This is an example of renting a music-bio DVD not so much because I was a huge fan of the artist in question as because I was curious about someone I had only sketchy knowledge about. As a teenager I was a fan of the Faces during their heyday (really, was there ever any other setting where Rod Stewart ever made the slightest bit of sense?) and like a good rock geek quickly traced them back to the Small Faces and their rich, magnificent catalog. But when Lane walked out on the Faces, leaving Ron Wood free to play eternal kid brother to Keith in the Stones and Rod Stewart free to become the thing that he became afterwards, I never managed to investigate any of his subsequent activities for whatever reason, though my sister actually had a copy of the Lane/Pete Townshend collaboration Rough Mix and I remember liking the song “April Fool” a lot. Then punk comes along and I couldn’t care less anymore, until I find out that he died in the 90s after suffering from multiple sclerosis for nearly two decades. So here is an opportunity to get some answers to the question, who was this Ronnie Lane, anyway?
The movie begins in familiar territory with young Ronnie growing up working class in the East End of London, learning guitar, getting into the Mod scene, switching to bass, meeting Steve Marriott, and forming the Small Faces. There is an absolutely riveting performance of “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?” here that knocked my socks off: pure, high-energy garage-punk Motown pastiche, Marriott flinging himself around the stage, shouting soul, and spitting out Townshend-like chords like a little demon. You get little snippets of classics like “Tin Soldier” and “Itchykoo Park”, as well as bits of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake material like an intense rendition of “Mad John” and a grungy “Rollin’ Over” that previews Marriott’s future leading the boring arena-boogie band Humble Pie. (Like Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott achieved greater fame while plummeting to the depths of suck musically when he parted company with Lane.)
Fun also are the bits of Faces footage. The Faces jumped in at just the moment when the Rolling Stones were beginning to lose the plot, taking a similar sound and adding drunken knockabout humor (and leading the way for the Replacements, the Pogues, the Cat Heads, and others) to deliver something joyous, ridiculous and life-affirming. (Not that there weren’t quieter moments; there’s a great version of “Richmond” with the two Ronnies on acoustic slide guitar and Rod Stewart plunking a stand-up bass to the side) If they had any shortcomings, it was a lack of consistent material (though Lane’s contributions like “Debris”, “Love Lives Here” or “Tell Everyone” tended to be the highlights of their albums) and the way the band’s lovable rogue image sometimes crossed the line into pure misogyny, often in some of their best songs like “Stay With Me” (which Lane had nothing to do with) or “Ooh La La” (which he co-wrote with Ron Wood—a beautiful, wistful song whose lyrics are basically about a sad old grandfather telling his grandson that women will ruin your life, so watch out). Well, it WAS the early 70s; you might as well comment that the sky was blue, I suppose.
Meanwhile Ronnie, energized and inspired by a new relationship (with a woman he met in the Meher Baba community who, like him, was married to someone else when they met), undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming obsessed with rural life. He invests his money in a van containing a mobile recording studio, quits the band, and does the “getting it together in the country” thing. Having grown up on a farm myself, I was always amused by the phenomenon of urban hippies getting carried away with romantic notions of life on the farm. (It’s the perfect example of “the grass is greener” thinking; “life on the farm” for me was synonymous with boredom and drudgery, and I ran off to the city as soon as I had the chance.) Running a farm is hard work and requires dedication, and the Lanes’ qualifications for the task were pretty questionable; the music that emerged as a result of all this was more promising, though.
The new band, Slim Chance, was a largely acoustic group, a loose-knit backdrop for Ronnie’s new musical aesthetic, which brought in fiddles, accordions, and at one point, a black father-and-son sax section. Very much a Basement Tapes sound, showcasing Lane’s likeable voice and knack for instantly catchy tunes that served him so well in his previous bands. They put out a lot of music, indulging in interesting ideas like running cords from the mobile studio van and recording a whole record literally outdoors, and later attempting to tour with tents and generators like a traveling circus. Everything they tried was a resounding failure, financially and popularly, and the band broke up in exhaustion. A few of their songs cracked the British charts and the TV clips of the time show a large, loose folk group having a lot of fun. They didn’t fit in with 70s butt-rock or the punk scene that rose in reaction to it, and they didn’t make it to America in time to take advantage of the singer-songwriter boom. Too eccentric to have fit in with the smug mellowness of LA big-label folk-rock of the time, yet not eccentric enough to be embraced by today’s freak-folk scene, Ronnie Lane really was an artist who never found a simpatico audience. Some of the songs you get a taste of in this video are quite enticing though; “The Poacher” is an odd Celtic/country-western/baroque thing that I really want to hear more of. And Lane’s voice has an incredibly warm appeal, a rough, nasally melodic Dylan/Richards croon that’s very inviting. Must hear more.
But then Ronnie got sick.
What a horrible disease multiple sclerosis is, slowly robbing a sufferer’s mental and physical faculties while leaving them all too aware of what they’re losing, plus inflicting excruciating pain in the process. Ronnie’s mother had it, and by the end of the 70s, it had hit him as well. The 80s saw him recruiting his old rock star friends to do benefit concerts for an organization he founded to fight MS; then, later it was discovered that the woman he put in charge had embezzled most of the funds they collected. What a disgrace. The movie doesn’t indicate how he felt about it, but he must have been devastated.
Towards the end of his life, Ronnie married yet another woman who stayed with him until the end. The couple moved to Austin, where his particular brand of rock/country/folk fit perfectly with the local aesthetic and he was treated like a king by his fellow musicians. There are clips of him in a wheelchair or on a stool, bellowing out old favorites in the best voice he can muster. A terrible irony occurs when his old bandmate Ian MacLagan moves to Austin just when the Lanes split for Colorado because Ronnie can’t stand the Texas heat anymore. At the time of his eventual passing in 1997, he was a forgotten footnote in musical history, something this movie seeks to change.
So who was Ronnie Lane then? From this evidence, a modestly talented songwriter but a brilliant catalyst who could create magic with the right collaborators. A curious fellow who followed whatever path interested him, and a sometimes flaky, sometimes difficult but ultimately sweet and decent guy who kept a positive spirit under the most brutal and disappointing circumstances. That sense of cheerful stoicism may be what drew him to folk, country, and blues: all working class musical forms that thrive with that same upful-in-the-face-of-hell mentality. I was convinced enough to want to look for a good Slim Chance/solo Lane compilation sometime soon. RIP Ronnie.