The year 2003 was a mighty fine one for Ron Asheton. The international success of the Stooges’ reunion shows — including the chin-dropping DTE homecoming show last August — has lifted the guitarist to a level of celebrity he hasn’t known in decades. The recent success has even allowed Asheton to purchase a home on five woodsy acres on the shores of Lake Huron, where he’s always dreamed of owning a place. Considering Asheton’s undeniable cultural influence as a guitarist, it’s a reward that was a long time coming.
But his life wasn’t all odd silences and dark corners since the Stooges imploded back in 1973, as many of his fans have speculated. He’s a recluse, sure, but one who has always had a desire to reinvent himself.
As well as performing and recording over the years with Detroit painter/singer/performance artist Niagara in the bands Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival, Asheton’s toured with J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. (an association that helped spark interest in a Stooges reunion) and Wilde Rattz, a one-off supergroup that contributed to the Velvet Goldmine sound track. He’s a budding actor as well. The guitarist has popped up in cult-fave horror flicks Frostbite: Wrath of the Windigo, Legion of the Night and Mosquito among them. Asheton is set to play a redneck country singer in the upcoming film The Last Horror Picture Show, a Blair Witch-meets-Texas Chainsaw Massacre screamfest starring Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) and Gunnar Hanson (Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface) and Kane Hodder (Jason in Jason X).
And now he’s showing his art in galleries.
I meet Asheton in the Dearborn Heights home Niagara shares with her husband, Colonel Galaxy. With an opium den-meets-Beggar’s Banquet aesthetic, the house’s interior is ornamented with candles, velvet settees, black-and-lilac-colored walls and pieces of Niagara’s Lichtenstein-inspired femme-positive art. Asheton is preparing for a Stooges recording session to take place here, one that will see Iggy and the band (surrogate bassist Mike Watt, Ron and drummer Scott Asheton) record demos with Warn Defever for a new Stooges record, as well as a Junior Kimbrough song (“You Better Run”) for an upcoming tribute album.
In person, Asheton is spry, self-effacing and forthcoming. He’s relaxed, and doesn’t appear bitter, jaded or even tired; he’s a recovered statesman of guitar heroics, an eternal man-boy. Despite thick jowls, he looks a helluva lot younger than a guy in his mid-50s, particularly considering he’s partially responsible for making the term “rock ’n’ roll debauchery” a cliché.
Wearing his patented cop specs and a goatee, the man who essentially invented punk rock guitar playing is effusive. His stories run the gamut; from Amsterdam hash houses to his pet cats, from his undying respect for Iggy — despite their falling-outs — to his newfound fascination with painting.
He’s a veritable Stooges historian too, never missing a cue for an old story, which he narrates with an eagle-eyed sense of detail.
On reconnecting with Iggy early last year, Asheton says, “I hadn’t seen him in 25 years. I went down to his place in Florida. I was a little nervous. After a few minutes all the time just melted away.”
At the first Stooges reunion show at the Coachella festival in California last year, Asheton admits he was terrified before stepping out in front of thousands of people.
“It felt like I was going to the gallows,” he says, shaking his head. “It was either going to be glory or hell.”
In an affectionate nod to an old pal, Iggy recently did a portrait of Asheton that the singer calls “Ron Asheton: young and old.” The painting speaks volumes of their relationship.
“He [Iggy] called and said, ‘I just did a portrait of you and it’s bloody good, bloody good,’” laughs Asheton, obviously flattered by the gesture. “I see me in it. I also see a dog and a pig!”
Asheton’s been etching into sketchbooks, line-drawing and such, since he was a kid. In the early Stooges days, he had books crammed with his own cartoons. He says he started drawing more seriously a few years ago. He’d head up North and plumb the Michigan landscape for motivation.
“I’d take these baby art supplies and rent a cabin over a slope overlooking Lake Huron, staring out at the water,” he says, between pulls of a cigarette. “And I really wanted to capture that feeling.”
The guitarist has also been venting anger toward established commercial television by defacing actual TV Guide covers and mounting them. As lampoons of TV marketing, they are hilarious.
He’s even sold some of his art. Renee Zellweger purchased two of his pieces (including the TV Guide covers series) from a showing at CPOP gallery in July. She paid five grand. The Hollywood A-lister is Asheton’s one and only buyer thus far, and is perhaps overjoyed to have a piece of the seminal guitarist hanging in one of her houses. Asheton says the purchase “surprised the fuck outta me.” He has a prediction for his works’ fate in the hands of Zellweger, though. He imagines it “sitting out on the curb when she moves out of her house and some Mexican kids will grab it and hang it in their garage.”
Six months ago, Asheton, with prodding from Niagara, began applying acrylic to canvas, and has since been taking baby steps as a painter. Employing skeletons, evil moons and sad suns, Asheton’s paintings border the macabre, purposely silly and sick, almost hallucinatory. They are, ultimately, memorable.
With a cheerful nod, Asheton explains the meaning behind his work with nary a trace of pompous artistic argot.
“Some people might say it’s crap, others might like it. It’s kooky enough. Mostly I have so much fun doing it. I’m just so grateful to have someplace to put it up.”
One painting, a poppy-colored work called “Commercially Dead,” depicts a skeleton wielding a red guitar, a bloodied instrument in the hands of a musician eaten alive by the music industry.
“We all know what that is,” cracks Asheton, holding up the piece.
Autobiographical or not, his paintings and pop-damaged art are as technically unprocessed as the feral guitar on “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and as impenitently thoughtful. His inspiration for painting isn’t much different from that which motivated him to pick up the guitar as a kid.
“I just want to see what happens. I have these ‘I gotta paint’ impulses. And soon some things take on a life of their own. I’m way in the early stages of developing … “ He stops, then adds, laughing, “I mean, you gotta get better!”
The guitarist produces a workbook and opens to a bizarre drawing of John F. Kennedy. There’s a burst of blood spurting from one side of his head. Asheton explains that he’s been fascinated with Kennedy, particularly his death, reading every book he can get his hands on. The sketch prompts the guitarist to tell a detailed story about how, as a Boy Scout, he once met Kennedy.
“It was 1960. And I actually got to shake his hand,” laughs Asheton,
“That moment in time was the genesis of punk rock,” says Colonel Galaxy, who’s standing nearby.
Maybe it was.
On that note, Asheton dons a hefty green Army jacket and announces that he’s heading home to Ann Arbor. He disappears into the frigid Michigan evening, and tucked under his arm are a talking Master P doll (a gift from Dark Carnival’s Greasy Carlisi) and two books, a Dylan biography and Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis.
It’s 2004 and the Stooge is all right.Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]