James Williamson is both the former and current guitarist from the proto-punk '70s legend The Stooges, featuring Iggy Pop. At one of the weirder panel discussions, he traced the origins of that band and his midlife career as a computer executive for Sony (SNE) in Silicon Valley. Along with Williamson on that panel was the always entertaining Buzz Osborne of the equally influential and legendary proto-grunge (and still performing) act, The Melvins, who seemed to have been invited just to spice up the story-telling with a few jokes.
The Stooges struggled to develop and keep an audience for their entire initial performance career. With followings in the big urban centers, they still couldn't connect with a mass market, either on radio or on live tours. The band broke up after a particularly bad encounter with a group of bikers in Detroit left them demoralized.
Williamson did studio work and tried his hand at producing and working as a recording engineer. But within a few years he left had music, giving away his guitar, to enter the nascent personal computer industry. He was fascinated by the technology and surprised he could make a living doing something he loved.
Thirty-five years later he took early retirement, keeping a relationship with Sony as a consultant, asked for his guitar back and rejoined The Stooges for a reunion tour that launched before 40,000 people in Brazil.
"It's the perfect retirement plan," Buzz quipped. He also observed that Williamson and the band were probably playing for more people in Brazil than they ever played for total in the original incarnation of The Stooges.
Among the funnier stories from the original Stooges: Williamson had a pair of leather thigh-high boots made that wouldn't allow him to bend his knees. He had to be shipped to the venue laying down on his back and stood upright by his bandmates in order to play the gig.
In the photo above, Williamson was playing a few riffs and familiar progressions from Stooges songs and showed how they had their origins in more familiar nursery rhymes and popular songs. Discovering years later that Shake Appeal from the band's album Raw Power was based on the Lone Ranger theme was "like going to an analyst for five years and having him tell you you love your mother," Williamson said. "I know I love my mother! I love the Lone Ranger."
In a sad irony, Scott Asheton, the drummer and one of the founding members of The Stooges, died Saturday, March 15, the day after I saw the Williamson panel at SXSW. The cause was reported as a heart attack.