expect beauty of any kind. They were like a storm that rises up out of a sweltering and stinking Midwestern afternoon, leaving you awestruck at its magnificence until that moment just before it hits and you realize that it just might have the power to totally destroy you.

And once it's past - provided it didn't in fact turn into a tornado and demolish your whole existence - you laugh and joke and go back to whatever stupid thing you were doing with a whole new sense about what's out there and what it might mean. No, I never thought I was going to die from seeing the Stooges, but they sure made me wonder what the hell I was doing with my life.

I never saw any of the Stooges reunion shows - I'm not big on reunions, the only exception being when I never saw the band in its original incarnation, and even then I'm hesitant - but most who did came away raving about them. At 60, Ron could conceivably have played many more of them, which is a loss both for himself and many current and potential fans. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that I wasn't surprised by his death: even many years ago he didn't strike me as a particularly healthy kind of guy. Lots of junk food, not too big on exercise. I'll refrain from commenting on drugs and alcohol because I frankly don't remember, not least because at the time I was pretty well wrapped up in my own drug and alcohol abuse.

I made a remark to that effect on the PPMB and got criticized by at least one person for in effect pissing on his grave and/or trying to make a moral lesson out of his death at a relatively young age. Not so, but at this point in my life, it's becoming an ever more common occurrence for people my own age or younger to drop dead, and I think it's only natural to try and make some sense out of it. Once upon a time - almost within my memory - it was not at all unusual for people in their 60s or younger to die. In fact one of the reasons the Social Security system is in danger of going bankrupt is that it was originally designed with the premise that most people would only collect benefits for three or four years after retiring at 65.

Today it's possible for those who in a previous generation would have been confined to old age homes to thrive as rock stars, politicians, novelists, or even 24 hour party people, but it takes a little more effort than it did at 20 or 30. A lot more, actually, and not everyone considers it an effort worth making. Did he get tired or did he just get lazy is a question I often find myself asking about those who don't stick around for the long run, and yes, I realize it borders on blasphemy to paraphrase the Eagles in a tribute to one of the Stooges, but I've stuck around long enough myself that I no longer have to worry about that sort of thing. Well, not so much, anyway. God bless you, Ron, and all of those who knew and loved you.


Jersey Beat said...

I was a sophomore in college in 1973, with two stoner roommates who liked to play Dark Side Of The Moon and Yes' Close To The Edge ad infinitum, usually late at night when I was trying to sleep. When I discovered The Stooges, I had my revenge, and I'm quite sure I played the three minutes of I Wanna Be Your Dog (at top volume) a thousand times that semester. When Raw Power came out soon after, my friends and I pounced on it like it was a new Beatles album; just hearing a few seconds of "Search And Destroy" still makes my heart race today. If you weren't there, you have no idea how awful most "rock" music was in 1972. Thank you, Ron, for making that year a lot more bearable.

Joseph said...

I was a bit of a late comer to the Stooges party. It was 1974. I was in junior high. While the other kids at my school were listening to awful Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper records, I was inclined to wallow in musical relics of the 1950s and early ‘60s (Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Johnny Burnette, Buddy Holly, the Seeds, et al). Then I heard “No Fun” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and my faith in contemporary rock music was restored. Ron Asheton and the Stooges opened my ears – and started a musical obsession. While the release of the first Ramones album was arguably the most definitive moment of my adolescence, it was the hours I spent playing Stooges records (and subsequently the New York Dolls, Dictators, Velvet Underground, Flamin’ Groovies, and Modern Lovers) that paved the way for my punk rock obsession.

I still vividly remember getting detention my freshman year of high school for wandering the halls with a copy of Raw Power tucked under my arm (perhaps I should save that story for the day James Williamson dies).