David Bowie's collaborator Mick Ronson remembered: "They were brothers and they were partners"

The soundtrack is out now for the documentary on Mick Ronson, the guitar legend who helped make Bowie's '70s sound

Published June 9, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

David Bowie, Mick Ronson (Getty Images)
David Bowie, Mick Ronson (Getty Images)

There are dozens and dozens of books and movies about David Bowie. However, there are far fewer films about the collaborators who helped the Brixton lad born David Jones evolve into a zeitgeist-grasping global icon.

Thankfully, this oversight has been remedied with "Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story." The absorbing, poignant documentary traces the life story and impact of guitarist Mick Ronson, who was an integral part of Bowie's creative evolution starting with 1970's "The Man Who Sold the World" LP.

"I wanted to really make a film that basically honored David as well as Mick Ronson, and Mick Ronson as well as David, to show that they were partners," says director Jon Brewer. "And they were. And that they made some great music together. Mick Ronson was such a great arranger, and a great man, [and] a good musician."

Although the documentary certainly contains plenty of Bowie — in fact, Brewer views Ronson as the musician who "took [Bowie] into rock and roll" and out of his folk-leaning era — it's a perfect complement to other films out there. In fact, "Beside Bowie" is a heartfelt and thorough portrait that gives even attention to all facets of Ronson's talents. He co-produced Lou Reed's "Transformer" with Bowie; was a go-to sideman and foil for Mott the Hoople vocalist Ian Hunter during the latter's late '70s imperial period; and, for years, was a highly gifted arranger. (In fact, John Cougar's "Jack & Diane" wouldn't have been the hit it became without Ronson's magic touch.)

Of course, the Kingston upon Hull native also had a magnetic guitar style — a triumph of melody, tone and restraint that resonated with an entire generation of musicians, including Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott.

In a separate interview with Salon, Elliott, who adds insightful commentary in "Beside Bowie" as a talking head, recalls listening to 1972's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" and having his worldview shifted.

"There was something about Mick Ronson's guitar playing that…I felt I understood even though I couldn't, at the time, play anything more than three chords myself. I could listen to his lead playing, and he actually spoke to me — whereas other players, like Robin Trower, all these Hendrix-like players, I didn't really get it.

"The solo on 'Moonage Daydream,' or the solo in 'Soul Love,' or the solo in 'Starman' at the end — it was the melody of it," he adds. "And it didn't sound cheesy; it sounded like a proper guitar player, but not showing it off. He was playing for the song, not for his ego. That's how I connected with him."

"Beside Bowie" is also anchored by an archival interview of Ronson filmed about a year before he died, which helps give the movie his voice and insights, and eye-popping vintage performance footage, including the famous "Top of the Pops" performance of "Starman" where Bowie slung his arm around Ronson's shoulder.

The gesture was seismic, and became one of the most striking moments in Bowie's career. "The fact is, there's no other pictures with David Bowie putting his arm around anybody else onstage," Brewer notes. "He never did, and he always considered that Mick Ronson and David Bowie were united at the hip on that early stuff. That was a tremendous moment."

Brewer was drawn into the Bowie and Ronson orbit in the early '70s thanks to his working relationship with Laurence Myers at Gem Productions, a production company that licensed albums by several acts (including Bowie) to major labels. "At one time [Gem] got me involved because I knew all about booking gigs and going on the road and dealing with the side of rock 'n' roll that none of those guys understood," Brewer recalls. "I basically became the man that talked to the artists.

"And I met David Bowie, and David Bowie said, 'Meet Mick Ronson,' and that's how we started our relationship. I worked with him very closely on 'Hunky Dory' and building the base that we were going to launch Ziggy [Stardust], really."

Because he knew Ronson so well, Brewer says he didn't discover any unexpected insights about his old friend upon putting together the documentary. "I knew Mick quite well. Mick was the most gentle person, most humble person. He was brought up in the Mormon religion, [and] the Mormon religion in England is very different from the Mormon religion in America.

"He was very respectful to his family, where he came from. I don't think he ever wanted gold discs on the wall or the swimming pool. What we wanted was to be recognized for his music. And I think he was."

Brewer was surprised to learn, however, that Bowie and Ronson gravitated toward one another creatively near the end of the latter's life. "I didn't know they were going to come and do something together in the '90s. And I don't think very many people knew that Mick was in constant contact with David at that time. But I soon found out, because then tapes started appearing and archives started appearing. And I'm saying, 'Wow, somebody must have known something.'"

As "Beside Bowie" unfolds, the possibility of what collaborations might have been — and what music itself lost with Ronson's premature death — gives the documentary a poignant sheen. However, the film is also buoyant in the way it illuminates Ronson's skills and power, including his notable performances at 1992's The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness.

"David refused to play it unless Mick Ronson was with him on stage. They put that together, and he plays 'Heroes,' which he should have always played initially in the beginning anyway. He was just wonderful. I mean, the whole thing about that show was wonderful. Mick Ronson played his heart out, and that was the end of the line, really."

Ronson died about a year after the tribute concert from complications of liver cancer, which ended up scuttling hopes of a summit between him and Bowie. But Brewer believes that if the musician had lived, the old friends would've teamed up for a "fantastic album" that "everyone would have turned out and saluted," among other things. "[Ronson] would have gone on and on and on, and become probably one of the greatest arrangers of all time."

Ronson left behind quite a body of recorded work, which is also being given a well-deserved boost on the newly released "Beside Bowie" soundtrack, which is available now. Brewer collaborated with Universal Records to compile the release — and although there was obviously no shortage of material the director could've included, his approach was to curate the release "with ears and the knowledge of what I think Mick Ronson was all about," as he puts it.

"First of all, I didn't want to make it a Bowie album," Brewer says. "And I don't think they would have let me make it a Bowie album. What we decided to do is use three to four tracks that were not obvious tracks. I didn't want to put 'Jean Genie' on there, or 'Changes,' or something like that, because we've got them on every other album that is out there."

Refreshingly, the soundtrack shies away from obvious songs. Bowie is certainly well-represented: There are a few choice catalog highlights; a version of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" with him on lead vocals; and the majestic "All the Young Dudes" and "Heroes" from the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. But other songs on the album highlight Ronson's more subtle contributions — like his work on Ian Hunter's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," and a version of Elton John's "Madman Across the Water" featuring his guitar contributions.

The collection also features a to-date unreleased cover of Joe Elliott tackling Ronson's "This Is for You." The rather moving song features piano reminiscent of one-time Bowie pianist Mike Garson, which was by design: Elliott tells Salon he enlisted the late Dick Decent, with whom he played in the Bowie cover band Cybernauts, to contribute a part — and specifically requested it to sound Garson-like.

"He was the perfect hybrid between [Bowie pianists] Rick Wakeman and [Mike] Garson," Elliott recalls of Decent. And the pianist was a quick study: After making the request, Elliott had a mix in his email by the next morning, he says with a hearty laugh. "He did it overnight. He just spent two hours, like, 'OK, I can get this.'"

"It was a gift from me to Mick, really," Elliott says of covering the song. "I just wanted to give something back, because I was the kid that when I was 12 years old, staring at the inside sleeve of 'Ziggy Stardust,' four squares of Bowie and the Spiders, I would be staring at Mick as much as I was staring at Bowie — it was the Jagger-Richards thing. It was Page-Plant; it was Perry-Tyler."

When talking to both Elliott and Brewer, it's clear how much both men respect and revere Ronson, both as a musician and as a person. Director Brewer is particularly pleased that "Beside Bowie" is out there in the universe, even if it is slightly bittersweet.

"Everybody comes up to me and says, 'What a great film,' but I just think it possibly came a little late," Brewer says. "I would have loved to have had this when they were both alive. I just think it would have had more of an impact, because they were both still around.

"I feel that the film has done exactly what it should do — and that's to make a mark or a tombstone and say 'This was these two people. They were brothers and they were partners and they had success together.'"

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story David Bowie Documentary Film Mick Ronson Music