April 3, 2017

FTV: Woody the Spider

      Contrary to an urban musical myth I am about to burst, not all rock drummers hailing from across the pond are named Mick.   Listening to Jeff Beck’s Truth recently (with that relatively unknown vocalist named Rod Stewart out front), I noted the exceptional drumming done by Mick Waller.  This got me to thinking about Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac.  I had the good fortune to see him with the pre-Stevie Nicks / Lindsey Buckingham version of the band.  Fleetwood became very famous as the drummer in the pop oriented band that brought us many years of great music and interband drama.   Seeing him live when Fleetwood Mac was still heavily influenced by the blues was a bigger thrill for me (than the pop version of the band) as I was just beginning to get acquainted with their music from their Rattlesnake Shake era.  Then there is Mick Woodmansey who is probably more well known as Woody, the drummer from David Bowie’s infamous Spiders from Mars.  Until recently, I would not have know him from Woody Herman (who wasn’t a drummer, just for the record).

    Obviously, it was impossible to escape David Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust in print, on TV or on the airwaves back in the day.  As interested as I have always been in music, Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars didn’t spend much time on my musical radar.  At the time Ziggy landed on Earth, I could not have told you who the drummer was as the musical press were fixated on Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson (another Mick who may have started as a drummer for all I know, but I digress).  By the time Lee, the bass player in my band Knockdown, brought Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album to a rehearsal and suggested that we learn Rebel Rebel, The Spiders from Mars were already history.  For the record, I love the guitar riff and the song, but we never did get beyond a couple of furtive takes on the tune before deciding that we weren’t going to be able to do it justice.

    When I began managing WOAS-FM in 1997, we had Bowie’s Sound + Vision box set on hand so I decided it was time to reacquaint myself with the the Thin White Duke (or whichever moniker the chameleon like Bowie was known as in the late 1990s).  The more I played it, the more I began to appreciate what he had been up to during all those years of rebranding himself into the next new thing.  At that juncture, I got to know Bowie better, but Woodmansey was still an unknown quantity for me.

    Flash forward to 2015 or so when WOAS began receiving CDs from Day Storm Records owner and producer Gary Tanin who turned us onto artists he had produced records with like Sam Llanas (The Whole Nite Through), The Young Revelators (All I See), and Jack Spann (Time, Time, Time, Time, Time).  Gary relayed to us the tale of how he got involved working with Jack Spann on a recommendation of his (Tanin’s) good friend, Tony Visconti.  Visconti is known for his work with David Bowie, all the way back to the Spiders from Mars days.  Back in 2016, I jokingly applied this information to the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon reasoning that I corresponded with Gary Tanin who knows Tony Visconti who produced David Bowie – meaning I am only 3 or 4 degrees (depending on how you score the game) from knowing David Bowie!  Yes, this is a bit of a stretch, but it opened my eyes to Tony Visconti’s work and suddenly, I began seeing his name everywhere.

    A short piece in the Milwaukee Journal – Sentinel caught my eye last summer.  It said that Tony Visconti and former Spiders from Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey would be bringing their Bowie tribute band Holy Holy to Milwaukee.  After responding affirmatively when I asked him if he would be attending the show (“I already have my ticket”), Gary Tanin followed up by sending me photos he took at the after show party.  Forty plus years after The Spiders from Mars ceased to exist, I finally caught up with their drummer and I have a sneaking feeling that I will have ordered his new book Spider from Mars:  My Life With Bowie by the time this article goes to print.  If I mention my 3 or 4 degrees of separation from Bowie when I order the book, maybe he will inscribe it to me like we actually know each other!  Then again, how on Earth would I make sense of all this to a former Spider from Mars?

    In 1970, I was a high school senior gigging around the central U.P. in my band The Twig.  At that same time,  Woodmansey was offered a job at the Vertex spectacle factory in Hull.  According to an interview he did recently with Classic Rock Magazine,  he was given the weekend to mull over the offer but on Saturday, a ‘one-hit wonder folk singer’ named David Bowie called and asked him to join his band.  Woodmansey became a Spider from Mars and they set about stamping Bowie’s ticket to fame by recording the classic albums The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, and Ziggy Stardust.

    Woodmansey would seem to have made the correct vocational choice and was on top of the music mountain right up until July 3, 1973 when Bowie announced the retirement of Ziggy and the Spiders from the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon.  To make matters worse, Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries called Woodmansey on his wedding day to inform him that he was no longer going to be drumming for Bowie.  From the top of the mountain to unemployed.

    Woodmansey would have every right to look back at this turn of events with bitter feelings but he doesn’t.  When asked if he has any regrets from his career, he doesn’t mention being fired from Bowie’s band.  What he does regret, he said, “Was not turning up for an audition with Paul McCartney.  I regretted it, but it’s a decision I can’t take back, so why worry about it?”  What he does remember about the end of Ziggy and the Spiders is that Bowie got lost in his own creation.  While Ziggy was a role to play on stage, it became harder and harder for Bowie to take off the mask at the end of the show.  The press and public wanted Ziggy Stardust so that is who he gave him and not the normal guy who used to interact with his bandmates when they weren’t on stage.  Had his management team kept some buffer between the press and Ziggy-Bowie, it may have allowed them to continue creating music for at least a little longer.

    Woodmansey also could resent that The Spiders never shared writing credits with Bowie.  According to Woody, “It was just taken for granted that we wouldn’t (share writing credits).  Even on The Man Who Sold the World, where Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, and myself jammed the material into songs, David didn’t have complete songs or even completed chord sequences that joined up at that time, but we understood.”  This statement also satisfied my curiosity about what lead Visconti and Woodmansey to form Holy Holy – if they helped Bowie develop the arrangements Bowie recorded, then they certainly had a common musical thread that pulled them back to performing together.

    Asked when his parents realized that he had made the correct choice when he joined Bowie’s band, Woodmansey replied, “We played Bridlington Spa and my mum and dad came for the first time.  It was the second UK tour, so it was pretty big by then, and my dad said: ‘By, lad, you can play them drums,’ and that was the only comment I ever got.”  

    The book review I read hints that Woodmansey asking for a pay raise prior to the Hammersmith Odeon swan song may have contributed to the demise of The Spiders from Mars.  Bowie’s career long habit of reinventing himself belies this notion.  If Ziggy was indeed pushing Bowie aside, the argument could be made that Bowie himself realized it was time to move on.

    For his part, Woodmansey puts his pride in his marriage and family ahead of the time he spent with Bowie, yet he is proud that he was there when Bowie “finally grasped what he was supposed to be doing.”  Woodmansey, Ronson, and bassist Trevor Bolder taught Bowie how to rock and they became rock stars, even if it was only for three years. These are the just the facts of the matter and there are many less well balanced musicians who would have let these events consume them.  Sure, there could have been bitter feelings lingering long after his dismissal from the band, but for his part, Woodmansey  moved on.  Looking back with pride at what they accomplished in three short years points to this being the healthiest path he could have taken.  

    Randal Marsh, the drummer in Tom Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch (and obviously not British since he isn’t named Mick), was not asked to hang around when Petty’s new record label pushed TP into becoming a solo artist.  Petty found not being in a band disquieting so he borrowed former Mudcrutch members Benmont Tench (keyboards) and Mike Campbell (guitar) (along with a band they were trying to put together) for a recording session.  These recordings laid the foundation of the Heartbreakers with Stan Lynch moving into the slot that Marsh would have filled if he had still been in the mix.  Marsh freely admits he found himself watching the meteoric rise of the Heartbreakers while thinking, “That should have been me up there.”  Thirty years down the road, he found satisfaction and redemption when Petty reformed Mudcrutch and recorded two new albums with the original line up.

To be fair about it, Marsh could still moan and groan that he missed the ticket for a long and lucrative career, but he was satisfied that the Mudcrutch reunion proved that he could have been there.

    The last book I read written by a drummer was by John Densmore of The Doors.  If Ginger Baker from Cream ever writes a book, I will probably read that, too, but right now I am going to pull the pin and order Woody the Spider’s book.  Now that I know a little more about him, I am anxious to learn about all that glamorous stuff I missed when I didn’t know who he was!

TOP PIECE VIDEO:  Ziggy, Trevor, Mick and Woody at their prime in 1972!