Mick Ronson: I’d like to kick some sense into Bowie
Allan Jones • Melody Maker • 5 April 1975
Interviewed after gig at Newcastle City Hall
Mick…Mick…You were about to say something, Mick. A moment of confusion. I stare at the wall, one of those anonymous landscapes that decorate every hotel room you’ve ever been trapped in. I stare at the two half-demolished bottles of win and a cigarette smouldering in an ashtray. I stare, finally, at Mick Ronson.
Mick Ronson is asleep. That’s right, he’s fallen asleep on me. His voice just trailed off into silence in the middle of a half-formed sentence as he slipped into oblivion. I decide to made a slow count to ten. If he’s not awake by the time I reach the magic number it’s scratch one conversation with Mick Ronson…The first number in the chain projects itself onto a screen behind my eyes. Ronson, suddenly, sits up.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” he says. “I was just thinking…”
So was I. About Ronson and his new partner in the rock and roll waltz, Ian Hunter, Mott The Ego. Any lingering doubts about the validity of their collaboration had, by this time, been utterly dispelled.
First, by Hunter’s recently completed solo album, secondly, by the gig the Hunter Ronson band had played that night at the Newcastle City hall. It had been strange; a powerfully vocal contingent of Ronson followers and a marked absence of Hunter Mott freaks.
It was a hard-core Ronson audience and Ronson knew it from the moment he walked onstage.
For so long he’s seemed an incomplete personality, nervously trying to establish some coherent identity for himself. With Hunter, he’s at last found a context for his work as a guitarist, arranger, producer and, something more important, he’s discovered that he doesn’t have to stand in anyone’s shadow.
On the strength of his current performances he’s restored the balance and vindicated himself, dragged himself up from the confusion which wrapped itself around his solo career. A career which nearly took him over to edge.
But that’s something to be examined a little later. For the moment we’ll concentrate on the evolution of Mick Ronson as a musician. It seems the right time for it. As he says, he’s never really felt the need to talk about himself or his work in any detail.
Perhaps the harsh critical reaction to his post-Bowie career pushed him further back into himself.
He appears to be essentially introverted, balancing on the thin line of a constant performance to overcome this characteristic. But his confidence is growing now and he needs little encouragement to talk… So, without further delay: Mick Ronson, this is your life…
We begin in Hull, with Ronson leading a local semi-pro band. The Mariners. This before the days of The Rats or the short-lived Ronno.
“I remember the first gig we ever did. We travelled 35 miles and got paid 10 shillings, and I thought it was amazing. There were about two people at that gig.”
He recalls buying his first guitar from some back street shop in Hull and paying five shillings a week for it. There was something special about the idea of being a musician then. A sense of being different.
There was no great ambition motivating him, just the pleasure of being able to play and people appreciating him for what he was, and expecting no more than that. He regrets the passing of that kind of innocence.
Now he’s “got a bit of a name, and no one can see me for what I really am,” including himself. There’s a constant confusion of roles, with which he can’t really come to terms.
With Bowie it was more defined. Bowie was the constant focus of attention; Ronson’s role was more of a musical co-ordinator. He was, to an extent, able to escape the immediate pressure.
Before he met Bowie he’d been hustling around London recording studios looking for work on sessions. He did an album with Michael Chapman, “Fully Qualified Survivor,” but that was about all.
He met Bowie, of course, through Tony Visconti, who knew Bowie was looking for a guitarist. He’d been involved with Ronson on some sessions and suggested that he visit Bowie. They did a John Peel radio show together, with Ronson following Bowie through the chords of songs whose titles he didn’t even know.
Ronson’s reaction to Bowie was immediate and positive: “It was so exciting, it was something so new. All those ideas David had…he’s so clever, a very sharp lad.”
“I really don’t know how David reacted to me, whether it was with the same kind of excitement. I don’t know. He never told me… You know, he must have dug me.” There’s an incredible affection in his voice here. “I think he did, otherwise we wouldn’t have been as close as we were for so long.
“There were times when we were together that I’d think he was such a fucking prat, though. But it would pass. I used to hate Dave, and Dave used to hate me, but it was fine.
“We were together…I wish we were together now in a way…”
There’s a simple and emotional honesty about Ronson’s current feelings towards Bowie, a genuine concern for Bowie as a friend.
“I wish that Dave would get himself sorted out. He’s so very confused, I know he is. What he really needs is to have some good friends around him. I’ll tell you he hasn’t got one good friend now.
“He needs somebody around him to say, ‘David fuck off, you’re fucking stupid.’ He needs one person who won’t bow to him. He believes that everybody has to say, ‘Yes sir’ whenever he says something.
“He doesn’t need people like that who’ll agree with everything he says. If there’s no one to tell him that he’s wrong he’ll just continue to believe he’s right all the time. He needs someone so badly, so very badly. And I really wish he was here right now so that I could tell him that.”
He says that he’d never work with Bowie again on any permanent basis, “but if he asked me to do one concert I’d rehearse 24 hours a day to make it right, because I believe so much in him. He’s a great kid, and it’s such a shame that he’s got so fucking messed up.
“And all those people he’s got around him, I think they’re all just wankers. Most of them have stuck by him because he’s been the provider. He’s literally paid for all their food. He’s paid for their cab fares and their clothes.
“He’s even bought their fucking cigarettes. That’s been his own downfall…and I just wish that he could be here in this room right now, sat here so that I could kick some sense into him. Because that’s what he needs.”
He hasn’t seen Bowie for nearly a year, but his affinity and admiration hasn’t diminished at all. There’s still so obviously a strong link between them that hasn’t been broken by what they’ve been thrown.
“I don’t care what happens,” he says, “he’s an amazing bloke. Even though he could be the biggest prat in the world. You know, he could be your biggest friend one minute, or for two weeks, then all of a sudden you might be with him in front of a hundred people and he would just put you down.
“Make you feel so low, such a fucking fool. And you think, ‘I could fucking stab him for that.’ I think he’s done it to me a lot of times. But you can’t help but like him for all that… You know, we should never have stopped playing. We should never have stopped.”
Ronson says that Bowie and DeFries told him that Bowie would be announcing his “retirement” from performing at Hammersmith. He sounds bitter and angry at the memory of what the two described to him as “The Master Plan”.
“The fucking Master Plan. I never believed in all that. It might have seemed great as an idea, but f—, those plans never work. You know, I admired David because he was always himself. If he wanted to write an album, he’d write it the way HE wanted to write it, and he wouldn’t care about anybody else.
“That’s why I admired him SO much. But I couldn’t give tuppence for the people around him. Because they can so easily influence him.”
Does that include Main Man?
“Not necessarily…because Tony DeFries, as a manager was the best manager in the business for David. He’s so clever, and he’s a nice guy. You see, whatever’s happened, David wanted it to happen. The same with me. When I did the Rainbow, I don’t know if it was good or bad. I think I wanted to do it. Maybe I should have hung on for a while…”
We’re talking now, of course, about Ronson’s debut as a Solo Star, which was virtually a full-scale disaster in terms of strategy. He offers no excuses for what happened then. “I think, maybe I shouldn’t have done it in some ways. But I wanted to, and what’s happening now, with this band, is happening as a result of those concerts and that experience.”
He says that he and Hunter work very closely, in much the same way as he and Bowie used to, and that for the first time since the Ziggy Stardust tour he’d enjoying performing.
That tour, and that album was THE time for Bowie, he says. “That was all totally David. And I’ll tell you, he was so happy then. He was contented, he loved it all, he was having the time of his life. We all were. And it got knocked on the f— head, which was so sad, it was such a shame.
“American affected the band so badly. On whatever level you want to talk about. I’m talking about feeling within the band, about money, and the position within the band. It was a bad feeling.
“And I’m never going to let anything like that happen again, because I want this band to feel good… You know, I’m not rich. I’m in debt, a lot of money in debt. We lost money from Bowie initially, but that made itself back fifty times over. We did lose money, like, you remember the Rainbow show we did? We lost about six or seven thousand pounds on that just in the production. But it was worth it, because Dave was doing what he wanted to do, and he didn’t care about money, and I’m the same.”
The whole of that time, before they went to the States, and Bowie “met all those w—” (“ ‘Queen Bitch,’ that was all about those f— people. I was never a part of that…”), were good.
“I’m going to be over there in two weeks, and I’m going to see him as soon as I get there. And I’m going to get hold of him, and smack him across the head, right across the earhole and try to drum a bit of sense into him… You know, he probably thinks I’m right stupid.”
But how much does Bowie owe you, and did you get the credit you deserved for what you contributed?
“It was fifty-fifty between us. I’m not interested in the credit. I think people appreciated what I gave to David, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many people coming to see me now. I figure that’s worth my fifty, my half…”
Taking this conversation in chronological order, before arriving at Ronson’s own albums, and the brief flirtation with Mott in its death throes, there’s till his contribution to Lou Reed’s “Transformer” album to be considered. Although his influence seems rather significant on that record, he denies that he was that important in its production.
“I mean I was there every morning, before anybody else got there. We did it in two weeks, and every morning I used to get the cab to stop at a fish and chip shop, and I used to get myself a bag of chips and then go down to rehearsals – because we were doing concerts at the same time.
“As far as I was concerned, I only did a tenth of what I should have done. I would like to have changed that album, the mixing.”
Was he ready for the concert? After all, it was a prestigious appearance after the years of success with Bowie.
“No, I wasn’t ready for it at all. No…no…I wasn’t. But I learnt a lesson, because if I hadn’t done it then, I might be doing it now. I’m glad I did it when I did, because now I know what I want to do…to work with a band… It’s very difficult to explain.”
Did he have any idea of what he wanted to do then?
“Do YOU think I knew what I was doing, or wanted to do…? Even from reports if you didn’t see it, did you reckon, did you think what I knew what I was doing? No…right. I didn’t.” Ronson’s honesty, at this point, commands one’s respect, but perhaps he’s accepting too much responsibility.
“I feel that I was pushed into that. I feel as though I was used in a lot of ways.” There’s a little sense of anger in this, more a sense of defeat that has since been overcome.
“I felt bitter after that. And that’s why the album wasn’t as good as I wished it would have been. ‘Slaughter,’ I thought was just about all right, but ‘Play Don’t Worry’ wasn’t a good album. I was feeling very, very bitter when I recorded that…I didn’t feel confident about writing.
“I felt there was a pressure on me to write, because everybody else writes their own songs and I thought that I must, too. And I thought that, well I ain’t going to ask anyone to help write my songs. Because the last time I did that I was so on edge, the people I asked never turned up with the lyrics. They weren’t interested in helping me.”
Bowie had helped with a few songs for “Slaughter”: “Yeah, and I don’t think he enjoyed doing that. He probably thought that was a drag… You know, I think people were expecting something which I should have done… I should have gone out then, and played a lot more guitar than I did. Because that’s what I really like, and that’s what I know what they want to see. I didn’t play well tonight, I really didn’t.”
Given the chance to rewrite the past he wouldn’t erase those two albums because of what he learned from them.
“I was hurt by the criticism, but it was only as a quick glance thorough what was written. But when I read them properly I actually understood what they were saying. People weren’t necessarily putting me down and slagging me, people were actually saying ‘We’ve still got faith in you. But please, DO IT, and please do it soon.’
“And I appreciated that. I didn’t realise what I was doing with the album, because I was on my own and there was no one to turn to. And there was no one to tell me. ‘You’ve got to be joking. If you record that, I’ll LAUGH at you for the rest of your life.’ And I need people to tell me that I’m rubbish now and again, that I’m too sentimental now and again, that I get too clever. To tell me to be MYSELF, to play the way I FEEL… that’s why I love Ian, and this band.
“Because Ian would turn around and laugh at me and tell me that I must be joking. Because I think that people who criticise my guitar playing can be right. Because I don’t wan tot be like John McLaughlin, playing every note in the book as fast as it can be played.
“I don’t want to be known for that. All I want to do is play guitar. You see, I’m just a simple guitarist, it’s very basic. But I enjoy it, enjoy getting a bit of feed-back here and there, sustaining this note, even when the guitar is out of tune… That’s me.
“Bowie taught me a lot. That kid taught me not to be frightened, he taught me to be myself, and that I needed a lot of encouragement because I used to get so paranoid. But Dave was great, in ways that people will never know.”
Bowie encouraged him to be human, he says. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes on stage – like tonight, or Exeter where he forgot the lines to some song – it’s very natural. Part of the excitement, and people will respond to that honestly. Mott The Hoople, initially, offered a chance after the seclusion of the later days with Bowie when everything was getting out of hand, to be that human again.
“It didn’t turn out like that, though. It wasn’t human. It was stupid. I enjoyed the idea of joining Mott. I thought it was all going to happen. But I was surprised, after being with Mott The Hoople for a month, in the end I was getting disgusted by the behaviour of the band. By the behaviour of rock and roll musicians.
“They wouldn’t come to sessions. One person wouldn’t turn up at a session because he was still in bed, and couldn’t be bothered to get up.
“Another turned up two hours late because he’d had the plumbers in doing something to his house. Another didn’t turn up because he said there seemed no point because he knew no one else would turn up. To me that’s crazy.
“I only recorded the single with them, I couldn’t have stood any more. I felt all this as soon as we did the first gig. As soon as we started playing gigs, I knew what was going on and It was ridiculous. That’s why Ian had to leave.
“And I don’t for a moment blame him. Ian lived with it for a long time and Ian got used to it and accepted it. When I came in I started telling people what to do, told them to clear out of the way. I said ‘That’s wrong, that’s wrong…You’re an idiot, you’re an idiot. Why are you doing this?’ I stirred things up and they needed it.
“I was going to stay with Mott The Hoople under those circumstances. I was NOT going to go down with a dying band. See, I’d come out of something big, and I wanted to maintain that, and I wasn’t going to sink with a dying band like Mott The Hoople. I’ll tell you, if they’d carried on they’d have only lasted another year.
“Ian was so nervous that he couldn’t even light his own cigarette. He knew what was happening. He was that insure that you had to light a cigarette for the kid. It was that bad with Mott The Hoople. That’s not music. When we were in Europe, there was me and somebody else and we said to Ian, ‘How’re you feeling?’ And he said he was fine.
“Then we said, you know, we told him that three years ago tour were amazing, but now… What was he going to do about it? Mott The Hoople was not better than it was three years ago. We wanted to know whether he was going to get out or go down the nick with Mott.
“Then Ian got very hurt and paranoid. He got very ill and all of a sudden he said ‘f— it.’
“And he says to Ian, ‘Listen, mate, fit you want me there, I’ll be there,’ because I respect him. I probably split that band up, for the right reasons. ‘Saturday Gigs’ was the goodbye.
“Ian, he was going to do a solo album, anyway. And if he’d turned around and told Mott The Hoople that the next album was going to be his album, that band would’ve been hell to work with. Because Ian was going further and further out front. And Ian WAS Mott The Hoople, so why not break up the band?”
This band, he says is the best band he’s ever worked with, and the “Hunter” album has revealed only part of the potential within the relationship. Hunter compliments him the way Bowie did, and furthermore Ronson’s given Hunter the strength to extricate himself from the increasingly stylised stance he’d adopted with Mott.
“It’s an honest band. The first band that’s had the honesty to tell each other when something’s rubbish, and not say that everything is great, when we know really that it isn’t. With Bowie the band was always frightened, always frightened of David. Even me, sometimes I was worried.
“We’d argue…and there were times when I’d be packing me bags and leaving. I’d had enough. There were times when I could have kicked his head in. But that’s the way David is. He’ll get you going, that’s what he used to do, and he’d get you to do something amazing. He was very clever like that.”
The next Ronson solo album. “Let me tell you about that,” he says. “The next album is going to be a killer. I know that I’ve done two albums, and I know they’re not the best albums in the world…but this one, we’ll be having this band, and I love this band and we’re going to look after these kids and make sure they’re all right. And Ian will be there.
“He’ll be writing, and between the two of us and the band, we can really do it. All we’ve got to do is act sensible, and get on with the job and put out some fine music. There’s no way I’m going to leave Ian, because he’s a good kid. He’s good for me because he’s honest with me. And I like that, I like him a lot for that.
“I respect him for it. And I want to stay with him, and I think he wants to stay with me. I feel happier now than I have done for months ad months, I haven’t felt as good for so long. I want to get as out of it as I like, because I don’t care any more. And I know there’s so much more to come, and it’s a beautiful feeling.”
Is there, maybe, one thing that could threaten the relationship?
“No. There’s nothing…I won’t let anything. Even if it’s to do with business, if the business don’t like it then I’m sorry but f— them. If anybody from that side tries to interfere then I’ll say ‘Off you go, pal.’ Whatever it costs I’ll get rid of them all, I’ll finish them all off.
“Because I value what’s happening with Ian more than all that. All I want to do is carry on with Ian, because together I think we’re going to be phenomenal. It might take a little time, and we’re not there yet, but I can see it coming together so strongly.”
Hunter and Ronson may not have found the cure for cancer or the secret heart of all that’s possible, but they’re two musicians of passionate honesty. And there aren’t too many about. I hope that unlike Ziggy they won’t take it all to far and have to break up this band…we know that story too well, Boy.