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James Williamson saves Iggy & the Stooges -- again

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stooges1.jpg

The re-formed Stooges include former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt (from left),
Iggy Pop, drummer Scott Asheton and guitarist James Williamson.


James Williamson has the best retirement plan ever. After three decades in the computer and electronics industries, Williamson is hanging up his gray suit and going back to his first job -- as guitarist for Iggy & the Stooges.

That makes the second time he's saved this band.

Iggy Pop (a k a James Osterberg) formed the Stooges in Detroit in 1967, allegedly after seeing a Doors concert here in Chicago. He gathered guitarist Ron Asheton, his brother and drummer Scott Asheton, and bassist Dave Alexander -- like-minded brutes who were into loud, raw rock 'n' roll, stuff inspired by blues-based Brits who were turning amps up to 11 before that became a mockumentary joke. With the production assistance of primal Velvet Underground cellist John Cale, they made an explosive debut album that sounded like nothing else recorded in 1969. The first punk rock record? Debatable, but likely.

But after the Stooges' second record, "Fun House," the band practically disintegrated. Iggy spiraled into heroin addiction. Alexander bailed. They lost their record deal. They were doomed. Until Iggy met a mysterious rising star named David Bowie, who made it his mission to midwife another Stooges record.

Enter Williamson, a friend of a friend of Iggy's who was crashing at his sister's place in suburban Detroit.

IGGY &THE STOOGES
7:30 p.m. Sunday
Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
Tickets: $47.25
ticketmaster.com

stooges2.jpgIggy liked Williamson's stinging, pummeling riffs and, in 1972, brought him along to Bowie's studio in London, where -- after the new record label tried to make Iggy into a solo star -- they reassembled the Stooges, bringing the Ashetons over and moving Ron to the bass.

The resulting record befits its title, "Raw Power," a masterpiece of more musical (thanks to Williamson) mayhem. Iggy shrieked and wailed and made crazy gurgling noises while translating his high-energy stage antics into pure noise. Williamson scraped and sawed and sharpened knives with his grinding riffs. The sound was so new and different from the glam-rock of the era that Bowie and his engineers weren't quite sure how to mix it; the album's sound quality has been debated for years. "Raw Power" was just reissued again, with the original Bowie mix (Iggy tried remixing it himself in 1996), plus two studio outtakes and an extra disc of a 1973 concert in Atlanta. The original record sold poorly but stands today as a hard-rock classic.

The band then fell apart again. Williamson and Iggy collaborated one more time, on the double-billed set of demos called "Kill City" (also recently reissued), after which Williamson left music altogether. In the mid-'70s, he started tinkering with computers, enrolled in school, became an engineer and worked his way up the corporate ladder -- hardly ever playing guitar again. He recently retired as vice president of technology standards at Sony Electronics.

He did so because the Stooges need him again. The band had reunited in 2003 and toured until early last year, when guitarist Ron Asheton died. Iggy called Williamson. Williamson, now 60, was ready for a change. Now's he's back on the road with the band he propped up nearly 40 years prior. "I'm featured in Fortune magazine this month," he says during our interview. "They play up the duality between suit and Stooge. I'm now the poster boy for every guy who's ever thought about picking up a guitar, at any age."

Q. Why would you restart this relationship again, much less rejoin a punk band at AARP age?
A. It all comes down to Ron dying last year. It was that and a couple of things. I had no desire to come back into the rock 'n' roll business, but when someone passes away like that it kind of changes your perspective on things. [Iggy and I] started talking, and he asked if I'd be interested in playing with the band. Obviously, we're running out of Stooges. You can't go out as the Stooges with only one or two Stooges. That's not very credible. At first, I wasn't interested. I had a day job. But, as luck would have it, shortly thereafter Sony started feeling the economic crunch and handing out early retirement packages, and -- independent of the band request -- I said, "I gotta take this." Then I started thinking, I've known these guys since our 20s and they need me. It might be fun.

Q. Had you kept your chops up at all?
A. When I got out of the music business, I put down my guitar and that was it. I did a couple of production jobs for Iggy, but I was mostly completely out of it. A couple years before, though, I'd spent a lot of time in Hawaii and gotten interested in Hawaiian slack-key guitar. It's not rock 'n' roll guitar, but had started playing that. I had to do a lot of woodshedding to play again professionally. It took quite a while. I told Iggy I'd do it in April [2009], but it wasn't until September that I did a gig with a [Bay Area] band, the Careless Hearts, just to put myself out there again.

Q. Tell me how you and Iggy wrote songs together.
A. What generally would happen would be work on writing the riffs. I'd try to find some riff or motif that I thought I could stand to play more than about five times. I'd try them out on him. That's how we worked on "Raw Power." Later the song-crafting got better; I'd try to come up with a more finished piece of music, which sometimes worked, sometimes didn't. Mostly it was a common way to go, I'd lay down some riff and Iggy would go make a song out of it. Thing is, my riffs are so crazed -- I've always said I don't think I could be in a band other than the Stooges because nobody but Iggy can figure out how to make a song out of what I give him. And I've never worked with another person.

Q. What was it like finding yourself in London as a young man ready to work on your first big rock record?
A. Better than the alternative. I had no money and no job prospect, and frankly I didn't have much hope that Iggy would come through with a record deal. The whole turn of events was pretty astonishing. I had literally a day from when I got the call to grab my guitar and get on a plane, and then here we were. It was "The Wizard of Oz."

Q. Was it always Iggy's intention to reassemble the Stooges there?
A. No, our intention, the both of us, was to create a new band. Even though MainMan [Bowie's management] had the intention to make a solo star out of Iggy, that was not our intention. We were going to make a new band, and we auditioned a lot of people. But no one was suitable. The style of musicians then, in 1972, was all sort of frilly shirts and big hair and a whole different thing than where we were coming from as these crazy, hard-hitting guys from Detroit. One day I turned to Iggy at the hotel and said, "Why are we doing this? We know some guys who can play, and we like them." We called the Ashetons.

Q. Could you have then just made the record in America?
A. Well, the advantage of London was that we didn't know anybody. So we didn't have a lot of friends around to get us into trouble. I'm not sure it would have held together if we were home. Making a record was the only thing we had to do in London, and the focus really helped the album a lot.

Q. So what's your opinion: Did Bowie ruin the mix of "Raw Power"?
A. No, I don't think so. Iggy and I were in the mixing room when he mixed it, so if either of us had any real heartburn about what was happening, we would have expressed it then. MainMain insisted he do it. They felt he might salvage it or whatever. In hindsight, I'm very glad Columbia-Legacy is reissuing the original mix. That's the historical mix. But what I really feel about it is: No matter who mixes it, it's all about the songs and the performances. They shine through whatever treatment they're given.

Q. The Stooges songs aren't exactly friendly to the establishment, Mr. Retired Corporate Executive. How'd you get nerdy and become a suit?
A. The band had failed. We tried our best. We thought Columbia would pick us up for another album, but it didn't happen. "Kill City" is an effort to get another deal. It was really just a bunch of demos when we made it. We had a long U.S. tour living hand-to-mouth; [the live album] "Metallic K.O." documents that. Everyone lost the urge to go on. ... I went on to work at a recording studio in L.A. as a staff engineer. I gained an interest in electronics through that. The thing, though, about studio work I didn't realize when I signed up is, it's hard enough to play with guys you like, but when you have to go to a studio day in and day out and work with guys you may or may not like, that drove me absolutely berserk. What then happened was the first personal computers started coming onto the market, and things like the 8080 [Intel's landmark 1974 microprocessor], and I became fascinated by that. It was exciting in a way rock wasn't for me anymore. So I went to school, became an engineer, started working in Silicon Valley, got married, started a family. No regrets.

Q. In your years in electronics, no doubt there were board meetings when someone would look at you a while and eventually say, "Aren't you...?"
A. Not really, no. I was surprisingly anonymous for really the longest time. You don't associate this engineering nerd guy as being from a famous punk rock band, and I didn't really bring it up.

Q. Really? You never sealed a shaky deal with, "And I'll throw in tickets to this show by a friend of mine you might know..."?
A. [Laughs] No. I wasn't ashamed of it, it just never came up in that context and why pursue it? What started to happen, though, was the Internet. Slowly, every so often, a writer would track me down and want to do an interview. For many years I wouldn't do them. Then "Behind the Music" did its thing on Iggy, and I did consent to be interviewed for that, on camera. So all of a sudden people I work with are going, "Holy s---! I just saw you on TV!" Then it snowballed and I started getting requests like crazy.

Q. Was it ever a problem at the executive level at Sony?
A. It turns out nobody really cares. I still do some consulting for Sony. The guys I work with, they just love this. And there's Sony Music and Sony Pictures and Sony Electronics; I work with all those people. One guy at Sony Pictures is pitching a reality show about us now.

Q. How do you think a record like "Raw Power" sounds to someone hearing it for the first time in 2010?
A. You know, we just played Europe and every audience was filled with twentysomething people. It's bizarre. We're all sixtysomething. My theory is that that music was so far ahead of its time and influenced so many bands that eventually, over time, people became accustomed to that sound -- because all the other bands imitated it. So these albums today, "Raw Power" and even "Kill City," sound oddly contemporary. All the imitators have conditioned people to like it.

Q. Iggy's talking about a new Stooges record. Are you on board?
A. Yeah. The bottom line is we need to write material that's of the quality of what we've already got out there. It's pointless to do a half-assed job and, just because we're the Stooges, get to release it. I don't want to live with something like that, and I don't think the guys do, either. Maybe we'll just start with one song we all like and can perform at the bar set by the Stooges. Maybe it's only one or two songs and we just release a single. Or maybe a series of singles. These days, albums are kind of irrelevant. Most people seem to buy their songs online, one at a time.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on August 25, 2010 3:00 PM.

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