Scott Asheton, aka Rock Action, the Stooges’ drummer, died over the weekend. If you’re a music fan, you’ve probably read the news items by now. They all say the same thing: that Asheton and his brother Ron met Iggy in Michigan in the 1960s, that they were founding members of The Stooges, that they labored in relative obscurity after the band disintegrated in a haze of drugs and acrimony in the mid-’70s, that they reemerged in the 2000s to reunite with Iggy and tour the world. None of them say what they should say: that no one played drums like Scott Asheton. And that no drummer was more important to their band’s sound than he was to The Stooges’.
The world hadn’t really heard anything like The Stooges when they first crawled out of Ann Arbor in the mid-1960s, and it’s worth thinking about exactly why this is. Sure, the world certainly hadn’t seen a frontman quite like Iggy Pop before, a man who’d roll in broken glass or whip out his famously immense dick on stage. The world had never really heard anyone who played guitar like Ron Asheton, a man with no interest in melody or playing solos, a man who took to the blues-inspired clichés of the day with a sonic chainsaw.
But for all that The Stooges had very little to do with their blues-inspired rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries (Danny Fields once described their sound as “un-blues”), the most interesting thing about their music was that it had its roots in the same place as, say, Bo Diddley or Little Richard’s music: the rhythm. It was this that made the Stooges’ trio of classics — their 1969 self-titled debut, 1970’s Funhouse, and 1973’s Raw Power — so revolutionary.
Listen to, for example, that other great shamanistic performer of the 1960s, Jim Morrison, who provided direct inspiration for Iggy’s wild, confrontational performance style. The Doors didn’t even have a bass player, and while Ray Manzarek’s remarkably dextrous organ work covered the low end, it was the melody that dominated. Even those songs where Morrison howled and growled and sneered like no one before him had done… they were ultimately about the melody. The rhythm added texture, underpinning the melody.
The Stooges flipped that template on its head. Ron Asheton’s lashings of guitar certainly added texture, but the music’s visceral power came from that most simple of instruments: the drums. If you’re singing a Doors song to yourself, or a Rolling Stones song, or a Beatles song, or whatever else, you’re singing the melody — that memorable keyboard part on “Light My Fire,” the “woo-woos” from “Sympathy for the Devil,” the instantly recognizable tune of “Eleanor Rigby.” If you’re singing a Stooges song, though, you’ll almost inevitably find yourself recreating Scott Asheton’s work — the chugging “duh duh duh duh-duh duh duh duh duh-duh duh duh duh duh-duh” of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the hand-claps of “No Fun,” the bit where “I’m Sick of You” explodes into life.
Asheton wasn’t a virtuoso drummer by any stretch of the imagination — indeed, the original plan for the Stooges was for Iggy (a genuinely talented and technically excellent drummer, apparently) to be behind the kit, with Asheton as the singer because he was the best looking. In the event, roles were reversed, and Asheton pounded out the earliest Stooges beats on homemade drums and oil cans. And as it turned out, he was the perfect drummer for the Stooges, his work tapping into a well of deep, primal physicality. He played the drums with a slow, deliberate strength, the way a seasoned boxer might do while meting out a beating to some young upstart.
The word “primitive” was often used to describe The Stooges’ music, a label that’s both rather uncomplimentary and laden with a certain latent racism; drum music = African music = primitive. But when people call The Stooges’ music primitive, I think what they’re really trying to say is that the music comes from a deeper, more fundamental place than the stuff you hear on the radio. It’s music that you feel in your gut and in your heart. It’s music that’s deep, perhaps deeper than even the band realized at the time.
Just listen to “Dirt,” my favorite Stooges song and a manifesto for living if there ever was one. Iggy’s lyrics are powerful and resonant — “I’ve been dirt/ And I don’t care/ ‘Cos I’m burning inside/ With the fire of life” — but the song’s power really comes from the low end: the brooding bassline, and even more so, that pounding, insistent beat. Listen to the clattering chaos of “1970,” the way “I Wanna Be Your Dog” picks up steam once the drums start in, the raw power of, um, “Raw Power.” These were songs that tapped into some sort of deeper truth, some wordless profundity that moved you on the most visceral of levels.
It was something that Iggy would spend years trying to recapture once the Stooges broke up, a struggle he described on The Idiot track “Dum Dum Boys”: “Things have been tough without the dum dum boys/ I can’t seem to speak the language/ I remember how they used to stare at the ground/ They looked as if they put the whole world down.” It seemed a perfect name for the Ashetons, a name both affectionate and mildly derogatory, a name that evoked “dumb” but also the rhythmic pounding of the music the brothers gave to the world.
When Iggy eventually did reunite with his lost collaborators, some 40 years after they last played together, the results were, unfeasibly, just as magical as they’d ever been. Sure, the new albums (2007’s The Weirdness and last year’s Ready to Die) were never gonna stand up to the band’s first three records, but their live performances were dynamic enough to put bands 40 years their junior to shame. I feel incredibly lucky to have seen them in both their first reincarnation (with the late Ron Asheton on guitar) and the second (with James Williamson exhumed from Sony to play Raw Power-era songs.)
I interviewed Asheton once, around the time The Stooges first got back together and toured Australia to play the Big Day Out. I was nervous as hell, but he was lovely — softly spoken, with a slow drawl, that air of gentle power you get from a big man who knows his strength. (It wasn’t always thus, of course — Nick Kent once described Asheton as “resembl[ing] a hardcore biker type pondering his next act of imminent barbarism,” and according to Iggy, the drummer evaded the Vietnam draft by turning up with a lightning bolt painted on his face and a crate of beer under his arm.)
Both the dum dum boys are gone now — somehow, against all the odds, Iggy is the last original Stooge left standing, and his touching message on Facebook last night left no doubt what we have lost: “Scott was a great artist. I have never heard anyone play the drums with more meaning than Scott Asheton. He was like my brother. He and Ron have left a huge legacy to the world.” It’s true, and “meaning” is exactly the right word. Like his brother, Scott Asheton wasn’t the most technically proficient musician, nor the flashiest. But he proved that you didn’t have to be either of those things to be great. You just had to hammer out the beat.