So now you are saying…“so how do you go from all these blues masters as influences to glam hero Mick Ronson?”
As much as the Beatles were the Big Bang laying waste to all that came before, so did the arrival (at least to my musical evolution) of David Bowie, in the personage of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
By mid-1972, I was well into my fifth year as a Grateful Dead hippie. However, as much as I really loved the Dead during that time, I never thought Jerry Garcia was particularly interesting. First off, he had some of the worst guitar tone. I really loved overdrive and Garcia played way too clean for me. As far as his noodling style – well. I had a good friend who played guitar just like Jerry. He had Jerry’s tone and style down. We used to jam and I watched what he was doing. After a while I got it: Jerry played scales, over and over. To be fair, all players fall back on certain well-worn clichés and scales. We all do. Even Jimi repeated himself. It all comes down to whether you don’t mind hearing them over and over. With Jerry, I just got tired of it. His tone, to my ears, had no balls. It seemed mealy-mouthed. I much preferred Beck, Clapton, Green, Trower, Taylor, Alvin Lee, Page, Jimi, Henry Vestine (Canned Heat), Don Preston (Mad Dogs and Englishmen), Duane, or Dickey.
Speaking of Duane and Dickey, during the summer of 1972 I joined an Allman Brothers cover band and lived in a hippie commune in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The other guitar player was a slide playing monster! This is when I also really started to appreciate Duane and Dickey who, even though the Allman Brothers were a quintessential American band, played Les Paul guitars through British Marshall amps (they knew great guitar tone!)
That band played exactly one weekend (Labor Day) and broke up and that really was, as it turned out, the end of my “hippie days.”
I went back home to Manhattan and, by chance, subscribed to a new music magazine called Fusion. My subscription came with three albums:
Bowie’s Hunky Dory
Lou Reed’s Transformer
Mott The Hoople’s All The Young Dudes
The music! The image!
This wasn’t hippie-dippy sh*t.
This was dangerous and sexually disorientating.
Gay, straight, dark, foreboding…
I was transfixed and blown away just like I was in 1964 when I heard the Beatles for the first time.
I got a copy of Fusion magazine with Bowie on the cover. This time it was promoting Bowie and his latest release, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. I couldn’t believe what the band looked like, especially the guitar player, Mick Ronson.
Now, that is what a rock star guitar player should look like.
While Bowie had his stamp on all three albums that arrived, either producing, writing, singing or performing, so, in fact, did Mick Ronson. Ronson was kind of like Keith is to Mick, except he was so much more. Ronson was a skilled musician, singer and arranger who Bowie came to really depend on.
Ronson’s guitar playing, while blues-based to start with, ventured out into different territories and his guitar tone was rich, searing, thick, and both heavy and delicate.
He played a black Les Paul Custom with the finish removed on the front so that it exposed the wood finish beneath. No one else had ever done that.
His amp was yet another British clone of a Marshall, a Simms-Watts. I never saw another guitar player before or after using one.
I was so completely blown away by the Ziggy Stardust album and Ronson’s image and guitar sound that I cut my hair into a shag and dyed it blonde, got a black Les Paul Custom, and posed into a mirror for hours imitating his performance style.
This was just one month after I was in the Allman Brothers cover band!
And the guitar playing on Ziggy? Listen to Mick rip on “Moonage Daydream”. To this day, one of the greatest guitar performances on vinyl!
I read that Bowie was playing at Carnegie Hall in late September so I got a ticket and went to see the show. This was six months before the legendary Radio City concert in February 1973.
The show at Carnegie Hall was incredible but Bowie at this point had no stage set except for a backdrop. Most of the Ziggy songs were played but when the band came out for an encore, they played Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around.” A pretty strange choice considering their crossdressing image, but one that I thought was done purposely and strategically to prove that they could rock.
Ten years ago, while Twisted Sister was sharing a bill with Uriah Heep at a Spanish rock festival, I ran into Bowie’s bass player, Trevor Bolder (now deceased) in an elevator (Bolder was the bass player with Uriah Heep at the time).
I told Trevor that I was at the Carnegie Hall show that ended with the Chuck Berry song and was curious as to why they played it. He said simply, “We ran out of songs so we had to play something, and we all knew it.”
So much for deliberate brilliant calculations….
I also was going to the Mercer Arts Center every Sunday in September 1972 to see the New York Dolls (a truly great-looking but awful live rock band) who had a residency there. As you can surmise, it was this confluence of Bowie, Reed, the Dolls, glam, etc. that led me to an audition that led to my joining a band that would become Twisted Sister.
I had left the blues behind (for a couple of years at least) in search of another experience.
One that would change my life forever.
I will always thank Mick Ronson for shaking it all up as far as my image and guitar style is concerned
I was no longer a hippie but a glam god!
Listen and watch Bowie live with the Spiders From Mars and Mick Ronson tearing it up on “The Width Of a Circle.”
Header image: Mick Ronson, Play Don't Worry, album cover.
This article first appeared in Issue 61.