James Williamson, power and rawness

By Sergio Ariza

There has probably never been a guitarist with a dirtier, wilder and more violent sound than James Williamson. His intro for Iggy & The Stooges' Search & Destroy is so wild that it makes many other rock & roll bands sound as if they were nice 'bubblegum' bands. Johnny Marr, one of his biggest fans said of him that he had "the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being so studious, and the swagger of Keith Richards without being so sloppy" and spoke of his style as "demonic yet intellectual" something that may have something to do with the fact that this guy started out as a juvenile delinquent and ended up as vice president of a large high-tech corporation in Silicon Valley.   

James Robert Williamson was born on October 29, 1949 in Texas and slung a guitar over his shoulder after his sister brought home some Elvis records. When his family moved to the Detroit area he ended up as a neighbor to a family where everyone played and that helped him get better. It was the summer of 1963 and Martha & The Vandellas' Heatwave was playing regularly on the radio. Living in Detroit, home of Motown, was a source of pride and the city was buzzing with new bands. Williamson formed his own, The Chosen Few, doing Beatles and Stones covers, by which time he had his first good guitar, a Fender Jaguar.


The last day he played with the Chosen Few was the first day of a new bass player, Ron Asheton, and although they barely shared a word their paths would end up crossing again. Up to that point Williamson kept getting into trouble, including a stint in juvenile detention when he refused to cut his hair, as his stepfather and school wanted him to do. At a fraternity party he met Asheton again as well as James Osterberg, who was already calling himself Iggy Pop. The three were walking on the wild side of life, as
Lou Reed would say, and became friends. Soon after, he witnessed the first performance at the Grande Ballroom of the band they had formed, called, at the time, The Psychedelic Stooges. Williamson was fascinated, they were wild like him, they didn't know how to play very well, but they were great performers, capable of captivating the audience.
  When they went to New York to record their first album, Williamson stopped by. Incredibly the record went unnoticed, and even more incredibly their next record, the wonderful Fun House was also forgotten almost instantly. It was shortly after its release, in late 1970, when the band invited him as second guitarist, on a tour where it was evident that Iggy was out of control, lost in a cloud of drugs that made him totally unpredictable. Of course, the rest of the band were not slouches on that front either, with Williamson's dangerous habits fitting like a glove in a band out of control. When drummer Scott Asheton nearly killed himself in a car accident, it all came to an end. An attempt was made to turn saxophonist Steve Mackay into a makeshift drummer, but that didn't work. The Stooges were over.   

Williamson hadn't even been around for a year but his health suffered after the excesses of touring. Suddenly he found himself living on his sister's couch, with no future, severe hepatitis B and no life prospects. Out of that hole he was pulled out by the guy he least expected: Iggy Pop. The singer had received a call from a fan who was fast becoming a rock star, David Bowie. He was offering him 10,000 pounds and a contract to record an album in London. The thing is, the offer was for him solo but Iggy wasn't planning to go to London without Williamson's guitar, a guitar that by that time was already his '69 Les Paul Custom.


The fact is that the two delinquents from Michigan boarded a plane and arrived in London in 1972, the Glam Rock capital of the world. As soon as they got off the plane, the authorities tried to throw them back on the plane to keep them out of the country, but when Bowie's manager intervened, the two got through. From one day to the next they had gone from absolute poverty to luxury. They stayed at the Kensington Gardens Hotel, rubbed shoulders with rock stars and their big cars, and went free to see Marc Bolan and his T. Rex concerts.

Williamson and Pop also took the opportunity to compose new material, Williamson banged out some new chords with his Gibson B-25 acoustic and Iggy added the transgressive poetry. In a short time they had a good bunch of songs to practice but they couldn't get along with the English musicians, who were much more refined in their sound than the wild songs the American duo had in mind. In the end they had a conversation and decided that at home there were two guys who understood their music perfectly and would know how to play it to perfection, the Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott. In the end they brought them too, to the protests of their new managers who only wanted Iggy and now they found themselves with a new reformed version of the Stooges.   


Ron was not amused at being moved to bass, but there was no doubt that Williamson was a better guitarist, but, also someone who was better not had problems with. The guitarist was still as surly and unfriendly as the storm of sound his guitar spat out. Besides, Bowie had become a star and all the machinery was working for him to succeed in America, so nobody cared much about what those four American savages were doing.    

The album they were recording was renamed Raw Power, a prophecy that perfectly defined what the Stooges recorded during their stay in the British Isles. In the end they delivered nine visceral, gut-wrenching songs that sounded aggressive and absolutely great, but not everyone saw it that way. All their new patrons, except Bowie, were horrified by this, so they decided to give their golden boy, Ziggy Stardust himself, a chance to do something with them. Bowie remixed the record and summed up the band's sound perfectly: "Your music is so primitive that the drums should sound like I'm hitting them with a log of wood". But not just the drums, all the instruments, from Williamson's guitar to Iggy's vocals sound like aggression. The opener of Search & Destroy is pure evil, it sounds as if the amps are about to explode and Williamson does a job that is ahead of, and surpasses, punk; and it is the moment for which the guitarist will always be remembered. On the other hand, the piano on the title track, played by Iggy himself, sounds like a hammer doing work on the house next door, and when he starts screaming that "can you feel it...can you feel it", James plays a solo that sounds like a chainsaw cutting bricks. It was 33 minutes of raw energy, in which the eardrums of those listening were in serious danger. 

No doubt one of the reasons for their sound was a Williamson unleashed with solos that cut like Iggy's own screams. Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell must be the dirtiest thing ever recorded, with distortion reaching incandescent levels. Iggy channeled Jim Morrison on Gimme Danger ("Gimme danger, little stranger, and I’ll feel you at ease") and Williamson makes even his Martin D-28 acoustic have the same sense of danger as his electric howls. While Penetration was a blues so lascivious it would make
Robert Johnson himself (the same one who asked for his lemon to be squeezed until the juice ran down his leg) blush. The title track was one of the most outstanding, and straightforward, songs of their career. With I Need Somebody they return to primal, sexy blues, with Williamson mixing the Martin D-28 with the lashings of his '69 Gibson Les Paul Custom ringing through a Vox AC30. With Shake Appeal the electric shocks return at lightning speed. Closing the album is the brutal Death Trip, which sounds as if four cavemen have been thawed out after centuries of hibernation and set to rock & roll.


It was a marvel but was again too radical for its time. It also didn't help that a lot of the money they were advanced to promote it ended up being spent on drugs. The album was credited to Iggy and The Stooges, unlike the first two, which had come out as The Stooges, but it mattered little. The world was not, as yet, ready for them. On the other hand, they didn't seem ready for the world either. They continued to live life on the edge with little regard for tomorrow, their debut tour was as tumultuous and troubled as the previous one and ended with Iggy getting beaten up after getting into a biker gang confrontation at the final concert in Detroit. 

Part of that chaos is reflected in the live album Metallic KO, of which the legendary critic Lester Bangs said that it was the "only rock record I know of where you can really hear the beer bottles being thrown against the guitar strings". The Ashetons, defeated, left, Iggy and Williamson kept trying in Los Angeles, but that was the final debacle - with a dejected and desperate Iggy, unable to manage his life. Shortly after, he ended up in a mental hospital. Even so, there was one last attempt, in the few moments when he was allowed to leave, Pop and the guitarist recorded several demos that ended up appearing a couple of years later, in 1977, under the name of Kill City, once Iggy had made a name for himself, again under Bowie's protection, with The Idiot and Lust For Life. On those songs Williamson's guitar still sounded raw and powerful, but by the time they came out his life had taken a turn.


After being arrested by the Los Angeles police for heroin possession and injuring his finger at an Alice Cooper party, Williamson decided to leave music professionally to work as a record producer and pursue higher education as an electronics engineer, initially enrolling at City College of Los Angeles. Although he collaborated with Iggy again on New Values and Soldier, Williamson left music for good in the early 1980s and turned to his new passion, computers. After graduating he moved to Silicon Valley where he became one of the pioneers of the place. In 1997 he became vice president of technical standards at Sony. Hardly anyone in his new life knew they were working with one of the wildest guitarists in rock & roll history.

In 2003 Pop and the Ashetons reformed the Stooges - though Williamson stayed away -, but on January 6, 2009 Ron Asheton died and Iggy Pop saw an opportunity to reform Iggy and the Stooges with Williamson. The guitarist had not played for so long that he hooked up with a local band, Careless Hearts, to practice before returning to Iggy. Finally, on November 7, 2009 Williamson was back to being a Stooge. The following year the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. The band toured several times and even went on to record a new album, entitled Ready to Die, with another ten new compositions by Pop and Williamson. On March 15 Scott Asheton died and the following year Fun House saxophonist Steve Mackay died. Williamson decided that was it: "The Stooges are over. Basically, everybody's dead but Iggy and me. So it would be kind of ridiculous to try to tour as Iggy and The Stooges when there's only one Stooge in the band and then you've got secondary guys.
That doesn't make any sense to me."

It was no great trauma, Williamson had already retired before, just before his music began to be appreciated and extolled by punk, the genre he helped create. This was in 1977: the year the Sex Pistols were bringing that dirty, anarchic sound to the charts. Everyone was praising the now defunct Stooges, their mythical lead guitarist, the sullen James Williamson, was rumored to have died of a heroin overdose… But it was not so, if they had listened to Iggy Pop they would have known the answer - and in Dum Dum Boys, the song on The Idiot in which he made clear how much he missed the Stooges, was the fundamental clue: "What happened to Zeke? He's dead on Jones, man (Zeke Zettner, who replaced Dave Alexander as bassist in the Stooges, died of an overdose in 1973) What about Dave? OD’d on alcohol (Dave Alexander, original Stooges bassist, died of alcohol poisoning in 1975) Oh, what's Rock doing? Oh, he's living with his mother (Scott 'The Rock' Asheton, at the time Iggy wrote the song he was out of work at his mother's house) What about James? He's gone straight”. Mind you, his guitar is still untamed....