Mick Ronson: From Rats to Riches
by John Ingham
'I first started playing guitar by holding my violin like a guitar and plucking it,' Mick Ronson, ex--bow wizard tells me, 'then I thought, sod it, I'm more interested in what a guitar sounds like than playing a violin. Coz violin was always slow-I learnt it at school and I always had this problem of waiting for other people to catch up, and I used to get frustrated, bored by all the hanging around. And my hand would start sagging and then it would be-slap! slap! slap!-'Up! Up!' After awhile I began to get interested in the guitar, because there'd be no teacher to tell me you gotta hold your hand like that and this, and I guess I wanted to play what I wanted to play, rather than have somebody tell me exactly what to play.'
He formed his first band at eighteen, culminating in the Rats, a rock-blues band which gains in legend as time goes on, no doubt largely because of the name. After several years of trying to break through record company indifference, Mick left the Rats to seize a chance to play on a Michael Chapman LP, and then provided the major musical emphasis on David Bowie's Man Who Sold The World, drawing on his musical training in the arrangements, at the same time absorbing the considerable eclectic musical preferences of Bowie. From then on, there wasn't a musical paper or magazine unwilling to chronicle at least one aspect of his every waking movement.
I was really prepared to dismiss Mick. His first solo appearance at London's Rainbow was incredibly vacuous, notable for the polite hysteria, attendant throughout, which suddenly erupted into genuine frantic emotion during 'Moonage Daydream' and just as quickly abated after the last chord of the number. Exactly. If David wasn't available, the closest contender would suffice.
But Mick is okay. The humour with which he gets drunk is engaging, and his almost monomaniacal dedication to getting 'out of it' after a gig is a joy to any hedonist. He is more than pretty, complete with chisel-like aquiline nose, and his physique is well constructed. Adonis. No wonder the girls go crazy, following him from gig to gig, hanging out all night in hotel lobbies just to get a glimpse of him in the morning.
But no swelled head on this boy. He is quite honest when discussing his career. 'I had a bit of a problem when I started doing my albums and writing music, because I'd never written songs before. And I would never ask anybody to write songs for me. I should have gotten involved with somebody throughout that time-then it would have worked out. That's why working with Ian is so nice, because I'm looking at his stuff, thowing out bits here and there, and trying to refine it, and the result is 'Once Bitten Twice Shy' and 'Lounge Lizard'...'Boy.'
'In many ways, I should never have done those albums, because the songs are very personal, but I'm glad I did, because it got them out of my system. For the next album, I'm going to sit down beforehand and really think it out, because up to now I've just found myself in a studio and gone 'Oh, what am I doing here? Well, better record something.'
'I never listen to lyrics, I've never been aware of them. Lyrics to me are just something that goes on top of the melody. I said to Lou Reed one night, 'How do you write your lyrics?
' 'Oh, I just write about anything. I woke up this morning / I got meself a cup of tea.'
'He just started saying all these things - 'I caught the number ten bus and I went down to Macy's'-but he said these things in such a way, and I thought, 'Oh, yeah. Oh, that's good.' So we've got a friend of ours called Billy, so I started thinking about that name and I started thinking about Lou and Lou coming to New York, so, well, write about being in New York...Just something to write about. 'Billy Porter' was one of the first.'
One of the best moments in the live show is 'White Light / White Heat.' Ronno fucks up the first verse, throws up is hand in a let's-stop-and-start-this-again gesture, but Hunter ain't having none of it. (Ian: 'He's always forgetting the lyrics; I've never been able to figure them out. I just treat it as an instrumental.' Mick: 'Dave was thinking of doing it for Pin Ups, and in a spare moment the band did a one-off. He didn't want to use it so I kept the 16 track and just overdubbed some guitars. After the first verse I made up the lyrics because I could never hear what Lou sung, couldn't make head nor tail of it, and there would be this little line here and this line here and I just filled the rest around.') Pretty soon he gets it together and they dissolve into a barrage of cosmic guitar. Like I said, these guys are working on the classic version.