Photo courtesy of James Williamson by Robert Matheu.
Guitarist James Williamson will deliver the keynote music address at the C2SV Technology Conference and Music Festival in Silicon Valley at noon on September 28 before he performs with Iggy and The Stooges at St. James Park later that evening.
Williamson’s story is one of the more remarkable ones in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. As member of Iggy and The Stooges in the 1970s, Williamson created punk rock’s signature guitar sound, then settled into a quiet career as a Silicon Valley engineering manager. After 30 years, he took an early retirement buyout offer as Sony’s Vice President of Technology Standards and rejoined the band.
Completing a world tour that’s taken The Stooges from Australia to Europe, the legendary band will play its final show of its triumphant sweep on Williamson’s home turf in Silicon Valley. Williamson is an ideal icon for a conference and festival celebrating “Creative Convergence,” the fusion of information technology and the creative arts. In February, he’ll be inducted into the Engineering Hall of Fame at California Polytechnic University. “To my knowledge, I am the only holder of a Rock n Roll HOF and an Engineering HOF,” Williamson says.
At the keynote, Williamson will talk about his journey from juvenile delinquent and rock pioneer to mild mannered corporate executive, in which one of rock’s great guitarists was embedded, undetected, in a big consumer electronics company. The keynote will take place in the newly-opened wing of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center on the last day of the C2SV tech conference.
Born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma and Detroit, Williamson first played music with Iggy Pop while in high school and joined The Stooges in 1970, but the band was a short-lived trainwreck of drug-fueled excess and commercial failure.
In 1972 David Bowie invited Pop to record in London. Williamson joined him there, co-wrote all of the songs with Iggy, and played all of the guitar parts for The Stooges’ classic 1973 album, “Raw Power.” Kurt Cobain called it his favorite album of all time, and Cee Lo Green ranks it among his favorites as well.
Williamson’s jagged, loud, raunchy Detroit guitar sound inspired the punk rock movement that transformed rock music and continues to influence guitarists to this day. “He has the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being as studious, and the swagger of Keith Richards without being sloppy,” says Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
“The first time I heard him play,” Iggy Pop told Britain’s The Guardian in an interview, “which was in a basement in Ann Arbor, he did something that later became known as punk or speed metal—a great number of chords, almost all at once—but which at that time came from no known musical vocabulary.”
As the band disintegrated in the mid- and late-1970s, Williamson left the music world and earned an electrical engineering degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
He worked for silicon chip maker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) from 1982 to 1997, then spent more than a decade as Sony’s Vice President of Technical Standards. He raised a family in Saratoga and didn’t talk to his colleagues and neighbors about his platform shoe days.
Unlike many Silicon Valley managers who get the early retirement letter when they reach their 60s, Williamson didn’t have to open a frozen yogurt franchise. He accepted Sony’s buyout in 2009 and rejoined the Stooges after a three-decade break.
Williamson’s keynote will be open to badge holders of the C2SV Technology Conference and VIP ticket holders for the Iggy and the Stooges concert later that day in St. James Park.
The concert ticket is sold in combination with a wristband that enables concertgoers to experience three days of music at more than 12 venues in Downtown San Jose.
The Creative Convergence Silicon Valley technology conference will feature three days of speakers, including many notable Silicon Valley CEOs, entrepreneurs, technologists, authors and academics.
Dan Pulcrano is the founder and organizer of the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV) Technology Conference and Music Festival. Follow him at @Pulcrano.