RAW POWERS: James Williamson (right, onstage with Iggy Pop in 1973) will play live for the first time in three decades Saturday at the Blank.
Iggy and the Stooges' James Williamson comes out of retirement to play his classic songs with the Careless Hearts
By Steve Palopoli
HERE'S A musician's nightmare: What if you got your dream gig, playing with a true legend from one of the most revered bands in rock history—and no one believed you?
That's kind of what's happening right now to the Careless Hearts, who are set to play with James Williamson at the Blank Club on Saturday. Williamson is best known as the guitarist in the second incarnation of Iggy Pop's '70s band the Stooges. As a member of the rechristened "Iggy and the Stooges," taking over for original guitarist Ron Asheton, Williamson wrote all the music for and played guitar on the third Stooges album, Raw Power.
While not a commercial success when it was released in 1973, Raw Power was later cited as a huge influence by punk bands like the Sex Pistols and is now held up as perhaps the most important record of its era. Kurt Cobain called it his favorite album of all time, and so did Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Its role in shaping rock & roll over the last 35 years is immeasurable.
So, it follows, is Williamson's. Maybe that's why Careless Hearts drummer Eric Powers is finding that so many people have trouble believing that they'll be spending Saturday night onstage with Williamson, playing Stooges songs.
"Everyone that I talk to, no one has really gotten it," says Powers. "They're like, 'So, what, you guys are opening up for him?' 'No, no, no, I'm playing Stooges songs with James from the Stooges.' And they're just like, "So—you're opening up for him?' People can't even wrap their head around it."
Maybe it's because few people even realize that Williamson lives in Silicon Valley. He gave up music completely three decades ago to work in electronics, for Sony. And he says he had barely played guitar since, until he got a call from Iggy Pop earlier this year. The original lineup of the Stooges had reformed in 2003, but Asheton died of a heart attack on Jan. 9 of this year, at age 60. Iggy asked Williamson to join the band again, and he accepted. But that means a lot of catching up for the gigs in 2010, and this show with his friends in the Careless Hearts is part of that. It will be Williamson's first time on stage in more than 30 years.
Perhaps another reason people have trouble believing Powers' dream gig is that they don't suspect that lurking inside the Careless Hearts is a big, loud Stooges cover band. But while the band's vocalist Paul Kimball won't be augmenting his Iggy impersonation by smearing peanut butter on himself or cutting his chest with glass, Powers says doubters are in for a shock.
"Careless Hearts as Careless Hearts is its own thing," he says. "We're kind of a low-key, kind of country & western, Americana, mellow band. But everybody who plays in Careless Hearts was in a punk band, or 10, and has toured in the shitty van and slept on floors. So it's not even Careless Hearts at all when it's this thing. It's very loud guitars, loud amps, Paul's screaming his head off. We knew what we're doing."
Williamson took time from prepping for his return to the stage to talk about the upcoming gig, Raw Power, and his time with Iggy.
METRO: How did you originally meet the Careless Hearts?
JAMES WILLIAMSON: I went into Gryphon Music [in Palo Alto] to buy a guitar one day. They didn't have the guitar that I was looking for, a certain type of Martin guitar, and I told the guy who was helping me, 'Well, if this guitar comes in, give me a call.' So he started taking my information, and when he got my name, he goes 'Whoa, you're James Williamson?' I told him he was too young to know who I was. That was [Careless Hearts guitarist] Derek See. Sure enough, I did buy a guitar from them, and we got to know each other through various discussions over the course of a couple years. When I let him know that I was going to be joining the Stooges again, he offered his band to help me rehearse. Because I hadn't played in 35 years with a band, and I didn't know what to expect, really. So having a drummer and everything was a big deal to me. In between, [bassist] Brian Michael, who is also in this band, he's a luthier, and he restored my old Les Paul and a whole bunch of different stuff. So I knew a couple of these guys pretty well by then. Then I got to meet the rest of the band. As part of the bargain, I kind of felt like I owed them something, so I said, 'OK, you know, I tell you what, I'll sit in with you guys at a gig for a couple of songs or whatever. And then all of a sudden it became a whole gig.
One guest musician at this show will be Steve McKay, who played sax on the Stooges' 'Funhouse' record. What do you remember about playing with him?
The only time I ever played with Steve was a weird deal one night when we had a gig that we desperately needed the money from at a place called the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Our drummer had gone with the road crew in the truck, and he was driving. He neglected to notice that the bridge clearance was lower than the top of the truck. He took the top right off, and threw everybody out of the truck, because nobody wore seat belts in those days. He was OK more or less, but he wasn't playing the gig that night. So we were without a drummer, and we needed the gig. So we said OK, Steve McKay, he can probably play drums, right? He had never heard any of these songs before, nothing. He didn't actually play drums, he's a sax player. You got to give him credit, he sat back there and did the best he could. It was god awful—really, really, really bad. But we got paid.
Iggy Pop is as famous for his unpredictable performances as he is for his music. What's it like holding up the musical end when he lets loose?
We all go back so far, we know how Jim—Iggy—is. That's his thing, he goes and does his thing. Our job is to make the band sound good. We didn't worry about that stuff. If Iggy was cutting himself up, hey, the show goes on. The only time the show stopped was the one gig at the Rock and Roll Farm where we got booked into a biker club, and Iggy went out and did his confrontational shit to a biker—who just cold-cocked him. That was a tough one, because that was the first time where the tables had been turned. Because in those days, no performer actually got into the audience and started getting in your face, people didn't know how to react. So he was never challenged, and all of a sudden he got challenged. It was pretty scary night, actually. We were happy to get out of there alive.
The thing about 'Raw Power' is that there's no other album that sounds like it, not even the other Stooges records. Did you have any sense of how unorthodox your playing was, or how extreme the songs were sounding?
I had no idea, because that was my first record ever. I had nothing to compare it to. That was one of the problems, really, with that record. We were left alone to do our own thing, because everybody was focused on Bowie, 'cause that's when he was breaking, right then. That was the good news. The bad news was we didn't know what we were doing, so we made a lot of mistakes. There are a lot of technical mistakes on the album that made it difficult to mix. When Iggy remixed it, I don't know what he had to work with. He said it wasn't much. So I don't know what the masters are like.
In the past you've said you don't really like David Bowie's original mix of the album, or the mix that Iggy did in 1997.
Well, I've grown to like the Bowie mix better. That is the mix that everybody who knows the album knows. The guitars are way up front on that album, but you can't hardly hear the bass, and the drums are not up as far as they should be. But it is what it is, and you're right, it doesn't sound like anything else. I've been talking to Sony Music, who own the record now. I've offered to remix it myself, but I don't know if it's in the cards or not. It might be better just to leave it the way it is, just re-release the original mix and be done with it. That's what people know, and maybe that's the way it should be.
When it came out, it was a disappointment commercially. Then within a few years, punkers and other musicians were calling it the best album of all time. Were you surprised when it suddenly had such this incredible reputation?
In our active time as a band, we had no success at all. We were hand to mouth, and it was a really, really tough deal. So yeah, it's odd to see where it's gone from there. By that point and time, I had moved on. It became flattering after a while, because there were so many references. But nothing like today. I was down at a benefit in L.A. that the Chili Peppers were getting honored at. Iggy played there, and I went down to check it out, and we were talking about some things. Just the reverence of the kids to him was like "What? You've got to be kidding me."
What's it like playing these songs again?
It's been a lot of fun, and [the Careless Hearts] have helped me a lot. I was down in L.A. a couple of weeks ago playing with the real Stooges, just rehearsing, and that was a lot of fun, too. We're not doing shows until next year. We've got several rehearsals lined up before that. In the meantime, this is a lot of fun, and I get to play a live show for the first time in a long time. My son can come see me—he hasn't ever seen me play! These guys, most of the band wasn't even born the last time I played live.
JAMES WILLIAMSON AND THE CARELESS HEARTS perform Saturday (Sept. 5) at 9pm at the Blank Club, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $12. (408.29.BLANK) Check out www.straightjameswilliamson.com for his official website. For Robert Matheu's upcoming Stooges book, check out www.stoogefiles.com.
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