RONNIE LANE remembers rhe day, about five years ago. when
doctors first told him he had multiple sclerosis. How could he
ever forget ? "They just looked at me with an awful, pitiful,
sort of helpless expression. It was scary-really scary. When
they look at you like that, you know they can't bleedin' do anything,
and oh, do you feel alone." Lane stares silently at the
hands he can no longer control, the legs that hardly work, the
once happy-go-lucky life that now lies in ruins, "I can
be in a crowded football stadium," he says, "completely
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is incurable. That's whar the English
doctors rold Ronnie Lane. But rhen late last year, Fred Sessler
rentered his life. A longtime business associate of the Rolling
Stones, Sessler knew Lane from his glory day's with the Faces.
Sessler had left the music business, taken his rock & roll
money and invested it in a controversial MS therapy that involves
daily injecrions of diluted poisonous snake venom. Basing himself
in Florida, he opened rhe Miami Venom Institute. Keirh Richards'
aunt, who has a severe case of MS, was a patient there, and by
last November. so was Ronnie Lane,the former, now-penniless rock
star. Sessler paid for everything, and Lane slowly started gett:ing
better. The venom injections, combined with a rigorous program
of therapy, can't cure MS, but Lane says thevydid arrest the
physical deterioration associated with the disease. Suddenly,
he had hope.
But'then earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
intervened. The FDA did not approve of Sessler's venom treatments
and closed down the Miami Venom Institute, forcing him to move
his operation to Jamaica and to put a heartbroken Ronnie Lane
on a plane back to London.
Outside the small, tidy apartment in the London suburb of
Kentish Town, a daylong drizzle drips through the trees. Inside,
a small elecrtic heater struggles to take some of the chill off
the afternoon, A battered Hammond organ, a souvenir of happier
times, stands against a wall in the living room. Lane bought
it years ago from Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. His hands can't
finger the keys anymore, but music still fills his head. and
with the assistance of Boo Oldfield, he still composes songs.
Boo is a dark, pretty, determined woman, and this is her flat.
She took Lane in when his life was at a low ebb - a bottomed-out
chronicle of two failed marriages, a pair of sons (now three
and nine years old) he was rarely able to see and, finally and
most devastaringly, this cruel, crippling disease.
"Do you know about MS?" Boo asks from the kitchen,
where she's brewing a pot of tea. "It's where the outer
layer of the nerves breaks down. It's like a short circuit."
She brings the tea into the living room, and Lane, who's sitting
quietly on a couch, asks her for a packet of Sweet 'n Low. He's
confined to astringent diet-no sugar, no fat, no gluten. Bread's
out," he explains. "Anything to do with wheat flour
"Rice flour you can use to make lots of things,"
Boo cheerily interjects. It's not that bad."
"She's baked a few cakes with rice flour," says
Ronnie, slowly stirring his tea, and I think I like it better."
He's trying to be optimistic, but suddenly his smile tums into
a bitter. twisted grin."That's just looking on the bright
side of things," he says. "Let's look on the really
dull side-it's awful!"
So are the snake-venom injections. (Before he left the States,
Sessler provided Lane with a year's worth of the venom for home
treatment.) "How can I describe it?" Ronnie says wearily.
"Can you imagine the strands of your hair hurting? That's
And when you blink-like that-it's like your eyelids are made
of sandpaper. I was quite prepared to feel bad, like with the
flu or mumps.
But I've never had anything like this. This is like hell itself."
(According to a National Multiple Sclerosis Society spokeswoman,
venom therapy is "an entirely unproven form of treatment."
And while MS is not fatal itself; complications can lead to death.)
To make matters worse, Lane is broke. What money he had from
his days of fame went to doctors. Now he can't even afford a
record player, and British tax collectors constantly hound him
for thousands of pounds they claim he owes in back taxes. He
agrees that it might be a wise idea to check on the royalties
accrued by sales of the old Faces albums and Rough Mix, the lovely
LP he recorded with Pete Townshend in 1977,: but he's unable
to pay for an audit. Nor can he afford a security guard to watch
over his last significant asset, a mobile studio, which he bought
with his earnings from the Faces. The sixteen-track recording
van is now parked in another part of London, where local punks-convinced
that Lane was just another overprivileged rock star-stripped
it of equipment. Ronnie was powerless to stop them.
All he has left, really, are his memories. They stretch back
thirty-six years to the East End of London, where he was born.
His father was a truck driver-"a saint," Ronnie says-
who'd work all day and then spend his nights caring for his two
sons and their mother, who also suffered from MS. (As a child,
Lane was assured that the disease was not hereditary; when he
later contracted it, doctors allowed as how it did tend to "cluster
in families.") It was Ronnie's father who urged him to take
up the guitar as a child.
"In his own kind of truck-driver way, he was very wise,"
Lane says. "He said, 'If you learn to play an instrument,
son, learn to play a guitar. You'll alwavs have a friend.' It's
a great way of puttin' it."
His first band was called the Outcasts. Ronnie was the guitarist
and lead singer, and a little kid named Kenny Jones played drums.
When they couldn't find a steady bass player, Ronnie decided
to switch instruments and got his father to "accompany him
to a music store to pick out a bass.
"I'd seen the bass I wanted, a Harmony, and it was only
fortyfive pounds [about $100 ]. We went
to the shop, and this little fellow came up and said, 'Oh,
yeah, that's a great bass, , and he showed it to us. I liked
this little fellow a lot, and I ended up goin' home with him.
He had a stack of records as high as that table over there-really
early Sun records and Ray Charles. I'd never come across that
kind of music before, but he had it all."
The little fellow," whose name was Steve Marriott, was
also a musician, so Lane invited him down to a local pub one
night to sit in with the Outcasts. Unfortunately, Marriott destroyed
the house piano, the band got fired, and Ronnie was chucked out
of the group. Kenny Jones loyally followed him, and together
with the incorrigible Marriott they started a new group. Since
they were all rather diminurive, they called themselves the Small
With Ian McLagan on organ, the band acquired a following, a manager
and a recording deal. They charted in 1965 with their first single,
"Whatcha Gonna Do about It?" and had hits the following
year with "Sha La La La Lee", "Hey Girl"
and "All or Nothing" ( which went to Number One). They
smoked a lot of dope, dropped acid and generally lived it up.
They were in it for love and fun, and they never knew where the
money went. At one point, with three singles in the charts, they
were sleeping on top of cars parked in the street.
Even though the hits kept coming- "Itchycoo Park" in
1967, "Lazy. Sunday" in 1968-the group stayed poor.
In 1969, Marriott left to form Humble Pie, and the remaining
Small Faces looked for a replacement. Eventually, they found
two: singer Rod Stewart and bassist-turned-guitarist Ron Wood,
late of the Jeff Beck Group. This new combination was a hit,
and life soon got better. The Faces liked only the best hotels,
the biggest limousines. There was lots of drinking, and, of course,
drugs. Lane happily consumed everything available, and when he'd
occasionally notice a numbness in his fingers or a certain lack
of coordinarion, he put it down to simple excess. After a few
years, though, the extravagant lifestyle started getting to him.
"The thing that upset me was, like, to get a bloody
private jet just to fly thirty-five miles. I thought, "Come
on, who are you tryin' to impress?" And then Rod Stewart
got so big-headed I couldn't take it anymore. I don't know what
he wanted. I don't think he knew what he wanted, either. He was
just bein' stupid."
Lane left the Faces in 1973 and started a traveling rock
circus complete with jugglers and fire-eaters - called the Passing
Show. He also put together a band, Slim Chance, and recorded
four low-key; folksy albums. His physical coordination continued
worsening, and after cutting Rough Mix with Townshend (with whom
he shared a longstanding interest in the Sufibased teachings
of Meher Baba), he sought medical help. It was then that the
doctors told him there was none.
Lane puts part of the blame for his condition on drugs and alcohol
and the rock & roll lifestyle he knew with the Faces. "I
did a lot of really unreasonable things in those days,"
he says softly. "I'm ashamed of myself for the way I've
gone on, very ashamed."
"He finds solace in the Bible and in Boo and, of course,
in music. Last year, he even reunited with Steve Marriott, and
they recorded a low-budget album called The Midgets Strike Back.
No record company has yet expressed interest in releasing the
record, however, and Lane is not in any position to promote it.
Outside, the rain has ceased and the sun is shining. A visiting
journalist, taking his leave. asks Lane if there's any way in
which people might help him-thinking he might appreciate charitable
contributions from old Faces fans or some-thing.
"How could they help out?" he says. "I'!l tell
you how your readers could help me out, if they want to: don't
take dope. If you listen to me.
that'll help me out." Then he cites the Book of Proverbs,
chapter seven, verse seven: "And . . . I discerned among
the youths, a young man void of understanding."
"I've been there and back," says Ronnie Lane, and
I know how far it is."