Photo by Russel Schlagbaum; thanks to Charlie Hart
How A Face Became A Gypsy
by Ray Robertson
I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.
You knew he was a handful just by looking at him. A half-in-the bag, naughty little woodchuck in filthy white overalls with a sparkling secret in his dancing brown eyes, he somehow managed to smuggle trouble into every one of his songs. It was good trouble, though--the kind that may make for an upset stomach and throbbing temples the inescapable morning after, but also abundant memories when those same temples are one day defaced with grey. He made plenty of mistakes because he always did the right thing, and in the end, it was his body that betrayed him, not his principles.
For someone who sang that he wanted, his church to be the open road, he didn't do too badly- a London East End WW II baby who ended up being buried in Trinidad, Colorado in one of his beloved cowboy outfits. His father was an affable lorry driver, his mother a multiple sclerosis sufferer. Ronnie and his brother used to wonder why their mum always seemed to be in a bad mood. After Ronnie as an adult was diagnosed with the same fatal disease that attacked his mother, he finally understood.
His father told Ronnie as a boy that if he learned to play an instrument he'd never have any trouble finding friends, and he took his old man's advice early on. Ronnie's brother Stan:Outside our house the buses used to change drivers and conductors and Ronnie would go down and play to them, strumming a little toy ukulele. He was only about five or six. He'd wear a cowboy hat like Roy Rogers and they used to give him pennies and halfpennies and he'd come back in with a big pocket of money.1Thirty years later he'd make his living doing pretty much the same thing, the money being slightly better.
A technical college (naturally) drop out (not surprisingly), what else but a plumber's mate, an amusement park lackey, a men's outfitter's sales assistant, and for a girlfriend an aspiring hairdresser with fish and chips on Friday night at the local and a few pints of lager and a few laughs and a quick cuddle and before you don't know it, Monday morning, six a.m., here we go oh no all over again. But as the song says, his life was saved by rock and roll--initially, the home-grown variety, skiffle and the Shadows and the Beatles, of course; later, American R&B and Fats Domino and Bo Diddley boom chicka boom et cetera. Ronnie's Dad not only supplied the down payment for his first electric guitar, but his first bass once on-the-ball Ronnie discovered that bass players were always in demand. A chance meeting--are there really such things?--with another working-class east-ender named Steve Marriott who had a great record collection (plenty of Tamla-Motown and Stax and American soul) and just as much cheek as Ronnie, led to an invitation to join Ronnie's band, the Muleskinners, on stage that night for a number or two. Drummer Kenney Jones:We had a residency at a pub over in Bermondsey. Ronnie and Steve ended up getting paralytic. Steve got up with us, sang a song and then he brought the house down with his Jerry Lee Lewis routine on the upright piano they had. He was jumping up and down on top of it and breaking all the keys on the keyboard. We got thrown out of the pub, lost the gig there, the other guys [in the band] had gone off, they weren't speaking to Ronnie and I because we'd brought Steve along. We were sitting on my drum kit outside on the curb. The three of us just looked at each other and burst out laughing and that's when we decided to form a band together.2The band they formed was the Small Faces ("faces" because they were all mod wannabes, "small" because three-quarters of the group were short). Soon signed to a management deal with Don Arden (who, in spite of virtually no experience inside the studio, appointed himself as their producer), the group had a hit with their first single, "Whatcha Gonna Do About It," a tune typical of their early material: clearly derivative (compare, for example, "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" with Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love") and crafted straight for the charts, but energetically performed and undeniably exuberant- Marriott's Cokneyfied James Brown/Otis Redding/Wilson Pickett-copped screeching and screaming was the group's most distinctive sound. Quickly tiring of performing covers and R&B rip offs, Lane and Marriott discovered they made a promising songwriting team; the group also discovered that someone other than them--Arden--was pocketing the majority of their concert and record sales cash. When they heard the demo of "My Mind's Eye" playing on the radio and announced as their new single, they made their move, getting out from underneath their management deal with Arden and signing a recording contract with former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham's new, hippie-hip Immediate label (the company's credo was "Happy to Be a Part of the Industry of Human Happiness"). They wouldn't end up any better off financially than they did while on Decca, but Oldham promised--and delivered--unlimited studio time to craft the increasingly more original sort of music they wanted to make and the chance to produce their own records.
Twenty-five years after the fact, when an interviewer asked Ronnie why the Small Faces' music became more thoughtful and psychedelic around the time of their shift to Immediate, Ronnie sensibly replied that by that point they were more psychedelic and thoughtful. To working class boys used to chasing pep pills with scotch and Cokes, daily hash holidays with the occasional around-the-world acid trip didn't open new creative doors, it kicked them off their hinges and they used the shattered timber to make a Technicolor sonic bonfire. The band's first Immediate single, for instance, was "Here Comes the Nice," an ode to your friendly neighbourhood drug dealer, exceptional not just for its then-scandalous subject matter, but for Ronnie's witty wordplay and apt employment of lyrical shades of light and dark (and without sacrificing any of the band's rollicking R&B-earned grit, either; engineer Glyn Johns described working with them in the studio as like "being up against the English rugby team"). Music is foremost music, however, not stand-alone poems put to guitar, bass, organ, and drums, and the real breakthrough once they moved to Immediate was in the sound of the Small Faces now that harpsichord, horns, bells, acoustic guitar, and mellotron were routinely added to the mix, with the added bonus of utilizing eight recording tracks instead of four. Plus, the band was simply better as both musicians and as songwriters. If you can't translate them into words and sounds that others can appreciate and enjoy, no experience--no matter how personally revelatory--is useful artistically. All of those underpaid one-nighters and rushed recording sessions had at least paid off in helping the band develop the skills necessary to transfer what was in their pleasantly hazy heads onto hard black plastic.
Pro-dopers, yes, but not professional dopes: the band, and Ronnie in particular, knew that any insights gained from drugs were for better understanding and appreciating everyday life, and not for isolating oneself in a hermitically-sealed hippified world of Tolkien and incense and kaftans. Ronnie's increasingly meditative lyrics made it clear that you didn't have to go to San Francisco with flowers in your hair to find inner peace; smoking a spliff and feeding the ducks in an east end park on a nice spring day can do the sartorial trick just fine. Similarly--and fairly uniquely among their peers--the Small Faces indulged in no annoyingly excessive soloing, their belief in the transformative power of the classic two- and three-minute pop song is one of the reasons their music remains refreshingly alive today when so many of their contemporary's once-esteemed records, crammed full of boringly proficient guitar (and--even worse--drum) solos, are justifiably forgotten. The Small Faces--and, again, Ronnie in particular--had a sense of humour, and the fortifyingly leveling perspective that comes with it.
The band's second Immediate album, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, although still containing several fine songs (including Ronnie's thoughtful "Song for a Baker"), suffers from both too little and too much an infusion of this same humour. Routinely hailed as their best work and a bona-fide ‘60's classic, the "concept" that fills up side two--a witless character named Happiness Stan's search for the missing half of the moon--comes across as equally pretentious and silly, while the between-songs spoken word narration (delivered by elderly actor Stanley Unwin at his Jaberwanking worst) has never failed to give me a headache, what was presumably intended to be droll emerging as merely irritatingly dull (as opposed to the majority of Marriott's vocals, which sound as if performed by a speed-spiked Leprechaun and are only irritating). But for a few more good songs released post-breakup, the rest is the usual rock business soap opera--the band was in debt to their new label, their newest work (the single "The Universal") was a frustrating flop, and Marriott and Lane began to snipe over whose songs were to be recorded and how (Marriott, for example, wanting to move the group into a much heavier, less textured direction, a foretaste to his slow descent into boogie-rock purgatory with Humble Pie). After Marriott walked off stage during a 1968 New Years Eve. gig, it was all over but for some contractual obligation shows.
After the remaining three Small Faces decided to regroup and recommence, adding journeyman singer Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck sideman Ronnie Wood (neither of whom was vertically challenged), the band became the Faces, the dropped adjective not the only major change the group underwent. Out went the hallucinogenics and in came the hootch. Lots and lots of hootch. Chemistry colours everything, and the band's newly developed, well-soused sound was as endearingly ramshackle (on both the predominant knees-up numbers and the gentler, more meditative material, the majority of which was written by Ronnie) as its makers.
The Faces played rock and roll the way it's supposed to be played: loud, rude, and horny. They also celebrated--rather than, as was the custom of the time, conceal--their working-class roots, their preference for the old-fashioned joys of drink, and their rawer-is-better, soul-over-virtuosity musical aesthetic. When the Faces were in the room, you knew they were there. And sometimes even in the room next door. Songwriter Graham Lyle: "I remember this commotion going on in the next dressing room. It sounded like a fight had started. And it was the Faces had arrived."3 As an antidote to a period (musical and otherwise) crowded with over-cultivated sensibilities and overblown musical egos, the Faces provided a much needed reminder that art--like life--is best when it's simple, sincere, and not too worried about getting its clothes dirty. Future members of the Sex Pistols and the Replacements are just some of those who've testified to the band's iconoclastic early-‘70's influence (Pistols' bassist Glen Matlock: "They didn't seem to give a toss about anything... If there were no Faces, there would have been no Sex Pistols"4; Replacements main man Paul Westerberg: "Faces--that's my band. They had fun. Humour . . . No Bogus mojo hokum. London's loud, lean, laughin' louts"5). Although The Faces had their detractors (Ronnie recalled being early on dismissed by another band as "East End Tarts" who "don't know where it's at"), disc jockey John Peel was among the band's early converts. He remembered how:I was a very serious hippy when I met the Faces for the first time backstage during one of their concerts. I felt absolutely shocked--sober and precious as I was--when they stumbled out of their dressing room, loud, vulgar and very cockney. "Ahm, no thanks. No, really," I mumbled nervously when they called after me, something that sounded like "Come on, John--old sod, we'll have a drink!" While they stormed down the hall and disappeared, I realized that The Faces were having a lot more fun in life than I had. Next time they invited me I went along. And the other times, too. The Faces . . . changed my life. During one of their gigs I'm supposed to have danced with a bottle of Blue Nun in my arm. And I'm a person who never ever dances. Never, never, never. 6Around the same time that the Faces were establishing their reputation as the premier high-energy, high-times rock and roll band on the concert circuit (and in the process becoming the first band to install their very own bar right on stage), Ronnie woke up to wooden music--U.S. dusty high-lonesome twang gussied up just right with blood pudding British dancehall stomp--and could henceforth always be counted on to place a couple of unfailingly melancholy, yet always powerfully consoling beauties on every Faces album to balance out the predominate raunch and roll. On the band's first album (First Step, 1970), the standout is "Stone," a reincarnation narrative born out of Ronnie's interest in the philosophy of the Indian religious leader Meher Baba, and which is made most musically tasty by a spry Cajun swagger that's all the more delicious for a tart Limey twist (the song was obviously important to him, as he recut it on the first solo album of Pete Townsend--a fellow Meher Baba devotee--and then again once he himself went solo). As cosmology, it's nonsense, but as personal philosophy, it's just short of profound--and a lot more fun to dance to than anything Thomas Aquinas ever wrote.
"Richmond" is Ronnie's quiet killer contribution to the Faces' second album, Long Player, with Wood on slide and Ronnie on acoustic guitar all that's necessary to help evoke a bad bout of good old homesickness experienced while on out tour for too long in the U.S. of A. It's easily the standout track on an L.P. long on agreeable party rock but short on soulful songs, and the fact that the band wouldn't allow him sing it on stage because it would slow down the crank-it-to-ten good times was both a musical mistake and the first warning of the artistic suffocation that would eventually send Ronnie gasping for air and running for a resuscitating solo career. The Faces' second release of 1971, A Nod's As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse, contains the band's only American hit, the rollicking "Stay With Me" (Rod Stewart never sounded so convincingly crass again), but the best track was again a Ronnie number, the aching "Debris," a paean to both his father and a long ago black and white East Ender's London.
More extremely lucrative Stateside touring; more of Rod Stewart prancing around the stage like a cross-dressing showgirl (and becoming such a solo success with his monster single "Maggie May" that the band was more than once greeted with a marquee that read APPEARING TONIGHT: ROD STEWART and the FACES); more hotels and more hangovers and four a.m. awake in Wichita, Kansas, wondering what the fuck, what was the point--was this what he was put here for, was this what he was supposed to be doing with his life? He kept writing songs, though--songs that the other Faces treated like a family dog who's a good boy, he really is, but he's not allowed on the furniture and please don't feed him from the table, you'll only encourage him. Drummer Kenney Jones' wife Jan remembered how "They always used to take the mickey out of Ronnie's songs. Kenney used to laugh about it. He'd come in from Olympic [recording studio] and I'd say, `How'd it go?' and he'd say, `We've got the statutory Ronnie Lane song, rinky-dinky-dink.'"7
Then one weekend back in England, he and the wife of one of his friends informed her husband and Ronnie's wife that they were taking the Land Rover and going to Ireland and don't wait up, they weren't sure when they'd be back. They took along the woman's infant daughter and Ronnie's acoustic guitar and a mutual friend, Billy Nichols, and Ronnie and Billy played the Irish pubs for drinks, and suddenly music was fun again, playing songs he wanted to play for people whose appreciative smiles he could actually see.
The woman was Kate McInnerney, the daughter of a wealthy London solicitor, who either saw through the shallowness of Western materialism and perceived a way out through a hyper-hippie lifestyle or else was trying real hard to piss off her well-heeled very proper parents. Chicken or egg, it didn't matter--what mattered was that Ronnie was in love. With Kate's body and face--she was tomboy elegant with long brown hair and a successful criminal's smile--and with Kate's wannabe gypsy soul, a soul he was immediately sold on as a solution to his problems, those as much existential as aesthetic.
Not that everyone was as thrilled with Ronnie's abrupt change of face as he was. Band roadie Russ Schlagbaum, who was later to work as road manager for Ronnie when he went solo:Ronnie Lane always used to dress so impeccably with his three-piece suits--"three-piece," that was his nickname. We knew he had run off and left Sue [his wife] so all of us were, like, "What the fuck is Ronnie thinking?" In he walks with Kate in tow and baby Alana in a wicker basket. His ears were pierced, he's got all these bangles, he's turned into a gypsy. And he's walking around, miles away from everybody. He's not joining in the frolics like they would do, falling over each other and all that shit. He was completely aloof and everybody was wondering, "What the fuck's happened to Ronnie Lane?"8His fellow Faces weren't impressed with the suddenly gypsyfied Ronnie, either. Keyboardist Ian McLagan: "When The Faces toured England [in December 1972], we saw plenty of Kate. We'd been five guys touring, and now suddenly we were four guys and a shabby, grubby guy with his shabby, grubby girlfriend. It didn't gibe well with us."9
The four guys and the shabby, grubby guy managed to make one more album together, but it wasn't easy- the tension between the increasingly reticent Ronnie and the others only exacerbated by Stewart's reluctance to do anything that might impede his flourishing solo career, meaning that he rarely found the time to show up in the studio. Derided upon its release because it lacked enough Stewart-sung rave-ups (no more than by Stewart himself, who, soon after it came out, said, "It was a bloody mess . . . It was a disgrace, but I'm not going to say anything more about it"10), Ooh La La is the Faces' finest moment precisely because, in Stewart's absence, Ronnie took creative control, writing or co-writing six of the album's ten numbers. It wasn't just quantitatively, however, that Ronnie stood out: "Flags and Banners" is an American Civil War deja vu dream cum nightmere set sprightly country-rocking (how's that for a musical amalgam?), "Glad and Sorry" is an aching mix of folk, country, stinging electric guitar, and unadorned but arrestingly reflective lyrics, the sort of song he'd soon perfect during his solo career, and the title song is a bouncing folk-rock number powered by crunchy acoustic guitars, harmonium, and music hall piano, and with an irresistible chorus, a song that perfectly captures Oscar Wilde's assertion that youth is wasted on the young (compare these with the album's lead-off track, a hook-less Stewart-Wood rocker whose title, "Silicone Grown," tells you all you need to know about it: lest we forget, carnal doesn't mean juvenile; simple doesn't mean stupid).
The only sign that Ronnie wasn't ready to pull a complete about face and make an entire album's worth of what (after warming up on the four Faces albums) was becoming undeniably "Ronnie Lane" music was his reluctance to sing all of his own material, "Glad and Sorry" being a duet with Wood and "Ooh La La" sung by Wood alone. Inevitably, though (probably not long after Ronnie reportedly said to Stewart, after the latter wondered what Ronnie thought he was up to dressing like a boho hobo, that he'd rather look like that than like an old tart who's going through the change-), even if everyone's bank account was getting fatter and the band travelled by jet now and stayed in only the best hotels while on the road, Ronnie took his bass and went home. He used the money he'd saved up not buying Cadillacs and rhinestone jump-suits and vacation homes in Bermuda to purchase a farm on the English/Welsh border to raise his new family (he'd married Kate by this point) and to make his own music, as well as a mobile recording studio to record his own material and to rent out to other bands to help pay the bills. The guy was no dim dreamer--it was 1973, he knew what he heard in his head wasn't what the kids watching Top of the Pops wanted to hear. He knew what he was up against. For Christsake, he called his new band Slim Chance.
It takes time to become yourself; sometimes even an entire lifetime isn't long enough. But by the time Ronnie and his new family were installed at the shabby Shopshire sheep farm they dubbed ‘Fishpool' (visitors knew it was Ronnie's place because of the gold record he'd earned with the Faces nailed to the front door), everything that had made up who he was up to that point plus all of the things he wanted to be, but hadn't known he'd wanted until he met Kate came together to make up who he happily now was. When it came time to assemble the players to help him record his new, old-sounding music, there was to be none of the usual networking through the stale rock star grapevine that went into the formation of most new veteran bands. Feel and fate were to determine who was asked to join Slim Chance, as fiddle player Steve Simpson learned.So, there I was, sitting in on fiddle with a bunch of friends who were playing a gig at The Barmy Arms, opposite Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, when a little guy in a green velvet drape jacket stepped up for a chat. He said he was making a record and asked whether I'd like to play on it. This guy turned out to be Ronnie Lane, who then loaded up his pockets with several bottles of Barley wine and led me off to Wick Cottage, where he played me a rough of 'How Come' and introduced me to Kate and one week old Luke.11Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, who were to add so much to Slim Chance's first incarnation, were roped in when, the night after Ronnie and Kate's son Luke was born, Ronnie staggered drunkenly into a Gallagher & Lyle recording session after having crashed his car driving back from the hospital. Seizing the opportunity, he played the duo some of his new material, and before too long they were in the studio backing him.
And when he did settle on the right mix of musicians and was finally ready to record, he did it his way, making the musicians come to the farm. The bass player on Ronnie's first solo album, Anymore for Anymore, Steve Bingham:It was in 1974 that I received a call from former Joe Cocker [and subsequent Slim Chance drummer] drummer Bruce Rowland who invited me to meet Ronnie Lane at his farm in the Welsh borders with a view to joining the band Slim Chance. I was amazed to arrive in the middle of nowhere to find Ronnie and his family happily living amongst dogs, cats, chickens and ducks, in a small cottage surrounded by old barns with a fantastic mobile recording studio parked outside! After a good session at the local pub we piled into his barn and began playing along to some of Ronnie's songs which went on to become the classic Anymore for Anymore album. I asked Ronnie where I could stay and he showed me to an old caravan with no heating, no facilities whatsoever and a leaking roof! That was the start of my stay at Fishpool Farm.12The first fruit of the original version of Slim Chance (the cast constantly shifted, as the musicians who played with Ronnie often reluctantly left him for less musically interesting, but far more financially rewarding work) was the single "How Come?" backed with a remake of one of his typically tender Faces songs originally sung not nearly as movingly by Stewart, "Tell Everyone," and another new tune, "Done This One Before." The two recently written numbers typified the two poles of human experience Ronnie was to mine over the course of his solo career. "How Come" is a spry ode to Kate's bewitching (in the song, literally) beauty anchored by an extremely catchy mandolin line, a song that is as much a love song to frequently bewildering but always beguiling life as it is to any one person. "Done This One Before" is the 180 degrees downer opposite in both music and meaning (as if the two things are ever divisible), a deeply melancholic organ- and harmonica-drenched lament to bleary morning-afters and the sad futility of wishing it could all somehow have been otherwise. On the cover of the 45's colourful sleeve, there's a picture of Ronnie and Kate and his now adopted daughter walking through the woods on a sunny afternoon. On the back, after the musician and song-writing and production credits, it simply reads: DEDICATED TO KATE. A labour of love for real.
The frisky-folky music-hall-rock of "How Come?" did better than anyone could have expected (reaching number eleven on the British singles charts, the first and last time any of Ronnie's solo material ever sold in significant quantities), and next up was the completion of the album Anymore for Anymore for the small GM label. The front of the album jacket is a rare case of justifiably judging a record by its cover: entirely text-less, there's a murky shot of a couple of horse-drawn rag and bone men heading off into the sunset amidst what looks like smoggy London motorway traffic. If you're going to go against the grain, it seems to say, do it with vigour, do it with dignity, do it with style. Which is precisely what the music contained inside the cardboard sleeve does.
The highlights of Anymore for Anymore are numerous--the title track (a gentle hymn to freedom from onerous acquisitiveness); "The Poacher" (a soaring, oboe- and strings-abetted statement of spiritual independence); "Roll On Babe" (a carpe diem strumming sing along)--but the strongest impact is made by the sound of the album as a whole. Shades of folk, country, Dixie, rock, blues, Cajun, and much else fade and flicker in and out of one another, resulting in a trad-rich musical mix not quite of its time, yet never sterilely revivalist. This is music inspired by the sounds of the past, but which is very much of the pulsating present, its makers audibly reveling in--rather than slavishly revering--their seasoned musical sources. So much was the emphasis on feel over professional formality, when Ronnie went outside one morning with just a cup of tea and his guitar, and one by one the other musicians woke up to join him in working on a recent song he was besotted with, the proceedings were taped, the sounds of the wind on the hillside and the children playing atop it included, the end result being the actual take of "Anymore for Anymore" that appears on the L.P. On the back of the album, "Any rumble on ‘Anymore for Anymore' is wind in the microphone," it councils, "please do not adjust your set."
But the iconoclasm of his mission wasn't complete, the deck wasn't stacked against him quite enough, not yet. To promote his first album with Slim Chance, Ronnie decided he wasn't going to gig the usual big city concert halls, but to bring something he called The Passing Show (an expression of life's acute ephemerality borrowed from Meher Baba, but, of course, existing for as long as there have been philosophically humble human beings) to every provincial outpost in England that would have failed a cost/benefit touring analysis, a rock and roll circus with clowns and jugglers and fire eaters and, most of all, the rocket fuel mandolin music he wanted to tell everyone about. And naturally it was the wettest British summer in thirty years and the antique gypsy coaches he'd bought to haul around the musicians and their families and all of the equipment broke down every fifty miles and local firemen wanted to see permits and the sanitation officials wanted to know where exactly the portable toilets were going to be located and by the end of it they were pawning equipment just to buy enough diesel to get to the next show which was just about the same time when musicians started to jump sinking ship ("one morning we woke up to find [sax player] Jimmy Jewell had left a note on Ronnie's trailer saying `Goodbye Cruel Circus, I'm Off To Join The World,'" recounted Russ Schlagbaum13). Ronnie lost a small fortune and a year after Anymore for Anymore came out came out you could buy it in a discount bin for a buck (although it now goes for close to a hundred dollars on eBay), but the handful of ecstatic people who saw the show never purchased another Rod Stewart LP again.
Many were charmed, if initially flummoxed, by the dilapidated splendor of control-centre Fishpool (Lyle: "Kate would be washing the clothes in a tub and putting them through a mangle. An enormous cauldron of soup sat on the fire from day to day"14) as well as by Ronnie's militant anti-materialism. Billy Nichols: "[W]e were driving along the motorway and he opened his wallet and the wind caught all this money and blew it out everywhere. I said, `Ronnie, aren't you going to go back and get it?' He wasn't even fazed. `No, must keep going."15 Others wondered however whether Ronnie's priorities--and simple common sense--weren't being compromised in the process.
"I hated to see Ronnie and Kate playing at being farmers," Schlagbaum admitted, listing a litany of, in his mind, resultant bad business decisions that might have easily been avoided if the couple were less interested in acting like bucolic sages and more like responsible rock and rollers16:We got pawned off to the wrong people. Ronnie first went to Chipperfield's but they couldn't take it on. Then he asked Gerry Connell who said, "I can't do it but I know a fellow who has all this gear in storage. He's been off the road for awhile." What he didn't say is that he'd been off the road for twenty fuckin' years! So he put Ronnie on to Wally Luckins and of course, right away, Wally charms Kate and she says, "Ooh he's lovely, Wally's lovely" so Ronnie falls for it. He was following what Kate wanted and Kate was in his ear all the time... We were resorting to the old circus ways. When I met the circus blokes I thought, "These guys are criminals" but I had no idea how criminal they were. Luckins... must have thought, "Here comes this gullible pop star with a lot of dough"... The trucks he supplied belonged in the London Transport Museum. I got the dubious pleasure of driving this 1947 Bedford flatbed truck from Marlow to Bath overloaded to the gills with canvas, with my living van behind it, a little four-cylinder gas job. I never even got down the motorway. I pulled in to the first service area and went into the garage and told the mechanic, "I don't know what's wrong but start by changing the points and plugs." The guy pulled out a spark plug and said, "I've been a mechanic for 25 years and I've never seen one like this." I finally managed to coax the fucker to the Bath site. I was fuming because I'd spent all fuckin' night just to travel 100 miles... I was pissed off, tired, and I thought, "Christ, this is not the way to do it."17True, true, and no doubt true. But. The flip side of idealistic is impractical, and if Ronnie and Kate had been more of the latter, they might also have been less of the former. Better a flawed vision than a competent compromise. The Passing Show was a fiasco, okay, and what do you know? We're still talking about it forty years later.
Poorer, pissed off, but unrepentant, Ronnie recorded another album (Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance) for another label (Island) with another version of Slim Chance (among the new recruits, string man deluxe Charlie Hart, who would stick and pick with Ronnie until the end). More catchy, contemplative songs passionately performed ("Little Piece of Nothing," "Anniversary", "Tim and Tambourine"--the latter recycling the melody of an old Faces song, "Devotion") more touring (of the more traditional sort), more general indifference. The British version of the LP ends with an old cowboy song, "Single Saddle," which the Dillards also recorded on their 1968 country-rock classic Wheatstraw Suite (and where Ronnie may have heard it for the first time), but the brief version that concludes Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance is pure Ronnie. Beginning with the sounds of everyday life at Fishpool--birds, ducks, a single tractor--we hear a mandolin, some handclapping, Kate softly calling Ronnie's name, an accordion, then Ronnie (with Kate helping out on background) sing a simple song of a simple love for wide open spaces and the wisdom of open endings. Simply beautiful.
One year later, one more time, this one called One More for the Road. The songs were Ronnie's best collection yet, the playing was focused and fiery, there was more determined touring, and the second to last song on the second side, "Nobody's Listenin'," could have been the album's commercial epitaph. But a piece of art exists even if no one in the forest hears it fail, and One for the Road is a piece of art to be proud of. "Steppin' An' Reelin'" (The Wedding)" is a roaring love song to Kate, "Harvest Home" is an throbbingly melancholic instrumental co-written with Charlie Hart that says all there is to say about the life cycle without saying a word, and as for the title track, I've left instructions for it to be played when it's time for my ashes to be scattered. The number one selling song of that year, "Dancing Queen" by Abba, will not be played then.
The belated release of the soundtrack to the Canadian movie Mahoney's Last Stand that Ronnie and Ron Wood had recorded four years back as members of the Faces provided a few much needed dollars and the chance to hear, along with some spirited incidental music, "Just for a Moment," a song underrated by even Ronnie's most ardent admirers, likely because of its obscure source. In some ways, it's the quintessential Ronnie Lane song, at once gorgeously sorrowful, shamelessly affirmative, and impossible to get out of one's head long after one has heard it (never one to waste a good melody, parts of an otherwise unremarkable song off the Faces' first album, "Nobody Knows," are lovingly salvaged to great effect.) It was another collaboration that same year, however, that got him back in the recording studio. And it was also there that his collaborator--old friend Pete Townsend--realized that Ronnie was suffering from the disease that was to eventually kill him.
The idea for the album that became Rough Mix came about when Ronnie realized that, without a substantial cash infusion, he was likely to go bankrupt and lose his farm. The Who were one of the world's biggest bands, so working with one of its members would likely bring in a healthy advance, while Townsend was growing restless with his day job supplying power-chord rockers for Roger Daltry to over-sing, so the fit was right on both sides. Sometime during the sessions that ran from late 1976 to early 1977, Townsend remembered howRonnie was often right in my case, ready to tell me the truth as he saw it . . . but the thought [Ronnie had upbraided Townsend for cheating on his wife] made me explode. I lashed out at him, pushing him hard squarely on both shoulders. Ronnie flew like a man made of paper and came very close to smashing his head on a concrete step at the foot of the stairway. I could have killed him. At first I thought I didn't know my own strength, but later learned that Ronnie was exhibiting the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis.18Ronnie though wasn't ready to accept what was becoming obvious to everyone else. "Ronnie would wake up in the morning and his hand would be numb and he couldn't hold a pen, couldn't write," Russ Schlagbaum remembers.19 "He put it down to drink and drugs and everything else. His mother had MS but Ronnie never for a moment would admit that perhaps that's what it was." Slim Chance drummer Bruce Rowland claims that Ronnie had been running from the inevitable for years, purposefully omitting to tell hospital officials about his family's history of multiple sclerosis, for instance, when a doctor a couple of years previous was treating what in retrospect were obviously early MS-related symptoms.
Veteran producer Glyn Johns (the Faces, the Who, Ronnie's first solo single) was excited to work with the two, but wanted a guarantee that they were doing it for the right (that is, not merely monetary) reasons. He needn't have worried--no less than two bona-fide beauties resulted on Ronnie's end: "Annie" (Ronnie up to his old tricks, borrowing the melody from his own "Give Me a Penny" and adding new and exquisitely improved lyrics) and "April Fool," a stirring piece of self-examination featuring Eric Clapton's emotive dobro work. Clapton was among the all-star contributors to the album, someone who Ronnie, in spite of his failing health, managed to develop a close friendship with. Typical of Ronnie, though, it wasn't through rock star hobnobbing that they first made contact. Schlagbaum:Ian Stewart called Ronnie one day and mentioned, "Oh, by the way I ran into Eric the other day and he asked how you were." And Ronnie was mystified. He said to me, "What the fuck does Eric Clapton want? I don't even know him that well." Stu kept saying Eric's been asking after you so Ronnie asked Stu for his number. I was there when he made the call. "Eric? This is Ronnie Lane, just what the fuck do you want?"20Clapton fully bought into Ronnie's gypsy lifestyle--even writing his lovely song "Wonderful Tonight" around a late-night bonfire at Fishpool--and attempted to return the favour by inviting Ronnie to open several Clapton shows on an upcoming European tour. Playing icebreaker for rowdy crowds wanting to hear long guitar solos wasn't the ideal Slim Chance gig however. Schlagbaum: "Ronnie was still drinking heavily and the MS had started. He would get so drunk and obnoxious. He hated being a support act."21 On returning home, he received the official medical diagnosis he'd been dreading for years.
Ronnie broke up Slim Chance--again--and decided to circle his broken down wagons and raise chickens and sheep until the coldest British winter in thirty years and the diseases that blew in with it killed most of his animals, at which point he was convinced by Townsend to sell his farm and move back to London and commit himself to treating his disease (as much as one can treat an incurable, ultimately mortal disease). Even as the life he'd so carefully constructed out of the firmest ethical and spiritual foundations he knew of collapsed underneath him (Ronnie complained to a friend that, because of the destabilizing nature of his illness, he couldn't even drink himself to death), he continued to write songs, songs that needed to be recorded, whether anyone was paying attention or not. They weren't.
The album, though, 1979's See Me (which Ronnie, understandably, contributed to instrumentally only perfunctorily), brims with small wonders like "Kutchty Rye" (if Charlie Hart's joyful accordion was eccentric in 1976, it was utterly suspect at the dawn of the synthesizer age), the earthy yet elegant Lane-Clapton co-write "Barcelona," and the delightfully filthy "Good Ol' Boys Boogie." Regardless of his worsening physical condition, Ronnie, as Hart pointed out, always "had a brilliant innate sense of composition and wrote great melodies."22 As music, See Me is first-rate; as testament to a little man encountering a big obstacle and coming out bigger because of it, it's enough to make you feel briefly proud to belong to the human race.
The rest is the kindness of strangers and doing his best trying not to hurt too much. He left Kate (as Ronnie so movingly sang in "April Fool," the wheels of the gypsy caravans were rusting in the backyard and Kate and his dreamy roaming days were done), he left the woman he left Kate for, he left Britain to seek medical help in Florida, in Houston, in Austin. In the latter, although condemned to a wheelchair and his voice sometimes not much more than husky dribble, he made music with friends and tried to laugh and grew smaller and feebler. His last wife, who he met in Austin, moved him to Colorado in the mid-90's, and that's where he died, 4 July 1997.
For most of his solo career, at the end each of show, Ronnie would enjoin God to bless us all.
What a lovely idea.
Ronnie and Slim Chance
1. Andy Neill, The Faces: Had Me a Real Good Time, Omnibus Press, 2011, p 5
2. Ibid, p 15-16
3. The Passing Show (DVD), 2006.
4. Faces: Five Guys Walk Into a Bar (CD Boxset), Warner Brothers/Rhino, 2004, p 39
5. Ibid, p 42-43
6. Uli Twelker and Roland Schmitt, The Small Faces & Other Stories, Sanctuary Publishing, 2002, p 123-124
7. Neill, The Faces: Had Me a Real Good Time, p 302
8. Ibid, p 288-89
9. David Cavanagh, "One for the Road", Uncut, July 2010
10. Neill, The Faces: Had Me a Real Good Time, p 299
13. Neill, The Faces: Had Me a Real Good Time, p 350
14. Cavanagh, "One for the Road", Uncut, July 2010
15. Neill, The Faces: Had Me a Real Good Time, p 363
16. Ibid, p 347
17. Ibid, p 348-349
18. Pete Townsend, Who I Am, Harper Collins, 2012, p 297
19. Neill, The Faces: Had Me a Real Good Time, p 389-390
20. Ibid, p 379-380
21. Ibid, p 390
22. E-mail to author
Also see our look at Lane's Austin years
Ray Robertson's most recent novel is David (Biblioasis). "How a Face Became a Gypsy" will appear in an upcoming collection of music essays entitled Lives of the Poets (with Guitars). He can be reached at www.rayrobertson.com
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|