Michael Flek of pioneering Durban punk band Wild Youth interviews the legendary James Williamson of Iggy Pop and the Stooges
It is with great pleasure that I present this interview with the man without whom my musical career would have been very different for he is the definitive punk guitar player and a huge influence on my work with Wild Youth. I am pleased to say that he is a gentleman, polite, friendly, helpful and has been very candid his answers revealing a lot of information that has never been put in print before. His story is thought provoking as life as a Stooge was not always an easy one. What ended in the seventies as a nightmare has been redeemed in the new millennium. Ladies and gentlemen I present you James Williamson.
Michael Flek: You have been an inspiration to me musically for the last forty years, creating masterpieces such as Raw Power, Kill City, New Values and now Ready To Die. In particular I have listened to the Raw Power LP several hundred times in my life and it was the soundtrack of my youth. The opening chords of “Raw Power” at the Meltdown show to me personify punk, the tone, the attitude, pure perfection. Would you mind answering the following questions for a South African music magazine “Underground Press”? Your early years were spent living on the edge, yet today you seem so stable and together mentally. I find this interesting and inspiring and have selected the questions accordingly. The questions are also selected to fill the gaps in your history.
You have been described as a juvenile delinquent before you joined the Stooges. What are your memories of those years?
James Williamson: Well, while I was exposed to a pretty ruff crowd occasionally where I spent my teenage years. Largely, I was just another adolescent kid trying to find his way. By 14-15 I had a pretty good understanding of how to play the guitar and had become enamoured with Bob Dylan. So, I started growing my hair longer (like the Beatles) and I co-founded my own band called the Chosen Few with Scott Richardson (who later formed the Scott Richard Case (SRC)). This was all by the end of the 9th grade at the conclusion of which I was told not to come back to school without a haircut. I refused and long and the short was I was put in the Juvenile Home....where there were real hard core cases of delinquency...I really wasn't bad and they let me out in about 3 months. From there I went to boarding school in upstate New York, which is where the Coba Sea were founded.
MF: How old were you when you joined the Stooges?
JW: I must of been 20 in 1970 when I joined the Stooges.
MF: What are your memories of the 1971 dual guitar lineup with Ron Asheton?
JW: I don't remember very much of the 2 guitar lineup since it was very short lived. We did play a few gigs like that including the infamous show where Scott Asheton drove the equipment truck into a bridge which was not high enough to clear the truck. So he was hurt and couldn't do the show. We needed the money so needed to play the show and ended up having Steve McKay play the drums after he said he could...Of course he couldn't and so the entire show was Iggy giving Steve a drum lesson...but we did get paid...the only other memories were of Iggy and I starting to write songs together and the day when the 2 Electra Records A&R guys came to our band house in Ann Arbor to hear if we had new material for a 2nd album. They were horrified by the songs Iggy and I had written and were even more horrified in going into Ronny Room which was completely decorated with Nazi memorabilia...that was the end of the Electra relationship.
MF: What are your memories of living in London in the Raw Power era and also of the Scala Cinema show? I have heard that the show was filmed by the BBC. Do tapes of the show exist?
JW: Well, re London...I was just recovered from Hepatitis and was sleeping on my sister’s couch at the time when Iggy called informing me that he had gotten a record deal while in NY and said we needed to go over to London and record the album. I thought about it for 1/2 second and figured that was certainly better than doing nothing on my sister’s couch. So off we went. As it turned out we parachuted into ground zero of the Glam movement with Marc Bolan, David Bowie, etc. It was great, just like being a Rock Star...very high style. The Kings Cross Cinema was what they called the Scala back then and by then we had brought the Ashetons over to play bass and drums. We rehearsed like crazy on a lot of the songs we had brought over with us like I Gotta Right and I'm sick of you...no doubt Louie Louie, etc. I recall that a few weeks before the show, I had suggested to Iggy that we should probably wear some makeup since all the Glam People were doing it. Only thing was we didn't know anything about makeup...so I consulted some girls and ended up wearing the white base pancake makeup you see in the picture on Raw Power and Iggy wore the black lipstick...the audience was totally shocked by the performance...they had never had a singer come out and confront them before....after that our management never had us play another show while we were in England since they were afraid of having police activities or something... the show was not filmed so no tapes exist to my knowledge
MF: Like many people I had always assumed that the Scala Cinema show was a promotional show for the forthcoming Raw Power album. However the song selection mentioned suggests that the show was before the Raw Power album had been written, rehearsed or recorded. Had any of the songs on Raw Power been written at that point? Did the band rehearse the Raw Power songs a lot before the recording sessions began? The album has such an immediate, fresh and vibrant feel, a combination of being extremely tight and experimental improvisation depending on the song.
JW: King's Cross cinema show was well before Raw Power was written...
We did Some Rehearsing for Raw Power but not much...mostly newly written material done at the studio...the band was very tight in those days...
MF: What are your memories of the final Stooges show that became the Metallic KO LP?
JW: We had been touring constantly for the entire year to year and 1/2 all over the U.S. back and forth with just enough money to feed ourselves and most of the time pay the hotel and travel expenses...we weren't getting anywhere and when CBS decided not to renew our record deal for a 2nd record, we just lost the desire to go on...our management booked us into a small club outside Detroit called the Rock n Roll Farm which turned out to be a Biker Bar for a show just before the one in Detroit. That night at the Rock n Roll Farm Ig did his usual audience confrontation and a Biker was leaning against a rail and just halled off and cold cocked him. After we didn't hear any more vocals for awhile, we realized what had happened and that was the end of the show...we were lucky to get out of there alive frankly. Anyway, those bikers and others came to the Michigan Palace show and that's who was throwing the bottles and after that we just hung it up...nobody had to say anything, it was just over.
MF: How badly addicted were you to heroin and how difficult was it to stop?
JW: I was never really addicted to Heroin, Iggy was and Scott were, but I was what they call a "chipper" or someone who used it occasionally but never enough to really get seriously addicted...luck for me...that shit is the worst. Lost a number of friends to it over the years.
MF: Tell us about the Soldier album. After the success of “New Values”, “Soldier” seemed disjointed. What went wrong?
JW: The Soldier Project was just doomed to failure from the beginning. We had poured everything we had into New Values and really weren't ready to do another album yet. There were no songs, there was only the record company pushing to do something more "punk" than New Values...so they decided to put together an assortment of punk/ new wave musicians and send us up to an isolated studio in Wales and essentially nothing much happened. We gave it a go for the basic tracks, but everyone was getting on each other’s nerves. I started drinking a lot as I was so unhappy, but of course that didn't help matters. In the end Iggy and I had a huge falling out and that was it until the re-union in 2009. When I left the album was about 1/3 done and they finished it from there.
MF: Tell us about starting work for Sony? How did you get the job, and how easy was it for you to adapt?
JW: I was already attending University towards getting a degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering when I finished up Kill City. About a year later Iggy asked me to produce New Values. Once we had the big blow out on Soldier, I was completely done with the music business and went on the finish my degree and was offered a job at a company called advanced Micro Devices (AMD) in Silicon Valley (where I live to this day).
I worked at AMD from 1982-1994 or 5 and worked up through various engineering and management positions. Then an old friend who had moved to Sony recruited me over to work there...at that point I was at the Director level and then finally needed up at the Vice President level as an executive.
Over course initially it was very challenging to go from being in the Stooges to becoming an engineer. Just the discipline of attending college with a difficult major was tough. But, I had become inspired by the new electronics and computer technology and was determined that I wanted to be a part of it. I worked very hard and despite the intrusions by Iggy who wanted me to catch the "Rock Dream" again and start playing in a band again, my heart wasn't in it any longer.
The other factor was that by 1981 I was married and the following year we had our son. Later we had our daughter, so in addition to my interest in electronics I had a family to support. Anyway, I've never regretted my decisions and have been thrilled to live and work in Silicon Valley during a very exciting time when many new things have been developed for the world.
Now, of course, I'm retired from that world so the opportunity to play with my old Bandmasters again has been remarkable and truely amazing to be vindicated after all these years.
MF: The Departed is an interesting number. Could you see the band moving into a more introspective direction? And Iggy is a great singer in the traditional sense and you have the musical accomplishment. Could you see the band moving into Frank Sinatra territory, Iggy buying a shirt and slowing down the act and concentrating on being a great singer? It cannot be easy risking injury at every show and I no longer feel that the fans expect this of him. Do you have any comments?
JW: The last two questions I don't have any answers to...I doubt it, but however unlikely...stranger things have happened.
Well there we have it. It is quite a story. For those who already haven’t, listen to the albums. They are incredible. And if you get a chance, catch them on tour.
A big thank you to James and to Heather Harris for the use of her photographs.