‘Me and Mr. Jones’ Is a First-Hand View of David Bowie’s Rise to Superstardom, in All Its Glory and Cruelty: Book Review

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Considering the vast number of books published every year about David Bowie — or, for that matter, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Prince — a new one had better have either fresh info or fresh insights. Thankfully, Suzi Ronson’s “Me and Mr. Jones: My Life with David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars” delivers on both counts.

Ronson, of course, is the wife of the late Mick Ronson, Bowie’s lead guitarist and primarily musical collaborator from the “Ziggy Stardust” years, a gifted and trained musician whose work is prominent on the singer’s albums from the era, as well as ones by Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Dana Gillespie and others. She spent just a year in Bowie’s orbit, but it was close and intense: She first met Bowie’s wife at the time, Angie, while working in a hairdresser’s shop near the couple’s London-area home, gradually became friends and eventually, after months of vague promises, was asked by Bowie’s Svengali-esque manager, Tony Defries, to accompany the fast-rising star on tour as his wardrobe and hair specialist.

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She was swept up into that whirlwind quickly, initially joining for British dates, then a long American tour and then, over just the first half of 1973, another American tour, two weeks in Japan, and two more British tours. During this time Bowie soared to superstardom and became the most successful artist in Britain since the Beatles — and then abruptly “retired,” although all he was retiring was the Ziggy character.

Through it all, Suzi Ronson not only spent many hours with Bowie – she handled his and the band’s wardrobes and was waiting with a cigarette and glass of wine when he came offstage every night – she had a front-row seat to the drama of his rise and its impact on him and everyone around him. Most fascinatingly, she experienced the fluctuations in his behavior, common to so many superstars: the way he could shift from cold and distant to intensely attentive from one day to the next — and how, on one night, a haircut appointment turned into an intimate dinner and the one time she slept with him (he and Angie famously had an open marriage).

“Tonight I meet a different David, charming and sweet, and before I know it his arm is around my waist and we’re out the door, in his car and on our way to London,” she writes. ”It’s easier going than I think; David seems interested in what I have to say and he puts me at ease.” They drive back to his house and, “He turns to me as the engine goes silent, and we sit in the dark until he says: ‘Well, Suzi, are you coming in?’ I know, I could get in my car and go home, but part of me is curious. I’m not that attracted to him, but as he holds my eyes the distance between us closes and suddenly he’s kissing me. It’s a rush, the passion rises, and before I know what I’m doing I’m in the house and in his bedroom.” She also saw him move quite aggressively on young women he would pick out of his concert’s audiences, and at least once, a naïve and apparently unsuspecting young man.

Yet she also saw the brutal callousness he could display when it came to business (the musicians in the Spiders From Mars were notoriously underpaid) and when he sensed betrayal. When the group rebelled during the first American tour, after learning that guest pianist Mike Garson’s salary was literally ten times more than theirs, he launched a campaign that found him parting ways with all of the Spiders within a year. Drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, who had spoken disparagingly to and about Bowie during the tour, and bassist Trevor Bolder were seemingly singled out for exceptionally cruel treatment: Bowie not only didn’t tell them he was breaking up the band — they didn’t find out until he announced onstage at the end of the tour’s last concert — Woodmansey was told on his wedding day that he was fired.

Suzi did not begin a romantic relationship with Mick Ronson until the very end of his time with Bowie, but they would remain together from that point until his death from liver cancer in 1993 (the same disease that would take Bowie nearly 25 years later). Mick had a more agreeable parting with Bowie and Defries, the latter of whom was positioning him for solo superstardom. But despite the over-the-top tactics that had worked so well for Bowie – a billboard on Sunset Strip, limos, expensive hotels – Ronson, although an enormously talented and charismatic musician, was not a superstar frontman. The book also covers that era, and whether intentionally or not, the sense of entitlement Mick and Suzi felt during that time comes through.

As has happened countless times, the lofty treatment and talk of superstardom went to their heads, although it wouldn’t be long before they came crashing back down to earth (and realized that those limos and hotel rooms were recoupable from Ronson’s earnings). Ronson was back in his more-comfortable role as guitarist and collaborator before 1974 ended, and the book covers his subsequent work with Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter and Bob Dylan – although it drops off, rather curiously and abruptly, in the late ‘70s.

Suzi, who would not see Bowie or Angie again after they parted ways late in 1973, is unvarnished and unforgiving in her opinions about the star’s cruelty. “He blamed [disloyalty and] cocaine for his bad behavior. I laugh when I read this and don’t believe it for a second,” she writes. “It was raw, naked ambition, and a bloody-mindedness that is particular to a few people… It was revenge and control.

“Mick was the one who … led the band, wrote arrangements, played multiple instruments onstage and in the studio. He was a powerhouse performer. He produced Lou Reed’s [‘Transformer’] album with David, another example of his genius; the piano he plays on ‘Perfect Day’ is sublime. He got a credit for that album but no royalty, no money. All of that for fifty quid a week… David and Defries were both equally guilty in this exploitation. You might ask why Mick put up with it, and I can only say it was ignorance. … He had no idea of his own worth, no idea how talented he was. He was just grateful not to be a school gardener any more. Heartbreakingly, he thought David and Defries were his friends, people who would look out for him, and they milked this naivety for all it was worth.”

The talent, charisma, ego and survival skills it takes to become a superstar also tend to make people manipulative at best and cruel at worst, and this book displays all of the above in Bowie and more. “Me and Mr. Jones” is a first-hand view of the glory and brutality that comes with a rapid rise to stardom.

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