24 June 1993
by David Sinclair
Mick Ronson was a sideman extraordinaire
Mick Ronson was one of rock's great unsung talents. His death from cancer, on April 29th at the age of forty-six, deprived the world of a musician who not only shone in his own right but had a rare gift for making the talents of others shine more brightly.
He will of course be most readily remembered for his pivotal contribution to David Bowie's career. Joining Bowie's backing band in early 1970, Ronson recorded five albums with him, including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), and there can be no doubt that without Ronson, Bowie's initial impact -- especially as a live performer -- would have been diminished.
'Mick was the perfect foil for theZiggy character, ' Bowie recalls. 'He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so that what you got was the old-fashioned yin and yang thing. As a rock duo, I thought we were every bit as good as Mick and Keith or Axl and Slash. Ziggy and Mick were the personification of that rock + roll dualism.'
After the Spiders, Ronson released two solo albums, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1974) and Play Don't Worry (1975), and briefly joined the English glam-proto-punk band Mott the Hoople before its final split in December 1974. He then teamed up with Mott's vocalist, Ian Hunter, in an association that continued throughout the Seventies and Eighties.
A free spirit with an astonishing range of talents, Ronson naturally left a trail that was at times difficult to follow. He was a trained violinist, an accomplished keyboard player, a producer, arranger, writer and singer. He arranged the string section on Lou Reed's classic 'Walk on the Wild Side,' from Transformer which Ronson coproduced with Bowie. He toured with Bob Dylan's celebrated Rollling Thunder Revue in 1975 and 1976 and was featured on Dylan's 1976 album Hard Rain. He produced Morrissey's Your Arsenal (1992), the most acclaimed album of the singer's solo career.
But it was for his gloriously distinctive guitar playing that Ronson was most deeply admired by fans and contemporaries alike. As a devastated Ian Hunter remarked to the English newspaper The Independent, 'His work was of great quality and will stand up long after a lot of flashier players will be forgotten.'
Ronson could lay it out as straight as a die or as twitchy as a cat on a hot tin roof. Whether lifting a song like 'Moonage Daydream' (from Ziggy Stardust) into another dimension with a spiraling series oflong sustained notes or negotiating a succession of whiplash bends and jarring intervals in the solos on 'The Width of a Circle' (from Bowie's Man Who Sold the World), he was the master of making the unexpected sound right.
Ronson was also an intensely passionate player, as fan and friend Joe Elliott of Def Leppard recalls: 'He just had emotion and power in his playing. He wasn't technically the best guitarist in the world, and that made him have a style. You knew it was him straightaway. His playing had personality. To me it was a sound as distinctive as Jagger's vocals.'
Elliott was one of several artists who had been working with Ronson on a new solo album that was nearing completion when he died. Elliott sings on three numbers: a harmony chug called 'Don't Fall Down', an out-and-out rocker called 'Take a Long Line', and the more reflective 'Life's a River.' Other contributions include Bowie, singing 'Like a Rolling Stone' and Chrissie Hynde, doing a song called 'Trouble with Me'.
Ronson's last public performance was at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert held at London's Wembley Stadium on April 20th, 1992, where he was reunited with both Ian Hunter and David Bowie for an especially touching version of Mott the Hoople's hit 'All the Young Dudes' and Bowie's 'Heroes'.
'The whole event was wonderful,' Ronson recalled three weeks before he died. 'It was a magical sort of day. Everybody was smiling, and that made me really happy. I didn't know Freddie Mercury, but I know he brought a lot of happiness into people's lives. There's so much going wrong in the world. You can't watch the news. It's all so bad. And to bring happiness into somebody's life is a great thing.'
Ronson undoubtedly brought more than his fair share of happiness into other people's lives. As Joe Elliott says: 'He was just a nice guy. I miss him. If there's a God up there, why does he do this? It can only be because he's trying to put together the ultimate band.'