Mick Ronson and David Cassidy: Will The Odd Couple Come Out?
By John Morthland,
WHAT A difference a month makes. About 30 days ago as I write this, I interviewed Mick Ronson in his Manhattan apartment. I had never been a Ronson fan until his appearance with the Rolling Thunder Revue, oddly enough, and his subsequent cameo roles in several New York City shows. He was trying to put together a band, he said in this interview, but was in no real hurry. Auditions were going fine, but he didn't want to make any real splashes until everything was just right.
Then earlier this week, as I was ready to file the story, I learned that he had a tentative band together and was rehearsing. Furthermore, David Cassidy was in town and working with the group in some undefined capacity. Nobody knew anything except that Cassidy and Ronson were "thinking about maybe doing something together." A couple panicky phone calls to the pair (Cassidy was staying with Ronson) confirmed that the former TV boy wonder was indeed playing with Ronson in the big leagues. But neither would say it's on for sure; they were going to try it out for about three weeks, and if it continued to be as fruitful as it had been so far, they would make an official announcement. And if things didn't jell, that's how it goes. No harm in trying.
So about a month from now, which is when this rag will turn up at your local newsstands, 7-11's and porno bookstores, it will either be common knowledge that Ronson and Cassidy are collaborating or the whole idea will have been 86'd. Or maybe they'll still be experimenting with each other. As it stands right now, Ronson is saying things like, "David and I always get together when we're in the same town. I can't really say any more than that right now. If anything happens, it will be nice to say it's definite. But it would be wrong to say it now. These things take time, it's not just like a quick, one-night decision. After all, we're talking about people's lives, and if we announce it now and it doesn't work out, everybody will look like idiots."
But Cassidy, whose voice, carries real excitement at the prospects, mouths a line similar to Ronson's at first, then finally lets it out: "don't want to make it sound like 'Okay, here we are together in a new band.' We actually are, but I'm trying to keep it hidden from you, because we're just not ready to do a press trip yet."
One thing is certain: Ronson, everybody's favorite sideman and sidekick, is finally committed to stepping out on his own, or at least to carrying more weight than in the past. Was he bothered by the theory that some people (think of Al Kooper, for example) are just born to be sidemen and nothing more?
"No, cuz it's probably true, you know? It is true, really, that's why I need good people to play with me. The important thing is for me to put together a band of red-hot players, cuz that helps me out a lot. I'll want to carry out some of their things, too. I'm putting it together, so I guess I'll be the boss a little bit. But I wanna get with other musicians who are as good or better than me and just play, they'll force me to play better."
Mick Ronson is like that – in a word, cautious. Though not a particularly gifted gabber, he takes a long time to answer questions, choosing his words carefully and then enunciating them slowly. He is also quite shy. But there are two statements he returns to time and again. "I joost like to play. I change me mind all the time." Both, needless to say, are critical for understanding his basic attitude.
Ronson has been keeping a low profile ever since David Bowie broke up the Spiders From Mars after the Pinups album. There were a couple feeble solo albums in there, a Ronson concert or two, an abortive stint with Mott the Hoople that proved to be the group's last gasp (unless you count the pale ghost that plays today under the name of Mott). Ronson came to America to live early in 1975, with Ian Hunter, and has remained since. But it was only recently that he felt that time was right for him, even here.
At first, his condition could be attributed mainly to laziness. "I more or less did the solo albums because you might as well do something," he now says. "It was alright for then, just something that I went through, but it wasn't particularly good. it wasn't really bad, either, but I had to go through it. I'm glad I did; I now know what it's like to have done solo things, and I know it would be a mistake to do them again.
"Sometimes I felt guilty, but that always left because I was so comfortable doing nothing. When you've got money, that's what happens. You only feel guilty about it when you've got nothing in the fridge. Then you have to go out and do something."
In this case, "doing something" meant joining Mott the Hoople. Bringing him into Mott was calculated to salvage the group, though Ronson claims not to have even known the band was on its last legs, shellshock victims of their inability to grab that brass ring even once. The union lasted only long enough for a brief tour of the Continent. Ronson felt an outsider socially, but compatible musically. The irony is the media splash it made. Because of long lead dates, by the time most magazines had come out with the announcement that he'd joined, he (and Hunter) had already left.
"When you come from an environment where there's always lots of press, and I did thanks to Bowie, you just naturally get to assume that's the normal way of doing things," he shrugs. "How can I say what happened to Mott? There was... too many discussions about what we should be doing, and everybody had to agree. If one person disagreed, it was out. A lot of it was pretty crazy, having to do with business activities. It was a bit my fault too. Sometimes I'm funny, y'know, I won't go along with everything. But there you go, that's life."
Ronson and Hunter then came to New York, planning to help each other with solo albums. The first week he was there, Mick wandered into the Other End, got a little drunk, and pushed his way into a circle of people around a guy at the end of the bar who turned out to be Bob Dylan. Bobby Neuwirth was the first to introduce himself; one drink led to another, one jam to another, one conversation to another, and Ronson found himself accepting Neuwirth's invitation to join what came to be the Rolling Thunder Revue. He insists he barely knew who Dylan was at the time, and didn't know one of Dylan's songs. But that was cool, Dylan didn't seem to know who Ronson was, either.
For me, Ronson was the high point of the show I saw, early in the tour, in Boston. He played stark, crystalline solo lines that ached, and they sounded all the better for being counterpointed against the sound of eight strumming folkie guitars. While my friends walked out jabbering about Dylan's white face, his new songs, his animation onstage, I was gasping about how I didn't know Mick Ronson could play like that. As it turns out, he didn't know either.
"I wondered exactly what I should do, since I'd never played that kind of stuff before. I was just playing little country licks and trying to fit basic stuff into them, working it out as I went along and playing whatever I could on top of them," he laughs, a little puzzled by my comments. "In the end, I was starting to be a bit more myself I playing more what I wanted to play. I had the fuzz box out and everything by then."
It was an anomalous match – the golden-haired British glam guitarist and the cowboy-shirt-and-jeans Hootenanny crowd – and Ronson is the first to admit it. But the tour also served a distinct purpose, and that was to free him from the image he'd carried since his Bowie days.
"I learned to be comfortable with whatever I was playing, and not to go overboard too much. It made me easier about music, so that if I played something simple it wouldn't necessarily be looked down on. It would be equally as good as, or often a lot better, than something that was more complicated.
"Lots of times, like when I was recording the solo stuff, I was very self-conscious about what I was playing, and it was getting too complex. After Rolling Thunder, I had more faith in myself. What I do, I can do really well, and not because I look a certain way and dress a certain way. In a lot of ways, I thought image was all I was by then.
"I can go out onstage now and do anything I want. I can dress up how I want, and play any type of music I want. Nobody'll even know what I'm gonna do until I get up there. I don't even really know, cuz I could change me mind next week and change it again the week after."
But his general direction is not likely to be radically altered. While auditioning musicians, Ronson was also writing songs. He quit, because he wasn't sure what kind of band he was writing for, and figured that material would either change or go stale by the time he was ready to record it. Whatever he winds up doing, he expects it will be "straightforward in the sense the Stones are straightforward and I suppose have the intensity of someone like Cream."
Meanwhile, he's continued to turn up here and there around Gotham. The two times I caught him were mixed. At the Other End with Rob Stoner and Howie Wyeth (the Rolling Thunder rhythm section) plus guitarist Jerome Owens, he took what seemed like ages to tune, and the jams themselves tended to go on too long. But playing behind John Cale at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, the hottest new watering hole for Manhattan's too too set, he took only a few solos, and spent most of his time in the background, playing rhythm chords raunchy enough to qualify him for scab duty in a garbageman's strike.
"I've been playing a lot more the whole time I've been in New York," he nods. "That's part of the reason I like living here; it gets me out and there's always musicians around. I'd never really done that before. I'd never gotten up onstage and played someone else's music."
Ronson's original plan for the new band was to probably start with a trio, and hopefully work up to two guitars, two basses, and two drums. Like the man says, he changes his mind often. The group he's working out with now is a quintet. Ronson won't say who the tentative members are, besides himself and Cassidy, but Cassidy mentioned former Beach Boy Ricky Fataar.
"I can't say I've got or haven't got it. We've been going down and playing because it's been good, but I don't really know what I'm gonna end up doing," Ronson cautions. To which Cassidy adds his two bits: "Mick said something very poignant about me last night. From the standpoint of where he and I are coming from, he said, it's like opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet essentially we're now playing the same stuff. It's easy, and it works. We have the capabilities – you can bet your ass on that."
And Ronson, after a long period of random jams, production jobs, attraction-repulsion bouts with TV, just plain hanging out, and all the other' symptoms of Tired Musician's Blood, drops a final hint himself: "I love touring, the whole thing. I love living out of a suitcase. I can't stay in one place too long. If I had to stay here the next year and just do things around this area, I would go insane. I can't wait to tour."