Punk Rock Executive

Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong stands at a podium to induct the notorious protopunk band the Stooges into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After seven nominations, the group has finally been lauded by the music industry for its universal contribution and influence on the world of music.

“Their songs are like weapons,” Armstrong says to the audience during his induction speech. “It’s the sound of blood and guts, sex and drugs, heart and soul, love and hate, poetry and peanut butter.”

Then, three men in their 60s walk up to receive their awards; Stooge front man Iggy Pop fittingly flips the crowd the bird with both hands and with a snarling smile says, “Roll over, Woodstock, we won!”

Behind Iggy stands drummer Scott Asheton, along with another band member, James Williamson, whose presence is puzzling — incredulous, even. Because the last time James Williamson played with the Stooges, Richard Nixon was president. In fact, nobody in rock and roll has even seen him in more than three decades.

Later in the show, the Stooges take the stage to play a short set, and Williamson slips on a Les Paul guitar. As he launches into the opening chords of the classic Stooges anthem “Search and Destroy,” a shirtless Iggy belts out the famous lyrics “I’m a street walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm!”

Not many suburban dads get a second chance like this. Playing in the Stooges is once again Williamson’s full-time job.

“I’m the poster boy for every old suit walking around who wants to be in a rock-and-roll band,” laughs Williamson, sitting at a restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif.

At this moment, the former vice president of technology standards for Sony Electronics must feel like the luckiest person in the world. He’s just rejoined the Stooges and is in the midst of an international tour. The 1973 Stooges album he co-wrote and played on, Raw Power, has just been reissued on Sony Legacy. And, next month, the album he recorded with Iggy Pop in 1975, Kill City, will be reissued as well.

Perhaps most important, though, is that he has reunited with his old bandmates Iggy Pop and Scott Asheton.

“There’s something about being buddies when you’re in your 20s,” Williamson says, sipping iced tea. “Scott and I, and Iggy, we go back so far. We’re just older versions of the same guys.”

In the late 1960s in Detroit, James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, joined up with brothers Scott and Ron Asheton and their friend Dave Alexander, and formed the Psychedelic Stooges, performing songs on junkyard instruments made of oil drums and vacuum cleaners. James Williamson was a friend but not yet a member of the band.

“The first gigs were wild,” he remembers. “There were no tune structures or anything. Everybody was so stoned; it really was quite an experience.”

Dropping the Psychedelic part, the Stooges released two albums and became a popular rock act around Detroit with songs like “No Fun” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The key word back then? Unpredictable. Iggy might roll in broken glass, vault out into the audience, or smear himself with glitter and peanut butter — sometimes all in the same show.

Years later, musicians such as Jack White, Kurt Cobain, the Sex Pistols, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day would gush about the band’s innovation. But at the time, the Stooges were largely unknown. Their record sales were dismal, their label was disillusioned, members came and went.

The band needed to progress as a group, Iggy explains — and Williamson was vital.

“James was more advanced musically than we were at the time,” Iggy says. “I thought he had a lot of energy and looked right.”

So Williamson joined up, and he brought a faster and more complex sound to the band. But the music-industry suits still hated it. And the Stooges eventually drifted apart.

Soon after, though, Iggy Pop signed with David Bowie’s management company, and he and Williamson moved to London to make a new record. The two auditioned British musicians for a rhythm section, but nothing seemed to click. So they sent for Ron and Scott Asheton to help record the album.

enaming themselves Iggy & the Stooges, the band finally released the album Raw Power in 1973. Today, that album is considered a classic — the forerunner of a million punk bands — but back then, it was just another poorly selling Stooges record with no commercial potential.

Not long afterward, the band split with management, and what followed, according to Williamson, was “a death march” series of low-paying gigs across the United States. The tour culminated in 1974 with a nasty confrontational show at Detroit’s Michigan Palace. People pelted the stage with bottles, cans, jugs, shovels, M-80s, lightbulbs and eggs. At the end of the night, Iggy stood in the midst of the debris and famously announced, “You nearly killed me, but you missed again, so you have to keep trying next week.”

Unfortunately, there was no next week, because that was the Stooges’ final show. The performance was later released as a live album, Metallic K.O., with a photo of Iggy on the cover, knocked unconscious.

“After the Michigan Palace gig,” Williamson says, “we didn’t have to say anything to each other. That was it. Nobody wanted to do it anymore.”

The Asheton brothers decamped to Michigan and began playing in other bands; Williamson and Iggy holed up in Los Angeles, writing songs that would eventually appear on the Kill City album.

“The goal was to get a record deal,” Williamson says. “We wanted to seem somewhat accessible.”

Unfortunately, no record label was interested. So Iggy started his own solo career, and Williamson went to work at Paramount Recorders as a staff engineer, cranking out one-hit disco songs.

“I quickly found out that there’s only one thing worse than playing in a band that you don’t like, and that’s recording a whole bunch of bands that you don’t like. I finally walked away and just started a whole new life.”

Fascinated by the new personal-computer revolution, Williamson moved out of L.A. and enrolled in engineering school in Pomona, Calif.

He still kept a toe in the music industry, though, producing Iggy’s solo records New Values and Soldier, but he left halfway through the second album. “I quit and he fired me, all at the same time,” he says. “We didn’t talk to each other for probably 20 years.”

And with that, James Williamson gave his guitar to a friend and disappeared completely from rock and roll.

In 1982, WIllIamson was hired by microchip company Advanced Micro Devices in Sunnyvale, Calif. Married with a baby, Williamson found himself moving to Silicon Valley and landing smack in the middle of America’s burgeoning computer industry.

Instead of playing guitar in platform boots, Williamson was driving to work at AMD every day and flying to meetings around the world. In fact, he estimates he’s racked up nearly six million frequent-flier miles.

“I’m Executive Platinum now,” he laughs. “Working up to George Clooney status.”

From AMD he eventually transitioned to Sony Electronics, where he took over the technology standards office of the Americas. But he never spoke to his co-workers about the Stooges.

Sony’s intellectual-property senior vice president, Toshimoto Mitomo, worked alongside Williamson for years and had no idea his friend once recorded songs with titles like “Open Up and Bleed,” and “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell.”

“James was always professional and convincing, and he had a great sense of personal style,” Mitomo says. “He did not look punk rock in his appearance, but he has always been punk rock in his spirit.”

Williamson’s wife had seen a Stooges show, but their two children had no idea of the influence the Stooges had wielded.

“Every so often, I would try to get some points. My son was way into Nirvana, and I’d say, ‘You know, those guys took a lot of stuff from my music.’ It’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, OK Dad, right, whatever.’ It wasn’t until they went to college. My son’s buddies found out and they were like, ‘Dude, your dad!’ So my stock went up quite a bit,” he says.

While Williamson was racking up the AA miles, Iggy had reformed the Stooges in 2003 with Ron and Scott Asheton and Minutemen punk icon Mike Watt playing bass. The group was touring the world, introducing new generations to Stooges music. But in early 2009, the band and fans were shocked when Ron Asheton was found dead in his house of a heart attack at the age of 61.

Iggy called Williamson and, as so often happens when a friend passes on, they patched up their differences. Not long after, Iggy called again. The Stooges had grieved. But they still had upcoming shows booked. They needed a guitarist.

“I said I was flattered, but I had a day job,” Williamson says. “I turned him down.”

In a bizarre alignment of the stars, Sony began handing out early retirement packages. James talked it over with his family, and he did the math. Sony had offered a great opportunity. And he would have lots of free time. But standing onstage doing “Search and Destroy”? He had not played guitar in public in 35 years.

“I felt that these are my old buddies,” he says. “They needed me. They were running out of Stooges. I had to call him back and say, ‘By the way, I just took early retirement, so I could do this now, if you want to.’ ”

According to Williamson, Iggy then burst into laughter.

Word leaked out to the media about Williamson rejoining the band. Spectrum, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, even announced proudly: “IEEE Standards Board Member to Rejoin Iggy Pop and the Stooges.”

One thing though: The newly retired executive now had to relearn the guitar.

“If you could ever do it in the first place, you can still do it,” he says. “You’ve formed all those brain connections, you just have to get ’em back going again. It took a little while.”

Williamson rehearsed by himself, but he needed the feel of playing with an actual band. Fortunately, he had become friends with the staff of Gryphon Stringed Instruments, a music store in Palo Alto, Calif.

“I was shopping for a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar,” he says. “The guy behind the counter said he didn’t have what I was looking for, but he took my information.”

Gryphon employee Derek See looked at the name and address and exclaimed, “Are you the James Williamson from the Stooges?”

Williamson mentioned that he was rejoining the band, and See offered his own band to help him rehearse. The Careless Hearts play Americana roots rock, but at one time or another, all the members had played Stooges songs in punk bands.

The younger musicians were big fans, but they didn’t quite know what to expect at rehearsal. To them, Williamson just looked like a typical Silicon Valley computer square. And he didn’t talk much. Once the band booked a live show at the Blank Club in San Jose, however, it was clear he was committed.

“He was adding songs,” says Careless Hearts vocalist Paul Kimball. “He wanted to do this one, he wanted to do that one. We added ‘Louie Louie’ right before the show. James wants to end with Louie Louie? Really? I gotta learn those lyrics now too? Because the Stooges’ version is different from the normal version. Dirtier, by far. So I spent the last two days before the gig driving around, screaming curse words in my car.”

News of the September show quickly spread online. Fans from all over the U.S. showed up and packed the Blank Club to capacity. With the help of longtime Stooges sax player Steve MacKay, Williamson and the band ripped through 17 Stooges songs in a row. Videos appeared on YouTube the very next day. A recording of that night’s gig, James Williamson and the Careless Hearts, was later released as a CD and a DVD.

Williamson then met with the actual Stooges and worked through the repertoire, practicing for five to six hours at a stretch. Just as they were planning their 2010 tour, they received a last-minute invitation to Planeta Terra music festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The guitarist admits he was nervous. “I’d never played for a crowd over a couple thousand. Now, my first gig is 40,000 people.”

Their show was televised throughout Brazil, and the Stooges (with Williamson) sounded fast, fun and better than ever. Next came the Hall of Fame show, and then 2010 tour dates began falling into place.

It’s not 1974 anymore, and certain elements of Stooges touring have changed. The band has agreed not to play too many back-to-back gigs, allowing for a day to recharge in between shows. There’s no longer carousing until 5 a.m. And, unlike the old days, everyone gets along just fine. “You gotta like the other guys you’re playing with, or you can’t really play with ’em,” Williamson says. “This was the only band that I ever found that with. We have a magic to us. It’s inexplicable.”

Derek See now tours with the Stooges as Williamson’s guitar technician. At every show, he watches the young crowds singing along to all the words. So why is the band so popular now?

“The Stooges wrote and performed music from deep in the heart straight to the depth of the soul,” See says. “They never pandered to anything that wasn’t true to themselves.” Paul Kimball is even more succinct: “Originality has legs.”

With Williamson, the Stooges have given themselves a three-year window, after which the band will reassess. “Some bands are so old that people are making fun of them, but they won’t stop,” Williamson says, and then laughs. “If we get to that point, I’m relying on my kids to tell me to hang it up.”

2 responses

  1. Great story!

  2. Love this! Man, what a dream ending to this story… the best of all worlds.