THE FIRST GUITAR-SUPERSTAR OF THE SEVENTIES
By Mick Rock
A modest, handsome Yorkshireman, Mick Ronson was undoubtedly the first superstar guitarist of this decade. Ronno, as he's affectionately known, rode that tide in 1972 when all the ingredients were right for a monster success. At twenty-four, he had the ability, the experience, the looks and, most of all, perhaps, he was in the right place, somewhere to the left of Bowie.
There is an often-told story of his first meeting with Bowie. Tony Visconti, a mutual friend, and later to produce Bowie and Marc Bolan's T. Rex, knew Bowie was looking for a guitarist. They met at Visconti's house, and Bowie, never one to hang about, took Mick off to a John Peel Show, he was doing that same evening. Ronno, an optimistic youth, followed Bowie through the chords of songs he'd never even heard before let alone played, and the two never looked back.
In his flat on New York's expensive Upper East Side, Mick grins broadly at the thought of those early days.
'It took a bit of a struggle to make up my mind when David asked me to join him, because I was in debt and Dave wasn't doing very much. But there was some kind of special excitement. We did a few live gigs with Tony on bass and Woody later, as was Mick, one of Bowie's Spiders) on drums. Then we had a crazy time recording The Man Who Sold The World.'
It was to be another two years or so before the uniqueness of the Bowie Ronson achievement filtered out to the public en masse. 'They were probably the best times, the Ziggy period--everything was different and, when it started to happen so fast, there was no time to think or to worry about anything. I think it was probably the best of times for Dave, too, before it all got to be a lot of internal hang-ups, on the US tours especially, about money. And the other two got upset about the way Dave hogged the publicity.'
Certainly, in more recent times, there's been the realisation that Ronson's contribution to Bowie's success was much greater than he was given credit for at the time. On later Bowie tours, Ronno was billed as musical director, and one major achievement their combined efforts brought to fruition was the production of Lou Reed's Transformer album.
'Yeah, that album gave me a lot of satisfaction. And I love Lou. He wanted me to produce his next album, but there was a whole mix-up about contracts.'
Mick's forte has often proved to be the ability to interpret other people's ideas. More recently, he gave Ian Hunter's first solo album the kind of punch and production quality it required. But he has proved, so far, to be less sure when dealing with his own original material.
Currently, Mick's in the process of redirecting his career. Since he went out on his own, he's been through some significant changes. The break with Bowie came some two years after they'd worked on Pinups. Their last show together was at the Hammersmith Odeon, where Bowie made his now famous I'm-retiring-for-good announcement.
'There was all this talk about the 'Master Plan,' which was all about withdrawing David from his public, so as they'd want him even more afterwards.'
In New York, Mick has been hanging out with figures from the old Greenwich Village folk scene, such as Bobby Neuwirth, long time sidekick of Dylan, and Sandy Bull, a highly respected guitarist of the mid-'Sixties, who got lost somewhere along the line. Neuwirth had a few nights' residence at the Other End Club (formerly the Bitter End), which has roots going back to the early 'Sixties, when the likes of Dylan, Baez, Pete Seeger and, in more recent times, Loudon Wainwright, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen honed their craft.
For Mick though, the only guitarist who has really counted is Jeff Beck. The one time they played together was at Hammersmith.
'Oh, I love what Becky does. There's lots of good guitarists around, but none can get it on like him. I used to spend days listening to his records, copying his ideas, when I was younger.'
But Mick's first instrument was the violin.
'It was a very regular kind of approach, like people always learn at school, and it didn't really interest me. Except, I learnt how to read music.'
At this time, he became aware of early roc, such as Cliff Richard and The Shadows. 'And especially Elvis Presley. He used to really get me off, and I would pick up my violin and play it like a guitar!'
Mick stopped playing the violin when he was about thirteen, and started hanging out with local street gangs.
'I used to wear a quiff and tight jeans, and think I was hard, but I wasn't at all. I would always avoid fights.'
His first guitar was bought second-hand from a shop in his hometown of Hull and he joined a semi-pro group call Mariners. 'We didn't make any money and I used to have a job, as well. But all my earnings went into getting better guitars and saving for bigger amplifiers.'
Eventually he came to London.
'Not really to find my fame and fortune, I just wanted to see somewhere different, to get a bit of excitement.'
He played in a couple of groups, but found himself getting more and more in debt, and was obliged to take a job in a garage--to get by. 'I was earning about L 9 a week. My room cost me about L 4 10s. (L 4.50) a week and payments for my equipment came to L 4. So I was left with 10s. (50p) to buy tobacco and food.'
Fans are usually misled by the bright lights and glamour of show business into believing stars are born with gold in their nappies. Mick is a typical example of what is more often the case--years of penury and bread-line living before the big break comes.
'No, I don't think it's ever easy. You just have to know what you want to do and keep on going.'
Sometimes ambition and lack of money pushes even the most honest person into some kind of activity he later regrets. With Ronno, it happened only once.
'It was shortly after I had joined the Rats. We'd just played in France and, as usual, I was in debt. The band went back to Hull--'cos we were based there and I really needed a new amp.
'But I was so much in debt and I knew my dad wouldn't sign for it, so I forged his signature. My parents were always trying to make me get a job, but I wouldn't. I was just interested in playing. The band went off again and while we were away my parents found out. I couldn't live at home after that.'
Apart from this period, Mick has always been close to his parents. 'They're great. They soon forgave me. And I learnt my lesson. I don't think they've always understood what I've been up to, but they've never interfered. I think it used to be a bit difficult when all the Bowie thing was going on. I know people used to stop my sister on the street and say, 'Is that Mick of yours a poof?' That was all really David's image.
'I never got involved with all those queens, who used to hang out around David. I just used to get on with my work and have a few drinks, but David felt he had to play his image to the hilt. He always found it difficult relating to regular people and especially to the rest of the band. I was the link.
'All that star bit never got through to me in the same kind of way. I like pretty straightforward kind of people. I mean, I like to look good, but I don't need to surround myself with a lot of weird people.
'I think my regular attitude probably helped him. Most of the people around him just did whatever he asked--they were the dregs and just sponged off him. I really wish he'd see a bit of sense about it all. He probably thinks it's all very straight, my attitude, but we've always been into very different things, except when it came to music.
'We could never work together on any regular basis, but if he ever wanted me to play a special one-off show, I'd give it all I've got to make it a success. Dave's a very exceptional talent.'
One of the best things to come out of his work with Bowie is his relationship with Suzy Fessey [sic], who used to be Bowie's hairdresser and wardrobe mistress. Mick and Suzy have lived together for the last two yeas. She is not only his girlfriend, but also his personal assistant and helps keep him together, both appearance and business wise.
'She's a great girl is Suzy. She helps keep me a bit balanced, plus, because we knew each other for a long time before we got together, she understands me.'
As yet there's been no talk of marriage; that's an irrelevant subject for both of them. Their main concern is to decide what Mick is going to do next.
'I'd like to get a good band together, with experienced musicians and a good lead singer.'
Bands have always been Mick's most natural working context. Now he knows it was wrong to let himself be talked into trying a purely solo career. His two solo albums, Slaughter on 10th Avenue and Play, Don't Worry, both failed to give satisfaction. This need to work with others led him to join Mott The Hoople. 'It gave me a chance to be human again, to just get out in front of an audience and play. But I found that the reality of working with them on a day-to-day basis was no good for me because they were just too loose in their whole attitude. They wouldn't turn up at rehearsals and everything was so inefficient. I need a tightly run set-up, where people obviously care about what they're doing. That's why Ian and I left. And, anyway, Ian was Mott The Hoople, though the others could never really accept it. He was taking more and more of the responsibility.'
Although Mick and Ian have decided to call it a day after successful UK and US tours and Ian's album, Mick is very happy about what they achieved together, and may even produce Ian's next album for him.
Mick Ronson's come a long way from friendly little Hull to big bad New York, from second-hand back-street guitars to seeing his half-nude body erected on an expensive billboard in Time[s] Square--a promotional ploy used for his first solo album.
'I'm glad I've experienced all that. Now I'm capable of recognising what I want and of not letting myself be hyped and misled. I would hate to end up as cut off and confused as David. I don't need to get that crazy to achieve my needs. I want my life to be straightforward, to work hard and play hard, and do the things I'm really good at, like playing and producing, and bring the other things, like writing and singing, along slowly and naturally.'
Although, at first, he was unwilling to live in America (he only did so because hi management is based there and because he could see that the opportunities are greater), he now feels he made the right decision.
'I mean, I will go back to live in England again, but not for a while. I need the energy and involvement of being here.'
Recently, he and his record company agreed to terminate their contract, which is another factor that makes him feel freer and more able to redefine his future.
For Ronson his life is his music. Unlike many current rock 'n' rollers, who have theatrical or film ambitions, Mick is a man as real and direct as the Yorkshire roots he comes from. Show business is merely a means to an end. He knows the illusory veneer it presents to the world only too well. The glam rock superstar is coming back to his roots with a vengeance, even if it is on the other side of the Atlantic.
The worries that he expressed on the title track of his last album have been resolved. He knows where he's been and he's sure of his own strengths. Nowadays, he can live with his reputation and is ready to carve out an enduring niche in the rock 'n' roll annals of tomorrow.
Mick Ronson, first guitar-superstar of the 'Seventies, the original Spider From Mars, is his own man today.