James Williamson in Saratoga (Photo: Kevin L. Jones)
It threatened to rain the whole drive down to Saratoga, but it isn't until I stepped outside my car that it began pouring in sheets. Thankfully my walk was short, and before I was soaked, I was inside a low-rent deli with Iggy and the Stooges' guitarist James Williamson.
“Just in time,” says Williamson, looking like any other comfortably dressed dad -- t-shirt, jeans, hoodie -- as he stood up to shake my hand.
We headed to the counter to order lunch.
The tamale lady stopped in earlier, and Williamson ordered two of her wares -- a pork and a chicken. I asked for the same, then move to pay.
“No, you drove all the way down here.”
Allow me a brief fanboy moment here: James Williamson, guitarist on one of the most influential records of the last 40 years, bought me tamales.
He’s played on many records, but Iggy and the Stooges’ 1973 album Raw Power will forever be the headline in Williamson’s musical career. The opening track, “Search and Destroy,” has been covered by Def Leppard, Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The title’s even tattooed on Henry Rollins’ back.
It's an album that united people, and its reach is felt widely, even today. People who saw one of the few dozen shows the band did during the Raw Power days would form the bands credited with starting punk rock: the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Damned. Fellow Michigan native George Clinton said the group had an influence on Parliament-Funkadelic’s stage show. Johnny Marr, former guitarist for the Smiths and Modest Mouse (among others) once called himself James Williamson’s “biggest fan.” Even Kurt Cobain would cite it as his favorite record of all time.
But for Williamson, that legacy has been bittersweet. As he tells it, there were very few high points in his life as a Stooge, backing the walking hurricane that is frontman Jim Osterberg, a.k.a. Iggy Pop. Both men had serious drug issues, the band never made a commercially successful record while it was together, and a day didn’t go by without some kind of drama.
As Williamson's former bandmate and longtime friend Scott Thurston once put it, being in the Stooges was “one horrible calamity after the next, until we were so broke and destitute that it just collapsed under the weight of it all.”
Last week in Saratoga, over plates of tamales, I sat down with the 66-year-old Williamson and talked about those dark days in the Stooges and why he would stop playing music for almost 30 years.
Williamson first joined the Stooges in 1970, and the band broke up just nine months later. (In that time they also blew their deal with Elektra Records, in part, says Williamson, from executives visiting guitarist Ron Asheton's apartment and finding it filled with Nazi propaganda.) It was around this time that Pop and drummer Scott Asheton began trying heroin, helped along by the group's road manager, "The Fellow" John Adams.
"By the time I joined they were getting into needles and developing pretty good habits, and I fit right in," Williamson says.
But a year later, Iggy would get a break -- rising star David Bowie loved the Stooges and convinced his high-spending, shrewd former-attorney of a manager Tony Defries to give Pop a chance. When Pop flew to London to work on the next album, he brought along Williamson, and later the Asheton brothers.
"We felt like we were going to make a hit record and there wasn’t any doubt about it," says Williamson.
Beloved now, Raw Power couldn't have been further from a hit record when it was released in 1972. Recorded by Williamson and Pop, and later mixed by Bowie, its thin, harsh production did it no favors. It peaked at #52 in the Billboard pop charts before "plummeting like a rock," says Williamson.
"I had never done a record. Iggy was two years older than me, he had made two records, and I just assumed he knew what he was doing," Williamson says with a laugh. "Also, I was there when Bowie mixed it, so I can’t complain too much because I should’ve spoken up at the time. But I really didn’t know -- you listen to stuff in the studio and a lot of the time it sounds good, but then you’ll hear it outside of the studio and go 'Oh my god!'”
Columbia dropped the band just a year later, but even before that, Williamson was booted from the band for reasons that he says had nothing to do with music. While the band was stationed in Hollywood, Williamson dated actress Cyrinda Foxe, a friend of the band's manager at the time, Leee Black Childers. When the relationship soured, Williamson says Childers pushed the band to fire Williamson as an act of revenge.
Williamson was replaced by Warren "Tornado Turner" Klein -- for all of one live show. After losing their management deal as well, the band came crawling back to Williamson.
"Of course it wouldn't work out: the band was its own little tribe. You can't bring in an outside guy and expect it to work out," Williamson says. "But at the time I was working as a projectionist at a porno theater, so I was like, 'F*ck you guys, but okay, I'll do it.'"
The band's solution for losing their second record deal? Getting back on the road. But the kind of touring they did was not what you would imagine today, with big buses, fancy stage lighting and expensive equipment. Iggy and the Stooges toured like an invasive species, showing up at whatever venue would have them, scrambling for gear to play through and sucking up the drugs around them like walking Hoovers. Those days are remembered with stories full of blood from random projectiles being thrown at them and even a moment when Elton John jumped onstage wearing a gorilla costume, scaring the living daylights out of Pop.
A series of bad managers and a tour that Williamson would later describe as a "death march" led the band to break up again in 1974, their disastrous last show recorded and released as the LP Metallic K.O.
Iggy Pop charged ahead as a would-be solo artist -- and, at least for a while, succeeded in bringing Williamson along with him. Together they wrote the 1977 album Kill City during an otherwise awful time: Pop had checked himself into a local mental hospital, while Williamson was busted for heroin possession by the LAPD.
Though the album would become a cult favorite, it was another financial failure. Convinced that he could never make a living playing guitar, Williamson gave it up following an accident at a listening party for an Alice Cooper record.
"I was getting pretty drunk, and a bodyguard said something to me, and I said something back, and he pushed me. I went down on the cement floor with a beer bottle in my right hand and when it broke, it cut a tendon in the pinky finger... I had pretty much given up playing by then anyway, but that took me out for months."
Instead, Williamson tried to make it as a producer, cutting his teeth on disco sessions at LA's Paramount Recorders. That work ignited an interest in technology -- so much so that when Pop reappeared in 1979 and asked Williamson to produce his next album, the guitarist was studying electrical engineering at Cal Poly Pomona.
But Williamson needed the money, so he jumped on the job -- what would become the criminally-underrated album New Values. He said yes, too, to the following album, Soldier, which took him to Wales. There, Williamson found he was supposed to coerce a cohesive album out of a band that had no songs and had barely worked together.
Ex-Sex Pistols' bassist Glen Matlock and XTC's Barry Andrews were working with Pop, but nothing seemed to be working, says Williamson. As the sessions wore on, Williamson began hauling around a bottle of vodka and a pistol -- an air pistol, but one that those on the session described as looking very real.
"In hindsight, I should have never taken that job. It was recorded in a studio I didn't want to be in, with music that was half-baked and with musicians I didn't respect," Williamson says now. "It was my own damned fault it didn't work out."
The final straw was a surprise appearance by Bowie, whom Wiliamson has never forgiven -- he believes the pop artist plainly used the Stooges for his own benefit. After Bowie reportedly attempted to brighten up the sessions with funny stories and egged them to play impromptu in the middle of the night, Williamson had a vicious exchange of words with Pop before leaving the studio, England and the music business altogether.
"F*ck Bowie," says Williamson. "His showing up was just the last of many frustrations with being there."
After earning his degree, Williamson "went straight," diving headfirst into the tech business in Silicon Valley and his musical past became something he didn't talk about. [Listen to Williamson talk about that choice, and its consequences, on KQED's podcast The Leap.] By the time he retired in 2009, he was Sony's vice president of technical standards.
Around that same time, Pop came calling again, asking Williamson if he could return to the stage as a Stooge, following the death of Ron Asheton the year before. Initially reluctant, Williamson changed his mind and went for it.
Having sat back for years, watching dozens of Stooges imitators make careers of the sound he developed, the break finally gave him a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor and past hardships.
"If it wasn’t for all the bands that imitated us, I don’t think the listeners would have ever developed a vocabulary for our music. It’s pretty extraordinary that our music got popular 40 years after we recorded it," Williamson says. "Why was that? It was because of those bands, really. If nobody had ever imitated us, we would’ve just been a footnote. Now it’s like we’re old blues guys or something."
What followed was a tour of the world, with the band playing to tens of thousands each night. Inspired once again, Williamson came home and worked on a new Stooges album, 2013's Ready to Die. He then followed it up with his own project, Re-Licked, an LP of old Stooges songs -- leftovers from the early '70s that the labels rejected, but with a variety of singers, including Allison Mosshart of the Kills and Dead Weather, and former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra.
Drummer Scott Asheton died in 2014, and there appear to be no plans for the Stooges to reform anytime soon. But the reinvigorated guitarist is currently working on new pet projects, including one with violinist and former That Dog singer Petra Haden.
Williamson's return to the guitar also provided him the opportunity to engage his family with his music. Though his wife Linda was familiar with his rock 'n' roll past -- the two met while she was working for Warner Bros. music -- their son and daughter were kept in the dark, except for the occasional comment from Dad about how a particular rock band was becoming popular by ripping off the sound he created with the Stooges. His children not only got to see their nerdy, white-collar father own stages all over the world, they got to see him inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
To Williamson's delight, his son Jamie has even taken up the guitar, writing his own songs for his dad to play and record. But when asked if Jamie ever wanted to be a professional musician himself, Williamson reacts in a way that none of the other questions about his torrid past life invoked.
"Well, he might've wanted to, but I never encouraged it," Williamson says, his eyes beginning to water. "I don't think music is a very good career path, frankly."
His struggle to hold back his tears, on the other hand, hints at a different story.
When I arrive at home later, still thinking about this, my towheaded 3-year-old daughter meets me at the door with a "Daddy!"
I hug her and she asks, like she sometimes does, if she can go play drums in the garage. So we go out back, where I set her up on my electronic drum set, the headphones barely able to stay on her head, and I help her balance on the rickety drum throne as she bangs away at the pads, her legs dangling, still unable to reach the pedals below.
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