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Stooges Guitarist James Williamson Breaks Down Music, Talks Tech at C2SV

In Music
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The anthem of punk rock is based on the Bunny Hop. To prove it, Iggy and the Stooges guitarist James Williamson deconstructed “Search and Destroy” during a talk Saturday at the C2SV tech and music conference, breaking down chord by chord the 1973 hit off their album “Raw Power” while the audience whipped out their smart phones to document the quick lesson in music theory.

The quirky little demo prefaced the Stooges’ show later that night in St. James Park, where fans packed the lawn to rock out to the godfathers of punk, reunited for four years after a three-decade hiatus. Williamson, who in 1970 joined the band fronted by the drug-addled wild-child Iggy Pop, gave up the rock ‘n roll life for 30 years to pursue a Silicon Valley engineering career instead.

Today, the 63-year-old looks more like your typical semiconductor-age valley exec than the glammed-out rocker of yore. Instead of leather pants, thigh-high boots and neon eyeshadow, his usual contemporary stage get-up consists of straight-cut jeans and a plain black tee, though the music he plays remains just as aggressive.

Williamson’s is one of the coolest biographies you’ll encounter–a remarkable study in contrasts, said Metro publisher and C2SV founder Dan Pulcrano in introducing him before the interview.

“Here’s someone who pretty much transformed rock ‘n roll in the ’70s, then decided to become an engineer, leading a quiet life in Saratoga, never talking about it,” said Pulcrano. “It’s one of the most amazing stories I’ve seen as a journalist 30 years here in the Silicon Valley.”

Jack Boulware, author of punk history compendium “Gimme Something Better” moderated the afternoon talk with Williamson, opening up the session by projecting a black-and-white photo of the 14-year-old guitarist standing shirtless, behind him a house, a clothesline and, in the distance beyond a field, leaning utility poles. His hair is long–shoulder-length like a goddamn hippy’s, as folks used to tell him.

“I was just reacting to the times more than anything else,” Williamson recounted. “That was kind of the time when, you know, Bob Dylan was around and you had the Beatles just starting to break in the U.S. So it was, you know, it was cool to have long hair. But it was also very troublesome for me in Michgan as a kid … because they weren’t having any of it.”

That hair brought him a lot of grief. Got him kicked off the football team. Then out of school. Refusing to chop it off meant skipping class, which racked up a truancy charge.

“I asked what any good Bob Dylan fan would ask: What would Bob Dylan do?” he said. “So I basically told them to pound sand, and, of course, that made me a truant.”

A judge sent him to juvy for a few months, where he learned about real delinquents and finally got that close-cropped ‘do the powers-that-be demanded.

The Williamson family moved from Texas to Oklahoma to Michgan, ending up in Detroit during the Motown heyday. A few years after picking up the guitar, Williamson joined his first band at the age of 15, banging out covers of British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones. He was 20 when he met Iggy Pop–then just Jim Osterberg–at a frat party in Ann Arbor.

Those early days were marked by hedonistic excess and commercial failure. Williamson followed Iggy on the road, more focused on performing new songs than giving fans a chance to learn the old ones. Their shows were unpredictable, the audience rarely knew the words enough to sing along, to latch on to a standout hit. That big break lasted about six months. Williamson came down with hepatitis, Iggy with some addictions.

Literally sick and tired, Williamson moved back to Detroit to crash on his sister’s couch. Then one day, out of the blue, Iggy called him up, asking him to accompany the band on a trip to London. He’d just been picked up by CBS, which wanted to jet the bumpkins from Detroit right into the glittery glam-rock world of 70’s London to record “Raw Power,” which is now considered a classic power punk album–everybody in rock ‘n roll knows that record.

Williamson’s abrupt transition from late-night rock ‘n roll vampire to the world of engineering came years later in the music studio. Producing disco albums he wasn’t really into, he was more fascinated by the electronics he got to work with. So he decided, sort of on a whim, after encountering a dad showing his son how to boot up an MSI 8080 in an electronics store, to trade his musical gig for engineering class at Cal Poly, Pomona.

“I got struck by the whole excitement of the personal computer,” he said. “I hadn’t seen anything like that. Rock ‘n roll isn’t so exciting to me anymore, but this shit really is.”

In 1982, he moved to the South Bay for a job at AMD building applications using its chips.

“I reinforced this rule learned back in the stooges … unless you are one, always get a good frontman,” he said. “Certainly Iggy fits that bill and [AMD CEO] Jerry Sandersthat bill. He was a very bigger-than-life guy and the people who worked at AMD were very, very loyal to him for many different reasons.”

Sony later hired him as an executive in charge of interoperability standards for consumer electronics. Barely did he mention his punk-rock past. Co-workers had no clue that the corporate-clean-cut guy they worked with once wrote things like “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell.”

“I was done with music and I was having a good time doing what I was doing, so I was pretty fat, dumb and happy,” he said.

Then, in 2009, a series of events brought the band back together and, at least for now, closed the book on Williamson’s engineering career. In many ways, the band’s better than is used to be, Williamson feels.

“In the ’70s, we were terrible entertainers,” he said. “Not only had our albums not sold, but we had ADD. We didn’t want to play the same songs all the time, so we’d play new songs. So nobody ever knew what they were hearing. It was always like the first time. The shows were still interesting, but people didn’t know what to expect.”

These days he sees crowds hundreds of thousands strong, 20-somethings in the front row, singing along verbatim.

“It’s wild,” he remarked. “Who would have thought it?”

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Matt Crawford is content director for Boulevards New Media, Inc. and Metro Newspaper and managing editor of SF Station. Follow him @Metro_Matt.

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