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James Williamson: The Stooges Guitarist Who Left the Scene for Silicon Valley

In Music
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James Williamson resembles any number of retired semiconductor-era Silicon Valley execs, the ones that drive late model SUVs, talk with an easy Midwestern drawl and have a mop of white hair mussed over the tops of their ears. Then he starts with the stories.

Like the night he was introduced to his wife, who at the time was working on Helen Reddy’s management team at Warner Brothers and was brought backstage to meet him at the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard.

“My hair was sticking straight up in five different colors. Iggy falls out of a closet. We had to go on stage and Iggy didn’t want to take time to use the bathroom. So while we were walking down the ramp to the stage, Iggy whips it and whizzes the entire way down the walkway,” says Williamson, who performs with Iggy And The Stooges on Sept. 28 at C2SV Music Festival.

“My wife, she’s seen it all,” he says. Still, it wasn’t much of a first impression. “It took her seven years to go out with me.“

The Williamsons moved to Cupertino in 1982 when James was hired by AMD to design products using its microprocessors. He barely lifted a guitar for 30 years.

“We’d go to work parties here in the valley, and the girls and the boys would sit on opposite sides of the room, just like in high school,” he says. “We had just come up from Hollywood, where, at parties, people were on the floor, laying on top of one another. My wife and I would just look at each other. I mean, where am I?”

His co-workers at AMD, and later at the Sony buildings on Zanker Road and N. First Street, knew nothing about his rock & roll days. “It never came up,” he says simply.

“The more time that passed, the less relevant it seemed to me. I had completely lost the rock dream. I was not into it. I was done. I was out of music.” He and and his former collaborator Iggy Pop didn’t talk except for the occasional business conversation.

“Things were very bad between us,” Williamson says.

The memorabilia remained stashed in the closet. “The only things I had out were a couple of guitars that sat in their cases, leaning up against the wall.”

“My son was a huge fan of Nirvana, so I’d tell him, “You know, I kind of pioneered that.’

“‘Oh sure, Dad,’” he’d say.

Williamson’s son later wrote a piece in college about the unplayed guitars. He called it “The Coffins in the Corner.”

Williamson took up the instrument after seeing Elvis on television. He describes himself as a “wild boy” living in Oklahoma and Texas with a “strict military stepdad,” and “there was tension around the house.”

The family moved during Motown music’s heydey to Detroit, where he’d see Stevie Wonder and other acts up close at the State Fair. He started his first band at 15 and played covers of British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones and Them (“Gloria”) but soon began writing his own material. “It was easier for me to make up my own stuff than learn their stuff,” he says. He experimented with power chords and “chords within chords” because he said they were harder to copy.

His high school sent him home when his hair got too long and he was soon hauled before a judge on a truancy charge. He was incarcerated for three months after refusing to cut his hair.

He met Jim Osterberg, the future Iggy Pop, at a fraternity party in Ann Arbor and joined the Stooges in 1970, following Osterberg to New York, London and Los Angeles for a series of commercial failures before deciding to become an electrical engineer.

Williamson remembers arriving in London in 1972, “ground zero of the glam movement,” to record with David Bowie. “Here were these two bumpkins from Detroit … a couple of Midwestern guys amidst all these dandies in frilly cuffed shirts,” he remembers.

Hard rocking rebels amidst the androgeny, the Stooges played their only London performance at the Royal Gardens Hotel. Williamson remembers future Clash member Mick Jones and future Sex Pistol John Lydon in the audience.

“It wasn’t anything they’d seen before. They’d never seen a singer come out and confront the audience. It made a huge impression. It shocked many people,” Williamson said.

He had developed a rapid chord style he said was based on the sound of machine guns during the Vietnam War.

“We should probably wear some makeup, I told Ig, Of course, none of us knew anything about makeup. We found a clown box of makeup. I was in white face. Iggy painted his lips black. It was very extreme. Two years later everybody started looking like that.”

“Management wouldn’t let us play again. They were afraid we were going to get arrested.”

The Stooges imploded and left the secret sauce recipe in the British Isles. Williamson’s jagged chordsmithing, along with other innovations like stage-diving, spiked hair and eye liner, pretty much wrote the playbook for the punk rock explosion and its various offshoots: goth, modern rock, speed metal, alt rock.

“We weren’t trying to be anything. We were just trying to be wild.”

Williamson was anything but wild during his days in Santa Clara Valley. As real estate values grew, he moved his family to the white shoe suburb of Saratoga. After 15 years at AMD, he joined Sony as vice president of technical standards, a job he says involved formal meetings with competitors on industry standards such as Blu-ray.

After the 2008 financial implosion, Sony began to look for ways to trim costs. “It becomes obvious,” Williamson says. “First they try to get rid of the guys past 50 years. They offer voluntary retirement packages. They make it very attractive.”

He was 59 at the time. “I don’t think my boss had any clue I was going to take it. I was leaning towards it. They always give a deadline. Then I get this call, and Ronnie’s dead,” WIlliamson recalls, referring to longtime Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, who died in 2009.

Osterberg called again after Asheton’s funeral. “We broached the subject of whether I would want to come back and play guitar. I hadn’t played guitar in 30 years. I don’t even know if I can play or not.”
The past four years have pretty much dispensed with any of those reservations, and the consensus is that one of rock’s great guitarists, both live and in the studio, was quietly ensconced amidst the cubicles on N. First Street for three decades.

Williamson refers to his return as “closure.”

“It’s kind of a cool way for an old guy to do some victory laps at the end of the game,” he says with a wry smile.

Disclosure: Executive Editor Dan Pulcrano is the promoter of The Stooges’ St. James Park performance.

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