MICK RONSON: FROM BOWIE TO MOTT
by Richard Robinson
'All You Really Have To Understand Is How You Make The Noise'
Mick Ronson pulls the tails of his shirt out of his trousers, and with a springing motion takes the shirt off. Photographer Leee Childers raises his camera, his flash gun blasts into the corner of the living room of Mick's suite at the St. Moritz, and the photo session is underway.
I'm standing off to one side while Mick and Leee do their little dance. Leee moves around the room, switching lenses and adjusting f-stops. Mick is grinning and joking. At one point he sits down on the couch and pulls his fly down. 'Stretch out on the couch,' says Suzie Fussey, the lady who seems to be the organizational element in Mick's life. He makes a face and takes a more lounging posture. Leee runs through another roll of film.
Mick Ronson as superstar. Only moments before he and Ian Hunter have held a press conference in a St. Moritz meeting room to announce to the New York Rock press that Ariel Bender has left Mott The Hoople and Mick Ronson has joined the group.f
Leee is taking Mick out onto the terrace to pose him against the distant expanse of Central Park stretching from the St. Moritz to Harlem. Mick slips into a black velvet shirt with a fuzzy leopard print. The classic Ronson outfit: tight back pants, neo-Fifties shirt with turned up science-fiction collar and open front for
My thoughts go back to the fall of 1971, I'm working at RCA Records with Bob Ringe and Dennis Katz. I bring Lou Reed to the label. And Bob, Dennis and I sign David Bowie.
One night Bowie, Angela, and the rest of us are to have dinner at the Ginger Man. I'm in a cab heading uptown with Mick Ronson and Don Hunter, one of the original Bowie people. It's late in the evening and the view from the cab is typical New York City: a blanket of black, broken by countless flashes of neon and incandescent lighting.
The cab driver is typical also, so we're headed uptown with all the bumps and leaps you usually associate with riding a roller coaster. Mick is sitting in the middle flinching at our progress, silent and probably a little terrified of this vast metropolis he's been placed in for the first time. Certainly a far cry from Hull, the northern English fishing village where he was born.
In those days Mick was quiet, almost shy. Now he's smiling and bouncing about as Leee snaps his camera. He hasn't really changed so much. He's still pleasant, considerate, and direct. But he's learned something about being personable and out-going. I like him even more now that I can talk to him and get an answer. Mick's fortunes in the intervening period have been interesting, if not fantastically successful. He played Archie to Bowie's Edith. Well, not really. He was a sexy, flashy alter-ego to Bowie, producing a muscular sensualness that was unique in the Bowie show.
Mick also arranged and played a variety of instruments on Bowie's early albums. Then, with Bowie's announcement that he would never tour again (the first of a number of giant fibs from David, so don't wait too long for his movie to come out), Mick was on his own. He helped Dana Gillespie make her album (some of which was finished by the time Bowie finished his Changes album). He recorded his own solo album for RCA. And now he's in Mott The Hoople.
At the press conference he and Ian have painted a picture of blissful agreement among all those involved in effecting Mick's entry into the group. No problems, no problems at all, even though Mick is managed by Bowie's management people and Mott have had their entaglements with the Bowie organization. Well, Mick is a very private person. He's just recently come out of his shell and I wouldn't think of asking him anything that he felt he'd rather not talk about.
Leee has shot his last roll of film and is packing up. Mick orders a couple of bottles of white wine and sits down on the couch with me and my tape machine. Mick offers me a cigarette from a pack that features pink, lavender, azure, and aquamarine colored ciggies. Very decadent, I think, as I take a light blue one and almost gag on the strong British blend of tabaccos.
I flick on the cassette recorder, light a True Blue, and we begin to chat. This is the warm-up part of the interview which has become a time honored tradition among rock journalists and their subjects. Its length is determined by the personalities involved, how much time the rock star has before his next interview, and how much interest the journalist has in the star. Mick and I are talking about the press conference and how it went. Mick seems a little surprised by the off the wall angles that some of the questions came in on.
American reporters, be they lowly rock journalists, have a directness, and lack of delicacy about what they want to know, that is apparently not observed in other countries. Mick tells me that the press conference he and Ian had held the day before in London before flying to New York was nothing like the one today. 'The English press conference was just everybody saying 'Oh, it's great, it's fabulous',' says Mick. 'They were really just saying how they felt about it and we were saying how great we felt about it, and that was about it.'
At the press conference I'd attended, my colleagues had wanted to know everything but Mick and Ian's sleeping habits. They wanted to know all the behind the scenes machinations that had resulted in the marriage of Ronson's magnificent guitar playing and Ian Hunter and Mott's potential of being possibly one of the great rock and roll bands.
We talked about the points that were raised at the conference. Mick's obligations as a solo artist recording for RCA. 'I'm still with RCA and I've got another solo album coming out and I've got another one after that. I'm going to carry on recording solo albums because I don't really see the reason why to stop.'
'It's also two incomes,' I add as philosophically as possible.
'Yeah,' says Mick in a tone that suggests he's adding silently to himself. 'Ain't that the truth.'
'It seems to me that a lot of people at the press conference were curious about what you were doing between the time you left Bowie and your first solo album was released, and now when you're joining Mott.'
'When David first decided to stop touring I thought, well, what do I do now. I could sit and lay back for a bit, I could join another band, I could do a solo album. Right now, I thought, well, I'll do a solo album. I did the album and concerts in England and then I got into recording the second album,' Mick says, going on to describe the vagaries of not having your own musicians in the studio but relying on whoever you can get. Mick felt the lack of direction in his music and had decided to get a group behind him singing, songwriting, and guitar playing when he and Ian Hunter spent an evening together just after Ariel Bender had told Mott he was leaving.
'Ian and I talked for about eight hours one night and I thought that it would be great if we played together. I called up Tony DeFrees (Mick's manager), and said what do you think? He said it sounds fine but jult let me sleep on it. He called me late the next day and said go ahead with it, great.
'That was my answer to finding a band.' As for Mott, they're pleased with their new member. Ian Hunter had asked Mick to join on two previous occasions and obviously appreciated what Mick's guitar playing could add to the group.
Joining Mott is more than just having a group to play with. Mick and Mott know that. What Mott's thoughts are on the matter I don't know. For Mick it is his emergence in a band environment where he is an equal member who won't be denied his own individual stardom if that time should come.
Mick is sensitive to this move in terms of his future. He knows that he has attracted some attention, but that if he is to achieve star status, he must pay attention to his act.
'I'm just going to be myself. I'm going to be very natural,' he says. I doubt if he could play any other role. But as Mick Ronson he has a shot. He's a rock and roll guitar player with talent and an individual flair. He's got a rock and roll band to play with. If he plays it straight it should work.
'That's why, as I said that I wanted to get a regular band together,' says Mick. 'And with Ariel leaving Mott, why shouldn't we get together and play 'cause Mott are very popular, and I've always liked them. We have been friends for a long time and it was right. We played in the studio to see how things might go and it was great. They love it. And I love it. And they've got a slightly different sound these days with me.'
From the present there's not much to say about the future. Mick and Mott will either get bigger and bigger or they won't. Chances are they will and I can feel that Mick is edgy to get started.
We go back into the past. I ask Mick about Hull, about if he's gone back recently, which he hasn't, about his friends who are still there, and about the working and dreaming that is part of growing up wanting to be a rock and roll star.
'Did you have a sense that you wanted to be up on the stage and you wanted to be in front of people and all that?' I ask.
'Yeah,' he says. 'I think everybody that's in a group, when they start out that's what they dream about. I mean I used to go to bed and dream. I remember one night I dreamed I was on stage with the Rolling Stones. And there I was, in Keith Richard's place, and I was playing and the audience was going crazy and it felt so good and I never felt anything like it in my life before and I always remember that. I guess every kid who starts off playing guitar or drums, or piano, or whatever it is, must go through all that and dream about it and keep striving for it and that's why people buy new guitars and bigger amplifiers.'
And rock and roll stars who do something about their dreams. 'For about five years I had one pair of shoes a year, if that, and I used to get one pair of trousers. I've really been through all that. I was really scraping a bit. I was doing that for a long time and I thought, well, I'm getting older, is this ever going to end? Then, it just happened, three years ago.
'It's good fun when you look back on it, but at the time, it's so depressing sometimes I sat down and cried because I thought well what am I going to do and why can't I do this and why can't I do that and why won't this happen, and why should it happen to me. You get so depressed with it all.'
Mick has other worries now, but he understands that they can never match the trials of starting with nothing but unexplored capabilities as a musician.
Our interview has covered his development as a musician from violin lessons to the ability to play guitar, piano, bass, and drums, as well as any other instrument he could get his hands on, be it a saxaphone, or flute, or oboe. We talked about his early influences, growing up listening to the Beatles and the Stones. And about his music, what he's learned from the people he's worked with and how he feels his own music is progressing. He says he's learned a great deal about writing songs and is eager to get his music recorded, both with Mott and via his solo albums.
I had another meeting and Mick had a round of interviews, so we wound it up as Ian Hunter appeared at the door with Leee and a photo session with the two of them ensued.
The next day Mick and Ian were off to London where the serious business of the new Mott The Hoople is about to get underway. They've already been in the studio to make their new single and are planning to tour England and then the U.S. during winter and spring.
He's like a ball player who's just made the major leagues, impatient to put on his uniform and take his place in the line-up. He knows he's with a good team and he knows his own abilities. Now he wants the opportunity to prove it.
I have no doubt he'll do it.