Many years ago I had the opportunity to write for Guitar World Magazine. It was a whole lot of fun and over the course of a few years I was able to sit down and talk with some great guitar players, some of whom were legends and others who were young up-and-comers. I’ll be reliving some of these interviews in this blog from time to time and I’m going to start with my favorite, the late, great Mick Ronson. Most people know him as the guitar player for David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust years, but he was much more than that. When I sat down with him for a couple of hours in late 1989 he was on tour with his long-time buddy Ian Hunter, promoting the Yui Orta album. He was such a super-nice guy it was unbelievable. I was a huge fan of the albums he’d done with David Bowie prior to their big break-out, Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and he was genuinely pleased that I was asking about stuff he did on Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World as well as Ziggy’s successor, Alladin Sane, an album I played out even more than Ziggy Stardust. Aside from being an awesome guitar player, he was heavily involved in the production of not only the Bowie albums, but also, Lou Reed’s Transformer, string arrangements for Pure Prairie League, and this, lifted from Wikipedia, which he and I didn’t even discuss (I don’t really dig John Mellencamp but theUh-huh album was okay, I guess).
“I owe Mick Ronson the hit song, Jack & Diane. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for ‘Jack & Diane’, Mick said ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the fuck does put baby rattles on the record mean? So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.” (John Mellencamp, Classic Rock magazine, January 2008, p.61)
That was Mick’s attitude and effectiveness at production and playing. He used his imagination to come with some of the coolest stuff and it resulted in big records, not only for his own band, but others as well. He wasn’t afraid to do or say something outlandish that would leave people scratching their heads…until they actually heard it.
As a journeyman guitarist, he also played with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour in 1974, Mott the Hoople, Van Morrison and, he recorded three of his own solo albums. He wasn’t a chops monster, especially considering we talked during the height of the hair metal years, but he could play a great solo if the song demanded it and lots of songs he is on are layered in a way that gives them a very dramatic and symphonic sound. He embraced the solo as a motif or story within a story theory and that certainly helped with his writing and production roles. Sometimes guitar players just wanna play too much.
He also, during the course of our conversations, told me of his great love of punk rock because of the energy and the willingness to try new things. He embraced many styles and was a man at home in whatever style he happened to be playing at the time. As it was time to say goodbye I mentioned that I was recording with my EV punk band that day and he started asking me questions! How cool is that? Mick Ronson asking “what’s the studio like? How many tracks are you using? etc, etc. We spent another 10-15 minutes talking about the session and I have never gone into a session, before or since, as pumped as I was that day. His one nugget of advice that I have never forgotten was, “don’t be afraid to do something outrageous or spontaneous to get something going. Everything doesn’t have to be planned out.”
It was really sad to hear of his passing a few years later at the young age of 46, but it is beautiful to see that the influence he had on many people has not faded away and I feel lucky to have been in his presence, if only for a couple of hours. The following three examples show the profound range of abilities he had as a guitar player in dramatically different settings.
Moonage Daydream live with Bowie
The beautiful Sweet Dreams
Mick talks Guitar!!