'Kill him again, he's not dead yet'
Memories of Ronnie Lane, 1946-1997
By Bucks Burnett
Ronnie Lane, one of rock's most beloved and yet obscure characters, is dead of natural causes at the age of 51, buried in Trinidad, Colorado, and survived by his wife Susan. He leaves behind a legacy encompassing many extremes, seemingly defying the limits of what one can -- or should -- endure in a single lifetime.
He is best known for his role as co-founder of the Small Faces. If you don't know who they were, please continue your search for the romantic classified ads in the rear of this publication; the music section is not for you. Even if you don't know of Lane directly, however, you know his work -- Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" would have sounded different if not for his famous Mobile Recording Unit, utilized during the song's recording. Just beneath the Beatles and the Stones on Britain's mid-'60s totem pole of legendary bands, the Small Faces are best remembered for their psychedelic masterpiece Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, an album that contained their timeless hit "Itchycoo Park," sung by Steve Marriott. Although songwriting credits for the Small Faces more often than not read Marriott-Lane, Ronnie told me that it was an appellation of convenience -- like Lennon/McCartney -- and not strictly indicative of a 50-50 split of songwriting duties. In this case, he said, "Itchycoo Park" was "100 percent" his work.
When Marriott left to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton, he was replaced by the rather oversized team of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, prompting a name change simply to Faces. A few great albums -- and infamously great shows -- secured the new lineup's place in history as a more tawdry, rollicking version of the original band. By 1973, Lane had tired of the big rock circuit and Stewart's increasing domination of the band, and announced his departure to a stunned rock press, even making the cover of the once-influential Circus magazine with a sensational banner that screamed "Lane Leaves Faces!" Choosing a different direction, Lane turned away from the spotlight to a gentler path -- a saner approach to making music.
His first post-Faces endeavor was Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance. In spite of their initial success with two hit singles in Britain ("How Come" and "The Poacher," his achingly beautiful masterpiece), the band immediately began losing money because of Lane's insistence that they tour as a gypsy circus act, actually transporting and erecting large circus tents and hiring teams of sword-swallowers and fire-eaters to entertain the fans before the band took to center ring. This ensemble was known on the road as The Passing Show and was occasionally augmented by Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan.
Ronnie Lane entertained, and the world -- for the most part -- yawned. He appears in few rock dictionaries, and his solo albums to this day are unreleased in America. A&M Records briefly issued a Slim Chance anthology in the United States in the mid-'70s, and Atco Records released the lovely but commercially doomed Mahoney's Last Stand soundtrack (from the unreleased film) in 1976.
The one shining exception to Lane's drift into obscurity is the 1977 classic Rough Mix. Recorded as a duet project with Pete Townshend, the album was initially proposed by Pete to solve a dilemma facing Lane at the time: how to escape a contractual agreement to participate in an ill-fated '70s reunion of the Small Faces; Pete offered Atco a Townshend-Lane album in exchange for Ronnie's release from legal bondage. Rough Mix is a brilliant album, passionately loved by almost everyone who has ever owned a copy. Although it contains many great songs -- "Street in the City," "My Baby Gives It Away," "Heart to Hold On To" -- the core of the album is unquestionably Lane's lovely ballad "Annie." If you want to explore the world of Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix is not only a wise choice, but your only choice -- it's his only non-Faces release available in America. It was during the recording of this album that Lane began losing the feeling in his hands; he was soon diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the debilitating disease that slowly destroys the nervous system.
By Lane standards, 1979 was a good year. He appeared as part of Paul McCartney's all-star Rockestra lineup at the Kampuchea concerts, and recorded the infectious "Kuschty Rye" single, with Pete Townshend producing. It would be one of the standout tunes from his final solo album, the obscure See Me, released on a tiny UK label in 1980. By this time, Lane's multiple sclerosis was taking its toll. Typically, the disease robs its victims of bodily functions, capriciously restoring, then taking them again in a torturous game of heal and cripple. Lane had often said that upon hearing of John Lennon's murder in December 1980, his reaction was one of complete envy. MS drags you to death's door, only to pull you away as you finally begin banging on it.
In 1982, Rolling Stone broke the story of Ronnie's plight with a lengthy feature story and interview. As one who had purchased that issue of Circus in 1973 and Rough Mix in '77, I was taken aback by the news. How could such a gentle, humorous soul be stricken by this nightmare? I began an effort to contact Ronnie Lane. I relentlessly phoned Rolling Stone's editors until I found one who gave me contact info for Ronnie's UK ARMS (Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis) office. I gathered some money and get-well cards from friends and shipped my care package to him.
About three months later, I unexpectedly received a handwritten response. Ronnie thanked me for my support, and we began a regular correspondence, with Ronnie even calling me one night at 3 a.m. just to see if I was sleeping soundly -- the Lane humor.
It was soon announced that Lane and his friends (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, for starters) would begin a four-city tour to raise money for Ronnie's cause, beginning in Dallas on November 18, 1983. I freaked. My obscure Brit cult hero was beating a path to my door. Sure enough, Ronnie called me the day before the show and invited me to lunch at his Las Colinas hotel.
When he at last limped from the elevator, I was shocked not by his frailty, but by his remarkably elfin qualities. He was like a human flower with a broken stem. We sat at a long table and were soon joined by Bill Wyman and Jeff Beck. They spent the next hour arguing about an obscure jam session at Steve Winwood's house in 1962: "Ya were too there," Wyman insisted to Beck. "I've got it on me home computah!" They also made fun of Elton John. Ronnie got the biggest laugh with "He's a nice bloke...when he's asleep."
I walked Ronnie up to his room and presented him with an American flag. I told him I'd always wanted to meet Charlie Watts, so he sent me to the room next door. Charlie answered, totally nude and totally asleep. A month later, Ronnie and all his friends were on the cover of Rolling Stone, fully clothed. After the tour's conclusion, I mailed President Ronald Reagan a letter about the tour, informing him of Ronnie's efforts to defeat his disease. A month later, Lane called me to say he'd received a personal letter from the President of the United States. To celebrate his new VIP status, he'd snorted a line of coke off of it; the Lane humor again.
Ronnie and I crossed paths again when he relocated to Houston in late '84. Using tour proceeds of $1 million, he opened an American branch of ARMS and hired a wealthy Houston lawyer and fellow MS sufferer, Mae Nacol, to manage its affairs. In February 1985, I visited Ronnie at his Houston apartment and ended up moving in with him a week later, signing on as his personal assistant. We spent our days swimming at the Y, going to physical therapy, shopping, and eating steaks at Dirty's Steakhouse. Through it all, Lane's humor remained intact. By that time, the disease had robbed Ronnie of any sphincter control -- requiring frequent clean-ups -- he would break the tension by moaning in mock supplication, "Kill 'im again, 'e's not dead yet!"
Occasionally we would entertain out-of-town guests. I remember watching Ronnie and Ian McLagan sing "Ooh La La" -- my favorite Faces song -- at the kitchen table. Later that night, the three of us crawled drunkenly to our bedrooms, Ronnie being the only one with a good excuse for not walking upright.
Mae Nacol was a controlling person who had her own ideas about ARMS and Ronnie; after six months of working 15-hour days without a break and repeated suggestions from Nacol that I leave town, I resigned my position as personal assistant and went to work for Warner Bros. Records in Burbank. Less than one year later, ARMS America was closed down by an injunction from the Attorney General for the State of Texas amid lawsuits and allegations of embezzlement and mismanagement. Afterward, Lane relocated to Austin. He quickly became immersed in the local music scene and often played with Alejandro Escovedo, Bobby Keys, and Joe Ely. He also married an admirer, a woman named Susan Gallegos.
I visited Ronnie numerous times while he lived in Austin, and we talked often on the phone. In 1990, my country band, The Ne'er Do Wells, played a few songs during open mike at Austin's Cannibal Club. Ronnie was there heckling us and even came onstage to sing "Ooh La La." As long as I knew him, he received the same phone call every April 1: birthday wishes from Jimmy Page. All of these people who go on about Page being some evil, part-time Satanist (his business, not ours) can kiss my ass; he was always the first and last to make sure Ronnie felt loved and remembered./
Inexplicably, Susan Lane, a Native American, seemed to find Ronnie's "white rock star friends" ever more to blame for their financial problems; if Ronnie's rich friends really cared, the Lanes wouldn't be living in a modest rent house. She also became extremely protective, shielding Ronnie from many of the people who wanted to keep in touch. In 1993, I tried to visit Ronnie in Austin and was told by Susan that he was getting ready to see a band that night and didn't have time for company. It was three in the afternoon. One month after Ronnie's best friend, Ian McLagan, moved to Austin, Susan took Ronnie, unannounced, to live in Trinidad, Colorado, and left no forwarding address. All of us who cared for Ronnie tried -- and failed -- to contact him. Ronnie always called his friends; it was one of his few pleasures. Suddenly, the phone calls stopped. None of us ever heard from Ronnie again.
On June 4, his dreadful suffering at last came to an end. A handful of obscure English recordings hint at what might have been, had his solo career not dwindled with his luck and health. Fortunately, enough beauty was captured to present an enchanting legacy for those willing to look hard enough for the solo albums that are his greatest work. Seek out Anymore For Anymore, One For The Road, and See Me at your favorite import shop.
Death forces us to contemplate the unthinkable, to let go of that which has already escaped. I mourn my lost friend who suffers no more, and wonder about the songs he might have written. His loving grin still haunts me.
My greatest sympathy, though, is for a world that almost overlooked him while he was here. Even today, too few notice his absence.
Bucks Burnett is a Dallas music fan whose hands-on approach has led him to stage such events as Edstock, a celebration of Mr. Ed, the talking TV horse, and Tinypalooza, a similar tribute to Tiny Tim. Bucks, formerly the owner of now-defunct 14 Records, has most recently called for the head of whitebread crooner Pat Boone in response to Boone's callous dissing of Tiny Tim.
This story originally appeared in the Dallas Observer, June 1997.
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