Like a Rolling Stone

November 20, 2012

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.