Friday, January 9, 2009

Meet Ron Asheton

Ron Asheton's death this week is so sad, and I've been disappointed by the general lack of engagement with him as a musician. The Stooges weren't simply Iggy, and the band wasn't an autonomous entity divorced from its members. Asheton was central to one of the most influential and devastating rock sounds ever recorded. In his review of Fun House, Robert Christgau wrote, "Now I regret all the times I've used words like "power" and "energy" to describe rock and roll, because this is what such rhetoric should have been saved for. Shall I compare it to an atom bomb? a wrecker's ball? a hydroelectric plant? Language wasn't designed for the job." picked up some of the slack, but here's how you met Ron Asheton if the first Stooges album you heard was The Stooges:
"1969" starts at a leisurely pace with a wah-wah'ed guitar than pans between the speakers. It's not laid back, though. It's not trying to be cool. It's as insistent and regular as brother Scott's snare snaps. When the Bo Diddley beat kicks in and Iggy starts singing, the wah guitar is gone in favor of boxy, tightly controlled chord progression. Notes don't ring, chords aren't left to hang. The moment isn't about Asheton, except that it's all about him. The song's tension is all in his refusal do a show biz thing; his refusal to insert "notice me" licks, or even lead fills. At the end of the verse, he releases the tension with two heavily distorted power chords, but they're not Townshend-like power chords played for the cheap seats. They're heavily distorted depth charges that add texture without grandeur or heroics. This is anti-hero music. Another verse passes in the same way before a modulation up that brightens things a bit.

At the end of that verse, the final power chord is still crackling when Asheton enters with a guitar solo, and there's nothing polite or organic about it. His solo jumps in at maximum volume, layering distortion over distortion, working his whammy bar, paying more attention to the crisp attack of notes and the ebb and flow of melodic clusters than the melodic development itself. Iggy's repeating "It's 1969, baby" as Asheton bends the occasional held note, then breaks off another tight fistful of distorted sixteenth notes. Melodically, he's threatening to pursue an ascending line, but he keeps doubling back on himself, getting sidetracked in overtones, wah-wah, and murk. In the last minute, he's lost interest in the false optimism of that ascending melody. He could solo for 10 minutes and never get to the moment when it feels transcendent. Instead, he revels in the sound of electricity as channeled through strings and boxes. That last minute is the real tension breaker, the antithesis of his straightfaced chording through the verses. He borders on manic, as if he can't quite decide which noise he wants to play next, but he does. And he chooses the next noise and the next slur and the next jerk of the whammy bar with intuitive brilliance. Hendrix may have been the poet of the electricity, but Asheton was the Mickey Spillane, breaking off something that would never soar, but more dangerous and that would hit with a physical impact Hendrix couldn't imagine.

... and "Down on the Street," the opener on Fun House, is harder.

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