He was the East End urchin with the pastoral vision, the creative heart of two of rock 'n' rolls most quintessentially British groups who died far from home. Wayne Pernu chronicles the turbulent life of the late, truly great Ronnie Lane.
Deep in the Rocky Mountains, some 200 miles to the south of Denver and a stone's throw of sinuous freeway from New Mexico, lies Trinidad, Colorado, a town of 7,000 with its somnolent two-dogs-to-the-back-of-every-pick-up-truck.
An unassuming Hamlet known for its cowboy heritage and once thriving coal mines, it was also the last refuge for a diminutive Englishman whose death on June 4 came with all the mourning, confusion and bittersweet relief appropriate to his much-loved contradiction-packed and wildly unfulfilled life. He was a musician who had ceased to play; a singer who could no longer sing; an exquisitely gifted songwriter who doubtless has melodies running through his head but no longer possessed the means of bestowing them on the outside world. By the end his wanderlust knew no roads but the quiet street on which he lived in a modest house with his wife and two doting stepdaughters. There he passed his days on a bed that looked out of a picture window onto a single aspen tree whose grown leaves he'd admire when spring came to the Rockies. The disease that killed him imposed an ironic coda on an extraordinary life.
Ronnie Lane was a working class urchin from London's East End who fancied himself a gypsy troubadour. When he threw in the silk scarf at the height of his band The Faces' success, it was to become a shepherding troubadour in Wales. Ensconced at Fishpool, his Welsh farmhouse, he'd invite friends such as Eric Clapton up to drink inordinate amounts of brandy and play spur-of-the-moment gigs under assumed names in car parks of pubs such as the Drum And Monkey, There they'd perform from a makeshift stage for the locals.
Ronnie Lane possessed enormous faith in supraliminal forces. A fortune-teller once told him a woman would arrive to put right both his tangled career and never ending personal problems. It sets in motion what one friend calls "this endless search for a female who was going to make a difference in his life".
Ronnie's first wife, Sue, remembers the gnomic 22-year-year-old pop star she married as being "completely enchanting, completely captivating." Boo Oldfield, his companion in the early '80s, says, "He was the most interesting character you could ever hope to meet."
Ronnie had a gift for infusing the most mundane undertaking with a sense of exhilaration. He could make fixing a bowl of cornflakes as exciting as performing a sell-out crowd at Wembley. He saw wit and paradox in the unlikeliest things. Yet this wide-eyed playfulness often translated into a lack of responsibility which had unfortunate repercussions throughout his life.
When first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the degenerative disease which first incapacitated then killed him - it also took the life of his mother - he responded by trying to drink himself to death. Eventually he chanelled his considerable energies into fighting the terrible illness. When he fled England for America in 1984, friends speculate he left to avoid his loved ones having to watch his inevitable, protracted decline. Others say that, by dying in the Rocky Mountains married to a woman of Hispanic-Native American descent, he was following an injunction given to him as a boy by his father.
Cynthia Dillaine, former wife of the late 'sixth Stone' Ian Stewart, saw much of Lane during his frequent stays with the couple in the 1970s: "We always liked Ronnie. Although he was a naughty little boy, he was also a charming little boy with a twinkle in his eye. He was very demonstrative, very affectionate. He always reminded me of a puppy - you'd get hugs and kisses whenever he came in or went out. Yet he never lost masculinity as a result of that. It was very difficult to be cross with Ronnie." A primary songwriter for two of the most successful British bands of the '60s and '70s, Ronnie should have been, if not a millionaire, at least comfortably off. Yet, except for a few flush years with The Faces, he was usually chronically low on cash. His attitude to money could be astonishingly nonchalant. Billy Nicholls, one of Lane's best friends, remembers: "Once he was driving down the M1 in an open-top Mercedes. He opens his wallet and all this money flew out. Hundreds and hundreds of pounds- he'd just come off tour. And there wasn't any question of him stopping, going to get it. He just carried on driving."
BORN IN PLAISTOW AND SPENDING HIS CHILDHOOD AT 385 Romford Road in Forest Gate, Ronald Frederick Lane was a typical product of the post-war baby boom. His father Stan was a lorry driver who, when not working, spent his time caring for Ronnie and his older brother, Stan Jr, as well as their ailing mother, Elsie. The one exception to an otherwise happy childhood was the temperamental polarity between Ronnie's parents. Stan Lane was the embodiment of warmth and encouragement; Elsie, on the other hand, seemed aloof and brooding. This basic coldness was exacerbated by declining health which started about the time Ronnie was born. It would be some years before tests revealed she suffered from multiple sclerosis. Stan Jr: "Before, she wasn't too bad. She was always a bit distant. When she got multiple sclerosis it made her worse. She was a right cold fish. We didn't get any response from her at all. Dad used to take us to bed and read us a story and tuck us in and that, and give us love, really."
In later years, when Ronnie spoke of his father it was in the most reverential terms ("a saint" was how he once described him). He spoke comparatively little of Elsie; when he did, it was to point out her flaws, especially what he saw as almost cruel ingratitude towards his father. Ronnie's leaving home primarily seemed to be a flight from the crushing despair brought about by Elsie's illness.
Stan Lane was full of aphorisms. None would be more important to his younger son than, " Learn to play the guitar and you'll always have a friend." After picking up his first instrument about the time he left school, Ronnie suffered through several jobs, including a brief stint as an electrician's mate and another as a scooter messenger for a false teeth manufacturer. Eventually he landed a job testing guitars for Selmer's.Around then he put up notices with the intention of starting a band. Thisled to the formation of The Outcasts. The group's drummer - who came to Ronnie by way of his brother Stan - was 14-year-old Kenny (later Kenney) Jones, who remembers Ronnie as "looking like one of The Beatles before The Beatles". Of The Outcasts, he says, "It was good for its time. It had a raw charm and honesty."
Not long after The Outcasts fell apart, Jones and Lane met Steve Marriott while shopping for a bass guitar for Ronnie. With Jimmy Winston on keyboards, it was only a matter of weeks before this new band - playing to their peer group of Mods - would be picked up by manager Don Arden and thrust into the burgeoning pop vortex of London. The rise of The Small Faces as quintessential figureheads of the Mod movement, quick on the heels of their first hit Whatcha Gonna Do About It for Decca, in October 1965, came naturally, and needed only to be exploited by an adroit hand. Don Arden was the man.
Initially treated with suspicion in some London circles for what was seen as a blatant copy of cherished Who trademarks (for instance, the use of distortion on that first single), The Small Faces were regarded by writer and Who confidante Richard Barnes as decidedly less contrived than their target-emblazoned counterparts: "The Who became Mods as a career move. But The Small Faces became Mods almost before they became a band. They were real, genuine Mods. " And a band whose personal charm overcame Pete Townshend's initial skepticism when he went to check out what he'd assumed to be a bunch of pirates.
Like the Beatles, The Small Faces' rapport was a large part of their appeal. Jimmy Page was a session musician when he first met them during a performance for Ready Steady Go! in 1965. "They invited me to have something to eat at this Italian restaurant after the show, which I thought was really sweet. They all had this generosity and warmth - a bunch of really good guys." However, not long after Whatcha Gonna Do About It reached Number 14 on the charts, the other three members did a Pete Best on keyboardist Jimmy Winston. Summoned to replace him was Ian McLagan.
"I'd seen them on Ready Steady Go!," McLagan recalls. "My dad had shouted to me to come and watch them, He said, 'Look. This bloke on the bass, 'e looks just like you.' And it was Ronnie Lane. Back then we did look a lot alike. When we first met, we used to look at each other and laugh. There was something about our faces and cheeky grins. It was a bit like fate. . .and very fortunate.
"Riding the Marriott-Lane songwriting partnership, during the next three years the band would chart a dozen times in England. After the Mod phase had run its course, culminating with the incandescent All Or Nothing, which knocked The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine from the Number 1 position in September 1966, the group's forays into more expansive psychedelia would prove to be their most fruitful period - a fact at odds with how often the band are painted with a single Mod brush stroke.
But before this, The Small Faces severed ties with both Decca and Arden. Even after All Or Nothing, they were still on salary. Questions concerning their financial affairs were met with stern rebuffs. When their parents banded together to confront Arden, he informed them that their sons were all high on drugs, a tactic which had the desired effect of terminating further inquiries.
Glyn Johns, who had a hand in producing or engineering every Small Faces recording, remembers the toll sudden fame exacted on the band: "They were at Ready, Steady Go!, and the reason they were so exhausted was they were being worked so hard, according to them, by Don Arden. Steve Marriott passed out from exhaustion. They were all in a pretty bad way, including Ronnie. So I put him in the car and took him home. He stayed at my place for two or three days. They were all completely shattered"
While The Small Faces were disentangling themselves from Decca and Arden, Andrew Loog Oldham was putting the money he'd made managing The Rolling Stones into setting up the Immediate label. The creative flexibility he offered was crucial to the band when they signed in February 1967. When Billy Nicholls was signed by Immediate, Lane made another close friend. "We thought it would be the English version of Stax, where everyone plays each other's stuff. And we all did. No-one ever got credited, no-one really got paid. I had my own office there and that's where everyone would hang out. We'd play all the time. It was a really, really good atmosphere.
The hits came at breakneck speed: Here Comes The Nice, Itchycoo Park (noted at the time for its innovative use of phasing), Tin Soldier, Lazy Sunday, The Universal, Afterglow. And when the album Ogden's Nut Gone Flake was released in 1968, with its circular cover and Stanley Unwin narration (for which Unwin was, at his request, compensated with a bottle of Scotch), it stayed at Number 1 for six weeks
"The best time for me was Ogden's," says McLagan. "We took a boat down the river; rented these cabin cruisers, and some of the songs were written over a period of about a week sailing down the river, causing havoc. It was really a lovely time."
Ronnie fell right in with this accelerated era. He dropped acid (the first time in the form of a spiked orange slice at a party), went paisley and, along with his wife Sue (they had married quietly in April 1968) discovered, through Pete Townshend, the teachings of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. One of Meher Baba's western disciples, Delia DeLeon, who lived near Ronnie and Sue in Richmond, was to exert a considerable influence on the couple.
Although the band were changing fast on the surface, there were structural constants that brought everything crashing down, in particular a rift between Marriott and the others that grew with the years. "There was always tension around Steve, McLagan recalls. "He was such a dynamic person. He was great laugh and a talent, but he could be a pain in the neck. Marriott wanted The Small Faces to move in a direction more akin to the loud riffage adopted later on by his band Humble Pie (Peter Frampton was a guitarist at these sessions) - a move at odds with Ronnie, who was developing his own laid-back acoustic style. With rows flaring up, things were bound to come to ahead.
"They actually broke up at one of my sessions," recalls Glyn Johns. "We were doing a session for Johnny Halliday and they had a huge argument, an enormous falling out. That was it." Marriott's abrupt departure saw the other three temporarily on the skids. "We were all left dumb and numb-struck," Jones recalls. "It was a new experience for us.
"On top of this, the band discovered - along with the other Immediate artists - that their label was broke. On the heels of Decca and Don Arden, the sting was acute. (Not until 1991, after Marriott's death - according to McLagan - would the band start receiving Decca royalties; a settlement with Castle Communications, the present owners of the Immediate catalogue, was reached earlier this year.)
By the time of this discovery, the group had already begun rehearsing with Marriott's replacement, ex-Bird and recent Jeff Beck Group member Ron Wood. In tow was the former vocalist with The Jeff Beck Group and Wood's best friend, Rod Stewart.
"THE SMALL FACES WERE OUR FAVOURITE BAND," Wood recalls.
"When Stevie Marriott left to form Humble Pie, it was a real
disappointment. So I rang up Ronnie. I said, What are you guys
gonna do? He said, 'I don't know.' I says, Well, you've gotta
keep playing. Funnily enough, The Jeff Beck Group split up a couple
of weeks before Woodstock. And Ronnie said, 'Well, come over and
let's have a play. ' I was very honoured. "And I went over
there and Mac and Kenny and I played with our backs to each other
for a while; we were all sort of shy. And then we just had a great
feel. About six months later [actually around six weeks] we thought,
Who's gonna sing? 'Cos we were doing all instrumental stuff like
Booker T and The Meters. Rod was lurking upstairs and he liked
the sound of it"
Through weeks of fairly directionless jamming, Ronnie assumed vocal duties before Jones - unbeknown to Lane and McLagan- invited Stewart to climb aboard as their rooster cropped frontman.
"I said to the others, I've asked Rod to join the band," Jones recalls. "And it didn't go down well at all. They didn't want another Steve Marriott, somebody else that would let us down. I'm a big fan of Ronnie's voice, but, from my point of view, it wasn't a frontman's voice. I felt, on one hand, like I was betraying Ronnie. . . I wasn't. I just didn't feel Ronnie could carry every single song and strut around the stage as a frontman."
While Ronnie grudgingly let Rod join the fold, his tight friendship with Wood served as a buffer for any differences. "Woody was the fulcrum between Rod and Ronnie," says McLagan.
Dropping the diminutive prefix, the reborn Faces harnessed their lack of direction and insecurities into a disjointed but powerful creative force which, fueled by a steady flow of Blue Nun and Jack Daniel's, would make them one of the great live acts of the '70s. Notoriously subversive pranksters, on-stage the band would form a huddle, pretending to be going over a set-list while they took turns snorting lines of coke off the top of an amplifier.
While The Faces would go on to become a world-class act, it was in America that the group made their mark. Dave Marsh, at the time a writer for Creem in The Faces stronghold of Detroit, saw through the surface high jinks. "They were all having a lot of fun up there; it was all very Chipmonks-like. At the same time, there was some sense of tension. Whose band is this? What's this band about? What are we going for? And that would come out in a sort of sardonic way. Never in a mean way, but it was there.
"The group's recordings, while uneven, signalled Lane's development as a songwriter whose talents lay both in boozy bar-room ballads and breathtakingly fine pastoral numbers. The aptly-titled First Step (1970) saw them feeling for a foothold. Apart from the excellent Flying-which flopped as a single - the album is notable for Ronnie's folksy ramble on reincarnation, Stone. Its follow-up, Long Player, was much better, and included Lane's lovely, lilting homesick ode, Richmond. Their third effort, A Nod's As Good As A Wink. . . To A Blind Horse, showed them in top form. Produced by Glyn Johns, Miss Judy's Farm was a hilarious reaction to the Stones' Brown Sugar, while the blistering Stay With Me showed the group perfectly capable of harnessing their live energy in the studio. You're So Rude and Debris were nice bookends which underscored a natural growth in Ronnie's songwriting.
In spite of the fame, money, and creative surge, all was not well within the band. Before joining The Faces, Rod Stewart signed a solo deal with Mercury. His escalating career shot straight into the stratosphere when the single Maggie May and its accompanying album, Every Picture Tells A Story, occupied the Number 1 spot on both sides of the Atlantic in 1971.
By the time of A Nod's As Good As A Wink, Stewart's profile was eclipsing that of The Faces, putting a chill on group relations. Billy Nicholls: "Ronnie was very disillusioned when Immediate broke up. He was always very suspicious. So when The Small Faces became Rod Stewart And The Faces you knew immediately what Ronnie's reaction would be. He had a very strong ego, a very strong sense of importance, and he was proud."
Lane was also incensed at Stewart's tendency to cherry-pick songs from The Faces for his own solo albums. Worse, Ronnie claimed to have written the melody to Mandolin Wind, a song on Every Picture Tells A Story credited solely to Stewart. Rod's ascension to tabloid celebrity, which fanned the notion that The Faces were merely his backing group, doubtless exacerbated Lane's resentment.
Around this time Ronnie left Sue for Kate McKinnerney, wife of Mike McKinnerney (the artist responsible for the Tommy cover). Their becoming an item at the end of 1972 was spectacular. Russ Schlagbaum, a roadie for The Faces and later Slim Chance, recalls the incident: "There was a birthday party held at Mike and Katie's house in Wales. Ronnie and Susan came up and suddenly Susan's walking around saying, 'Has anybody seen Ronnie?' And McKinnerney and everybody's going, 'Have you seen Kate?' That was when they jumped in Ronnie's Land Rover and took off. Luke [Ronnie and Kate's eldest son] was conceived when they were up in Ireland."
With Ronnie and Kate was Billy Nicholls, as well as Kate's six month-old daughter, Alana. This Irish excursion turned into a tour of pubs along the way that would have a profound effect on Ronnie's attitude toward live performance. "I think that's when Ronnie got the feel of playing close to people," says Schlagbaum. "That immediate warmth and feedback of somebody sitting 10 feet away from you."
The Faces' fourth album, Ooh La La, went to Number 1 in the UK, but its release prompted a row that ended in Ronnie's leaving the group forever. Schlagbaum: "We were on tour in America in the fall of 1972. Some English paper had interviewed Rod about the album and Rod said, 'Well, off the record, Ooh La La's a load of shit really. Wait until my album comes out. But don't print that.' Well, of course the guy printed it. And Ronnie Lane read these papers when they were shipped over and he was fucking furious. And Rod would say, trying to cover it up, 'Well, yes, but he wasn't supposed to print it. It's his fault. . . ' Ronnie was absolutely irate and he says, 'fuck the lot of you, I'm quitting."
Ron Wood. "We used to have a stupid saying: 'I'm leaving the group' - we used to say it if there was a problem, for a joke. One day Ronnie came in and said to me, 'Sit down, I've got something I want to tell you. I'm leaving the group.' And I went, Oh yeah, great joke, Ronnie, it's wearing a bit thin now. And he said, 'No, I really am, and I'm also running off with Kate.' I went, What! You've got to be joking. I didn't know what to say. I did not like that. And from then on he went down, down, down, down, down."
McLagan remembers Ronnie trying to persuade him and the others to desert Rod. "He said, 'I'm leaving the group. Why don't you and Kenny and Woody be in my group.' I said, What? I don't think so. He wanted us to leave Rod before Rod left us." Lane's departure was the beginning of the end, he believes. "The balance was gone. It was all a bit desperate after that. The band missed him. We had no pastoral when he'd gone. Rod wasn't interested in The Faces anyway. He was only interested in his solo career."
Ronnie stayed on to complete the US tour as well as three shows at the Edmonton Sundown in early June. On his last night as a Face he ran into Marc Bolan at Tramps. "So 'ave you got a job for an out-of-work bass player?" he sheepishly inquired.
LUKE LANE WAS BORN IN AUGUST 1973. STAN JR RECALLS Ronnie's drive to the hospital. "He was coming down the road by the Albert Hall alongside Hyde Park and - I think he was a bit pissed at the time - he drove through the railings and went down to the other side and came back through the railings and carried on going down the road." That same year Lane collaborated with Ron Wood on the soundtrack for an obscure film, Mahoney's Last Stand. Ronnie and Kate spent the rest of the year travelling before purchasing Fishpool, a farmhouse on a huge tract of land near Welshpool. Ronnie bought several hundred sheep and enrolled in agricultural school where he sat in a classroom surrounded by 15-year-old Welsh farmboys studying tractors and the fine art of castrating lambs. "I don't know if I can hack it," he told Kate one evening after class; "they're flicking rubbers at me."
Russ Schlagbaum, himself a farmboy from the American Mid-west, found it hard to take Ronnie and Kate's Welsh farmlife seriously. "I would go up to see Ronnie to take care of some business and see them playing this game of farming, and it used to irritate the shit out of me 'cos I knew it was only Ronnie's wealth that was buying it. Once he said to me, 'I bought this tractor, Russell, wait 'til you see it.' There's this old clapped-out pre-war Ford tractor. I said, Does it run? He said, 'Well, no.' When he did get it running, it was like Green Acres, that guy bouncing on the tractor: a skinny guy on a hard iron seat just pleased as punch."
Fed up with touring, personal conflicts, impersonal arena shows, and the trappings of stardom, at Fishpool Ronnie planned on approaching the music business on his own terms. When the first of many incarnations of Slim Chance was born - which included Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle - Ronnie, prodded by Glyn Johns, entered the studio with his band to record a fine debut single, How Come. It proved to be both a hit and a signpost for the musical direction he would chart for the rest of his career- The single's release party was held in Gerry Cottle's Big Top, pitched on London's Clapham Common in November 1973. Its success planted the idea for a more complex tour Ronnie would undertake the following year.
Under the aegis of Billy Gaff, who also managed The Faces and Rod Stewart's solo career, Ronnie spent March and April of 1974 recording the first of a series of albums with Slim Chance. Released in June on Gaff's own GM label, Anymore For Anymore was a rollicking rock'n'folk effort that perfectly reflected Ronnie's musical aspirations. Drawing from a wide source of styles - rock'n'roll, Tin Pan Alley, traditional British folk as well as roots Americana - its melodious, free-for-all spontaneity and acoustic leanings would serve as a blueprint for subsequent Slim Chance efforts. If, as Rod Stewart would later say, Ronnie had been the heart of that band, he succeeded in transplanting that indefinable spirit into his new aggregation.
To tie in with the album's release, Ronnie and Kate sought to realise an ambition of taking a gypsy caravan tour across the English countryside. Dubbed The Passing Show, it would include a sundry assortment of musicians, dancers, clowns, and roving hippy-gypsies travelling in a fleet of five antiquated trucks. Its haphazard origins would prove ominous. Ronnie originally planned on recruiting several high-profile friends - Ron Wood and Pete Townshend were two possibilities - to take part. When these efforts failed, he determined to go through with it anyway. According to Schlagbaum, Ronnie and Kate's wishes to undertake the tour were reinforced by a strange encounter in late 1973. " Ronnie had a pocket watch his Dad gave him that kept stopping. He would look at it and notice it was wrong, put it away and then the next time he took it out it would be correct, as if somebody was correcting it. This went on for weeks, months. And he got freaked out about it and told Delia DeLeon. She said, 'That's very strange, let me introduce you to Dodo' - which she rarely did, because of [Meher] Baba's warnings about the dangers of the occult.
"This tiny little creature lived in East Twickenham in a huge old Victorian house that was as cold as a refrigerator. Dodo told Ronnie, 'There's someone from your past who's trying to get your attention, and he's using this watch as a means of doing so. He was a travelling showman; and I'm not quite sure what it was he wanted to tell.' But the fact that he was a showman and had been a traveller in Europe totally freaked Ronnie and Kate out. Ronnie was convinced that he was destined to play this traveller's part."
For this giant road extravaganza, the lorries were provided by a retired circus owner named Wally Lukens who collected £6,000 up front for a fleet Schlagbaum says belonged in the London Transport Museum. "These vehicles - some dating back to the '40s - had been stored in a barn for years. They pulled them out, shovelled eight inches of dried chicken shit off them, slapped some gaudy paint on, and that's what we were presented with."
The tour suffered from minimal advance publicity: "The posters were badly designed - quaint-looking but you couldn't read them," says Schlagbaum. Also, both label and management offered insufficient support for what was increasingly becoming a grand but foolhardy undertaking.
The caravan took off from Marlow to Bath in late May, the shows in Bath being well-attended and warmly received. These were to be the exception. The accompanying clown act, The Dawes Family, were so dull they needed canned laughter, so were replaced by a couple who specialised in fire-eating. While the music was not a problem, poor planning and the chaotic entourage wound up bleeding Ronnie's bank account dry.
Wally Lukens, realising the tour was in fact going to proceed beyond Bath, hired a beefy, bearded circus old hand named Captain Hill as a mechanic for the dilapidated fleet of trucks, three of which had broken down within the first 100 miles. The caravan was constantly being stopped by curious local constables telling them gypsies weren't allowed to stop in their parish, or attempting to charge them for towing offences. "Every combination of vehicle was illegal one way or the other," says Schlagbaum. He also recalls that, when the police attempted to question the caravan's resident mechanic, "Captain Hill would get in the copper's face and tell him, 'Just fuck off out of it, I've got enough problems without you coming round causing more aggravation. Now piss off!' They would always just tell us, to move on out of their parish and quietly get in their cars and leave "
After 23 shows, the tour collapsed in Newcastle. Both Ronnie and Schlagbaum had charged their credit cards to the limit buying fuel, by which time the tour had lost its shirt, pants, and all of the various gypsy scarves they would have worn hobbling their way back to Fishpool.
While The Passing Show proved to be a financial quagmire, everyone involved - including besieged roadie Schlagbaum - agrees it was a noble idea well ahead of its time. Jimmy Page, who did not participate, says: "It was an incredible, radical move. And that sort of idea is as contemporary now as it was then.
RONNIE HAD AN OBSESSION WITH THE EXCHANGE & MART.
When journalists asked, he'd cite the second-hand bible as his source for finding the musicians in his band. At one point he even tried to have a trade ad for a forthcoming record placed in it. The paper refused, saying it didn't want to promote something as disreputable as a rock'n'roll band. But rather than having to audition players, the next incarnation of Slim Chance fell into his lap.
Charlie Hart. "I'd been working with Ruan O'Lochlainn and we'd lost a singer. Ruan knew that Ronnie needed a band so we all went and met him and auditioned and Ronnie took to us. At one of the first rehearsals, Ronnie said, 'Right, which of you lads is going to play the accordion? And he looked at me and said, 'Oh, you can play it Charlie.' And he picked up this old accordion and threw it at me.
"His approach was very much: don't get hung up on the musical niceties, you're there to entertain. He didn't like the pretentiousness of the rock business. And that's why he got a band together with people he knew were good players but didn't take too many airs and graces. He was actually a precursor of a lot of bands like The Levellers and The Pogues."
Except for bandleader O'Lochlainn, who left after about six months, the line-up of Charlie Hart, Steve Simpson and Brian Belsham (Glen Le Fleur would be replaced by Alan Davey on drums) would form the core of Slim Chance 'til early 1977. Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance, recorded in two weeks at Star Grove, Mick Jagger's country estate, succeeds better than any other album in capturing the vibrant spontaneity at the heart of Ronnie's music. Brimming with loose ends and misshit notes, this album contains some of Ronnie's most beautiful- and overlooked - songwriting. Little Piece Of Nothing, Anniversary, and the majestic Tin And Tambourine (co-written with Kate Lane) resonate with rustic beauty rooted in themes of rural pub life, the Wild West and gypsy wanderlust. As with Anymore For Anymore, Ronnie's choice of cover tunes and adaptations is impeccable, effortlessly juxtaposing Chuck Berry and Fats Domino with The Dillards.
The next album, One For The Road, reflects the Welsh farm life in which Ronnie and Kate were immersed. Consisting of all original material, the group spent months recording it on Ronnie's mobile at Fishpool. The songs are nearly all first rate and, as Faces biographer John Pidgeon wrote, Ronnie - if he hadn't already done so- "created something unique in British music: a genuine form of native country music - no capitals, no inverted commas, just music that came out of the country and couldn't conceivably be created anywhere else."
Charlie Hart feels Kate Lane was the crucial influence on Ronnie during this period. "Kate supplied a lot of the imagery and ideology: It wasn't successful commercially, so it's easy to say he was led astray. But it was very successful from a cultural point of view. Lots of people followed, so it was pretty seminal."
By the end of 1976, having pretty much exhausted his funds, the band folded and Ronnie was left with a mountain of debt when The Small Faces were approached about a reunion (a reissue of Itchycoo Park had charted for the second time). Ronnie was ambivalent from the outset, but was pressured into the affair in order to pay off his creditors. The result was an unmitigated disaster.
"Kenny and I got together with him in Wales at his farmhouse," McLagan recalls. "Kenny'd already spoken to Steve about getting back together, but Ronnie didn't want to. So then Ronnie talked to me and Kenny and wanted us to get back together with him and call it Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance. Like we'd be his band. So we left very disillusioned.
But then he said he'd get together with this thing. He lasted one night. He got very drunk very quickly. He was angry and got very abusive. I think, looking back, the disease was there, though no-one knew at the time.
Ronnie later summed up this episode to Schlagbaum. "It's all right to visit your old school, but you don't want to attend classes."
Stories proliferate from this time about Ronnie's health. An inability to do something as basic as replace a lighter in his pocket was put down to drink. There was never really a time when Ronnie didn't take things to excess, both drink and drugs, so it was easy for friends to rationalise his quirks. Soon, however, Ronnie began to voice his concerns. Cynthia Dillaine: "He was staying here and came down one morning and said, 'I don't know; Auntie Cyn, I've got something wrong with me. I can't play the guitar properly 'cos my fingers won't work. And my arm has got this funny bit in it like. . . this dead bit. ' And I said to him, Well, listen, my love, you must go and see somebody because you can't afford to not be able to play the guitar; that's your livelihood. And I have no idea exactly when he went, but it was quite soon.
"The dilemma of avoiding the Small Faces reunion (which went on without him) while staying out of the poorhouse was solved when Ronnie approached the ever-faithful Pete Townshend about collaborating on an album. Townshend agreed - with some reluctance - and the two approached Glyn Johns to produce it.
"I agreed to make it on the premise that we wouldn't just do it for the money," says Johns. "We'd actually make sure it reached the potential that existed between the two guys. I pushed it as hard as I could, knowing what I was dealing with. And it's one of the best records I ever made."
While no concessions were made to adapt to one another's idiosyncratic styles, Rough Mix was a sparkling effort whose unity is all the more surprising given the circumstances under which it was recorded. Pete Townshend later told Timothy White: "What Ronnie was hoping was that we would write together. I'd always said that I couldn't write with anybody. I still find it very, very difficult to contemplate. And it was in that session that I realised Ronnie wasn't well. He could sing OK, but he couldn't play the bass. I got angry with him about halfway through the session because I thought he was just a drunken pig. I was such a hypocrite- I used to drink far more than he did. But he was falling all over the place, and I just got angry and punched him - I punched his right shoulder to emphasise a point- and he went flying down the hall. It was then that I realised he was sick. It was only a couple of years later that it emerged he had multiple sclerosis. Yet with this record, and bullying me into doing it on the basis of, 'Pete, if you don't help me I'll starve to death, he very, very cleverly got me to really start my solo career."
Ronnie toured as support for Eric Clapton, with whom he'd recently formed a strong bond. Clapton would make frequent visits to Fishpool and bought Ronnie a Landcruiser. One night during a poker session, after money, car keys and other valuables had been exchanged, there were no stakes left. Ronnie told Eric he'd stake five-year-old stepdaughter Alana and that Clapton could have her when she was 16 if he beat Ronnie. Clapton won.
Russ Schlagbaum. "When we started working with Eric we were his support band, but Roger [Forrester, Clapton's manager] treated us like he treated Eric's band-very well. And when we got to Dublin, Ronnie went into the soundcheck. He wanted mandolin or something to come up in Charlie Hart's monitor and the guy says 'No, we can't do it or we'd have to change Eric's patch.' So I told Ronnie, and he went into this rage about it, screaming over the microphone, 'You've got a million fucking dollar PA system and I can't get a fucking mandolin up in the monitor. . .' I tried to explain to him that you can't get it because you're the support band. Then I realised it was the first time he'd ever been a support band. He'd always had everything that was available. And this was one time that they said, No you can't do it."
RONNIE FINALLY WENT TO A DOCTOR AND RECEIVED THE news which would forever change his life. For a time he tried to maintain a sense of normality. Kate gave birth to their second child, Ruben, in 1979. He also continued recording. See Me, released in 1980 on the tiny Gem label, drew most of its material from the earlier, unreleased album Self-Tapper, adding several new songs and discarding old ones. As on the earlier Rough Mix, Eric Clapton contributed both guitar and songwriting, yet it vanished without a trace (it was reissued last year by Edsel). At Pete Townshend's urging, Ronnie and his family moved back from Wales to London, settling into a house in Twickenham. Kate Lane says that "from the best motives, I think [Pete thought] if Ronnie was nearer to the core of things and got more feedback he'd start feeling happier with himself. It didn't happen though."
The move to London came at perhaps the lowest ebb in Ronnie's career. Turnout to his shows was often poor, and as the MS progressed it became increasingly difficult for Ronnie to function. In fits of despondency he'd go to a pub, order a beer, and before finishing it would be rubber-legged, to the bewilderment of his fellow barflies.
One day Ronnie took his gun and told Kate he was going to sell it as they needed money. He never returned home. After a week's waiting and a stream of frantic phone calls to friends by Kate, Ronnie turned up at the doorstep of Boo Oldfield, a woman who'd worked in Ronnie's mobile studio. Oldfield took Ronnie in with the stipulation he'd avoid drugs and drink while using diet, exercise and any other means necessary to keep the MS at bay. It was with Boo and her children that Ronnie flew to Florida in early 1982 to undergo experimental treatment involving snake venom injections. The clinic was run by Fred Sessler, a former associate of The Rolling Stones, who paid for Ronnie's treatment. But the United States Food And Drug Administration shut the operation down shortly after Ronnie and Boo arrived. Dejected, they were soon back on a plane to London.
It was over dinner with Pete Townshend that Boo Oldfield broached the idea of organising musicians to raise money for the purchase of hyperbaric oxygen chambers; an unorthodox method of treating MS which brought considerable improvement to Ronnie's mobility. Townshend soon dropped out and the project was picked up by Glyn Johns, who recruited Ian Stewart to assemble a band for a show at the Albert Hall. Eric Clapton, who had approached Johns on Lane's behalf, also devoted much time to the organisation of the concerts, whose proceeds would go to the British charity ARMS (Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis.)
"I was at a party at Jeff Beck's," Jimmy Page recalls. "Ian Stewart came up saying how grim the state of affairs was for Ronnie. Everyone jumped at it. Of course we'll do it. Stu would have been the one with the heart, and if Stu asked you to do something, you'd do it." Eventually, the line-up grew to include Page, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Kenney Jones. The UK benefit netted around $1 million. Plans were drawn up for a Stateside tour with proceeds going towards establishing an ARMS branch in America. These six US shows were organised by the late Bill Graham and eventually raised a million dollars (of which $250,000 went to Texas State University for research).
Then the problem arose about who would run ARMS America. Paddy Grafton-Green was the overseeing attorney. "The thought was that if we could establish an ARMS US to be run in parallel with the ARMS UK, then we couldn't take the money from America and put it into ARMS UK - because Americans would have paid the money. Therefore it ought to be spent on research in the United States. That's why there was a desire to find somebody in the United States who might run it in parallel, if you like, with the UK organisation which still exists to this day."
The person chosen to oversee ARMS America was Mae Nacol, a Houston-based attorney who claimed to have been cured of MS. Oldfield remembers Nacol lobbying aggressively to get Ronnie to relocate to ARMS America's home base of Houston, Texas. This he did in late 1984.
"Mae Nacol arrived almost out of the blue," says Grafton-Green. "The feeling was that this would be a relatively low-key operation with minimal overhead. But the attempt would be to raise the profile of the MS problem and find various solutions to it. Mae Nacol arrived and almost the first thing she said was, 'I've had MS and I've been cured.' And that staggered me. It could have been true for all I knew. One felt she understood the medical side of the problem. She'd been through it and she would really devote herself towards trying to raise public consciousness. It wouldn't be quite a sister charity but there would certainly be a link between the two. That never happened.
"What did happen undermined nearly two years' worth of tireless effort on the part of dozens of people both in England and America. Within a year, most of the money raised by Ronnie's friends was gone. Larry Hysinger, Ronnie's attorney until he himself became a defendant in the case, says, "If you want to take Mae Nacol's side she had a different vision than Ronnie. Her vision was that this million bucks was prime money for her empire built around MS. And she had a real vision that when this money ran out, Ronnie's friends were gonna do it again and they were gonna fund this thing, and it was just gonna keep getting bigger and better." This is corroborated by Glyn Johns who recalls Nacol flying out to California trying to persuade him to organise another benefit show.
Where the money went is still a point of contention. Among the allegations made at the time was that some of the ARMS money had gone on renovating a house. "Those were the allegations," says Hysinger. "But that was not the big problem. The big problem, at least in Ronnie's eyes, was that Mae Nacol was spending money on the ARMS organisation at a rate. . . When Ronnie came to me, the problem he expressed [was] that there was a million dollars given to him by trusted friends, basically given to him in trust to do something for himself and MS, and he was kind of a figure in this thing. Only much later on did he realise that, of the million dollars, $900,000 of it had been spent on the organisation. You have to appreciate it was a big office full of phone bank and employees that worshipped Mae Nacol. Mae thought there was nothing wrong with this and didn't seem to be concerned that the money was running out. Ronnie was just utterly embarrassed and wanted to avoid even mention of this or certainly putting his name in front of any of this stuff."
A prolonged legal battle ensued. Since Ronnie didn't have the funds to pursue Nacol in court, the Texas Attorney General's office was brought in. They eventually shut ARMS down over mismanagement of the funds. The night before she was scheduled to go to court as a defendant in the ARMS case, Nacol settled out of court. Ronnie faced an allegation of liability since, technically, he was a director of ARMS , America. In turn, Nacol also sued Ronnie for $10,000,000 for libel, slander and defamation of character. After Hysinger became ensnared in the web of litigation, he was replaced as Lane's attorney by William Gage, who opted for an out-of-court settlement.
"I settled Ronnie out of this case before Nacol settled," Gage recalls. "The terms of Ronnie's settlement with the state were that he would pay a fairly small amount only in the event that they recovered less than a certain amount of money from Mae Nacol. Ronnie didn't want to be involved in this any more. His health had reached the point where it was an incredible burden on him. " Cynthia Dillaine says the situation left her feeling "devastated. And all the boys were devastated. What had started off as a completely altruistic thing turned into something nasty. I do not believe there was one musician connected with that tour who did it for any reason other than the serious wish to help Ronnie."
BY THE END OF 1987, RONNIE HAD RELOCATED TO Austin where he found a warm reception from that city's thrilling music scene. He formed a Tex-Mex version of Slim Chance and was also backed for a time by The Tremors, a group which included former Stones sideman Bobby Keys. He spent his first year in Austin with Jo Rae Dimenno, a woman he met in Houston when ARMS was being set up. In the fall of 1987, he met Susan Gallegos at a Halloween party. Six months later she would become Ronnie's third wife. "I came to Austin and did an album with The Georgia Satellites, " McLagan recalls. "We went out for a meal and the guys in the Satellites were really thrilled to meet Ronnie. I hadn't met Susan before. I said, Ronnie, I see you both got identical rings on. He looked up and said, 'We're married."
Ronnie was active in Austin performing and making occasional appearances on local radio shows. In 1990 he toured Japan with a band that included McLagan. His last tour of the US occurred later that year. Failing health made performing increasingly difficult. McLagan remembers the Japanese tour as being "a bit of a fiasco. Ronnie's voice wasn't very strong. The mic-stand would fall away from his mouth and he wouldn't know it and no-one could hear him. "Around this time friends and relatives claim that their contacts with Ronnie became less and less frequent, as their relations with his new wife became strained. This was in part a reaction to the endless stream of visitors and hangers-on who came and went from the Lane house day and night. Ronnie had an open door policy, which afforded access to even the most dubious characters, and led to the disappearance of family possessions while Susan was away at work, including one of Ronnie's guitars.
James 'Bucks' Burnett, Ronnie's caretaker for a time when he was in Houston, maintained close links with Ronnie until he, too, had his ties severed: "Susan's question was, If Ronnie's - quote - 'white rock star friends' - unquote - were such nice people, why weren't they helping Ronnie financially? They were basically living off Susan's income at the time. I don't think many of Ronnie's friends were even made aware of the fact that he might be suffering financially? So you had a very unfortunate situation where the very people who would help him were being blamed and almost excommunicated because of her perception of the situation."
"It was partly tongue-in-cheek," says another friend of Susan's tendency to refer to Caucasians as "white devils". "But it was real, too." The British tabloids ran articles in the late '80s depicting Ronnie's situation as especially grim. The stories, according to Burnett, were patently untrue. "I would basically have to say Susan was taking good care of him. Physically she seemed to do a good job of keeping him alive: keeping him clean, keeping him fed, keeping him laughing. I saw them quite happy together "
Jody Denberg, an Austin DJ who served as best man at Ronnie and Susan's wedding, remembers Ronnie meeting former bandmates Wood and Stewart for the last time. "In '92 there was a Ron Wood show here and a party the night before. I wound up at a table with Woody, Mac and Ronnie. It was boisterous fun. Then a couple years later I wound up backstage with Rod Stewart, Ronnie and Mac. In other words, three fifths of The Faces both times. The difference in atmosphere between those two gatherings was quite apparent. Rod Stewart and Ronnie Lane didn't quite know what to say. I think Rod's looking at Ronnie thinking, There but for the grace of God go I. Ronnie's looking at Rod going, Well, I appreciate him taking care of my medical bills, but it's hard to come out and just say thank you. It was an awkward situation. "
RONNIE AND SUSAN MOVED ABRUPTLY TO TRINIDAD, Colorado, in 1994, just weeks after McLagan relocated to Austin. The move coincided with financial relief from several sources. By this time Ron Wood's office had begun taking care of Ronnie's business affairs. Wood and Rod Stewart jointly contributed to paying Ronnie's hospital bills. Through the efforts of Kenney Jones, the settlement with Castle Communications gave Ronnie a steady source of royalties. Several records, including a Small Faces tribute album, further alleviated pressures brought on by his worsening physical condition.
In May - two weeks before his death - I saw Ronnie at his home in Trinidad. When greeting a visitor, Ronnie flashed the same broad smile one sees him giving his bandmates in old concert footage of The Faces. The clean, well-lit room where he spent most of his time had a large picture window that looked out on to the street. Van Gogh prints hung on the wall, as did a Small Faces calendar sent to Ronnie by The Darlings Of Wapping Wharf Launderette, a British fanzine. A picture of eight-year old Ronnie dressed in a pirate's costume sat on a shelf, while a framed letter from Ronald Reagan thanking Ronnie for his efforts during the ARMS concerts hung by the front door. Most of his time was spent with his wife, watching television (he was especially fond of Westerns), or listening to abroad range of music (his hearing remained good).
Indifferent when his own albums were played, he showed obvious pleasure when told how much his work meant to others.
To say he was in frail health understates the ravages of the hideous illness which has robbed us of one of the great spirits of the '60s. Sitting by his bedside, I was reminded of a line from Thomas Hardy's Neutral Tones: "The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/ Alive enough to have strength to die." With enough mobility left in one hand to lightly stroke a cat or touch the hand of a visitor indicating he had something to say (and one placed an ear near his mouth as he uttered the faintest whisper), Ronnie had just enough strength to die.
Still, his spirit was that of the stubborn young man intent on leading his absurd ramshackle troupe of pseudo-gypsies across the North of England. His wit was sharp but a conventional interview was clearly impossible. As a visitor helped him to drink his tea. "Do you need anything, Ronnie?" "Brandy Coke," he'd say. "What kind of factory was it you almost took a job at after your O-levels? "A factory factory," he'd reply incredulously, as though it were foolish to distinguish one factory from another. One day I asked him if he ever gave a thought to the tragic direction his life took. He reflected for a long time, then said: "I. . .don't. . .get it. . .at. . .all." One day Susan told me about Ronnie having a near-death experience when he almost drowned as a child. This prompted a gloating look from Ronnie and a kind of proud defiance. He knew he was going to die but hadn't the slightest fear or apprehension. Perhaps it stemmed from a courage that was always there; maybe it came in part from the unimaginable fatigue he must have felt by this time.
Ronnie was buried only hours after his death at a private ceremony in Trinidad. With a light, warm rain falling, five thousand miles and worlds away from his native London, the boy from Forest Gate with the cheeky grin was laid to rest, giving his infinitely restless, spirit what could only have been enormous release. The inscription on his marker, taken from Annie, his beautiful ode to mortality and the endless cycle of seasons, reads simply. "God Bless Us All."