By Martin Popoff
RONNIE MONTROSE's suicide on March 3, 2012 shocked the hard rock world, in large part due to the fact that such an end just went so against the grain of those who knew the legend, even though Ronnie's battles with cancer, speculation says, had so much to do with his tragic end.
This writer interviewed the man on a few occasions and always found him to be humourous, helpful, self-deprecating and intelligent, even as he struggled to articulate how this rank non-metalhead had wound up creating at least two heavy metal masterpieces, 1980's GAMMA 2 and most groundbreakingly, the debut MONTROSE record from way back to 1973.
If you need a primer on the man, and a plush and powerful demonstration of how much he meant to so many distinguished musicians and their shared fanbases, look no further than a new tribute DVD called Concert For Ronnie Montrose - A Celebration of His Life In Music.
A troop to the impressive hard rock army that helped out with the project is Ricky Phillips, fat string applier to the likes of THE BABYS, BAD ENGLISH, COVERDALE PAGE and STYX, but most importantly, close friend of Ronnie.
"Ronnie Montrose is one of those guys that maybe not everybody on the street knows," begins Phillips, asked what Ronnie should be remembered for. "Which I think is a shame, because every musician that's ever heard Ronnie... it's kind of one of those industry things where everybody who's a musician knows, although maybe not all of the things that Ronnie has given to the industry. But he definitely had some sort of magic. He introduced sort of heavy-handed rock 'n' roll on the guitar to America, really, at a time when the players were, you know, JIMMY PAGE, JEFF BECK, ERIC CLAPTON, bands like HUMBLE PIE. Ronnie, with the band Montrose, sort of wrote the American version or take on hard rock 'n' roll. And it certainly wasn't heavy metal. As a matter fact, Ronnie came from the EDGAR WINTER GROUP, which I think was a great place for him, because as he told me, he learned a lot from Edgar and DAN HARTMAN, great writers and singers, about song structure and all that. By the time he got the Montrose band together, he just was able to do all his cool riff rock, heavy-handed compositions that SAMMY HAGAR sang so well. In fact, the whole band was great, with Bill Church, Denny Carmassi, who I had the pleasure of working with too. It's kind of hard to stop talking when it comes Ronnie, because people don't know Ronnie. Ronnie was kind of a special guy because he was a true friend and he had a lot of friends; a lot of people knew Ronnie. And he was not a surface kind of guy--he got to know his friends. When Ronnie called you on the phone, you better sit yourself down because you're gonna be there for a while. He didn't call to chitchat. He liked to check in with his friends. He was real and just a great dude, man, one of my favourite people and one of my favourite friends."
That is certainly true of Ronnie on the phone, but having never met the guy in person, I wondered if he was more shy when it came to his in-person interactions...
"I never think of Ronnie as shy," reflects Ricky. "I never think of him as… I've watched some of his interviews, especially on youtube. I'll go and watch him play 'Open Fire' or even 'Town Without Pity' on YouTube or something. And I've seen a few interviews, and he does come off a little bit quiet, maybe reserved? (laughs). But Ronnie is anything but that. I mean, if you watch him, for example, on some of those YouTube videos, he doesn't just play guitar with his hands, he plays with his whole body. His feet are stomping, he's marching around the stage, gesturing with the neck of the guitar, slamming it up and down. He just embodied… That was his voice. And that's the place where he, without a doubt, was not reserved. He did not have a shy bone in his body when he got to talking with his guitar. But Ronnie is also complex guy. He had deep thoughts and he felt life; he let it in. He cared for the common guy in the street. If you saw a homeless person, he'd say that's somebody's baby. He's a very, very personal kind of guy."
Let's face it, a large part of the reason Ronnie's name is legion is because of that fiery first Montrose corker of a record. Ricky would have been 20 when that damn thing came out, excited about a future as a Northern California rocker...
"Well, first of all, you start adding as many of those songs to your set list as you can," laughs Phillips, remembering the event, "as you're playing the bars or whatever. Yeah, it's kind of like wow, okay, finally--and it's American. And, you know, it was a proud sort of feeling. It was a far cry from... oh, I don't want to pick on any bands. But it was a far cry from what we had been getting. And then it sort of started the ball rolling. All of a sudden, bands started cropping up. I mean, all the way up into VAN HALEN. Montrose was sort of the template for what they wanted to do, so much so that they recorded with Ted Templeman, but I think they recorded in the same studio as well. Not sure about that, but I think they did. And Sammy Hagar himself, he had his stint with the band. But actually, I think I really got a lot of influence from Ronnie from his time with Edgar Winter. How you can have such a great song-oriented band with those tough guitars, and it adds to it rather than detracts? I mean, it added so much. 'Frankenstein', Ronnie said to me, after we recorded it, it was a mishmash of stapled together pieces of music and bits that just kept growing and growing out of jams and sound checks and this and that, and that's why they called it 'Frankenstein'. It was all stapled together, but he said even after they recorded it, they still were changing and adding things. Dan Hartman was changing and adding bass lines, which I discovered from watching YouTube, pieces of 'Frankenstein'. Even after RICK DERRINGER was in the band, they were still even changing it."
Truth be told though, Montrose wasn't a huge hit. In fact, a parallel might be made to the first and only true SEX PISTOLS album, or even Thin Lizzy's JAILBREAK, all being now classic records that struggled to gold as those band's best results, never to be repeated.
"The first Montrose album? Oh man, you know, I guess I don't know. Now that you put it that way. I guess my view of it is limited to Northern California, but I thought it was huge. I thought it was universal. I thought that Montrose had really hit a stride. But everywhere I go, even the musicians I work with, I'm sure one of the reasons Jimmy Page and DAVID COVERDALE got Denny Carmassi and I to work on the record that they did... I know that my connection was basically I was in Bad English opening up for WHITESNAKE--that's how Dave saw me. But I would imagine that it was Montrose, not HEART, that was the reason they went after Denny."
As for the gleaming, action-packed tribute DVD, asked for a highlight or two, Ricky hits upon this writers favourite magic moment as well--the Gamma set.
"You know, there are a few things that surprised me about it. I loved what MARC BONILLA did with the Gamma set. I thought his respect and care for Ronnie... I know that he was heavily influenced by Ronnie, but he had become such a virtuosic guitarist, that what he did with the Gamma set I thought was perfect. And it was just nice to hear the songs; it was nice to see everybody's interpretation, the guitar players who jumped in. I know that NEAL SCHON, it was no cakewalk for Neal. I mean, Neal can play just about anything. But we didn't really have any rehearsal. We were put in a room so we could discuss what we were gonna do. Everybody flew in. I flew in from... I don't even remember where I was. A lot of people were actually from northern California, but they did have to get San Francisco. And you know, you think, 'Oh yeah, I know that,' and then you get in to actually run it down, and it's like, there's so much of Ronnie--Ronnie's arrangement first of all, but Ronnie's hands, man, and the way he phrased and everything, makes the music that he created... and that's always the case with the great guitarists. So for Neal to try to jump into those shoes, he realized that he had to contribute big pieces of himself to make it happen, to make it work, because there is no other Ronnie Montrose. But I noticed that with all the players, you can try, you can do your best, but it showed me how deep Ronnie was, seeing these great guitar players trying to interpret his work."
Who were you most excited to meet for the first time?
"You know, I had never met Bill Church, so it was kind of cool for me to meet Bill, and we kind of palled around a bit when we were taking snapshots. But we didn't really get to hang too much that night, because it was just too much going on. Set changes, boom, boom, boom, boom. But it was great to meet Bill Church, great bass player and such a… A lot of my unsung heroes throughout my musical influence past are guys like JOHN PAUL JONES. I mean, where would LED ZEPPELIN have been without him? And JOHN ENTWISTLE, CHRIS SQUIRE. I mean all these guys, everybody knows who the lead singer is and maybe the lead guitar player in all the rock bands that have come and gone, but Bill Church is one of those guys that did exactly the right thing for the Montrose material."
"You know, you can never stand in another man's shoes," ventures Ricky, asked if he had any insights on what would lead Ronnie to take his own life. "I always think that when those things do happen, it's... whoever the person was, could be anybody, Ronnie or whatever person, if he could have just made it through that week or that day, then all might've been just fine. But you never know. And I hate to even speculate, because I don't even want to pretend to know Ronnie inside and out. We were great friends, close friends, and I cherished his friendship, I still do. But when people go to that place, what has taken them there, it might be years of getting there, and I imagine it was that way with Ronnie. The one thing that is in the back of a lot of our minds is, we know that the cancer was in remission. He had told me once on the phone that he would never go through that again, what it took, like that two years it took to get through that stage of the pain and agony that he was in. And I'm not so sure that he didn't... he may have gotten news that it had come back. I know that that happens quite often. And if that's the case, maybe still, whatever the moment was that made him take the turn he did, I have no idea. I just can't second guess it. But nevertheless he left an incredible legacy and he left a lot of friends who adore him."
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