Fun House: Ron Asheton's 70th Birthday Celebration at The Blind Pig

MUSIC REVIEW INTERVIEW

The Shemps at the Asheton family home

The Shemps outside the Asheton family home in Ann Arbor. Front: Jennifer Herrema. L to R: Henry McGroggan, Kim Gordon, Don Fleming, Kathy Asheton, Mario Rubacalba, Mike Watt, J Mascis, and Mark Arm. Photo via the Ron Asheton Foundation.

Kathy Asheton’s voice was cracking.

“It’s all very sensitive,” she said, the sentence trailing off to silence.

She’s recalling her brothers, Ron and Scott, the guitarist (and later bassist) and drummer for The Stooges.

Ron died in 2009 at 60 and Scott in 2014 at 64, and their younger sister still struggles with their loss.

The Facebook page Kathy runs for the Ron Asheton Foundation is filled with personal remembrances and family photos taken in their West Ann Arbor home near Weber’s Restaurant. Her mom bought the house from Herman Weber in 1964, and it's still owned by Kathy.

The modest 1,400 square foot structure, with its brick facade on the lower half and siding on top, doesn’t look like the sort of place that would launch a musical revolution. But the band that helped plant the roots for punk rock, The Stooges, began its life here, all with the blessing of mother Ann Asheton.

“She was not only accommodating by letting my brothers practice -- that’s where the band literally started, in the family home,” Kathy said. “But she could also rip and say, ‘Don’t drink out of the milk cartons!’ and let us have it. She was a mom in the true sense. She yelled at them like she yelled at us.”

“Them” includes the MC5 and other bands who passed through the Asheton home, and it was Iggy who Ann yelled at for drinking out of the milk carton. Momma Asheton’s support was repaid in song.

“She was a muse for ‘Sister Anne’ by the MC5 and ‘Ann’ by The Stooges,” Kathy said with pride. “My mom was right there in it. Everybody liked our mom. She was a great person; we owe a lot to her.”

Ron Asheton 70th birthday celebration at The Blind Pig
Real cool time with (top, L to R): J Mascis, Mario Rubalcaba, Kim Gordon, Johnny Evans, Mike Watt. Bottom: Kathy Asheton. Top photos by Christopher Porter. Bottom photo by Doug Coombe.

Ann was cool with her kids playing music from the start, and Kathy was an enthusiastic supporter of her brothers. So much so that she scratched the name of one of Ron’s first bands into the brick on the front of the house.

“When Ronny played in The Chosen Few [in 1966], I carved [the band name] on the wall,” Kathy said. “Of course, my mom was yelling, ‘Why are you carving on the brick wall?’ But then after a while, it just took a life of its own.”

The house and all its history was the home base for The Shemps, a supergroup that came together to celebrate Ron’s 70th birthday on July 17 at The Blind Pig.

“We’re all gonna plan to hang out after rehearsal and do some carvings, signatures,” Kathy said. "The front of the house over the years, everybody signed their names on the wall. It’s pretty cool.”

Members of The Stooges, MC5, Sonic Youth, and more have their names written there; Scott Asheton signed “Rock Action,” his nickname with The Stooges and beyond.

The wall is pictured in the photo at the top of this story, and you can see pictures of the home’s inside on the Ron Asheton Foundations’ Facebook page -- photos of the Ashetons in their kitchen, their living room, during Christmas parties, and of other gatherings with family and friends.

“I just can’t let that house go,” Kathy said. “And as long as there’s life in me, I don’t think I will.”

Ron Asheton on stage and in The Big House

Ron Asheton on stage and in The Big House. Photos via the Ron Asheton Foundation.

The Shemps featured guitarist J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), guitarist Don Fleming (The Velvet Monkeys, Gumball), drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt), and saxophonist Johnny Evans (Kid Rock) along with vocalists Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Mark Arm (Mudhoney), and Jennifer Herrema (Royal Trux) performing songs from the first two Stooges albums, 1969’s self-titled and 1970’s Fun House, which featured Ron on guitar. (He played bass on 1973’s Raw Power.)

With a powerhouse lineup like that, a bigger venue would have made sense, and Kathy approached the Michigan Theater, where Iggy and The Stooges' 2011 celebration of Ron was held, but the venue was unavailable. But in truth, The Blind Pig is where the concert always should have been held, its well-worn walls imbued with the energy of thousands of rock 'n' roll bands begat by The Stooges.

“Ronny played there so many times, so there’s a personal connection to the Pig,” Kathy said. “And almost everybody in the band has played at the Pig. It’s our little CBGBs. So, it seemed fitting to have [the concert in] Ann Arbor and local. As Ronny said, ‘It’ll be sardines.’ Packing them in.”

Ron was right. The Blind Pig was sold out, with rockers of a certain vintage standing shoulder to shoulder to celebrate some of the most primal guitar riffs ever put to wax.

The Shemps took their name not only as a play on The Stooges but perhaps as an ode to what is likely Ron and the band's final song, “3 Stooges,” used in the closing credits of the 2012 movie The Three Stooges. It's also a nod to say that Kathy considers members of The Shemps to be honorary Stooges since many had worked directly with Asheton in various projects, with Mascis and Watt logging the most time.

“We both agreed we needed J and Watt” for the band, Kathy said, referring to her conversation with Fleming, the event’s co-producer. “There was an Asheton/Asheton/Mascis/Watt band. That’s what everybody credits for reuniting The Stooges. ... They were on the road and they got such a great response. They were doing Stooges songs. ... When the Asheton/Asheton/Mascis/Watt band was out playing, Iggy got wind of it. They had been talking over the years about reuniting but nothing ever materialized. And then when he saw my brothers were still out there pumping it and going over so well, that kicked him into it and the band reunited” in 2003.

Meanwhile, Arm did stuff with Ron and Fleming as Wylde Ratttz, and Rubalcaba came aboard through his work with Watt and Mascis. 

“Kim Gordon is also part of The Stooges reunion in the sense that [Sonic Youth] did a lot of the festival circuit together with The Stooges and they were good friends,” Kathy said. “Sonic Youth were considered like a little brother band to The Stooges. When The Stooges played their one-offs, Sonic Youth was also the opening act.”

It was Gordon who suggested Herrema, known for her outrageous performances with Royal Trux.

“I don’t know Jennifer,” Kathy said, “but as I was directed to look at who she was, I thought, ‘Oh, perfect -- the female Iggy.’ She’s got that thing happening.”

Unlike Iggy, nobody at The Blind Pig cut themselves, smeared peanut butter on their chests, or took a dump behind the amps -- all for the best. But the band absolutely captured the raw intensity of The Stooges’ three-chord psychedelic blues.

So did the evening’s opening act -- without even playing a Stooges song. The makeshift group featured guitarist Phil "Greasy" Carlisi and bassist Pete Bankert, who played with Asheton in Dark Carnival, as well as Paul Smith (vocals, guitar) and Andy Piekutowski (drums) from The Strains playing a fantastic selection of Ann Arbor and Motor City rock. Smith said the group was thrown together, but the way they ripped through MC5’s “Looking at You” and “Shakin’ Street,” Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” Alice Cooper’s “Ballad of Dwight Fry,” Sonic's Rendezvous Band’s “Sweet Nothing,” and Dark Carnival’s “Bloody Mary” was so powerful that practice was unnecessary. The spirit of Detroit rock ‘n’ roll courses through their veins, which you could also hear in The Strains' two originals.

With the table set, The Shemps kicked it over with a ferocious set of Stooges interpretations, with a Cookie Monster-shirt-clad Mascis wearing out his wah-wah pedal and Watt ripping runs on the bass in addition to pounding it like a caveman. Highlights included Herrema growling her way through “No Fun” with her ever-present baseball cap yanked low on her forehead, Arm ripping through “1969,” and Watt screaming “TV Eye” while smashing one of the most gut-punching-est rock riffs of all time.

But it was Kim Gordon who stole the night. 

The Shemps - group shot

Photo by Doug Coombe.

“This is for Ron, Scott, and Kathy," Gordon said as she took the stage. Shaking her blonde bob over a gold-glittered top, she screamed her guts out on “1970.” Accompanied by a braying Evans on sax, Gordon repeatedly yelled, “I feel alright!” and she was speaking for all of us. 

Gordon followed that up with an even more amazing take on “Loose.” On my notepad were the highly educated and devastatingly precise words that only a professional music critic could conjure: “HOLY SHIT.” 

Sonic Kim closed the evening by saying, “Happy birthday, Ronny!” and the band soon launched into “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which morphed into the Indian-influenced “We Will Fall” with Arm leading the chant.

The night’s other chant was “Ronny! Ronny! Ronny!,” which rang out as The Shemps’ finished their first set. But Ron Asheton's spirit reverberated throughout The Blind Pig that night.

Ron Asheton in The Big House

Ron Asheton in The Big House. Photo by Glen Craig, from the Ron Asheton Foundation.

The 50th anniversary of The Stooges’ debut album is in 2019. “That’s a big, big year,” Kathy said, “and I’m sure plenty more tears are coming.”

There are some plans being discussed and Kathy is working on a special personal project about her life and the band, but anniversaries are merely markers on the road. Kathy’s love for her brothers is a constant, and the Ron Asheton Foundation is a tribute to her brother’s love of music and animals. 

“He is a huge, huge animal lover, domestic -- cats and dogs,” Kathy said of Ron, speaking in the present tense. “And, of course, music. He did a lot of local stuff and donations, the Humane Society of Huron Valley. Henry [McGroggan] and myself started thinking we should start a foundation for Ronny." McGroggan is Iggy Pop's manager, was the tour boss for The Stooges' reunion shows, is on the foundation's board, and also co-produced the birthday concert. "So, we divided it between music and animals," Kathy continued. "Dog adoption being the primary aspect of it, and we’re using ‘I Want to Be Your Dog’ moniker for dog adoption. ... It’s mostly to keep his spirit and memory, and it became important -- it kept me going.”

Kathy sounded emotional again.

“It’s a very personal thing,” she said, “ just to keep that out there -- the love.”


Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.


Photo gallery by Doug Coombe:

The Shemps - Kim Gordon - Jennifer Herrema

The Shemps - Mark Arm - Mike Watt

The Shemps - J Mascis - Don Fleming

The Shemps - Mario Rubacalba - setlist