When you think of the iconic guitar players who rocked a Les Paul and Marshall to create tones that fans still talk about to this day, certain names always come up. If you know your music history, you certainly zoom right back to Eric Clapton and the landmark Bluesbreakers recording with John Mayall. At that time, Clapton famously combined a sunburst 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard with two PAF humbucking pickups with 45-watt model 1962 Marshall 2×12 combo (JTM 45).
The guitarist cranked the amp while recording, which resulted in the engineer complaining several times that it was too loud. To this, Eric replied, “That’s the way I play.”
And who can forget the way Jeff Beck played during the Truth and Beck-Ola period when Rod Stewart was in the band? His astonishing sounds coming from the 1959 Les Paul and Marshalls he used then are now legendary Certainly you conjure Jimmy Page in his white suit with his head thrown back in ecstasy as he coaxed all those magical sounds from his 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard [the instrument he got from Joe Walsh and ultimately became known as Number One] and the Marshall SLP-1959 Super Lead.
There were a lot of guitarists who created legendary sounds with Gibsons and Marshalls—including everyone from Paul Kossoff in Free and Robin Trower in Procol Harum to Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green—but one of the names you rarely if ever thought about was Mick Ronson. As part of David Bowie’s band in the early 1970s and a key figure in some of the singer’s most important albums—The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups—Ronson received high visibility. He played on hit records and toured the world and yet he was barely uttered in the same breath as other players.
Why? At first, I didn’t have an answer. He was a marvelous player, had a high profile and looked like an angel. All the pieces were there and yet the puzzle was incomplete. But after interviewing him in 1974 right before the release of his second solo album—Play, Don’t Worry in January 1975—the answer came to me: Mick Ronson simply didn’t know who he was.
That may sound complex or overly-analytical or the type of thing you’d hear on a psychiatrist’s couch. But that’s precisely what prevented Michael “Mick” Ronson born on May 26, 1946 in Kingston upon Hull, England from becoming one of the legendary players of his time. In fact, when this unsung hero passed away in London on April 29, 1993, the writers of his obituary made these same observations about who Ronson was and the life he’d led.
Here are a few excerpts from the obituary that ran on May 3, 1994 in the Independent Newspaper in the UK:
“Mick Ronson was one of the most self-effacing players in British rock that he also appeared one of the most genuine and down to earth.”
“He was about as ego-less as you can be and still function in the music business.”
“Ronson was also an inspirational artist, even though—despite attempts at solo stardom—his role was essentially that of loyal henchman, whether posing as a guitar hero or working out the string parts for an album by another artist that he was producing. His influence may have been understated, but was at a profound level on later generations: the guitar sound of the acclaimed Suede openly acknowledges its debt to Ronson.”
Those comments were all true but that last statement must have contained a bittersweet taste in Ronson’s mouth. He desperately wanted to be a successful solo artist in his own right and that urgency and desire could be felt in every word he spoke to me on that day in 1974 when we first met. But even before I sat down with Mick Ronson at his hotel in West Hollywood all those years ago, I was struck by how small he was. When he opened the door to let me in and was standing there in front of me, I was blown away. Onstage with David Bowie as part of his Spiders From Mars backing band, Ronson looked eight feet tall dressed in his gold jumpsuit and custom boots. But in reality, he was only a little bit taller than I was and I stood at barely 5’7”.
As I walked into his hotel room, I was also fascinated by his attire. I expected Mick to be wearing some kind of cool rockstar outfit—hip jacket and expensive shirt in subdued colors—but he was sporting a multi-colored button-down short-sleeved shirt with surfers and porpoises on it. Surfers? Mick Ronson had probably never been closer to a surfboard than an Eskimo had. Yet there he stood with a shirt emblazoned in reds, greens and blues, festooned with palm trees and ocean waves. It was the type of shirt one of the Beach Boys would have been wearing and not an ex-member of David Bowie’s band.
Maybe my expectations of who Mick Ronson was—and the expectations of everyone—and his own sense of being were like two armies in battle. On the one side you had his audience, his supporters and his fans thinking he was this larger-than-life rock dude with the makeup, mascara and puffed-out-hair. Maybe they even thought he was from Mars, an alien, and not of this Earth. On the other side of the battle line, there was Ronson, standing alone in his surfer shirt, armed with nothing but his Les Paul and unprepared and ultimately unable to defend himself against a world that saw him as something more than human.
That lonely soldier was the figure I met that day. Not being able to take my eyes off his shirt, I set up my crude little cassette tape machine and placed the plastic microphone on the table in front of us. Mick looked at the mic like it was some sort of weapon meant to do him harm. He truly looked uncomfortable and ill at ease. At first I thought maybe he didn’t think the interview would be recorded but then I realized that was absurd. He must have known the interview would be recorded.
I pressed record and tried to ignore the nervous look in his eyes—like a surfer in the water who saw a fin break the surface—and started the conversation. Mick was so shy and seemingly unsure about what he was saying that his voice dropped to a level where he could barely be heard. I had to concentrate as hard as I could to understand what he was saying. It was hard to understand his reticence and shyness when thinking of Ronson as this alien guitar player onstage with Bowie, this creature from another planet creating the most cosmic guitar riffs anybody had ever heard. Balancing that vision of Mick the Martian rock god and Mick the introverted interviewee was difficult tightrope to walk.
But that is not to say he was rude or offensive in any way. Quite the contrary. He was quiet, unassuming and as I’d mentioned, shy to the point of barely talking. You felt like you were looking right through him as if there was a ghost sitting there and not a human being. You must also understand that the guitarist had only been out of Bowie’s band for about a year and was trying to find himself. As one of the most famous sidemen in the world, it must have been incredibly difficult for him to make the transition to solo artist. He was still struggling with that as he sat there before me and I could sense that desperation inside of him. Mick wanted to be an artist recognized for his own work but he just didn’t seem quite sure about how to achieve that.
As our interview went on, he became more comfortable. His voice became louder and his responses more informed. Still, at one point about 15 minutes into the dialog he said, “I don’t know what really to tell you about my past. I guess you could chop bits out.” It was an extraordinary thing to hear him say and went directly to supporting those adjectives used in his obituary to describe him: “self-effacing, genuine and ego-less.” It was as if the guitarist didn’t think his life was worth talking about or more importantly and to the point, he didn’t think anyone was interested in hearing him talk about his life.
In the hundreds and hundreds of interviews I’ve done over the years, rarely if ever would a musician say something like Mick Ronson said. A guitarist might say other things like “I don’t want to talk about that” or “I’ve already talked about that” or “You’re an idiot. Don’t ask me that question.” But I hardly ever heard someone thinking his own history wasn’t worth talking about. That rarely happened.
The blond guitarist did make some wonderful comments are here are a few of them:
On playing different instruments: “I play lots of different instruments but not really well. I can’t be just one thing. So I guess what I’ve been doing is slowly developing. I’m never gonna stop learning—it’s just gonna take me a lifetime.”
On playing with David Bowie again: “Sure, I’d love to ‘cause I really like David and he’s really clever and he writes a lot of really good songs. I like the guy even though I have said and it’s been quoted now and again something like, ‘Well if I see him I’m gonna give him a kick up the ass.’”
On making a living before joining David Bowie: “I got a job in a garage [laughs] so I could earn a bit more money so I could pay for my room and pay for my guitar. It was pretty rough going at first. I stuck that out for a long time and then in the end what I was doing was I was owing people money week after week because I wasn’t earning enough to pay for the rent and some food and my guitar and amplifier. You’d put petrol in the van and every time the van breaks down and you got to get the van fixed and you’re never earning any money anyway. It was a real long, hard struggle. Then I joined David after that but it seemed to take forever and I could never afford to smoke more than a few cigarettes a day and things like that. I first met David in London. He wanted to get a band together and I was just around. So we started playing together. I went back to Yorkshire for a while after The Man Who Sold the World and then came back down again. We were originally doing quieter stuff and then we started getting noisy. But The Man Who Sold the World was noisy—The Man Who Sold the World was real noisy and then after that album things were gonna be going quieter.”
We finished up our interview. I noticed Mick’s Les Paul case sitting in the corner and was going to ask him to pull out his guitar but I didn’t. I thought he might have been reticent to do so or might have thought he would have embarrassed himself by playing something strange so I didn’t ask.
He turned out to be a very sweet young man—he was only about 29-years old at the time—who never really seemed to understand or grasp who he was. Though he had played with David Bowie and performed on some of the most important albums of the early 1970s, Ronson acted like a guitar player who had never done anything. He was completely unaware of the magic inside him and thought that the words he had to say held no interest and the notes he played had no significance.
As I was leaving, I asked Mick if he would take a picture with me. He reluctantly agreed in a way that suggested, “Why would you want a picture with me?” We posed in front of the hotel. When I look at that picture now, I see the sad face of a brilliant guitar player who didn’t know who he was. He didn’t look at the camera lens and instead turned his face to the ground in a pose that suggested he was looking for answers in the dirt. Or somehow couldn’t look directly ahead because if he couldn’t see himself, how could anybody else?
When he passed away some 20 years later and the obituary writer wrote those words about him, it all made sense to me. Though his official cause of death was listed as liver cancer, I always wondered whether the real truth was because Mick could never find himself and never truly understood how beautiful he was. I hope he can see himself now.