Mick Ronson: Ian Gets The Boys And I Get The Girls
by Scott Cohen
Mick Ronson is the ideal lieutenant. As a muscular Mars to David Bowie's Venus, he became famous in the early seventies for his distinctive guitar power onstage and superb craftsmanship in the studio. The 'Strong Silent Type' in Bowie's MainMan camp, Ronson let his intuitive musical performance speak for him while Master David handled the verbals.
Then Ronno became the guitar idol that came unstrung. When Bowie abdicated the Space Invader crown in a temporary 'retirement,' the shy sidekick proved tempermentally ill-equipped to maintain the invincible haughty front his glam commander had bequeathed him. Groomed by MainMan to be a platinum-coated toy god, Ronno was accepted as a star in England, but couldn't score on his own in America, though he's always been a favorite. In fact, history has consistently shown Ronson to be more comfortable and productive when he's sharing the spotlight, as he now does with new musical mate Ian Hunter.
Despite the ease with which he burst into prominence during Bowie's glitter explosion, Mick actually served a long and trying musical apprenticeship. Originally from the North Sea harbor town of Hull, Yorkshire, where the ships come in from Holland, young Michael played in numerous regional bands with suitably nautical names, like the Mariners and the Cresters. Then, after a couple of sparse years, he yanked himself out of the provinces and went to London in the later sixties where he didn't fare much better.
Employment was spotty in the city as he alternated between music and subsistence; he played with Voice, worked in a garage, played with Wanted, worked as a day laborer building up those biceps, and played with Rats who eventually disbanded during a tour of France. Returning home after the extermination of Rats, he was kicked out of the house by his family.
During this period, Mick seems actually to have starved. 'It was a pretty bad period,' he later recalled for Circus Magazine in the boom year of 1973. 'Sometimes we didn't even eat at all. I remember that at one point I used to eat four slices of dry bread a day. And when I got rich I used to eat a ham sandwich.' Finally Mick took a job working was a gardener at a girls' school, which out to be good for a salacious concept album someday.
Then, in the winter of 1969/70, he met David Bowie, an affecting songwriter with long blond tresses like Lauren Becall. The first gig together was at the Roundhouse ( a date which also featured Tony Visconti in a Superman suit playing bass). It wasn't until the smmer of '70 though, that Ronson permanently partnered with Bowie, not only taking over lead guitar duties, but also becoming Bowie's arranger and aide-de-camp in charge of overseeing the band which was to become known as the Spiders. The first demonstration of the team's effectiveness was The Man Who Sold The World in November of that year, soon to be followed by Hunky Dory (November, 1971); Ziggy Stardust (June, 1972); Aladdin Sane (May, 1973); and Pin Ups (October, 1973). Many professional observers credit Ronson for the heavy power sound the formerly acoustic Bowie developed for his increasingly flashy American stage presentations.
Then, on July 3, 1973, Bowie dramatically announced his retirement from the stage. Responding to the pressure to take command as Bowie's heir, Ronson gathered some of his fellow Spiders and put out a solo LP, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, which drew disappointing reviews and sales. A year later, Play Don't Worry also bit the dust, and Mick himself admitted 'I was trying to find my way around and I was a bit stuck really.'
But by then it didn't matter. In the fall of 1974, Ronno had hooked up with Mott the Hoople, and when singer / songwriter Ian Hunter left the group Mick split too, happy to have at last found a collaborator and a style more suited to his natural abilities and inclinations.
Early one afternoon this spring, Circus interviewerr Scott Cohen met Mick Ronson at MainMan's Park avenue offices in New York. Scott expected the legendary star studio's halls to be covered with mirrors, but instead the walls featured large photos of MainMain artistes. As the pair settled themselves intoo a couch with big pillows, Ronson was wearing tight white pants and a white shirt with most of the buttons open, and Scott was surprised at how skinny Mick looked. While they got acquainted, Mick's girlfriend and confidant, Suzie fussey, brought in some lunch. ( - Ed.)
Circus: Do blonds have more fun?
Ronson: I don't know, platinum hair was a pain in the ass. It started off silver-blue, and of course the blue comes off and leaves it silver, and then when I went swimming it went green. Then I tried to get all the color out and go back to my original color and it all started falling out. I made Suzie dye it three times, and she said 'Alright, don't blame me if it breaks off.' She dyed it and sure enough, there were all these bits missing on the sides and it looked horrible. Then I had it cut short and now it's growing out. It's a real drag having your hair dyed.
Circus: Was Suzie responsible for Bowie's hair?
Ronson: Yeah. She used to do all of 'em.
Circus: She was an important part of the band then.
Ronson: She was in a lot of ways, she used to do a lot of things. She did all the costumes, she kept everything pressed and dry cleaned. We used to have a lot of costumes. Of course David used to go through five, six changes a night...earrings and shoes and tights.
Circus: I was always impressed with his ability to change so fast.
Ronson: Well if somebody's got your costume there and someone takes off your boots for you...I mean you couldn't do it real quick if you had to open the door and get it off the hanger and take your own boots off, but there were two or three people pulling this and pulling that, ripping you out of it. Of course some of the costumes you just pull and they would fly off. There was one costume where he would have another costume underneath, and you'd get hold of this costume in two certain places and it would just come off.
Circus: I wish I had something like that. Looking back, do you think you may have been too clothes conscious?
Ronson: No, because I think then it was important. I think it meant alot to many people and it made a lot of people in the street clothes-conscious. I think some people did take it to extremes and some clothes did start to get too ridiculous, but the idea at first was that clothes should look good. We were never too flashy or too outrageous. I mean it might have seemed it then, but other people were taking it ten times further.
Circus: Who was designing the costumes?
Ronson: A guy called Freddie used to do a lot of the designing.
Circus: Was that the Freddie who called himself Rudy Valentino and whom Bowie proclaimed would be the next Mick Jagger?
Ronson: Yeah, the same guy.
Circus: What do you think about the new sneaker fashions?
Ronson: You mean sand shoes? Tennis shoes? I used to like 'em. I used to wear 'em last year when I got back on stage with Ian Hunter. I would look so small and puny, because before I always looked big on stage and then all of a sudden I looked small and like a little boy. It was quite strange, but I realy like flat shoes because I can bounce about; I mean you feel so light on your feet and so steady. With them heels you realley are a bit unsteady all the time.
Circus: Did you see the billboard of yourself that adorned Times Square? It was more than fifty feet high.
Ronson: Yeah, it was pretty funny. I looked like a doll on there. Like a doll that you would buy in a store, with bright red rosey cheeks. Of course I thought it would be a photograph, but it was this painting. There was one side of it that looked like a touched-up photograph, but the other side looked like a painting to me beause my face was very round and I don't have a round face. I remember looking up at it from the cab window and thinking it looked funny.
Circus: Do you feel sentimental at all about the Marquee Club?
Ronson: No so much the Marquee as clubs like that in general. Most people have heard about the Marquee, but the Marquee is similar to a lot of other clubs in England. I used to like them clubs, 'cause you'd waltz in there with your stack and your 200 watt P.A. and it would sound all dirty, not boomy or echoey, but a straight clean flat sound and I liked that flat sound.
Circus: Is the sound that comes out of the Marquee Club representative of the neighborhood the club is in?
Ronson: There's a lot of street clubs down there, a few gangsters around, a lot of prostitutes hanging around, a lot of dirty dealing going on. It's a rough area.
Circus: Is it like Times Square?
Ronson: Yeah, a little like that. It's a bit freaky. There are a lot of people around there but things go on, people getting stabbed in back alleys. It's nice when you sit in a cab and look at it through the window.
Circus: Is it true that you met Bowie one day at a friend's house and that he asked you to do a radio show with him? Was it as casual as that?
Ronson: Yeah. Well, maybe not all in one day, but certainly that was the start.
Circus: In what direction was your life headed up until that point, an hour before you met Bowie?
Ronson: Absolutely nowhere. Really, it was going nowhere. The only thing I saw before that was that I wanted to be a landscape gardener. I'd been playing around with groups but I left. I never had a penny and I was in debt and I just never did anything, you know. I was doing this job gardening and I was thinking I really like working, I really like this job, but then I met Dave and felt I had to take another chance.
Circus: What other jobs did you have?
Ronson: I worked in a paint factory and I worked in a garage. I worked on a mobile grocery cart, which is like a mobile supermarket. It's a supermarket on wheels and it goes around the streets. It had everything you want: your bread and your cheese and your sausages and your tin fruit and you beans, cigarettes...
Circus: Were there shopping carts and aisles?
Ronson: No, you served them over a counter, you know, like a little shop.
Circus: Oh, the customers couldn't really participate in it?
Ronson: No. You'd wear these white overalls and weigh cheese and slice the bacon.
Circus: Did you feel comfortable with Bowie at first?
Ronson: David didn't know what he wanted to do or what he wanted to be. He didn't know how he was going to end up when I first joined him. He was just beginning to try things, but he always liked to dress. He was the local freak, you know. He was always a bit outragous.
Circus: Did you think you were taking a back seat to him in the band?
Ronson: No, because I wasn't really, was I?
Circus: What would have happened if you hadn't met Bowie?
Ronson: I probably would have carried on in small bands, just stood there and played, paid off a few debts. I've been playing a long time, you know. I was on my last legs. It was a new lease on life really.
Circus: When Bowie announced his retirement after that famous concert in 1973, did you know it was coming?
Ronson: Only just before it happened, maybe a week. I know it wasn't long.
Circus: Was it a publicity hype or did he really mean it?
Ronson: I think there was some trouble in America and we had a big tour set up. I forget what the trouble was about. Also, David wanted to get a lot of other things together, so it was decided that that would be the last concert. And he did get a lot of things together.
Circus: What were the circumstances under which you left Bowie?
Ronson: I never really left. David stopped working on the road and wanted to sit down for a little rest, so if I had stayed with him I would have sat down and done nothing. I didn't know how long he was gonna stop for - as far as I was concerned he was stopping, that was it. Then David got the itch and so I went back on the road with him for Diamond Dogs. Then they arranged for me to do one or two concerts and I did one or two concerts, and then it started getting good so I decided to carry on and do a bit more. When David was getting back to going on the road again, I was busy doing my own thing so I never went with him on the road again.
Circus: When you joined Mott, was there an identity conflict?
Ronson: No, I mean, at first I thought I had to get away from looking like I did when I was a Spider. But by the time I joined Mott I had gotten away from all that. I didn't decide to change because I was joining Mott.
Circus: How come you joined Mott rather than staying solo?
Ronson: Because I had a lot of problems with musicians. I didn't have friends around. Just before I joined Mott I was thinking I needed a band, one I could play guitar with again, and then Ian said why don't you join Mott the Hoople. But it didn't last.
Circus: Why was that?
Ronson: It seemed real good for about a week, no I'm kidding, ten days. It all seemed like everybody was enthusiastic but after a few days it was a drag really. People would lay in bed or not bother to turn up and nobody would speak to each other. They were together for a long time and then, when they got a little bit of money, not a lot of money but a little bit, they didn't want to pour any of it back into the band. What they wanted at that stage was everything out of the business, but nothing in the business. To get much bigger they would have to have said 'we'll forfeit this and we'll forfeit that.' They didn't want to gamble. To them it was a steady job. We were going to do this gig before Christmas and the only reason they wanted to do this job was because they wanted to buy Christmas presents. I mean, fancy going to add a bit of money so you can buy some Christmas presents! You don't play in groups like that.
Circus: Between you and Ian, who tends to have more male fans and who has more female fans?
Ronson: In England, Ian gets the boys and I get the girls.
Circus: How did you relate to the bisexual image you had with Bowie?
Ronson: I took it quite seriously because he wasn't kidding. I didn't like it at first, but then you get used to it. You got used to so many people around being bisexual that you got used to it for yourself. But it shook me up. I felt 'wow, what are people going to say?'
Circus: Did you think about what your mother would say?
Ronson: Yes! My mother was saying to me like, 'Michael, I'm a bit worried about you, aeyou sure you know what you're doing?' And 'People are talking about you these days.' And people would say to my sister, 'You know that Michael Ronson, he's a queer.'
Circus: Your sister's younger than you?
Ronson: Yes, I think she's eighteen.
Circus: How old are you?
Ronson: Twenty...Twenty-five. I nearly lied, I nearly said twenty-two.
Circus: Is this the first time in your life that you had money?
Ronson: I haven't got any. Really. I mean, I got a few hundred dollars in my pocket, and I got money in the bank, but I'm in debt. So I really got no money.
Circus: Besides gardening, what do you have fun doing?
Ronson: I like table tennis and I like pool. I like swimming, I love the sun and I love playing backgammon. Ian likes backgammon, he's always playing. And Risk, I like playing Risk a lot. One person takes over the world. It's a game of strategy. You accumulate armies, build up defenses, and attack another country. The game takes hours.
Circus: Do you have a best friend?
Ronson: Suzie. When you play music, you know, you don't really have friends because friends are the people you have in the band and they're only your friends for that time. Then you move around the world or to another group. People don't keep in contact like they used to. Like parents would say they have friends since school days, but people aren't like that nowadays. I miss that.
Circus: Where do you think you'll go from here?
Ronson: I don't know yet. I guess I'll have an amibition to do something when I'm forty or fifty, can't say now. I mean, for now I want to do a lot more recording and to write better songs. I want the band to get real good and as big as we can get. But that's only going to last for awhile. I'll probably do something that has nothing to do with music. Things have never been the way I wanted it to be, because you always get sidetracked. I never thought I'd be doing this.