Glass House Rock
05 January 1980
PERHAPS the traumas of having stones thrown at you by kids was too much for Ronson. Mick Ronson, while working as a gardener at a school in his native Humberside, was subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. A bunch of young louts who would eventually become Dead Fingers Talk took great delight in stoning Ronson as he tended his dahlias and this, arguably, could be the reason for the extreme nervous tension that is only too apparent in the man sitting opposite me.
Ronson is unquestionably a hero, though the strain of survival seems to have taken its toll. He chain smokes, tends to absent mindedly wander off or repeat his thoughts and continually expresses extreme self doubt. Though not exactly a psychological basket case a psychoanalyst would find him fascinating fodder.
The case history is as follows: Ronson is 33, born and raised in Hull. His family he describes as, 'regular working class type people', Mr Ronson senior working in a BP chemical plant near Hull, his lady wife working in bingo halls as a barmaid and where and whenever she can. The young Ronno was the first of the family to show any musical ability, taking up piano. then violin and recorder. Explains the man: 'I really didn't want to play violin, I wanted to play cello but nobody would teach me and besides we couldn't afford to buy instruments like that.' Gardening followed education and Ronson tagged along on guitar with a local band called the Rats. Two singles that did_nothing and sessions with Michael Chapman on his Fully Qualified Survivor album followed. Then the big one. How did you meet Bowie?
Typically concise Ronson replies nervously: 'I was at his house. A drummer friend who was in the Rats
and who eventually joined a band that became Quiver introduced me to David. He just asked me to play on this radio show he was doing. I didn't know any of his stuff so I just played where I could. After that he just said why don't you go home, get your stuff and come and join me. It was as simple as that.'
The Bowie period is of course well documented history and as such should be modern folk lore. Ronson's first attempt at breaking loose came with 'Slaughter On Tenth Avenue' a solo album that, despite its largely limp content shot straight into the chart at 'Number nine,' he confirms. 'Went in at number nine and went straight back out the week after.' He allows himself a sly titter. I ask about the ill fated solo tour that he embarked upon after the split with the Mainman.
'That came about because suddenly I was in competition and it took a while to get over that. The Press made it look as if I was in competition and I was trying to be which was a really stupid thing for me to try to do but there you go, you live and learn. I did a few dates but I soon knocked that on the head. I don't think I was being me at all though I didn't know that at the time. I don't think it had much to do with me, it had more to do with projecting some kind of image that was supposed to be me. it was like an act that backfired. I felt real uncomfortable doing it, I felt real uncomfortable recording so I just packed it in, I just said I don't want to do this anymore, I didn't know why at the time 'cos I've never been that bright.'
After one of the long pauses that are as dangerously frequent as the dialogue he continues: 'I don't have any problems like that anymore, but it took a while to get over all that stuff.' Ronson's second and last solo work was entitled 'Play Don't Worry'. Never has an album been more inappropriately named. Ronson smirks, 'Yeah that's it -'Worry Don't Play'. His worries were far from played out.
The languid guitar lines of Ronson faded into obscurity following the solo bash and bad times strolled round the corner.
'The last manager I had probably did me a favour in the end but he put me through some real hard times. Made me feel like a piece of shit, made me feel like I weren't (Note: despite living off and on in America for the past five years, Ronson retains his northern diction to the extent that he still says 'summat') worth anything and that's how l began to play again. Before that I'd stopped playing. All I did was get drunk all the time and get belligerent and it was doing me no good at all. It got so bad that I had nowhere to live, I had no food so I decided to get off my ass and start working again.
'I was still kind o shaky when I was working with the Rich Kids and Dead Fingers Talk and psychologically I wasn't too well together. I didn't know .if I was doing the right things, I didn't know if people were making the right decisions for me. I was working for dirt cheap as well and when people think that they can get you for nothing you begin to thing that you are worth nothing and that affected my playing. People would ring up and expect to get me for five bucks or something and that made me feel terrible. I don't have a manager anymore … I don't have a record company, I don't have anything like that and I'm a lot better off that way. I feel better for it and I'm beginning to play alright again.'
This is true, Ronson turned in an immaculate performance at the recent Ian Hunter gig in London, the final highlight being his solo rendition of 'Slaughter On Tenth Avenue'. Les Paul dangling around his knees, he teased the guitar and showed that once again he is right up there in the hero stakes.
Talking of- the Rich Kids and Dead Fingers talk, whose albums were the first produotion jobs Ronson undertook after the layoff I wonder aloud how he feels about the badmouthing that took place on completion of said albums - especially the former, which sad to say is a fairly rum do. Ronson is surprised to learn that his production of the Kids' album caused such a storm.
'Really?' he asks naively, 'I didn't know that. Still there you go.' When a band states that his work
leaves something to be desired does that get him down, make him angry? 'I don't know,' precedes the longest pause of the interview, 'No ... nothing ... I don't feel anything. They either like it or they don't. I don't give a shit what they think. I did whatever I could at the time. I mean the Rich Kids when they went into the studio only had about six or seven songs. They didn't really have enough to do an album and they were a brand new band who were a shambles before I worked with them. At least a few of the arrangements got straightened out and some of the music was good. I thought that album was OK when we finished it and I thought it was OK because it was a first album and they were a real young band. They were young, what could I do? I can only direct, I couldn't play for them.'
Ronson later states that 'direction' is his gift as a producer though not before mentioning that he had heard that Dead Fingers Talk weren't too happy with the production of their first album. With reference to our first paragraph I muse that perhaps people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
'When I produce I try to get rid of all the fancy stuff. Get the song real basic then round it off rather than put songs together and have bits and pieces all over the place. I try to make a real strong point of keeping things plain and simple. I try and make a strong point of working and playing quickly without thinking about it too much. I can only listen to the same number three or four times otherwise I just lose something. Ian's approach is different, He likes the big walls of sound and stuff with lots going on but we usually balance things out and we don't argue about things.'
Ronson explains that he and Hunter first met around Mott's 'All The Young Dudes' album and had kept in touch since. 'We've always been real good friends and he was having a bad time as well so we both decided to get up and do something. Ian wanted to do this album ('You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic') and I said that l would produce and play on it.'
Ronson, as you can see simplifies everything. Since teaming up, .The pair have produced the magnificent Ellen Foley's debut and Ronson has completed work on David Johansen's fine 'In Style' album. Ronson plans to be behind the desk on Davy boy's next and he is currently back in the US mixing live tapes for an Ian Hunter double live set which will be released in March next year.
I ask if there are plans for Mick Ronson band tour and / or record. 'No, at the moment it's Ian's career, it's not my record, it's not my record deal. Look,' he states pointing at a poster for the Hammersmith Odeon gig, 'it says 'featuring Mick Ronson'. That might help to sell a few tickets which is fine but for me to start doing my songs on Ian's albums would be wrong. What would I want a Mick Ronson band for? I'd like to go out and play a lot of guitar the way I want to play but I don't have any great ambitions to see my name in lights. I don't particularly want to be a big star. I'm past all that, I've been playing too long. There's people who think I am anyway so I don't have to establish anything. If they think that then they can come and see me play guitar and that's it, I'm quite happy the way I am.'
'There's enough stars around without me trying to hustle in, they'd probably wipe the floor with me and besides I wouldn't want to be in competition with anybody again. I don't like the idea of competition. That's prostitution time and I've had my fill of that.'
All good and well and rosy. Except that nagging doubts still seem to be running around in Ronson's head. 'I really need a rest. I've had lots of offers of work but I haven't taken on anything yet. I need some time to think about what I'm doing. Not career-wise, I just need some time to think about what I'm playing, why I'm playing it and to find out the different reasons for playing different things. I always have to have a reason to play otherwise I can't play. I just can't work mechanically. I've found that I'm able to do it but I hate doing things like that. I like to play because I want to play and not because it's just another gig.
'Summat happens with the sound of the guitar, summat happens to the music. I don't know if it sounds different to the people out there but it sounds different to me. I can hear all the things that I'm not doing.'
Ronson has gone through the rock 'n' roll mill and it has left him shy, withdrawn and quietly affable. He tells me that he doesn't have any albums that he's worked on or produced. I'd gently advise him to wise up and stop worrying. He's missing out on some pretty neat stuff.