Monday, 4 December 2017

Mick Ronson: The Answer To The Question "What Do David Bowie, Ian Hunter, Bob Dylan & T-Bone Burnett Have In Common?"

Originally published in Rave-Up #6 (1983)
Interview by Devorah Ostrov

Slaughter on 10th Avenue
Mick Ronson's debut solo LP (RCA 1974)
A couple of days after they opened for The Who at the Oakland Coliseum, American roots-rocker T-Bone Burnett and his band played a much more intimate set at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco.

Joining T-Bone for these shows was legendary guitar hero Mick Ronson. Once David Bowie's dazzling cohort, Ronson most recently backed-up his old pal Ian Hunter on the You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic and Welcome to the Club LPs and tours.

In fact, it was only about a year ago that I last saw Ronson and Hunter at the Old Waldorf. (Actually, the very last time I saw Mick, he was slumped on the floor of an elevator drunkenly scrawling his name on my friend's Mott the Hoople records — which he did not play on.) This time, I found the soft-spoken (and thankfully sober) Yorkshireman backstage shortly before the club opened, and we began the interview by talking about another of his infamous outings.

Mick Ronson - Creem magazine pin-up
Rave-Up: I understand that you met up with T-Bone Burnett in 1975 during Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review.

Mick: Yes.

Rave-Up: The Rolling Thunder Review seemed like an unlikely tour for you to join.

Mick: It was pretty strange. It was... I dunno, it was all so busy. There were so many people around all the time. It was a pretty hectic tour.

Rave-Up: How did you become a part of it?

Mick: They just asked me to come along, and I said, "Yeah, I'd like to."

Rave-Up: Before this tour, had you kept in touch with T-Bone? Or did he call you out of the blue?

Mick: I last saw T-Bone about two years ago, but I hadn't spoken to him since then. He just called me up and asked if I'd like to come out and play with him. And I said, "Yes."

Rave-Up: Are you still technically part of the Ian Hunter Band?

Mick: No.

Mick Ronson joins Mott the Hoople (CBS publicity photo)
Rave-Up: Not at all?

Mick: No.

Rave-Up: The shows you did with Ian for You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic and Welcome to the Club were so much fun!

Mick: It was good for what it was. I mean, me and Ian are really good friends. Me and Ian are best friends. And we always have been real good friends. But y'know... we can't... we do have our musical differences. I can't just play Ian's music all the time. I wanna do other things too, y'know. Ian's music is Ian's music.

Rave-Up: How long were you actually in Mott the Hoople?

Mick: A period of about three weeks. I only did one short tour with them in Europe. And that was it.

Rave-Up: Will you stay with T-Bone after these shows or are you going to do something else?

Mick: I don't know at this point. It's hard to say. I'd like to because it's something a bit different for me to do. I like that!

Rave-Up: The last time I saw you, you were passed out drunk in an elevator after the show. I've heard that you've cleaned up a lot lately, and you're healthier now.

 Mick autographed this photo for me! ❤  
Mick: Well... I don't do things like pass out all over the place anymore! That was basically out of frustration.

Rave-Up: Because you were playing as back-up to Ian Hunter?

Mick: That had a little bit to do with it, but that wasn't the whole thing. I felt I couldn't sort of say anything that I wanted to say, because it was all his music. It used to sort of bum me out. So, I used to get plastered!

Rave-Up: It's been a number of years since your two solo albums were released. Have you thought about putting out a third album?

The Rolling Thunder Review featuring Bob Dylan,
Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and
Mick Ronson (shown here on the left).
Mick: Oh, yeah! But nobody wants to put one out. [Laughs] They always say things like, "Well... y'know... I really like this stuff, but there's no vocals on it." And I say, "Yeah, you know why that is? It's because I'm a guitar player. I'm not a singer!" And they can't understand that. There's a lot of stuff that I'd like to put out. If a record company won't put out what I want to do, I'm just gonna put it out independently.

Rave-Up: Did it bother you when your voice was compared to Bowie's?

Mick: Yes.

Rave-Up: Is that why you're hesitant to be a lead vocalist?

Mick: Yeah. I mean, I sing the one or two songs that I really feel like singing. But I'm not one of those songwriters that can just go out and sing to people all the time. I'm just not that type of person. Now and again, I'll write a lyric... There'll be a lyric there that I'll think to meself, "I really like that, and I really feel confident in saying that." And that's the only time that I want to sing. Otherwise, I'd rather keep me mouth shut and play the guitar!

Rave-Up: Were you disappointed when your solo albums didn't take off?

RCA/Mainman advert for
Slaughter on 10th Avenue
Mick: No, not really. Y'know, when I first finished them I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if they were big albums!" Y'know... that didn't last for very long.

Rave-Up: As you've basically been a guitarist in other people's bands all these years, are you surprised that you have a dedicated fan base that follows everything you do?

Mick: Oh, yeah! A lot of the time, people don't know what I'm doing. But I'm always doing something. And it's nice. I sort of like it like that.

Rave-Up: Do you think that rock 'n' roll was more exciting ten years ago, during the early '70s?

Mick: No. Well, in some ways it was. It depends on how you look at it. It depends on how you play. I don't see why it couldn't be just as exciting now. It's just that a lot of people are playing and singing the same things, so it's not as exciting.

Rave-Up: It just seems like it was more glamorous back then.

Mick: Well, it was. It sort of went through that phase, didn't it?

Rave-Up: You don't sort of travel in limos and private jets anymore.

Mick: How do you think I got here today? You see that helicopter on the roof, there?

Play Don't Worry (RCA 1975)
Rave-Up: Haha! Is that yours?

Mick: That's mine, yeah. [Laughs] But that was all part of it then, y'know. It was good! It was really exciting, and it felt great! But I'm not with a big corporation now. I'm not with a big company that can afford to lay out all the money to do that stuff. I'm just meself. And if I wanna travel in a limousine, I'm the one who pays for it. And to be quite honest with you, I ain't got the money. I just do what I do, y'know. And I like it! I like it as much as I liked that other side of it. The other side is real exciting, but things can go wrong with it — especially afterwards. Especially when you turn around, and it's not there anymore. And then you suddenly look at yourself, and you think, "Wait a minute... I haven't got anywhere to live. I don't have any money. I don't have anything." I mean, luckily for me, I could go off and work with other people and do other things. But for some people who go through that whole trip, when it ends, it finishes them off completely. They get completely messed up, and they can't do anything ever again. They end up totally fucked up.

Rave-Up: What about the other Spiders From Mars? How are they?

David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars
L-R: Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, David Bowie, Mick Woodmansey
Mick: They're doing all right. Trevor [Bolder], the bass player, is with Wishbone Ash. And he's quite happy playing with them. He has a regular gig to do, and he's quite happy doing that. He does his gig year in and year out. He's a very steady person, is Trevor. A very steady bloke. But I'm not really like that. I wouldn't be able to do that. I couldn't have a steady gig. And then Woody's [drummer Mick Woodmansey] tried several times to get something together, but he's been very unsuccessful.

Rave-Up: Does Bowie keep in touch with you guys?

Mick: I haven't spoken to him in a couple of years. I don't see him.

Mick Ronson pin-up
Rave-Up: Do you still live in London, or are you over here now?

Mick: I live in New York. I have a place upstate.

Rave-Up: How long have you been living in the States?

Mick: Off and on since about 1975. I spent about a year... I spent most of 1977 in London.

Rave-Up: During the start of the punk explosion!

Mick: Yeah! I came back to the States in '78, and I've been here pretty much ever since. I've been back to England a couple of times, but only for like a month.

Rave-Up: Is there a reason you prefer to live over here?

Mick: Not really... I mean, the main thing was I got me green card. And it was like, "Do I give up the green card and stay in London? Or do I move to the States?" And it so happens that I know more people in the States. I have more friends in the States than I do in London. So I thought, "Well, I'll go to the States!" It wasn't sort of a big plan. It wasn't like I was waiting for the day I could live here. It just sort of happened by chance. I have lots of friends over here, and I just ended up being here.

Rave-Up: We mentioned the punk scene a minute ago... Were you surprised that the punks still respected you?

"Slaughter on 10th Avenue"
RCA French issue picture sleeve 45
Mick: Yeah, it was nice. It was flattering.

Rave-Up: You were one of the few people from the previous scene they weren't slagging off.

Mick: Yeah, I know! I was like... all right! I thought, "Whoa! How did I manage to get by that one?" It was really nice. It was a really nice thing for people to say. I was really flattered. I was really thankful. I was really glad that the younger people didn't just pass me up as being a Boring Old Guitar Player. I don't think I am, y'know.

Rave-Up: Do you think there will come a time when you'll want to sit back and retire?

Mick: No! I've done that enough! I mean, I've done that in between doing things. I sit around because I don't know what to do next, y'know. I don't want to go off and just play with any sort of Joe Bloke. So, in between, I tend to just sit around a lot. And that drives me up a bloody wall.

Rave-Up: Is there a band that you'd really like to play with right now?

Mick: These guys.

Rave-Up: Besides these guys!

Mick Ronson — Play Don't Worry
(RCA/Mainman publicity photo)
Mick: No, not really. I dunno... That's always a really difficult one. Sometimes you fall into things, and sometimes you like it and sometimes you don't. You can't sort of plan it. It doesn't work like that. Or that's not the way I work, anyway. A lot of it happens just by accident, which I sort of like. It has an element of surprise to it. One minute I'm thinking, "What the hell am I gonna do?" Like, I don't know what to do next. And then T-Bone calls me up and says, "Do you wanna come out next week?" And I said, "Great!" It was just what I needed to do — go and play! So, I put off all the stuff that I was going to be doing. I put it all off for another month and came out on the road. And that was a real nice surprise! Went out and got some champagne; took the guitar out of its box. That was really fun! I got a real good kick out of it! I like that sort of stuff.

Rave-Up: You're playing some big stadium dates during this tour. What's it been like opening for The Who?

Mick: It's not the best position to be in — supporting somebody. That's for sure, y'know. All the people are there to see The Who because they're the main act. But we've been going down really well. And let's face it, it's really good exposure. And it's good for these kids to see T-Bone. The only thing that bothers me about something like that is, we don't get long enough to play. That's the only thing, really.

Rave-Up: The audiences aren't shouting, "Get off the stage! We wanna see The Who!"

Mick Ronson (RCA publicity photo)
Mick: Oh, no. No, they don't do that. Which is great because it could be like that. It could easily be like that. It's like that for a lot of bands.

(Mick starts tuning up.)

Rave-Up: That's an interesting guitar.

Mick: This is a guitar synthesizer. It comes with a special unit that you plug it into.

Rave-Up: Did you have it specially made?

Mick: No, it comes like that. But I don't use it very much with T-Bone. I only use it on a couple of things.

(A woman walks in and picks up a drink from the table.)

Mick: Is that mine?

Woman: What?

Mick: Is that mine?

Woman: I don't understand what you're saying to me.

Rave-Up: Allow me to translate. Is that his drink?

Advert for Ian Hunter's debut solo LP and
1975 UK tour dates featuring Mick Ronson
Woman: No!

Mick: All right. Just thought I'd ask.

Woman: I wouldn't drink your drink.

Mick: I don't mind if you do. Just thought I'd ask.

Rave-Up: You haven't lost your accent.

Mick: No, I haven't lost me accent at all. A lot of people don't when they move to other places. I dunno, mine's just stuck. When I was a kid, and I'd be someplace where they didn't speak Yorkshire, I'd feel really embarrassed. Every time I opened me mouth, I'd feel like a fool.

Rave-Up: At what point did you move from Hull to London?

Mick: Well... I was with David, y'know.

Rave-Up: You didn't move to London until you'd joined David Bowie's band?

Mick: I'd spent time in London before that. I'd moved down to London... lived in London... moved back... moved across to France... moved back... moved to London again... All that stuff is a part of everyone's early career. You hitchhike about and hang about music shops and coffee bars.

Rave-Up: Were you in other groups before you hooked up with Bowie?

Mick: I was in a band in Yorkshire — the Rats!

Rave-Up: What kind of music did they play?

Mott the Hoople with Mick Ronson
"Saturday Gig(s)" - CBS Netherlands picture sleeve 45
Mick: Blues music. Raw blues music.

Rave-Up: Did you audition for Bowie?

Mick: No, I was just sitting in his house one afternoon. He was playing, and I picked up a guitar and started playing with him. He said, "Do you want to come and do a radio show with me tonight?" And I said, "Yeah, all right." So, I went down and played on the radio show. And that was it.

Rave-Up: What songs did you play?

Mick: We did... Oh, we did a whole selection of them. I don't know! I didn't know any of his songs when I joined him.

Rave-Up: So, you just faked it?

Mick: Oh, yeah. I just watched him play and played along. That's how the Rolling Thunder thing got started too. It was like, just get up there and play and hope for the best.

Rave-Up: How could you tell what was going on with that many people onstage?

Mick: Well, by the time it got to that stage at least everybody was familiar with the songs. But at first, we just played the songs like... "All right, this is in the key of B. Ready? One, two, three, four... Here we go!" And that was it. You had to play it, y'know. It was fun! You just had to have your wits about you. Do you want to ask me any other stuff?

Turn & Face the Strange - The Story of
Mick Ronson: The Spider from Hull
Rave-Up: Do you still have the clothes you wore when you were in the Spiders From Mars?

Mick: Some of them, I do. They're all in London.

(Noticing that everything in the vicinity is blue...)

Rave-Up: What's your favorite color?

Mick: It looks like blue, doesn't it! But it's not. It's green.

(The doors have opened, and the crowd is starting to filter in for the show. More than a few are middle-aged, and many are dressed in office attire.)

Mick: This audience seems...

Rave-Up: ...kind of old and straight.

Mick: It's a bit like a cabaret, isn't it?

Rave-Up: To get a seat at the front, you have to buy dinner and two drinks plus your ticket.

Mick: Well, when I get up there, I'm gonna crank it up! Blast them outta their seats! I don't care.

* * *

Follow this link to read my 1988 interview with Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson:

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