Forty years after he helped form what is arguably one of the most influential punk rock bands ever, James Williamson has returned to his roots and is once again the guitarist for Iggy and the Stooges. Talk about a lust for life.
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.
Photo: The exec years: Williamson during his time as a Sony executive
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.