Two qualifiers generally precede (or follow) James Williamson’s name: “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member” and “ex-Stooges guitarist.” The word “iconic” is usually in there somewhere. All the terms are accurate, if too limiting.
Via phone from his Saratoga, California home, Williamson is only too happy to expound on his descriptors and projects — especially his latest, the excellent band Pink Hearts, a trio that’s created an expansive 11-song album, Behind the Shade. Produced by Williamson, it’s at once full of raw power and nuanced, emotive modern-rock gems. At 68, the man who was instrumental in ‘70s albums cited as garage, punk and glam touchstones is vibrant and thoughtful, both musically and personally, noting: “The sun is up, and you know, I get to talk about myself.”
What’s marked his latter-day musical career—after a hiatus of about 25 years as a respected and respectable leader in consumer electronics standards development and computer chips in Silicon Valley—is collaboration. Pink Hearts is proof positive. What might seem an odd combination on paper is gritty, ultra-melodic and layered on vinyl. Alongside Williamson’s Les Paul-driven guitar creations, the lineup includes esteemed violinist/vocalist Petra Haden. A daughter of the jazz bassist Charlie Haden, she’s worked with artists as diverse as Sunn O))), Beck and Victoria Williams, and was introduced to Williamson by bassist Mike Watt. Pink Hearts singer Frank Meyer’s connection was via Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome. Meyer initially worked with Williamson singing live for 2014’s Re-Licked project, songs initially demoed between 1973 and 1975 during Williamson’s first go-round with Iggy and the Stooges.
The virtuoso violinist, whose bona fides include a groundbreaking a cappella version of The Who Sell Out album, didn’t know the raucous, bluesy-voiced frontman. And, Williamson admits, “I didn’t know how this would work out. On the first four songs we wrote together, I went down to L.A. and tracked the vocals with both of them, and it was instant magic. Petra isn’t schooled in music; she’s got music in her DNA of course, but she’s improvisational player and singer. I knew how good [Frank] was, I just didn’t know if he could write lyrics. But he’s so prolific. As fast as I could write the music, he could write the lyrics.”
“It’s a unique combination,” says Meyer, who will also play guitar live on select songs. “Folks expecting the raw firepower of the Stooges will be satisfied because James still sounds ferocious on that guitar, and I’m bringing plenty of high energy and testosterone. But Petra adds a totally different dimension with her voice and violin. Hearing her tackle Stooges classics like ‘Gimme Danger’ and ‘Open Up & Bleed’—singing those seemingly-manly songs from a female point of view—is really interesting.”
From the snotty Dolls-meets-Stooges “Riot on the Sunset Strip” to the Americana-tinged “Pink Hearts Across the Sky,” to the intimate, rough-hewn lament of “Miss Misery” to the snap-along retro-pop-tastic “You Send Me Down,” the interplay between male-female vocals — rendered perfectly thanks to Williamson’s musical vision and production — is timely and timeless. “If we wrote something rough and tumble like ‘Riot on The Strip,’ then I’d jump on it as the lead singer,” Meyer says. “But if James sent me something gentle or even poppy like what became ‘Pink Hearts Across the Sky,’ I’d write it with Petra’s voice in mind.”
Williamson is a pure musician who creates without an end game in mind. “I have no purpose when I write a song; I just want to create some music that I feel good about and play over and over and not get sick of,” he explains. “You have no idea how many songs were discarded along the way. Once I feel I’ve got something special in the music I’ll pass it along to whoever: whether it was Iggy back in the day, or Frank now, and see how it resonates for them; what image does it conjure up in their imagination? And then let them go for it.”
Though he’s articulate with a wealth of life experiences, don’t ask Williamson to write lyrics. “To me, the music stands by itself, I know it’s really strange to say this, but there are a lot of songs I’ve written back in the Stooges day where I never knew all the lyrics, I just played the songs. It’s a different environment for me.”
In fact, he believes he’s “the worst ever” when it comes to words, but he’s finally fine with it. “At this advanced age I finally admitted to myself that I can’t write lyrics. Time/rhyme. I can’t get there. It’s awful. I did write a couple songs,” he confesses: “I wrote all the lyrics on ‘Lucky Monkeys’ on Kill City back in the day. But somewhere along the way I lost whatever little bit of talent I had there.” (Those lyrics, of undisputed cool, include, “Boulevard cucarachas tryin’ to look like Bowie / Tryin’ to be sick as Mick, look out lucky monkeys!”) It doesn’t bother him: “I’m liberated now. When you struggle with something and you just can’t get there, when you finally say ‘I just can’t do this,’ it’s very liberating. And Frank is so good at it.”
The timing for Meyer to write with Williamson for Behind the Shade was good, thanks to something not-so-good: “I had just broken up with a girlfriend when we really got into the writing so I had a lot of heartache and misery going on. The music James sent me allowed me to vent and just pour my heart out. Songs like ‘You Send Me Down,’ ‘Miss Misery, ‘Purple Moon’ and Behind the Shade’ are some of the most brutally honest, heart-on-my-sleeve lyrics I’ve ever written. ‘Revolution Stomp’ is about our current political situation here at home, and ‘Riot on The Strip’ is about the L.A. music scene. So it’s all coming right from the heart, the headlines and the streets. There’s a great Amy D’Allessandro Stolz-directed music video for ‘Riot on the Strip’ that has Petra and I panhandling our music on the street, which I thought really summed up the message of the song.”
Williamson, whose Facebook profile photo is a legendary, controversial Bigsby guitar, leaning on a pedal steel with a Standel Amp in the background, is looking forward to taking the Pink Hearts show on the road. With a few gigs booked and more pending, a set list has been carefully crafted. “Eleven songs on the album is not going to make a set, so we’re delving in to my back catalog,” says Williamson. That admission is music to the ears of longtime fans. “You have to play the hits of course; you’re going to get ‘Search and Destroy,’ you’re going to get ‘Gimme Danger,’ those type of things. We’ll go a little deeper into the catalog, from Kill City or Re-Licked, we’ll fill it out to about half and half. I think that with this mix of singers, you’re going to hear a whole new song when you hear the old stuff. That vocal blend is incredible, it’s going to bring a different life. The Stooges were—I don’t know if you ever watched The Little Rascals—but the Stooges were sort of like the He-Man Woman Haters Club. Never female vocals on anything. Of course, that was a big mistake, because the female voice brings a lot to the party. But that was then and this is now.”
Now is a definitively post-Stooges world, and while Williamson quips about having his name intertwined with the Stooges: “It does annoy me from time to time, but I figure at least they’re talking about me”—he had no compunction re-joining The Stooges for their November 2009 reunion in São Paulo, Brazil, and carrying on until the band didn’t.
And no, Iggy hasn’t heard the Pink Hearts—at least not via Williamson. “Our relationship, even though quite lengthy, was primarily based around the band. Over the years we’ve always stayed in touch with regard to publishing and band-related things. We’re very different people. If you don’t have much in common there’s not much to talk about. We certainly respect each other and like each other,” he affirms. “In a certain respect that’s really why I rejoined the Stooges. I didn’t really need to do it. I wasn’t even sure I could do it. But I did remember we were in our 20s together and we went through a lot of hard times together. There’s a certain level of camaraderie that transcends this BFF thing.”
Williamson boasts many discrete musical and creative friends. “At some point in your career in music if you don’t have friends, it’s just not worth it,” he opines. “It’s a tough business, and there are really so many unpleasant people you meet and have to deal with, so having friends is what it’s all about.”
And some of those friends—old and new—helped him land in the RRHOF in 2010, providing a nice end-cap for the Stooges. “I think the main benefit was just within the souls of the band members, that we had sort of been vindicated for all those years of really slugging it out with no money and no recognition. We were really kind of a blight on the industry back in those days. Here we are 40 years later, getting all these accolades. The fact that they were all sitting in front of us in their tuxedos was pretty hilarious, actually,” he says. “We got ‘em coming up on stage. We get 20-somethings at our shows now, so that’s encouraging for an old guy. Most of the guys are gone now, but a lot of those guys were still alive and they could kind of feel good about themselves.”
Williamson feels confident in Pink Hearts, but he’s not willing to look too far into the future — or weigh in on the possibility of a second album. “I don’t know; being in a band is a mixed bag. Right now we’re having fun, we’re happy, we have a couple good gigs,” Williamson says. “As long as [fans] like it and as long as we like it, we’ll keep doing it.”