Just the Old Dude
The first time I'd ever heard the term "elder statesman" used by a rock 'n' roll star was by Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter, in a 1979 issue of Trouser Press. "That's me expounding like an elder statesman," he remarked somewhat self-deprecatingly, after giving his seal of approval to bands like the Clash and Generation X, the latter of which he'd just produced. Elder or not, punks like Glen Matlock, Billy Idol and Mick Jones were drawn to the straight-shooting singer because he'd already done what they aspired to do in the pages of the NME, debunk the bloated myth of the rock star as divine royalty.
In Hunter's lyrical milieu, rock stars were just ordinary blokes playing a high-stakes game, ever mindful that they were one or two hits away from being sent back to a factory job. Few rockers ever addressed their fans as honestly and directly as Hunter did on "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople," "Saturday Gigs" and "Hymn for the Dudes." In one breath, he seemed to be thanking them for keeping him from the working-class heap, and in the next, apologizing for being too human.
Hunter even published a diary of Mott's 1972 tour called Reflections of a Rock Star, capturing the dreary nature of life on the road, where even musicians can look forward to nasty treatment from stewardesses and hotel desk clerks. And where fawning groupies can be just as annoying as insurance salesmen.
Mott the Hoople's story is well-documented on record; Britain has a definitive three-CD boxed set, All the Young Dudes, and Americans can find an authoritative two-disc anthology of the group called The Ballad of Mott. Legacy. In contrast, Ian Hunter's second act, the quarter-century as a solo artist, is generally overlooked by chroniclers who often tack solo hits like "Who Do You Love" onto Mott collections like he'd never left the band.
Sony Legacy's newly issued double CD Once Bitten Twice Shy would seem to be the ideal item to address this corresponding deficiency. While the inclusion of rare and unreleased tracks is a boon to collectors, it comes at the expense of better-known Hunter material like "Just Another Night," "Central Park and West," "We've Gotta Get Out of Here," "Lounge Lizard," "Lisa Likes Rock and Roll," "Irene Wild" and the extremely hard to find "England Rocks," which later moved to Cleveland and became the theme to The Drew Carey Show. Here's a case where appeasing the casual fan would've been wholly warranted since Hunter's solo CDs continue to slip in and out of print in the States. Unless a full-scale reissue campaign is launched, much of Hunter's best bits will remain hidden in the import section of your favorite record retailer.
But that's a minor quibble since this new set's release means the reclusive Hunter is making the rounds again, doing shows, interviews, launching his own Web site and recording an album for a March 2001 release. That will mark his first new effort since 1996's The Artful Dodger, which was never released in America, his adopted home since the 1980s. Hunter had little to do with Once Bitten's song selection; he did, however, pen the track notes and mandate that the discs be separated into one category for rockers and another for ballads.
"That's 'cause a lot of people like my rockers but they don't like the slower things, and a lot of people that like the slower things don't like the rockers," he offers. "I thought if we separate them, then people won't have to keep bouncing off the sofa all the time."
Once Bitten Twice Shy was culled together by Campbell Devine, a Mott fanatic who was accorded access to Sony's vaults -- unearthing a few gems like "Colwater High," an outtake from Hunter's first solo album. Devine is something of a controversial figure in Mott circles, as the author of All the Young Dudes, the "official biography" that has been disavowed by Dale "Buffin" Griffin and Pete "Overend" Watts, particularly for its account of the band's demise. The official line has been that Hunter left because Mott's rhythm section was jealous of the attention lavished on the "new guy," Mick Ronson. However, the other side maintains Hunter was taking a break, not making a break from the group, after collapsing from physical exhaustion.
"What it was was that I'd run out. Run out of songs, run out of patience; I think Mott had run their allotted course," Hunter surmises. "It's like any divorce; you don't really want it to happen. Ronson signed up and we were in Europe and there seemed to be a great deal of friction between the rest of the band and Mick, and that just added to the fatigue of it all. And it just seemed like I wasn't in it for the right reasons anymore."
Armchair psychoanalysts only had to look at Mott's recorded output to see the gradual buildup to a breakdown. After spending several albums lusting after the fame that eluded them, Mott's full-length finale, The Hoople, recorded at the pinnacle of their success, found Hunter castigating his reflection in the makeup mirror and complaining of being trapped like a marionette, whose pleas of "get me out of this mess" go ignored while crowds cheer.
"It never hit me like a bullet, but I began to slowly realize that the very thing I always wanted wasn't what I really wanted at all," he says. "'Cause all it was was a limo, a huge stage miles away from people and a hotel. People laugh when I say it's boring. It just seemed too cocooned. But you carry on because now you're responsible for people's wages, people's wives, people's kids, the whole little empire that you've got. I was glad when it stopped. It was the right thing to do."
"But Mick [Ronson] and me are both very normal sort of people," he says, still affectionately referring to his deceased partner in the present tense.
Removed from the stress of Mott and the stigma of having to glam it up, the pair started work on Hunter's first solo album almost immediately after the split. "I left Mott, and about a week after, Mick left and we both came over here to the States. Mick said, 'In the state you're in, you should make a record,'" Hunter says, laughing. "And he was right."
Being Hunter's musical foil was a relief to Ronson as well. The former Spider, still under the reins of Bowie's manager Tony DeFries, was being reluctantly pushed into the spotlight. But Ronson never craved front-man status. When the call to join Mott came, he'd just released a second solo album titled Play, Don't Worry, which some critics suggested should've been called Play, Don't Sing, which, as it turned out, suited Ronson fine.
"He was too far from his amp; it was a pain in the ass singing," Hunter explains. "He just decided he didn't want to do it. So we formed a band. Nice lean four-piece, with none of the arguments. Everything was free and clear for a while." The pair even dealt with having two separate managers who didn't seem to agree on anything.
"Mick went after the first album because the way DeFries wanted to work it, Mick was getting more for making my album than I was. And I wouldn't go for that, so Mick wandered off (to play with Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue) and I did All-American Alien Boy without him. And that was scary 'cause I was producing myself. So I did simpler songs and I got people who knew what their own sound was, because I didn't know if I could produce it, either. And that kind of effectively ended my career in the big time. Oh, yeah. People hated it. They don't hate it now, but they did then. Which doesn't help," he chuckles.
Hunter's contention that people who loved his rockers disliked his ballads seems to have germinated with Alien Boy. Suddenly there weren't any fast numbers, and the odd up-tempo song was the title track, a "Young Americans" rewrite complete with squeaking David Sanborn sax and girlie vocals. Against that backdrop, Hunter delivered a rapid-fire "Subterranean Homesick Blues" verbiage that comes dangerously close to predicting rap-rock, albeit a watered-down version.
The album contained more than its share of great ballads, like "Irene Wild" and "God (Take 1)" and "You Nearly Did Me In" (where Hunter is bolstered vocally by Queen). But the impression people came away with was that Hunter had gone soft like every other singer-songwriter in L.A. who didn't know his way around a power chord.
"It needn't have been a surprise if the label had the sense to explain to people what they were gonna get. It was only a surprise because it wasn't marketed properly. It came out as just another album."
That marked the beginning of a long series of managerial and label switches for Hunter. "It just didn't make any sense to me after that. Up until then, there'd been a bit of creativity involved in how it was done. The only time it worked after that was You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic for Chrysalis. They did a great job over there. I don't think people realize how much management and labels are involved in the success of something. Especially nowadays, it ain't gonna get heard no matter how good it is unless you have people that know where to put it and how to do it."
Hunter acted as his own manager for the next record, Overnight Angels.
"Columbia in America wouldn't put it out because I didn't have a manager. But England didn't care if I had a manager or not." Nor did the English care much for the record, a sentiment Hunter shares. The sessions were plagued by problems from the start, culminating in a fire which erupted at the house where Hunter and the band were staying and recording the album.
"I woke up one morning and it was, 'Run for your life!'
"A lot of things happened during the course of that record. We got shot off the road. People didn't like us . . . it was a bad time, bad record. Producing it was Roy Thomas Baker, who was crazy. I don't blame Roy. He did what he did and I didn't have the sense to realize that I'm a lot warmer artist than the other ones he's produced: the Cars, Foreigner or Queen.
"Queen were one of the few bands where they could layer track upon track and it would get better. I was there at the mixing session for 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' They'd been going at it for four days in a room the size of a toilet. And it was like a cacophony coming out of these huge 300-watt speakers. My hair was moving. And Fred [Mercury] asked, 'What do you think of the second harmony at the end of the third verse?' I said, 'You're out of your mind. I don't know. I haven't been listening to this for four days.'"
In between Overnight Angels and the next album, Hunter released a U.K. single about the rising punk scene and "living in sin with a safety pin" called "England Rocks." It was rechristened "Cleveland Rocks" and placed on You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic, the album that finally broke Hunter with American audiences again.
"Schizophrenic started out in England with people like Glen Matlock, who Mick was hanging out with. And it wasn't really working," admits Hunter. "My manager in America said, 'Look, if you wanna get back here, the E Streeters will do it with you.' And it was just perfect. It was very fortuitous. Everyone was there at the right time. The press slagged the album off in England 'cause punk was in full whack there, but what they didn't realize is that I got on perfectly all right with all the punk bands, so they had to double back. It was weird. The press at the time, they coined that wonderful phrase 'new wave, old wave.' But it had fuck-all to do with the music."
For a change, the album charted in America, and while the single of "Ships" didn't, it was covered three months later by Barry Manilow, who scored a Top 10 hit with the song.
"I was on tour on a bus the first time I'd heard his version," Hunter recalls. "It seemed so strange because it modulated all the time. I didn't know that all his songs had key changes. It was the first time I'd ever heard one of his records. I didn't know what to make of it. I didn't think it was awful. It was so different."
Interestingly, the Manilow cover didn't hurt Hunter's image a bit. "I think people know once a song is out there, anybody can cover it. I'm sure I got a bit of mileage out of that one way or the other."
Hunter and Ronson simultaneously co-produced Schizophrenic and the debut from Ellen Foley, familiar to most as the woman the ever-ravenous Meat Loaf nearly devoured by the dashboard light. "Mick made some money for the first time in his life. Got himself sorted and bought a house and a car. He hadn't made much by that point. He never made any money with David."
When the subject of David Bowie's legendary penny pinching comes up, Hunter begs off talking about it. "The whole thing just sickens me."
After issuing a stopgap double-live set, Welcome to the Club, Hunter and Ronson hit a block with the next studio album. "Having been together on Schizophrenic and Ellen's first record, now we didn't know where to go. When Mick Jones of the Clash came in, it was great. Here's a guy with energy who wants to do it. We ditched a lot of things I'd originally wrote for the record and a lot of it was just written in the studio. Mick Jones did Ellen Foley's second album and he did Short Back 'n' Sides with me."
Hunter minces no words about the reaction to these dense recordings. "Both these albums were disasters according to the powers that be. Nobody liked 'em. But I thought Short Back 'n' Sides was an interesting record."
Hunter returned to Columbia for another album sans Ronson, the directionless All of the Good Ones Are Taken ("I don't remember that too kindly. I'm not too keen on that"). What followed was a long period of quiet activity writing songs for forgettable films like Teachers, Up the Creek and Fright Night.
All of this material is collected for the first time on Once Bitten, and it's far from the hack work it would seem on the surface.
Hunter and Ronson hit the road together as the Hunter-Ronson Band in 1988, recording an album called YUI Orta, inspired by a favorite Three Stooges expression. Hunter likes the album, but complains the Bernard Edwards production sounds "too professional." While touring behind the album, Ronson was first diagnosed with cancer in 1990. "The tragedy of it was now he's ill and now he gets a solo deal with Epic, now he's producing Morrissey and things are working really well for him. Then this happens. And he knew it was incurable. So we were hanging about for two years and it was a nightmare. Obviously unimaginable for him. But he was great, a lot of fun to be with all the way through."
The last time the pair appeared onstage together was at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992. Ronson died the following April. A year later, Hunter would headline the Mick Ronson Memorial Concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. Onstage, Hunter debuted "Michael Picasso," a touching hymn to his fallen friend, which has never been released in the U.S. until now.
In the four years since The Artful Dodger, Hunter has on several occasions joined his former Mott mates onstage, at conventions and at book and CD signings. Although everyone has ruled out a full-scale reunion at this late date ("What's the point of 'All the Old Dudes,'" remarked Buffin in a recent interview), one of the main stumbling blocks -- the dreaded business disagreements -- seemed to have cooled.
"We had a big problem with the business end of it, and we still have to this day. When you're sitting down with bands who've got ranches and they're opening for you and you've got nothing, there's something wrong here," he says.
"But we survived," he continues. "It isn't so much you're not getting the money, it's that someone else who had nothing to do with it is, that's the galling thing about it. In Mott, we never had a lawyer, couldn't afford one. When I joined the band, I'd never been in a Chinese restaurant, a dry cleaner, in a taxi. I don't think we were stupid people, but we'd come from the backwaters of England and really didn't know how anything worked. So we got taken for a ride. As did a lot of people."
When guys like Hunter first strapped on a guitar and played rock 'n' roll, it was mainly as a release, as opposed to a career move. "You went berserk and people used to stand there looking at you. You would be doing some weird St. Vitus Dance 'cause you got so much of a thrill out of it. It was great."
Ironically, the guy who once sang "rock 'n' roll's a loser's game" now has a 29-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son queuing up to play.
"I don't necessarily want to go through this all again," he complains lovingly of his children's musical aspirations. "Both of my kids have more of a commercial ear than I have. None of them do it as deep as me, although my daughter's very good lyrically. She's been really battling away in London. It's really difficult. She plays English groove, I dunno, pop-rock, I suppose. They're in it for a lot of reasons, music being one of them. They're in it for the lifestyle as well.
"My son's got a band called American Degenerate," he says, laughing. "They play gigs in New Jersey schools, gymnasiums, ice rinks. He's ready, but the band's not. He comes up here [to Connecticut, where Hunter lives with his wife, Trudi] and I listen to their rehearsal tapes. They're getting better. He writes commercially; he has a Lennon-type voice but he loves Green Day. He doesn't like what he's good at, which is commercial. I say to him, 'That's not a bad gift to have there. Most people would die to be commercial.'"
But that's just Hunter, expounding like an elder statesman again.
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