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Mike Watt riffs on Ron Asheton and the Stooges

January 7, 2009 |  2:27 pm

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Mike Watt, bassist for punk groups the Minutemen and Firehose, was invited in 2003 by Iggy Pop to join the Stooges when the seminal Michigan band reunited for its first performance in nearly 30 years at the Coachella Valley Arts & Music Festival. He continued to perform and record as a Stooge for the next 5 1/2 years alongside founding members Ron Asheton, the guitarist who was found dead this week at age 60; his brother, drummer Scott Asheton; and saxophonist Steve Mackay. Watt spoke Tuesday to The Times' Randy Lewis about being in the band with Ron Asheton. What follows is Watt's remembrance of his close friend and colleague.

As a musician, he was a pioneer -- very singular, very unique. To get to be onstage with him was incredible for me. We all looked up to Ronnie with that guitar sound. Man, it was a sound, but especially in those days in the early '70s. Most people at my high school, they didn't like that sound. They were like, "You like them?" We took a lot of [flak] for liking them in a way.

Then the punk scene comes, and the Stooges was the common ground. That scene, which was not very popular here in Southern California, was just all these different weirdos from different places. The one thing in common was the Stooges. It was kind of anti-arena rock -- more like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard than what was happening in the '70s. I can't even imagine our scene without that band.

And then I get to play with these cats. So much stuff comes third-, fourth- and fifth-hand, but I got to go right to the source. I was born in '57, so I was 10 years behind them. I'd never been in the little brother role before, but especially being around these guys, my ears grew to the size of elephants' and became like sponges -- I just wanted to absorb everything.

In 1997, I got to make an album with him in a group called the Wylde Rattz, which had a song on the soundtrack for "Velvet Goldmine." We did a whole album, but then London Records folded and it never came out. The song came out in the movie, but that's when I actually got to spend a bunch of time with him in the studio.

In 2000, J Mascis [of Dinosaur Jr.] asked me to go out on tour with him -- after I almost died from an infection and used Stooges songs to get strong again -- and sing some Stooges songs with him in a project called J Mascis -- the Fog. When we got to Ann Arbor, he says, "You know Ronnie, right?" I called him and he came down to jam and then ended up touring with us.

He'd come to see me in my band, whenever I was in Ann Arbor. Ronnie was up on stuff because he was in a bunch of bands: Dark Carnival, Destroy All Monsters. After the thing with J and later with Scotty as Asheton, Asheton, Mascis and Watt, this is when Ig called him and his brother to do a few songs for "Skull Ring" [Pop's 2003 solo album].

I was on tour at the time in Tallahassee, Fla., and I get this call. It's Ig, and he says, "Ronnie says you're the man." He said, "They're gonna get the Stooges back together for Coachella. Can you wear a T-shirt? I know you like those flannels." I said, "How about Levi's and Converse?"

It was a mind blow. Them songs had been living in my head for all those years, so I would just stand there onstage and stare at them. I had to struggle to keep focused because I was just like one of the gig-goers, but I've got this bass on.

I felt deep in my heart I owed these guys the best notes I could ever play. Still, when I think about it, it seems impossible that life had put me in this situation. I would think of D. Boon [the Minuteman singer-guitarist who died in 1985] just up there laughing. "I'm playing with the Stooges!" and he'd say "Shut . . . up!"

On the last tour, Ig gave me a 16-bar bass solo in "Little Electric Chair." I played with D. Boon and he would get all trebly and chicken-pluck and leave all this room for me, and I'd play a lot of stuff up high on the neck. It sounded really lame, but then Ronnie helped me construct a solo down in the low end one day on tour in Slovakia and that fit really well. The Stooges taught me about being a bass player when it was time to record "The Weirdness" album. Ig said, "Mike, I want you to get in touch with your stupid side."

I just feel so indebted to them, as musicians and as people too. They were so kind to me. They knew about a lot of stuff. Maybe because of the name the Stooges people didn't know that, but Ronnie was a lot about history, Scotty about nature, Iggy about culture, Steve Mackay about politics. And they listened a lot too.

They told me they got "Little Doll" from Pharoah Sanders. "Fun House" is actually their take on James Brown. Ig said, " 'Shake Appeal,' that's me doing Little Richard." All these trippy things, as though they invented this whole thing -- and they did, their way, but they also were in touch with a lot of the stuff that happened before them.

I'm going to get more intense with my work, my music. That's what I was thinking when I paddled out today. I went in the kayak after somebody told me they found him. I'm in San Pedro Harbor and I'm always running or kayaking.

This is going to push me with music ever more. It's a shame it takes something like this to do that, but I know all the playing with him has rubbed off on me big time.

I loved being his bass player.

STEPPING INTO HISTORY: Bassist Mike Watt, left, jams onstage with Stooges band mate Ron Asheton in 2004. Credit: Peter Whitfield.

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