Maggi Ronson was in awe of her big brother, Michael “Mick” Ronson. Long before he became world famous as Bowie’s sidekick guitarist, Mick Ronson was in the Rats, a band from their hometown of Hull that would later morph into the Spiders From Mars. Amy Haben talked with Maggi Ronson about growing up in her brother’s shadow, friendships with Angie and David Bowie, Iggy, and many others. Mostly, though, Maggi speaks about Mick’s passion for his music and decency to his friends and family and how badly he is missed.
I met the lovely Maggi Ronson while at a Glen Matlock gig in Camden this summer. As we sat drinking in an old horse stable with David Bowie’s former guitarist Earl Slick, she mentioned to me that her brother was the legendary Mick Ronson, guitarist on Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Hands down, Ziggy Stardust is my favorite album of all time. With its otherworldly glam magic, Mick Ronson made teenage hearts throb and platform boots dance with the sexy guitar licks of “Moonage Daydream.” You may remember Mick’s image taken by Mick Rock in 1972 onstage at the Oxford Town Hall when Bowie got down on his knees and bit Ronson’s guitar strings during a rendition of “Starman.” It was a delightfully sexual pose which was still very scandalous during that time.
Ronson also created guitar sounds on Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold The World, Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, among two other live Bowie albums and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. He also co-produced Lou Reed’s Transformer album with David Bowie as well as playing lead guitar, piano, and recorder on it. He contributed guitar work to six Ian Hunter solo albums as well as two Mott The Hoople songs. In his illustrious career, he also worked with Bob Dylan, Elton John, Pure Prairie League, and Morrissey as well as releasing three solo albums.
Sadly, Mick passed away in April 1993 from liver cancer. His hometown of Hull now holds a guitar sculpture dedicated to him as well as a stage in his name. In 2017, a show named Turn and Face The Strange was created to tell his story and sold out every night. In 2017, a feature length documentary was released called Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story. I sat down with Maggi and chatted about coming of age by the side of her talented and darling older brother Mick.
PKM: When did you and your brother Mick Ronson started playing music together?
Maggi Ronson: It was a family of three of us and we were raised in Kingston upon Hull. Michael was many years older than me. He was my big brother/ hero. He would listen to Cliff Richard and the Shadows, so that became my music as well. We also listened to Elvis and the Everly Brothers. He played the accordion and the violin, so that’s where the classical music aspect came into it. Michael didn’t play the guitar until later.
PKM: What age did Michael start playing with David Bowie and when did he bring you over to join the fun in London?
Maggi Ronson: Michael played with a few other bands before David. He started playing guitar at about age 17 or 18. In the early 1960s, he played with The Mariners and The Crestas. They supported Keith Herd and the Rolling Stones. I remember that being a huge thing for me. Then, in 1966, he played with a band called the Rats; they were brilliant.
PKM: Were the Rats garage rock?
Maggi Ronson: They played the Beatles, “Paperback Writer,” and blues numbers. Jeff Beck’s, “Boogie,” and they also played Jimi Hendrix numbers. In those days, you just practiced at home, in your bedroom really. He then went to London to make his fortune as a guitarist and came back sort of starving. It just didn’t work out, so that was a complete shock to him and he went back to playing in the Rats. The drummer from the Rats was in a band called the Hype (before it was the Hype, it was called Junior’s Eyes) and they backed Bowie in the early days on the album. They were looking for a guitarist, so they thought they would use Michael. They thought, “Whatever, you know, he’s just a mate,” but then Michael went to London and met with David. He started strumming along and David invited him to play a radio show with him. That was David Bowie Live On the BBC, which is now an iconic piece of history. I remember sitting in the kitchen listening to him on his Les Paul Gibson. It was always us hanging out. He worked literally around the corner from where I went to school. We would ride bikes together. Even though there was an age gap, he always treated me really special.
David basically became the lead singer of the Rats so that was the marriage of the two sounds. Of course, Bowie had fantastic songs, so the marriage of the two was perfect.
PKM: Where you too young to witness the Swinging Sixties vibe that was happening and the Mod scene?
Maggi Ronson: Yes and no. He used to take me to places with him. Consequently, I grew up around these people. Like Woody Woodmansy for example. I used to wear these psychedelic capes and bell bottoms. We went to coffee bars together. There were free concerts in the park in East Hull which I was allowed to go to because it was during the day. I wasn’t around to go to the clubs because I was too young, but there were these day-time concerts I would go to.
PKM: What was the first David Bowie studio album that Mick played on?
Maggi Ronson: The Man That Sold The World. Which is what his band the Rats very much sounded like. It was quite a departure from what David had done before. So it was David Bowie the folk singer combined with the Rats, which eventually became the Spiders, but they were a band from Hull really. So Woody, Trevor, and Michael were in the Rats. Obviously, Trevor and Woody joined later and Michael had been in the group a long time. The lead singer of the Rats was Benny Marshal, which was fantastic and then David basically became the lead singer of the Rats so that was the marriage of the two sounds. Of course, Bowie had fantastic songs, so the marriage of the two was perfect. They needed each other to make that magic, have that chemistry. You hear a million guitar players, but they don’t sound like Michael.
PKM: I’m sure you were very excited during that time.
Maggi Ronson: The Man Who Sold The World didn’t become a big album. Then Hunky Dory came out and there was that Clockwork Orange look. The boots and the outfits from the movie. It’s an amazing album, but it was still the beginning of everything. Then Ziggy Stardust cracked it all open.
PKM: What albums did you sing backup vocals on?
Maggi Ronson: Not for Bowie, just on my brother’s albums, The Slaughter On 10th Avenue and Play Don’t Worry. I was young and not living in London for the Bowie ones.
PKM: Do you remember the first time you saw your brother on TV?
Maggi Ronson: Yeah, I can. It’s different for other people because I’d been watching it evolve from Man Who Sold The World, so it wasn’t a complete and utter surprise. I think sitting in the back kitchen and listening to Michael on the radio was my first like, “Oh, my god!” He had done other albums with Michael Chapman and others before.
PKM: Was your mother worried about the way he was dressing or what he was doing?
Maggi Ronson: No, not really. She was used to him borrowing his blouses. She was used to him fiddling about and sewing his denims and trousers to make them even wider. My dad was a quiet man, so he didn’t really say too much. I remember one funny thing that happened was a boy came to the house looking for Michael, but Michael was at work, so we invited him in for a cup of tea and he said he was going to go freshen up and he came back down from upstairs looking like a full hippy.
My mum was like, “Your dad will be here in a minute! Your dad will be here in a minute!” She was in the kitchen freaking out! Hahaha! It was hysterical. Of course, Michael came home and everything was fine. I remember Michael taking me to Michael Chapman’s home and everyone was sitting crosslegged on the floor while they sang. My brother must’ve taken me straight from school.
PKM: Were they all smoking pot?
Maggi Ronson: No, Michael was quite straight. He only started drinking later in life. He tells this story of playing with Hype and David Bowie at the Roundhouse. He had never smoked a joint before. He was a quite nervous guy, so he was always smoking roll ups. He smoked it and felt completely and utterly off his face. He didn’t remember what he was playing or wearing. It was really funny. There is a show going on in London called Turn and Face The Strange, and Johnny Cambridge who introduced Michael to David, tells these stories because he was the drummer at the particular Roundhouse gig. There is an interview with Michael where they ask him, “Do you remember what the show was like?” And he said, “No, I don’t remember anything.” He was just that stoned.
PKM: Did he start dating wild-looking girls during that time that you were apprehensive about?
Maggi Ronson: No. He was just SO into his music. He had a girlfriend at the time named Denise and then one named Sandra. She’s still friends with us today, actually. She’s a bit like you really. Dark hair. I have some iconic photos of them together from the 1960s. So that seemed to be the big love of his life. He dated a girl named Susie, who was a hairdresser, but he really wouldn’t rock out with loads and loads of women. He would rock out with the band.
PKM: I get that. People assume that all musicians with clout are over-sexed. There is that stereotype. From my experience, many of the successful ones are actually more in love with the music than chasing tail.
Maggi Ronson: Obviously, in the Bowie days there were lots of groupies around, but he was such a friendly person too. It never felt seedy.
PKM: How was Bowie to you?
Maggi Ronson: He was very kind. Angie was amazing. I love Angie. I remember driving up to Birmingham in his Jag. I felt like they treated me like their little sister as well.
PKM: You were part of the extended family. How old were you when you came to London finally?
Maggi Ronson: Sixteen, but I had been coming down with Michael since I was 14. When you’re young, time takes longer to pass, so those two years took much longer. A lot of things happened in those two years. Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust came out.
They needed each other to make that magic, have that chemistry. You hear a million guitar players, but they don’t sound like Michael.
PKM: What are your favorite songs?
Maggi Ronson: They were all fantastic albums, so it’s hard to say one in particular. I loved all of Hunky Dory. The song “Lady Stardust,” was very important to me because I watched him write it on the piano. “Moonage Daydream,” I watched him complete the strings to that.
PKM: Ziggy Stardust has been a dear album for me since age 13. All of the songs relate to each other and you can listen to it from beginning to end. It’s a magical piece of work.
Maggi Ronson: Actually, I’d say the Ziggy Stardust album is my favorite too. Aladdin Sane is great as well with those guitars.
PKM: How about that iconic image that Mick Rock took with Bowie biting Mick’s strings. Did your parents get angry about that?
Maggi Ronson: They saw it and it didn’t bother them. When you know someone well, you trust their motives. They were very excited for him at that time.
PKM: Did Michael try and help your family financially after he made a little money playing with Bowie?
Maggi Ronson: He tried. My dad was very much a labor person. They lived in a council house. He struggled with even purchasing a house, funny enough. He never purchased a house. Michael bought them a car and a telephone.
PKM: Wow! You didn’t have a telephone?! So you would go to a neighbor’s house to use the telephone?
Maggi Ronson: Yes. We went on holiday. Michael got us a limo out on holiday once. My dad wasn’t having it. He said, “I could’ve gotten a bloody push bike.”
PKM: Hahaha! As a parent that’s what I would’ve said too. Don’t waste your money on that. When you first came to London, did Michael take care of you? Or did you get a job?
Maggi Ronson: He took care of me at first while I went to finishing school. Then I got some small jobs, but then I decided I rather go on tour with them.
PKM: Did you work for them on tour?
Maggi Ronson: Yes. I gave out the programs. I don’t remember if I helped with the merch. Then I joined a Northern soul band when I was 17 doing back-up vocals. It was an American band called Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon. They had three hits in England, so they were quite popular in the Northern soul scene. We used to do a lot of cabaret clubs, airfare bases… those gigs. The circuits really.
PKM: Did you find it gross to be in the same van as the stinky boys during that time?
Maggi Ronson: No, but the funny thing about it was that when I showed up, all the boys in the band were from Hull. They were from where I’m from. It was just like having more big brothers. They were older than me, but not like, mega older. So it was great fun. There was actually a woman I used to sing with in that band that was from California. Her name was Della Williams back then. We remained very good friends all these years. I was singing with them and my brother went to America. He was back and forth because he was doing the Rich Kids with Glen Matlock. Michael produced Transformer as well as played the piano and guitars on it and arranged everything. So I saw him a lot, because he was doing a lot of producing. Then I started singing with a guy called Phillip Ramba. He would play with us for about a half a dozen gigs. Then Phillip used to sing songs for Ellen Foley. Ellen played with Meatloaf and then, Mick Jones, so there were all sorts of connections. I met Iggy when I was 14. I was really young.
PKM: When he was in the Stooges?
Maggi Ronson: Yeah. I love the Stooges.
PKM: Was Iggy nice to you?
Maggi Ronson: Oh yeah. He was fantastic. He always called me ‘little sis.’ One of the Stooges wore ribbons in his shoes…maybe James Williamson? I was really impressed. So I started to wear them in mine. It’s funny. All the things that start to influence you.
PKM: Ribbons in sneakers?
Maggi Ronson: No. Nice shoes. The fashion was so great back then. I remember going over to eat dinner at Iggy’s house in St. John’s Wood.
PKM: Did Iggy have a girlfriend?
Maggi Ronson: There was a Swedish girl around but I can’t remember if it was his girlfriend or his chef.
PKM: Did he wear a shirt to dinner? Haha.
Maggi Ronson: I think so. He was a lot younger then and just drop dead gorgeous. I met him much later on in New York with Michael and Glen Matlock. I remember going to the Ritz club in New York. Steven Tyler, Fats Domino was playing, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Liza Minelli was there… I remember Liza asking me if I want to work for her. I remember considering it.
PKM: What did you think about New York back then?
Maggi Ronson: I loved it. That reminds me of a funny story. Michael lived in Woodstock. There was a community pool there and I met this girl called Lori. She is still a good friend. She asked me to come stay with her in New York. I remember she said, “It’s a little bit seedy around here.” I had never been, so I was a little excited and scared. She had a one-bedroom apartment with a fire escape and there was a window that wouldn’t quite shut. Lori was away and there was a knock at the door. I said, “Who is it?” A voice said (gruffly), “Howdy.” Another knock came, and I asked, “What do you want?” And the voice said, “I’ve come to change the linen on your bed.”
Maggi Ronson: I said, “You’ll have to come back.” There was an ironing board and a tin of starch and I thought…
PKM: Starch his eyes! Haha! That’s pretty resourceful of you.
Maggi Ronson: So I was thinking when the police finally come and ask what he looks like, I’ll have to tell them, “I don’t know but he can’t open his eyes.” I thought if he comes to through the window, I’ll just iron him to death. So I called Michael and he just went to bed. He said, “Are you alright?” I said, “No! There is a stranger outside that wants to kill me. Can you come over?” He was like, “Yeah…alright.” He sounded really weary because he just woke up. I remember hearing someone pacing up and down outside. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “They kill you in New York. Where’s the Bible, I’m coming. I’ll see you in a bit. I’m coming up there.”
PKM: What year was this?
Maggi Ronson: 1974, ‘75. There was a knock at the door and I asked who it was. The response was, “It’s the bloody boogieman. Who do you think it is?” So poor Michael I dragged him out from wherever he was. He was exhausted. So we went for a curry. Michael liked his curry. Then I eventually tell Lori that I was almost raped and killed and she says, “That was just the man that comes to change the sheets. The laundryman.” I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me!” Plus, he tried to open the door but there was a chain on it so he couldn’t completely get in.
PKM: That makes the story way more horrific.
Maggi Ronson: Lori said he shouldn’t have tried to break in. So that was my New York experience. Fucking freaked me out it did.
PKM: I would be scared if that happened to me today and New York is very safe now.
Maggi Ronson: Tom Mandell, the keyboardist for Bryan Ferry, took me up to Harlem. We went to a museum that was very far in. I remember the subway got blacker and blacker with people as we got closer. The museum had little shrunken heads. We had to get a bus back. I love The Lady Sings The Blues, the Billie Holiday film and soundtrack. We were the only whites and I was extremely white with really blonde hair and a funky, plastic coat. He was Jewish. I remember thinking, “Now I know what Billie Holiday felt like.” There is a scene in that movie where Billie gets harassed on the bus by white people.
I was a minority for the first time. I wanted to go to a jazz club and hang out but from my own insecurities I didn’t think I would be accepted.
PKM: You probably would have been, but you felt like you wouldn’t be accepted.
Maggi Ronson: Yes. These were my own insecurities. People would say, “Don’t go to Harlem. You’ll get robbed.” Of course, that wasn’t true. I’ve been to the south of America where it was incredibly racist. I hated it and found it incredibly offensive.
PKM: You loved New York though.
Maggi Ronson: Oh yes. I absolutely loved it. I went to the Pyramid Club, The Mudd Club, Studio 54… I loved the Pyramid Club a lot. It was a lot of trannies. What I loved about the drag was that it wasn’t the Ru-Paul type of perfection. It was someone wearing a swimsuit with a handbag. A Margaret Thatcher lookalike.
PKM: Haha! Like someone who got their grandma’s wig catalog and bought a short, curly blond wig while wearing granny’s old suit.
Maggi Ronson: Yes. Exactly. The music was so great too. The gay clubs always had the best music. Dance music that you would never hear in any other clubs. My friend Gayle worked for CBS, and I would come with her to all the clubs where she needed to promote records.
PKM: These drag queens in the ‘70s were tougher than the guy in the alley with the switchblade because they were getting jumped and harassed by other men and cops wherever they went.
Maggi Ronson: For sure. My friend Ian, who is built, still gets hassled for the way he looks today. Luckily, he’s getting very successful right now so he won’t have to deal with that as much.
When Michael died, there was a big gap in my life. I held a big concert exactly one year after Michael’s death called the Mick Ronson Memorial Concert. I had Toni Visconti, Johnny Cambridge, Donna Gillespie, Mick Jones, Glen Matlock, Roger Daltrey, Woody Woodmansey,
Ian Hunter, Joe Elliot, Phil Collins, Bill Wyman. It made me realize how powerful love is. I couldn’t figure out how I put this show together, but it was my love for him. When you’re driven by love, anything is possible. Whether it’s the love of a person or a song. All of these musicians came on board because they loved Michael. Michael was a spiritual person and my mother was a spiritual person. Michael was such a giving person all of his life. This was an opportunity for these people to give him… (tears up)
Maggi Ronson: ..that love. It worked and if you believe in life after death, then he got a massive boost. All those bricks of love that were being thrown at him that day. I can’t imagine something that powerful happening again. I kept him involved in everything. So it was kept very close.
PKM: Did you keep his clothing?
Maggi Ronson: Yeah, I gave some things away, but we were so close. He was living with me in London at the time he passed away. I was there when he was diagnosed and I was there for his treatments. I was with him the moment he passed away. We were very, very close.
PKM: Oh you were.
Maggi Ronson: Yes. There is a guy named Colin Lloyd Tucker and I sung with him in my 20’s. We still do a lot of recordings together. He produced and helped me with an album I did in memory of Michael’s twentieth anniversary. My daughter did the cello arrangement for “Perfect Day,” Michael’s daughter’s is on it, Woody is on it. There are a lot of different people on it. It was much easier than putting on a massive concert.
PKM: I didn’t know Michael had children.
Maggi Ronson: He has a daughter called Lisa, but she grew up in the States. He had a son called Nicholas prior to Lisa. He married Lisa’s mother Susie and when that relationship ended, he had a son with a woman in Sweden named Perla and had a son called Joakim. My niece came to live with me in London for three months. She’s my little kindred spirit. I saw Joakim, he came to Hull to see a show about his dad called, Turn and Face The Strange. It was incredible. Two guys from The Rats that introduced Michael to David were in it. It was great because it talks about his early life and not only what an amazing musician he was, but what a fantastic human being he was as well. So that’s been lovely.
PKM: Do Michael’s children play music?
Maggi Ronson: Lisa sings. Joakim plays different instruments and Nick plays the guitar.
PKM: Did your parents play music as well?
Maggi Ronson: No, but what’s strange about that is that my mum had an aunt who had a female accordion group. I don’t know if Michael was aware of that, but he could play the accordion as well. People couldn’t afford pianos back in the day, so there were many accordion players because they were cheaper and easier to transport. Gypsies in Romania played them a lot. My mother’s cousin was an incredible pianist who was self-taught and he was known in Hull. When people would ask her where Michael got it, she would say, “It’s from our Stan.” Stan’s grandson, Liam, is a successful ballet dancer. He did the Met Ball growing up and has been in Elton John’s musical. My dad has an Irish background and Ireland is a very musical place, as you know.