06 January 2009

Death Wish (Happy Trails, Ron Asheton)

I'm far too young to have any direct memories of Ron Asheton (in fairness to the dead, we shall not speak of The Weirdness), guitarist/bassist of the Stooges, but that doesn't mean he hasn't had a sort of profound impact on my life. While there were lots of prosaic if personally memorable moments in my early 20s that consisted of little more than cases of cheap beer, a dartboard, and Funhouse, the story I'll tell you all today is probably about the most uplifting thing anybody who never knew the man can say about him.

For many years, my second job has been working at a summer camp in Northern Minnesota that combines teaching foreign language (French, in this case) with wilderness canoeing, mostily in Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters. Normally, I work as the cook and as a trip leader for the shorter (2 week program), but in the summer of 2004, fate put me into a position that I'll likely never forget. That summer, the campers for the 4 week program (the "older" kids who spend two full weeks in the Boundary Waters on an 80 mile trip) were a scary mix of really mature 17 year old girls, all of whom had excellent camping and canoeing skills, and 13 year old boys, most of whom had never spent the night in a tent not pitched in a backyard, some of whom could only tentatively swim, and at least one of whom had been taken off his ADHD medicine for the summer by his parents--presumably to terrify whatever adults he came in contact with.

After the first two weeks of the program, in which we had gone through our training program, taught some from French classes, and taken the kids out on a 5 day practice trip, two things had become readily apparent: 1) those boys were not capable of surviving an even moderately challenging canoe trip, let alone capable of learning even a little French, without the best possible adult supervision, and 2) the girls would likely have their trip ruined by having any of the boys with in their group. So on a fateful June day, the day before the 4 week kids were to leave on their trip, my boss sidled up to me with a proposition. He said that instead of sending those kids out to their deaths with the regular counselors, he needed me and my best friend and co-counselor to take their place. Furthermore, he needed us to agree to take all five of the boys, so that the girls could go out, have a great time, learn French, and bond. He needed us, he said, to take these skinny, spastic teenagers, and make them into men. Or at least bring them back without their parents having grounds for a lawsuit. We agreed.

It was already apparent that these kids weren't going to learn much French. One spoke ungrammatical French with what can only be described as the accent of a martian, but at least he had a vocabulary. The others seemed to have a hard enough time with their native language, so we basically decided to leave it at that. Most of them, despite coming from affluent homes, lacked the basic gear they had been instructed to bring--rain jacket and pants, a plastic dry sack for canoeing, warm clothes not made of cotton. One had a sleeping bag that, when rolled, would have dwarfed a shopping cart. Two others had figured to do most of their portaging (carrying the canoe between lakes, for the non-paddlers out there) in flip-flops. Several, in these days of readily available Nalgene bottles, didn't even have water bottles. And worst of all, our aluminum canoes (3 of them) weighed 90 pounds each, and we had about 90 pounds of food. None of these kids could lift more than 30 pounds without tipping right over. It was going to be a miracle if we got them all home.

So, as we bundled them all into the van for the 5 hour drive to the put-in point on the Canadian Border, there was really only one question for my friend and I--what record should we listen to first? What music would describe both our despair at the situation, yet be used to put a little hair on the chests of these kids? They weren't going to learn any French, we might as well teach them about rock. The answer, of course, was Funhouse.

"Okay, listen up, you kids," I said as I turned around in the passenger seat as my fried pulled the car onto the first of the many backroads that laid between us and our objective, "if we're going to survive together, you're going to need to know two things. The first is that we're all a team, and we each need to work together, take responsibility for each other, and trust that we can do this. The second thing is the difference between good punk rock and bad punk rock." With that, the sweet sounds of Ron's intro to "Down on the Street" started rumbling out of the shitty stock speakers in our Dodge Ram van, and Iggy started with the shrieking.

Over the next two weeks, every one of us almost died at least once. One kid got trapped under a canoe he was pulling through a rapids because one of his buddies stopped paying attention and let go of his end of the rope. None of them could carry a canoe, and none of our canoes had the foam portage pads that protect your neck from the karate chop of the aluminum yoke on your neck as you bounce over uneven ground. One night early on, after the kids had passed out, my friend and I snuck out into the woods, and after a great deal of deliberation (and an entire bag of the cheapest tobacco from the cheapest gas station in Northern Minnesota, smoked rolled in notebook paper because the rolling papers had gotten wet), we cut up a pair of $50 life vests with my jackknife and duct-taped the foam onto the canoe yokes, so that he and I could do all the carrying ourselves. We ended up having to secretly cut the trip in half, shortening each day by the judicious use of shortcuts and skipping everything but eating, sleeping and paddling to make our rendez-vous with the girls. On a normal trip with high schoolers, we can paddle about 10 to 12 miles a day. With these kids, we killed ourselves for 6 miles. For the most part, the kids didn't even notice--none of them could read a map, or tell time by the sun, so we figured, "why bother to tell them?" Near the end of the trip, the cleverest of the boys said to me that he had noticed we were getting into camp as much as an hour before dark now, and he wanted to know--had we gotten stronger and faster, or were we not paddling as far? Not wanting to break his little heart, I looked him in the eyes and lied. "Faster and stronger, kid. Faster and stronger."

But we survived. The girls had a great time--two of them have gone on to become my colleagues and fellow counselors, and they remain friends. The boys? They're about the right age to be terrifying some underpaid teaching assistants in intermediate French classes somewhere. But what I'll always remember is the final campfire the night before they all went home. The best of the bunch, a sweet little kid who had worked hard and tried to focus on paddling (his friends seemed able to forget what they were supposed to be doing, even in a boat in the middle of a lake, and would unexpectedly stop paddling every 10 minutes or so, staring empty-eyed into space...), was asked by my boss what the best thing he learned during our trip. The others had given incomprehensible pseudo-French platitudes about learning how to set up tents or steer a canoe. But this kid, bless his heart, looked right into my boss's eyes and said, in spot-on French, "J'ai appris la difference entre la bonne musique punk, et la mauvaise musique punk." ("I learned the difference between good punk music, and bad punk music.").

Bless his heart, And bless you, Ron Asheton. Rest in rockin' peace. (Divshare downloads - right click)

The Stooges - No Fun
The Stooges - Down on the Street
The Stooges - Loose
The Stooges - Death Trip
The Stooges - Louie, Louie (live)
The Stooges - Jesus Loves the Stooges (demo)
New Race (Asheton w/members of Radio Birdman) - November 22, 1963

Interview with Ron Asheton about Ann Arbor Music Scene in the late 1960s

Posted by Brandon

1 comment:

it's the hippy undertones said...

This story made my day better. And because of the soundtrack, the weekend is looking up as well...