'Kill him again, he's not dead yet'

Ronnie Lane, one of rock's most beloved and yet obscure characters, is dead of natural causes at the age of 51, buried in Trinidad, Colorado, and survived by his wife Susan. He leaves behind a legacy encompassing many extremes, seemingly defying the limits of what one can--or should--endure in a single lifetime.

He is best known for his role as co-founder of the Small Faces. If you don't know who they were, please continue your search for the romantic classified ads in the rear of this publication; the music section is not for you. Even if you don't know of Lane directly, however, you know his work--Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" would have sounded different if not for his famous Mobile Recording Unit, utilized during the song's recording. Just beneath the Beatles and the Stones on Britain's mid-'60s totem pole of legendary bands, the Small Faces are best remembered for their psychedelic masterpiece Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, an album that contained their timeless hit "Itchycoo Park," sung by Steve Marriott. Although songwriting credits for the Small Faces more often than not read Marriott-Lane, Ronnie told me that it was an appellation of convenience--like Lennon/McCartney--and not strictly indicative of a 50-50 split of songwriting duties. In this case, he said, "Itchycoo Park" was "100 percent" his work.

When Marriott left to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton, he was replaced by the rather oversized team of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, prompting a name change simply to Faces. A few great albums--and infamously great shows--secured the new lineup's place in history as a more tawdry, rollicking version of the original band. By 1973, Lane had tired of the big rock circuit and Stewart's increasing domination of the band, and announced his departure to a stunned rock press, even making the cover of the once-influential Circus magazine with a sensational banner that screamed "Lane Leaves Faces!" Choosing a different direction, Lane turned away from the spotlight to a gentler path--a saner approach to making music.

His first post-Faces endeavor was Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance. In spite of their initial success with two hit singles in Britain ("How Come" and "The Poacher," his achingly beautiful masterpiece), the band immediately began losing money because of Lane's insistence that they tour as a gypsy circus act, actually transporting and erecting large circus tents and hiring teams of sword-swallowers and fire-eaters to entertain the fans before the band took to center ring. This ensemble was known on the road as The Passing Show and was occasionally augmented by Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan.

Ronnie Lane entertained, and the world--for the most part--yawned. He appears in few rock dictionaries, and his solo albums to this day are unreleased in America. A&M Records briefly issued a Slim Chance anthology in the United States in the mid-'70s, and Atco Records released the lovely but commercially doomed Mahoney's Last Stand soundtrack (from the unreleased film) in 1976.

The one shining exception to Lane's drift into obscurity is the 1977 classic Rough Mix. Recorded as a duet project with Pete Townshend, the album was initially proposed by Pete to solve a dilemma facing Lane at the time: how to escape a contractual agreement to participate in an ill-fated '70s reunion of the Small Faces; Pete offered Atco a Townshend-Lane album in exchange for Ronnie's release from legal bondage. Rough Mix is a brilliant album, passionately loved by almost everyone who has ever owned a copy. Although it contains many great songs--"Street in the City," "My Baby Gives It Away," "Heart to Hold On To"--the core of the album is unquestionably Lane's lovely ballad "Annie." If you want to explore the world of Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix is not only a wise choice, but your only choice--it's his only non-Faces release available in America. It was during the recording of this album that Lane began losing the feeling in his hands; he was soon diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the debilitating disease that slowly destroys the nervous system.

By Lane standards, 1979 was a good year. He appeared as part of Paul McCartney's all-star Rockestra lineup at the Kampuchea concerts, and recorded the infectious "Kuschty Rye" single, with Pete Townshend producing. It would be one of the standout tunes from his final solo album, the obscure See Me, released on a tiny UK label in 1980. By this time, Lane's multiple sclerosis was taking its toll. Typically, the disease robs its victims of bodily functions, capriciously restoring, then taking them again in a torturous game of heal and cripple. Lane had often said that upon hearing of John Lennon's murder in December 1980, his reaction was one of complete envy. MS drags you to death's door, only to pull you away as you finally begin banging on it.

In 1982, Rolling Stone broke the story of Ronnie's plight with a lengthy feature story and interview. As one who had purchased that issue of Circus in 1973 and Rough Mix in '77, I was taken aback by the news. How could such a gentle, humorous soul be stricken by this nightmare? I began an effort to contact Ronnie Lane. I relentlessly phoned Rolling Stone's editors until I found one who gave me contact info for Ronnie's UK ARMS (Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis) office. I gathered some money and get-well cards from friends and shipped my care package to him.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bucks Burnett