Mick Ronson played beside David Bowie, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and many others, and he finally receives his due in a new documentary.
The Los Angeles Times referred to him as a “humble gardener from Hull,” as well as the “sonic muscle behind [David] Bowie’s theatrics.” A new film, Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, directed by rock documentary veteran Jon Brewer, argues that there would be no Ziggy Stardust without The Spiders From Mars.
The documentary, which opened nationwide on September 1, provides insight into the life and career-long associations of Mick Ronson, who most famously played with David Bowie (guitarist on The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, and Aladdin Sane), as well as other greats including Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Ian Hunter and Lou Reed, among a wealth of others.
In the film, we learn that Bowie treated Ronson like a regular gigging musician – but many interviewed for the film, including Bowie’s ex-wife Angie, claim that Ronson was as much responsible for Bowie’s early greatness as Bowie himself. Besides his guitar work, he was also instrumental in shaping the arrangements and production of Bowie’s major albums.
Bowie himself provided exclusive voiceovers for the film. He is warm and gracious in regard to Ronson. In a 2013 article in Uncut, Morrissey states, “He was very loyal to Bowie, but sad that Bowie had dispensed with him…. No matter how you juggle the words, Mick was not replaced in David’s life. None of David’s $20,000-a-day US guitarists had a single grain of Mick’s natural style.” Ronson’s later financial struggles are pinned on Tony Defries, a former manager of Bowie.
In 1975, Bob Dylan asked Ronson to join a traveling caravan of musicians that included Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth, T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn and others. The group joined Dylan on The Rolling Thunder Review, a two-part tour of the United States and Canada. The tour was documented by playwright Sam Shepard, who traveled with the band. It was also filmed, as part of Renaldo and Clara, a film produced by Dylan and released in 1977.
Ronson also played guitar on Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer, as well as John Mellencamp’s (then known as John Cougar) American Fool, which featured the hit “Jack & Diane.” In an interview published in Classic Rock magazine in 2008, Mellencamp said of Ronson:
“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.”
The film also covers Ronson’s early life in Hull, England and the job he held in the city council, until he met David Bowie and his career took off. You can watch the trailer below: