Like a Rolling Stone

Like a Rolling Stone (Mick Ronson and David Bowie).

When people came up and told him how wonderful he was, I think it just made him nervous. I don’t think he ever believed what they were saying.

Trevor Bolder, on Mick Ronson.

In late 1991, Mick Ronson learned that he had inoperable liver cancer, which killed him at age 46. He died on 29 April 1993, a few days after the release of Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise, to which Ronson had contributed. Bowie heard the news while promoting the album in America, and briefly eulogized Ronson on the Arsenio Hall Show.

There had been a reconciliation between the two of them before Ronson’s death, but then again, they’d never had as severe a split as had been imagined in the press. Bowie had considered Ronson as lead guitarist for his Diamond Dogs tour in 1974 (Ronson said he turned him down due to work commitments), they had played together live in 1983 and there were regular and possibly accurate rumors that Bowie had considered linking up with Ronson again at times during the late Eighties.

Since he left Bowie, Ronson had settled into a sideman’s life, working with everyone from Bob Dylan to John Mellencamp (Ronson’s responsible for much of “Jack and Diane”*) to Morrissey. Ronson had a professional open marriage with Ian Hunter: the two worked together for over 15 years, but were happy to let each other split for better opportunities (playing with Dylan, in Ronson’s case). Often based in Los Angeles in the late Seventies, Ronson, like Ray Manzarek, became a godfather to new bands emerging on the scene, producing and playing on records by the Payolas, Visible Targets, the Iron City Houserockers,, the Mundanes (with John Linnell, later of They Might Be Giants, on keyboards), Los Illegals and, back in Britain, for the Rich Kids and Slaughter and the Dogs.

Uncomfortable as a front man, Ronson had showed little interest in a solo career after his MainMain-hyped Slaughter on 10th Avenue in 1974, and it’s fair to say that he was often at the mercy of sharper personalities, both Bowie and later, Dylan, who allegedly refused to let him play on much of his 1976 tour, leaving Ronson sitting on the tour bus (Dylan “had lead-itis at the time,” tour bassist Rob Stoner later said). (Even after Ronson’s death, there were tensions and diva moments: Bowie didn’t perform at the tribute concert held in April 1994 at the former Hammersmith Odeon, with Ian Hunter and Trevor Bolder later accusing Bowie of not attending because the crowd wasn’t big enough.)

Learning that Ronson was making a new solo record, to be mordantly titled Heaven and Hull, Bowie sent Ronson “a box of tapes” while Ronson was producing Morrissey’s Your Arsenal in spring 1992. Unfortunately, the crop Bowie offered was a poor one, with the only apparently salvageable track being Bowie’s version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which hailed from one of his creative nadirs, the Bruce Fairbairn-produced demo sessions with Bryan Adams’ band, cut in LA in 1988. Ronson overdubbed as much guitar as the tape could take,** but “Rolling Stone” remains a sour finale to their partnership. Play “Moonage Daydream” instead.

Recorded (vocal, rhythm tracks) Los Angeles, spring 1988; (lead guitar, vocal overdubs) ca. spring 1992, Utopia and/or Wool Hall Studios?, UK. Released on 10 May 1994 on Ronson’s posthumous Heaven and Hull.

* Mellencamp, in a 2008 interview with Classic Rock, noted how Ronson’s knack for arranging was still sharp in the early Eighties. “I’d thrown ["Jack and Diane"] on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks…All of a sudden, for ‘Jack and 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.

** Bowie also sang backup on Ronson’s “Colour Me.” That session is where he likely did the vocal overdubs for “Rolling Stone,” as evidenced by the goofy “Oh rock ‘em, Ronno, rock!” ad lib on the latter.

Top: Mick Ronson, ca. 1992.

26 Responses to Like a Rolling Stone

  1. Diamond Duke says:

    Yeah, I was never all that clear what the whole issue was with the no-show at the tribute concert. Bowie did say that he would eventually tell his side of the story…

    Really not a bad version of the Bob Dylan classic. A fairly slick and straight FM hard-rock rendering – and hardly an essential item in the Bowie/Ronson canon – but still reasonably energetic. And it’s different enough from the Dylan original to make one almost feel as if they’re hearing the song for the first time. (Like Stairway To Heaven or Layla, it’s one of those evergreens that you’re bound to hear at least once a day on your average classic rock station, to the point where you start to get pretty sick of it! :D)

  2. BenJ says:

    “Jack and Diane” was in heavy rotation when I was in junior high. I never knew that so much of it was Mick Ronson. Not someone you associate with “the heartland.”

    At some point I kind of wish that Bowie had made up with Woody Woodmansey. Reports were always that Woody was fired because he wasn’t a good enough drummer. He may be less skilled technically than musical Forrest Gump Aynsley Dunbar, but “Five Years” by itself shows that he deserved beter.

    • Maj says:

      Not very familiar with Mellencamp, but Jack and Diane is one of the very few songs of his I know. Actually had no idea Ronson was involved in this one.

    • Anonymous says:

      I never heard that Woody was dropped for “not being good enough”. As far as I know, he was let go because he was bugging everyone about Scientiology (converting Garson in the process) and because DeFries demanded one head on a platter to get the rest of the band and crew back in line, as everyone was looking for a rise and bonuses.

    • Roman says:

      I never heard that Woody was dropped for “not being good enough”. As far as I know, he was let go because he was bugging everyone about Scientiology (converting Garson in the process) and because DeFries demanded one head on a platter to get the rest of the band and crew back in line, as everyone was looking for a rise and bonuses.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      From what I’ve read, there were numerous reasons behind Woody’s departure. One was his overly fervent interest in Scientology, which apparently he’d been introduced to by Mike Garson. Another reason was that during the Spiders touring days, he’d become quite radicalized about pushing for a better pay scale for he and Trevor Bolder. He probably had a case, but seeing as how Tony DeFries was pulling the purse strings, perhaps his resentment was being directed at the wrong person.
      Finally, I think Bowie grew tired of the band’s stubborn reluctance to try new things and broaden their musical palette.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        I read that when Panic In Detroit was being recorded for Aladdin Sane, Bowie had wanted Woody to play drums in the traditional Bo Diddley rhythm, but Woody stood his ground and wouldn’t cooperate because he thought it would be too obvious and predictable! Bowie let him have his way, but then had Geoff MacCormack overdub congas and percussion in order to get the effect he wanted. But obviously Woody’s days were numbered…

  3. Maj says:

    This is too generic classic rock sounding for me but I do love me some Ronno. Gone way too soon – I think the glam revival of the 90’s could have brought him to the consciousness of the younger generation. Which it did anyway, but he (&us) could have gotten some interesting collabs out of that. Oh well.

  4. Jacques de Molay says:

    It is trite to say that Mick Ronson, The Gardiner who fell from Hull… was a great guitar player, a fantastic Musician, a great Personality of Glam…, Rock…, Music…, et aussi “un type vraiment bien!”
    I miss his “Baroque” style anyway.
    Concerning the cover with Bowie, i must admit i’m not a huge fan of it.
    Do you know what Ronno did in the late 80’s/ early 90’s as a producer – & sometimes as a guitar soloist – with Moda (an Italian band from Milano, Italy), Andy Sex Gang & don’t forget The Moz…..

  5. david says:

    Nestled between Never Let me Down and Tin Machine, it makes sense, but its not a song I felt really suited either Ronson or Bowie’s metier.

    Always loved the intro on Jack and Diane as a guilty pleasure however, and now that I listen to it again, I can hear Mick all over it.

    It did seem a little crass that Bowie never attended the memorial, he did later say that there was someone in attendance (not Ian) whom he wanted to avoid. Maybe it was Defries or Angie, but still it was churlish not to at least send a video message or something.

  6. Momus says:

    There’s a BBC Radio 1 documentary about Bowie circa 1976 where he says of Ronson: “He’s working with Dylan now, and you can’t get much more reactionary than that. What are you doing, Mick? Get away from there!”

    I miss Bowie’s outspoken 1970s interview style, and I miss his tirades against conservatism. This Dylan cover represents three things to me:

    1. 1980s Boomer nostalgia for the 1960s, which nevertheless turned an exciting decade into a bloated waxwork.

    2. Rock’s move towards “classical” status, with interpretation of canonical repertory (tributes, covers, halls of fame, respectability, repetition) replacing innovation, unfamiliarity and radicalism.

    3. The beginning of that period in an individual’s life when there’s more past than future, more retrospection than forward-thinking, more funerals and eulogies than births and manifestos.

    So it’s a jolly sorry affair.

  7. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Thanks for the link to “Quick Joey Small”. I was a huge Slaughter and the Dogs fan way back whenever. They were neighbours of mine and it was a big deal when they were produced by Ronson. (They were an early punk group – support for the Sex Pistols at the legendary Manchester concert – and the band’s name came from Ronson’s first solo album and Bowie’s 1974 album. Morrissey rehearsed with them before he formed The Smiths.)
    Btw, I didn’t want to hijack the Nite Flights entry with a really trivial point – it was far too good for that – but in that entry there’s a photo of DB signing an autograph left-handed. There are other photos around of him writing right-handed. Was this just an early affectation or did he really write left-handed?

    • col1234 says:

      reversed negative? (Though DB is exactly the kind of guy who would write with his “wrong” hand for the hell of it.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        Wouldn’t the text in the advertising for the Pye single also be reversed in a reversed negative? And the parting in his hair?
        The Arsenio Hall excerpt you linked to here gives a good example of a similar trait. You can see him annoyed at himself for using the word ‘lorry’ to an American audience; he then overcompensates by saying ‘doo-et’ when describing his work with Al B Sure. He’s always accommodating to his audience and aware of how he’s presenting.

    • Stolen Guitar says:

      Hello Wythenshawe…I, too, was an admirer of the Dogs and feel that they really captured what the Pistols were about, in fact in many respects they were more punk than the Pistols! We were fortunate to be in their presence; Buzzcocks, Magazine, The Fall and Slaughter and the Dogs were Manchester’s indelible imprint in punk’s revolutionary manifesto.

      Do you recall V2 and their terrific single ‘Man In A Box’? They were Ziggy casualties to a man but it was a great song that was always played to enthusiastic Bowie clones at ‘Pips’, circa 1977-8. Jon Richardson, now a celebrated fashion designer, was the DJ there and he was always immaculately dressed as the Thin White Duke…God, how I envied him…ha-ha!

      I suppose we’re all casualties of a sort, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Just can’t imagine my life without Bowie’s soundtrack, though.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        Guilty on all counts. “I am a man in the box and I can’t get out of here.” (???) Brings back memories! I thought that was so deep but I remember being so confused -and disappointed – when V2 showed up on television a few years later singing “I will Follow”. You must be even older than I am; I was Pips class of 78 -9, usually wearing a bright yellow version of Bowie’s ’78 tour outfit. Funnily enough, never had any problems getting back on the all-night 100.

  8. King of Oblivion says:

    Still miss ol’ Mick. #1 inspiration for me as a guitar player to this day. He took the high volume sonic gorgeousness of Beck and melded it to a pop arranger’s sensibility equal to any of the greats. Oh, and he played “width of a circle”!

  9. Diamond dog says:

    ive not commented for ages on the work written about since tin machine II as ive nothing positive to say , its sad that the last work with Ronson is pretty awful as he was the the man who gave Bowie a sound with the immense arrangements on Hunky Dory soaring guitar lines on Moonage Daydream and a mighty stage presence on the ziggy /alladin tours. Sadly missed it always makes me wonder how diamond dogs would have sounded with Ronson and for pure fantasy madness, imagine Young Americans !!!
    God Bless him .

    • tin man says:

      I think Earl Slick’s a huge guitar player & soloist too!

      • Stolen Guitar says:

        Agree. His solo on the ‘David Live’ version of ‘Panic In Detroit’ is terrific; and he was so young then, too. Bowie’s not done badly where guitarists are concerned eg Slick, Hayden, Belew and Alomar but Ronson was the greatest in respect of what he added to the list of ingredients that made up 1970s Bowie.

        That’s the stuff of dreams and nigh on impossible to replicate, which is why Bowie never again attained those cultural heights. Ziggy was a one off but so much of that came from Ronson-the sound of that guitar, the arrangements for piano and strings, even the very act of being an onstage foil to Bowie’s theatrics as Ziggy was uniquely perfect.

        Of course, Bowie made several great records after Ronson’s departure but very few of them can consistently match the work he did with Ronson. He was an unacknowledged musical great and it is, very sadly, to Bowie’s eternal discredit that he has never really acknowledged Ronson’s unique and invaluable contribution to the Bowie legend. It’s a great shame and he should have rectified it.

        Compare his relationship with Eno; all fulsome praise, to the extent that he doesn’t even really disabuse people of the notion that Eno was a co-producer and not, in reality, merely a co-writer on the Berlin records. Visconti has commented on this, too, and it does seem a little odd that Bowie allows Eno to be over-credited and Ronson, without whom it’s debatable whether there’d have been any notable Bowie career, to be neglected and and under-credited. Perhaps Mick’s more prosaic background has something to do with it? As opposed to Eno’s more culturally salubrious position? Who knows? Certainly not me, but it’s not right and I wish he would do something about it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    A very good point well made Stolen Guitar. Perfectly illustrated on the 30th Anniversary issue of Aladdin Sane, which has the first airing of Drive in Saturday. Pre Ronson, it sounds like something from the Space Oddity album

    • Roman says:

      It’s a large leap to presume that Ronson changed Drive in Saturday from a folk song to what we have on the album. Bowie made a point when asked about all the people who were claiming they weren’t getting enough credit on his albums – I think it was directly in reference to Reeves and Ronson. Bowie said that people should check out these so-called ‘collaborators’ solo albums and see if anything on them comes even remotely close to what they’re claiming credit for in Bowie’s cannon.

  11. Rufus Oculus says:

    The best arrangements I have ever heard is on Ronson’s Transformer for Lou Reed. And it is a Ronson production. The co producer credit for Bowie was at the insistence of Tony De Vries I believe.

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