Obituary: Mick Ronson
Tuesday 04 May 1993
WHEN David Bowie went down on his knees on stage in a raunchy mime with Mick Ronson's guitar, it was as though the dark ages of the macho lead guitarist were being swept away forever. Ronson, however, was apparently almost oblivious to the iconoclastic implications of such a statement, one of glam-rock's most pungent images. 'I go to the venue, put on my make-up, play my guitar, take my make-up off and go home,' was his abiding memory of participating as the leader of Bowie's revolutionary Spiders From Mars group; thus paying scant regard to the fact he had become, with the eyeliner and lank dyed blond hair, the visual archetype of the apparently androgynous British guitarist.
It may have been because 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,' says the writer Charles Shaar Murray, who knew him well during this period. But 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.
Brought up in Hull - his family was Mormon - Mick Ronson learnt to read music and play the violin at school, where he also took piano lessons. This was the source of his lyrical style on guitar, an instrument he took up, initially to play like a violin, when he became bored with the slow progress of other pupils. It was his classical training that afforded him the facility to write entire songs mentally before touching his instrument; he fused such a background with an admiration for the playing of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and particularly Jeff Beck.
In Hull Ronson formed a group, the Rats, which recorded several singles but failed to catch popular attention. When he left the city to record with Michael Chapman, however, Ronson met David Bowie, for whose acclaimed album The Man who Sold the World, released in 1970, he provided the main musical impetus, playing guitar and arranging the songs. Bowie took on the Rats as his backing group, changing their name to the Spiders from Mars; Ronson provided a similar musical role on the Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane albums, records whose blend of sexual ambivalence, esoteric thinking, and fey artiness echoed the collective concerns of a wide groundswell of youth. A musical by-product of no small significance during this period, and a pointer to Ronson's future work was Lou Reed's Transformer album (1973), which Bowie and Ronson co-produced, Ronson's string arrangment making an unlikely pop classic of 'Walk On The Wild Side'.
When Bowie sought new collaborators Ronson turned to a solo career. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1974) was a classic of pop melodrama. He toured to promote the record, acquitting himself strongly despite being plainly uncomfortable with the role of a frontman. As his tour bus pulled into a motorway service station Ronson would wander down the aisle with a pen and paper, jotting down the requirements of his travelling companions, behaviour that could have had him struck off any register of potential superstars. A second solo LP, Play Don't Worry, was released in 1975.
By then, however, Ronson had joined the dying embers of proto- punk group Mott The Hoople, working on their last single before fleeing the coop with Ian Hunter, the group's singer. So began a close friendship and working partnership - Ronson always producing and arranging their records - that was to persist through several albums until Ronson's death.
In between these projects each would go their separate ways. In 1977, for example, Ronson worked with Bob Dylan on his epic Rolling Thunder revue. He toured with Van Morrison, and produced and arranged artists as diverse as the former New York Doll David Johansen, the former Byrd Roger McGuinn, and Morrissey, on his latest LP, Your Arsenal. He also married Bowie's former hairdresser, Suzy Fussey, with whom he had a 15- year-old daughter.
Two years ago Ronson was diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the liver. The disease appeared to have gone into remission, however, and since Christmas he had finally got round to working on his third solo album, with various artists, including David Bowie, providing the vocals on mostly original material. Chrissie Hynde worked on one 'fantastic' song Ronson had written called 'Trouble with You'. 'He didn't appear to have changed. Although he would tire easily, he seemed so optimistic and chipper.'
Ian Hunter arrived in London from the United States to record his track the day before his friend died. 'He said to me that night, 'I love to tour, because you just get better as a musician.' Mick's thing was always about working and improving, not about making lots of money. His work was of great quality, and will stand up long after a lot of people who are flashier players will be forgotten. On a personal level, he was so kind and full of life.'
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