Now Who Am I Playing With These Days?
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
02 July 1977
by Charles Shaar Murray
'IT'S ALL BEEN different experiences … and each one's been as valuable as the next one. It's all good experience. Whether it was a good situation or not, it doesn't make much difference because it's all just something that you go through.
'It's just part of livin'. Or something, and you earn from every little thing. After doing all them things, I learned a whole lot about what I think I want and what I think I don't want.'
'I want to avoid the media stuff. I want to avoid the possibility of me getting the hots to be the headlining act and then maybe by August I can play Madison Square Garden and then all the girls 'll be screaming ...'
'I'm sure I could be real famous if I wanted to, but it's .only if you really put your mind to it and decide that that's what you want and really work at it, and I don't want to get into strategy too much.'
'I can go anywhere and I can get gigs and I can get paid and I can live. If I had to go back to Yorkshire I could make a good living there. It doesn't matter where I am, I can do something that'd pay for a night's sleep and something to eat … '
I FIRST met Mick Ronson in 1972 at a Bowie press binge at the Dorchester Hotel. Iggy was there, and Lou Reed ... did you see the suits and the platform boots?
Oh dear, oh gawd, oh my oh my. Everyone was done up to the proverbial goddam nines and beyond in silver jackets and nail varnish and all the other jive that was worn by the Cool Four Hundred in the year of- what was it again? - Glam Rock.
Ronson had dazzlingly peroxided hair and glittery clothes and someone had invested a good hour's hard work in doing his eye make-up. It was only when you got a bit closer that it became apparent that this dazzling apparition was thoroughly ill at ease amongst all the rent-a-faggots and heavy-duty poseurs and that he spoke with the thickest down-home Hull accent this side of a BBC Yorkshire TV sitcom and that he was about as pretentious as a pint of light ale. (Pass the reefer. man. - Ed.)
He played interstellar rough trade guitar hero opposite Bowie's twilight zone schitzo - glitzo - phantasm, tried his hand at a solo career and fell off the tightrope because of a lack of direction and confidence - if you're trying that schtick you can never ever afford to look down or lose your nerve - reappeared to replace Ariel Bender in Mott The Hoople, broke away with Ian to do the Show, moved to New York and showed up as one of the cast of thousands in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, produced and guitared Roger McGuinn's Cardiff Rose album, was rumoured to be forming a band with David Cassidy, came to London to play on Roger Daltrey's One Of The Boys album - though that didn't work out- and suddenly popped up yet again playing lead guitar on Van Morrison's sort-of mini tour that wasn't alongside Dr John …
PLUS HE and his longtime girlfriend Sue Fussey got married last year in a Chinese restaurant and they're expecting a baby in August.
These days Mick Ronson wears a baggy T shirt and old blue jeans and he doesn't wear make-up any more and his hair has lost its old metallic glint. He's no longer 'MainMan Artiste' and he no longer has a contract with RCA or any other record company and he's happier than a pig in shit.
So Mick, you wanna account for your movements since splitting with Mr 'Untah in the autumn of '75?
'Me account for my movements? Half the time I didn't even know what I was doing … it started out with Bobby Neuwirth' - Dylan's long term road manager, all purpose buddy and eminence grise - 'the night I got thrown out of the Other End. I was standing around having a look and I was kinda stood in the aisle and this guy kept on at me to move.'
'In the end I was thrown out and I was standing outside and Neuwirth came out and started talking to me. I didn't even know him, either.
'A few minutes later Dylan came out. Anyway, we went for a drink and Dylan says, 'Ah hey, you gotta come play with us', and I says, 'Awright, yeah' and I didn`t think no more about it and then a couple months later Neuwirth comes back into town and calls me up and says, 'Are you ready?' '
There'd been no publicity for the tour, nobody knew anything about it and I thought someone was pulling my leg.
'Finally I thought, 'Okay, let's take a chance and jump into it', and it finally came off. We all went down to this rehearsal place. Neuwirth was there and Rob Stoner and T-Bone Burnette and David Mansfield, and we were there about an hour and Dylan comes in.'
'I thought, 'Oh wow, this is really happening. There was tape machines and everything getting set up and Dylan starts singing all these songs. He must've played about three hundred songs one after the other.
'I didn't know any of 'em. I'd never heard any of those songs - even the old ones - because I was brought up on The Rolling Stones.'
'I was never one of them people who sit around and play records. I never buy any records and I don't even listen to the radio too much. One of the few people whose records I buy is Roy Harper.'
'Anyway, we just started rehearsing and carried on from there. We did that tour. it was kind of free-for-all at first until Dylan found out exactly what he wanted, who he wants to use on each tune. Some people can play certain tunes, some people can't ... I can play any of 'em. But it was no kind of real organised thing.
'Look, you got a hundred tunes and you're going to end up playing thirty-five of them. You may have to play two hundred tunes to find the best thirty-five, the ones that'll work real good.'
'You don't just pick thirty-five and rehearse them to death, because some of them'll work out when you play 'em. So you just keep playing different ones all the time and then think, 'Well, that one was good and that one was good and that one was good'. Gradually you find out which numbers really work and which ones don't. '
'I was just a guitar player that was hanging around. I wasn't playing no major part in the whole thing. Bobby Neuwirth was keeping most things together, but the basic direction had to be found by everybody for themselves rather than really organising exactly what everybody plays.'
'If what somebody was playing didn't fit then they were told, 'Well don't you play on this number.'
'Remember there was a lot of musicians there and you can't have that many musicians playing on every number. It can get a little bit boring or a little bit unnecessary. It was nice to have people doing things acoustically without the drums now and then.'
MCGUINN WAS in on all of that, and he had to do an album, his last one for CBS. lt was going to be his last one, but then he re-signed with them. 'We weren't really doing anything much at the time, so we all agreed that we'd play on Roger's album and l oversaw the production on that. We just did it because we was friends.
'We didn't do it by way of calling up managers and agents and negotiating royalties and percentages. We just did it and got paid a bit of money and that was it; on a friendship basis rather than getting into it on a business level or anything like that.'
'I'm not with Tony Defries any more. We parted company last July. This guy called Barry Imhoff who did all the promotion stuff for the Dylan tours is looking after me now. He used to work with Bill Graham as his partner. l don't need much looking after though, especially when I'm just hanging around and not doing too much, because I'm not with a record company either.'
Most rock stars get nervous and hysterical and insecure when they're - ummm - between deals, but Ronson looks inordinately happy and healthy. 'Most record companies don't like me at the moment. They don't like the songs I'm writing, but I ain't bothered. I'm writing with Ricky Fataar who used to be in The Beach Boys. I met him through David Cassidy.'
Ah, the Cassidy Connection. For about a week it was noised about that Cassidy and Ronson were Getting A Band Together. 'On the last date of the Rolling Thunder Revue, we was up in Colorado and David was recording up in Caribou, which was three or four miles up the road from the hotel where we were staying and some friends of ours from California invited us up there, so after the last gig I went up there to stay for a few days. I got to know him and he became a good friend and we wondered whether it might be a good idea to have a band because I like him.'
'He's a good guitar player. Nobody knows that, but he really plays good guitar: blues, the regular blues stuff, like me. We was jamming away and I'd do a couple of solos and then he'd do a couple of solos. He plays real good, sings real good, looks real good and I thought it might be a nice thing to do. It doesn't matter what people think and you can't be in The Partridge Family all your life.'
'When someone gets known for something, they go through a hell of a trip trying to do something a bit different. Whether they're actually good enough to do something else doesn't really matter. The thing is that people grow up and change their minds about things. I used to be a gardener, right? But look where I've been since then! Look at where I've lived and the people I've met since then and the things I've got involved with.'
'But it's really hard for people who've become well-known for one thing to get taken seriously about doing something else, but that's just the way the business is, I suppose.'
So if the Cassidy-Ronson band was such a good idea how come it didn't happen? 'Because I … uhhhh … never know what I want. It's very hard to form a band. You've got to play together and be able to depend on each other, and some days I wake up and I just ain't interested in what knocked me out last week. I don't want to be in a band and treat it like some kind of a job, thinking, 'This a real pain in the ass, but at least I'm making some money'. I don't want to play like that.'
'I want to play for fun. I don't want to play just because it's a good business project. Most of these bands must go nuts, right? They need the record company's money to keep paying for their apartment and the more money they get the more money they want. I don't know that much about the business and how other people deal with it, because I ain't interested in how other people deal with it.'
At one point, Ronson was heavily in debt; in debt to the tune of sums that most people never see in a lifetime. 'I still am!' - He sprawls back on the rumpled hotel bed, laughing like a drain. 'I can't even think about how much I owe because then I would worry.' (Whatever you do, don 't do that. - Ed.) 'I'd really panic and I'd get down on me hands and knees and grovel for some record contract and put out this record that didn't mean anything and watch it get slagged and watch people say 'Ahhhhh he's over the hill now' just because I was worried about going in the red. I can't do it that way. I don't care how much money I owe.'
'What are they gonna do if I go and work on a building site, take two quid a week off me for the rest of me life? lt's a gamble. People put money in fruit machines, or put ten pounds on a horse hoping to win a hundred. People put £100,000 into some rock act. And sometimes they lose it. I ain't one for worrying whether they get it back or not. They're investing.
'I'll probably earn a real lot of money one day. I'll do something to make everybody go 'Yeah, great!' and buy all me records. I'll earn all this money and everybody'll get their money back. But for now, as long as I'm paying me rent and I can afford to buy a few beers or sommat and take someone out for a meal now and again and buy a packet of fags, that's all need.'
I ain't bought any clothes for two years. I gave all them other clothes away and I've hardly got any clothes now, but I don't need 'em. I got two or three pairs of jeans and one or two T-shirts that I can wear and wash and wear again. What more do I need? But people ain't satisfied with just what they need. People actually need very little. I remember having lots of money '
Remember that ridiculous £200-a-week flat near Marble Arch you used to have?
'Yeah, right! l remember having lots of money and spending it left right and centre. I just used to throw money about until it all went. But now it's all gone it doesn't matter. I still feel the same. If I've got a pound in me pocket I'll give someone fifty pence. It doesn't matter.
WE GO DOWNSTAIRS to eat burgers and exhaust the wine cellar and Ronson recalls three young kids who camped -all night outside a Manchester hotel on one of the Bowie tours in order to meet the band, and how he bought them breakfast and booked them into the hotel so that they could hang out legitimately in the restaurant and bar and how-those three kids are now in Slaughter And The Dogs and how their guitarist Mike Rossi (no relation) has a sunburst Les Paul coming to him the next time Ronson comes over from the States …
And then N'Awlins fonk lurches into the room on an ornately carved snake cane and sits down next to.us. 'This is Mac', says Ronson and Mac Rebbenack - aka Dr John Creaux the Night Tripper - says 'How do' and starts interrogating us on Specialty's reissue of Jerry Byrne's classic 'Lights Out' and on Dr Feelgood's cover thereof.
'I got a whole lot', says Rebbenack in that unique sanded-down swamprat croak, 'of other songs that those cats could do if they like that one. Ya know wheah Ah cud git in touch with 'em?'
WE SWAP R+B SHOP TALK while Dr John gets into his orange juice and prattle away about how Muddy Waters had to wear ear plugs while touring with Johnny Winter on account of how the White Tornado just plays so goddam loud. 'I ain't playing to loud, am I Mac?' asks Ronson nervously. 'Nawww, y'awright', croaks Rebbenack. 'If you do, ah ain't gonna wear no eah plugs, ah jus' gonna turn you daown. Now c'mon, we gonna be late fo' rehearsals and you gonna get a five-dollah fahn.'
Ronson grins and scampers back up to his room to get his guitar.
IF MICK Ronson ever gets big and important and famous enough to get his picture in some revised edition of Rock Dreams, I know just how it'll look. There'll be Ronno, see, standing by the roadside somewhere with his guitar sticking his thumb out waiting for the next rock and roll ride to come along. He'll have holes in his jeans and dogs hit on his sneakers and dust in his hair. And he'll have a blissful idiot grin on his face and he'll be happier than the driver who picks him up.