James Williamson's trek from Stooge to tech to Stooge again
MUSIC Does the dream ever die? Especially when you're talking 'bout the Stooges, running on fumes of the glorious yet star-crossed Raw Power (Columbia, 1973), in 1974? For that still-influential combo it all came down to what Stooges guitarist James Williamson calls "a very prolonged death march across the United States," culminating with two February 1974 shows. At the first, the typically provocative Pop got cold-cocked in a Michigan biker bar. Then a few nights later, in a performance documented on Metallic K.O. (Skydog, 1977), the band caught a hail of bottles, cameras, and such hurled from the crowd.
"People really throwing bottles at your head really gets your attention," Williamson marvels from Silicon Valley, where he now lives and worked, until retirement, as an electronics engineer and Sony VP. "We were a little bit ... I don't know what you could say about us — stupid probably captures it! We just stood up there defiantly, egging these guys on."
Today you can't help but feel a little vindicated for Williamson, Pop, and drummer Scott Asheton (R.I.P., late guitarist and Raw Power bassist Ron Asheton). When we spoke, the affable, down-to-earth Williamson was looking forward to playing with the Stooges at the group's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction March 15, and to the April 13 release of the two-CD Legacy Edition and four-CD-DVD Deluxe Edition of the legendary proto-punk album he wrote with Pop. The deluxe treatment of Raw Power (available at www.iggyandthestoogesmusic.com ) includes the newly remastered original David Bowie mix of the LP (various Stooges have expressed their hatred of the first stylized mix, which finds new clarity post-remastering); Georgia Peaches, a live performance at Atlanta's Richards club in October 1973; a disc of rarities, outtakes, and alternate mixes; a making-of documentary; a book; five prints; and a Japanese picture-sleeve reproduction of a "Raw Power"/"Search and Destroy" 7-inch.
The whole thing is a treasure trove to rival 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions (Rhino Handmade, 1999), considering the quantity of the previously unreleased tracks, in addition to the notoriety of the partially bootlegged Georgia Peaches show (Ron Asheton owned a cassette of the show and after clueing in Stooges archivist Robert Matheu, the untouched original board tapes were unearthed). You have to love the bluesy prominence of Scott Thurston's roadhouse piano and Pop's crazily inspired intro to, say, "I Need Somebody": "I'll see every Georgia chick get down and — suck my ass. Ten Georgia Peaches up my ass; 10 Georgia Peaches stoned on grass; 10 Georgia Peaches next is coke; 10 Georgia Peaches ain't no joke ..."
Williamson remembers the Hotlantans as fun-loving: "Richards was a dinner-date kind of place with tablecloths and a dinner-slash-bar kind of thing. We'd do two sets a night for a week, and these guys [were] bringing their dates to dinner, and here come the Stooges, and the singer is up in their faces, messing with their girlfriends." He chuckles. "You know, you can't make this stuff up!" At another set, Stooges fan Elton John, who happened to be in Altanta, decided to surprise the combo by materializing onstage in a gorilla costume. "He was lucky he took his head off because I was getting really pissed at him," says Williamson. "And I was about to do something not good to him!"
High times for the band that had known each other since tenth grade — Ron Asheton played bass in James Williamson's first group, and Williamson hung out at the initial Stooges basement rehearsals. If there were any hard feelings when Pop shed the original Stooges with the exception of second guitarist Williamson, they seem to have faded. Asked by Pop to fly to London to write material for Raw Power, Williamson vividly recalls the making of his first album as productive. "I wrote almost all the songs on Raw Power up in my room in London on an acoustic guitar," he remembers. "In fact, that acoustic guitar is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. It's easier for me to hear the true sound of the chords, the combination of chord changes." Pop was also easy to work with — "a very nice person and very intelligent and sincere."
"I made some mistakes on that album in the solos and stuff, but who cares?" Williamson says now. "What matters is how it comes across." In the studio, the guitarist simply played, pulling out the caterwauling, proto-thrash solos for "Search and Destroy" and "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" until he saw the rest of the band nodding in the control room. "The music was all mine," he explains. "So I didn't know if it was any good or not — or anything about it. But I was having a great time and I was making money. I mean, what was not to like about it?"
Now, after working in high tech for more than 30 years, Williamson's writing new songs with Pop ("It's just as easy now as it was then") and anticipating the rerelease of the remastered Pop- and Williamson-penned Kill City (Bomp, 1977). He's found what might be the choicest retirement job ever, as a member of the Stooges. "It was a big stretch going from the Stooges to calculus and differential equations, but I did it!" he says, "and I've never really regretted it." Only Williamson can claim the next trajectory — "from a Stooge to a suit to Stooge!" he chortles.