It may well have been his ‘Song Of A Baker’ on the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake that first had me believing that Ronnie Lane was wise beyond his years. The opening line caught my attention. “There’s wheat in the field and water in the stream,” he sang, which had me wondering, “A song that opens with the basic ingredients of bread? That’s not something you hear every day.” Then, as the theme unfolded, I realised that it was about more than baking. What the singer was saying was that as long as there’s wheat in the field and water in the stream, there’s no reason why you should ever go hungry or thirsty, provided you’re prepared to make the effort to turn that wheat into flour and to fetch drinking water from the stream.
In essence, and without finger-wagging, ‘Song Of A Baker’ was preaching the benefits of self-sufficiency, and in 1968 that struck me as deep for a pop song. Ronnie even made the loaf’s ‘texture and… flavour’ a rhyme for the baker’s ‘labour’. I found out later that he had borrowed his theme from a Sufi parable. To have considered the writing of a Muslim mystic suitable source material was impressive erudition from a 21-year-old from Manor Park in east London.
I guessed the song was Ronnie’s because he sang it rather than Steve Marriott, as clear an assertion of ownership as John Lennon singing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or Paul McCartney ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and it was because of that conclusion, no doubt, that I listened more closely than usual to the lyrics. Like Lennon-McCartney, the joint Marriott-Lane credit was essentially a convenience, since few of their songs were either written in the same room or derived from equal input. Across a handful of singles or the two sides of an album those individually unequal contributions would balance up, but, more importantly, as writers, each needed the other’s spur. The songs that emerged from their association could not have been written in isolation, only with the direct or indirect input of the partner. “We would come up with something to knock each other out,” he explained, so, with ‘Itchycoo Park’, the Small Faces’ most famous song, Ronnie had knocked Steve out with a melody he had lifted from a hymn, ‘God Be In My Head’, and words he had concocted after reading a magazine article about the attractions of Oxford, which had spotlighted the city’s “dreaming spires” and its “bridge of sighs.” “It wasn’t me that came up with ‘I feel inclined to blow my mind, get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun’ – that wasn’t me!” he protested, though arguably Marriott’s tongue-in-cheek, East Ender’s take on the spirit of ’67 contributed as much to the song’s success as Ronnie’s verses.
The real worth of the melody and poetry that Ronnie brought to their partnership was only revealed once Steve Marriott had abandoned the Small Faces to form Humble Pie. Whereas Ronnie continued to develop as a songwriter, his one-time mentor atrophied. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a single notable song with Marriott’s name on after the Small Faces’ melancholy cheerio, ‘The Universal’.
Humble Pie’s American fans were at least partly to blame for his slump. After all, it was they who cheered his black-white-boy shtick and whooped and hollered at his vocal histrionics and hyperactive posturing, and, if all it took to send an audience into an orgasmic frenzy and propel an album as unimaginative as 1972’s Smokin’ into the US top ten was a handful of overloud blues chords, a repertoire of – for a pint-sized Cockney – improbably throaty growls and trills, and a stage persona prone to throw extravagant shapes, why bother with the hard slog of actually writing words and a tune?
Ronnie’s songs, meanwhile, fitted the born-again Faces perfectly, nowhere more obviously than on the group’s third and most cohesive album, A Nod’s As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse. Despite sharing their blokey, anti-intellectual, working-class-and-proud-of-it philosophy, his songs are not only musically less flamboyant than the Rod Stewart-Ron Wood rockers, but lack their rampant hedonism. Even in a song about sex, where the road-wise roué of ‘Stay With Me’ trades a groupie’s promise to be gone by the morning for a post-coital cab fare home, Ronnie, in ‘You’re So Rude’, was reliving an in flagrante teenage fumble in the front room of his parents’ house; while in ‘Debris’, as if consciously counterbalancing the rowdy bravado of ‘Too Bad’, Ronnie explores childhood memories of his father, underpinning the evident reality of both these songs by setting them with chronological precision on a Sunday morning and evening, and, in lines like “Oh, you was my hero,” by deliberately expressing himself in vernacular that would have earned him a detention from his English teacher.
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“If you’re going to be on the road, you might as well be on the road,” he once told me, “because if you don’t totally accept that you’re on the road and that’s it, that’s your lot, private jets back to London for a few hours a day ain’t going to make it home. What’s wrong with life on the road? I can’t understand this rushing there and rushing back business.”
True to his word, he would do his best not to rush on the Faces’ US tour in the spring of 1973, renting a Winnebago camper whenever time and distance allowed. Even so, somewhere between Minneapolis and New York an unarguable truth hit him: this wasn’t why he’d learned to play guitar, not this uninspiring, sapping routine of travel, gig, hotel, no. The equally inescapable consequence was that he would have to leave the group.
Once he had started thinking that way, it wasn’t hard to come up with other reasons for not staying in the Faces. He was in no doubt that Rod held back his best songs, as he had most recently with ‘True Blue’, for his own records. He would not turn a blind eye to the looming shadow of Rod’s solo success, which he recognized as a threat, not just to the longevity, but to the very entity of the Faces. He couldn’t ignore the slow, but unstoppable spread of separate billing on posters – Rod Stewart and the Faces – by promoters bothered more by the prospect of missing a single potential ticket sale than bruising musicians’ egos. And he felt gagged as a singer, especially on stage, where his vocal role was reduced to backing harmonies and the opening verse of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – “and not in my key either, you can guess whose key it was in.” He was also frustrated by the slow progress of the Faces’ follow-up to A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, especially Rod’s infrequent attendance at sessions and unhelpful appraisal of tracks necessarily recorded in his absence, and, when Ooh La La was eventually released, he was disappointed by its critical reception, and appalled by Rod’s faithless distancing of himself from the record.
On 12 May 1973, as the Faces were waiting to go on stage at the Civic Centre in Roanoke, West Virginia, Ronnie said the words that had been used countless times by different members of the band, but until now only in fun, parodying a pop star’s foot-stamping tantrum at a trivial setback, like a lukewarm cup of tea or a brandy-and-coke with no ice: “I’m leaving the group!” He left no one in doubt that he meant it. During the set he spat an obscenity at Ian McLagan, the keyboard player retaliating with a vicious kick which left 10,000 West Virginians wondering whether it was part of the act. One more US date, four nights to fulfill in London, then Ronnie was gone.
Fortuitously, the timing of his exit from the Faces and his decision to pursue a more eclectic, rootsier music closely followed the surge of a forceful undercurrent in London’s music community. Either bruised by the business or uninterested in what it had to offer, bands like Brinsley Schwarz, Kilburn and the High Roads, Bees Make Honey and Eggs Over Easy had deliberately taken a detour from the well-mapped highway to Hitsville onto a musical B-road, where they could perform, freed from the pressures of commerce or fashion, on an array of interchangeable instruments, a seemingly off-the-cuff mix of R&B, rockabilly, country, jazz, even post-war, pre-rock’n’roll jump jive – styles altogether too diverse to lump together under any more meaningful banner than the name of the modest venues where the bands chose to play. Pub rock, as it was known, was to provide three key members of Ronnie’s next band, Slim Chance: Bees Make Honey’s Ruan O’Lochlainn (saxophone, keyboards, guitar); Charlie Hart (keyboards, fiddle, accordion) from Ian Dury’s ramshackle first band, Kilburn and the High Roads; while the group Steve Simpson (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) left behind became pub-rock regulars as Meal Ticket.
Slim Chance brought a broad musicality to the melodic charm, conversational lyrics, and subtle themes of Ronnie’s songs, and, bolstered by this band, his voice, by his own 1975 description “an instrument I only picked up eighteen months ago”, grew strong, emotive and sure, able to skip nimbly and sure-footedly along the melody lines. Whenever he sang, it was hard not to smile, harder still not to join in.
The multi-instrumental abilities of O’Lochlainn, Hart and Simpson weren’t employed to impress, but to allow Ronnie to follow diverse musical directions and to provide his material with an apparently infinite variety of sympathetic settings. On record the unseen interchange of instruments was efficient, but, owing in part to that invisibility, unremarkably low-key. On stage, however, once his musicians had freed themselves from the recorded arrangements and made the songs their own, a Slim Chance gig was an intoxicating event, a cross between a pub sing-song and a country hoedown. The set was not only neatly balanced, but, in the manner of pub rockers, wilfully challenged the convention that confines set lists to past hits and excerpts from the current album. Naturally, Ronnie didn’t ignore ‘How Come?’, his first (and only substantial) solo hit, or its bafflingly underachieving follow-up, ‘The Poacher’, but both were enormously enhanced in live performance.
The chorus of ‘How Come?’ became impossible not to sing along with, such an audible show of public affection endowing it with a far heftier status than that of a single that hadn’t quite made the top ten, while the somewhat prissy oboe and string arrangement that had made ‘The Poacher’ a lightweight 45 was replaced by the duelling fiddles of O’Lochlainn and Simpson to create a show-stopping knees-up. Oldies Ronnie had revived, like Fats Domino’s ‘Blue Monday’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ (both on 1975’s Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance), were there too, but several live Slim Chance highlights, notably covers of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia’ and Leroy Van Dyke’s ‘Walk On By’, never made it onto record.
His new-found freedom meant he could even find room for the forty-year-old Depression ballad, ‘Brother, Can You Spare Me A Dime’, a song weighed with poignant meaning in the wake of 1974’s Passing Show, an ill-judged attempt to take his music to the people, when a caravan of decrepit circus vehicles limped from town to town with insufficient advance publicity to attract enough paying customers to the big top, pushing him to the very edge of financial ruin. What bailed him out was the American Airstream caravan, sleek as a cigar tube, that he had had kitted out as a mobile recording studio during his last days with the Faces. Hired out to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Bad Company, it generated enough income to disguise, albeit temporarily, his fragile finances.
In the autumn of 1975 Ronnie used that mobile studio to record a third album at his farm on the Welsh borders. With One For The Road he created something unique in British music: a genuine form of native country music, no capitals, no inverted commas, not anglicized Nashville, just music that came out of the country and could not conceivably have been created anywhere else. When that record didn’t sell, he had to let the band go, unable to fund the full-time wages of five musicians and a road crew from his own, diminishing income.
Broke, he approached Pete Townshend for a loan. An old pal and, like Ronnie, a follower of Meher Baba, Townshend turned him down, but proposed instead that they should make a record together, which, if for no other reason than that it represented half a solo album by the leader of The Who, was bound to generate record company interest and, with it, an advance: a financial boost for Ronnie without the burden of debt. Although Rough Mix was less than a true collaboration, with only the title track co-written by Townshend and Lane, the album contained the most enchanting, sublime song Ronnie ever wrote.
It’s a cliché to call a song timeless, but ‘Annie’ sounded as old as the century. It could also have been the work of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie or George Gershwin. Or a century older and by John Newton or Charles Wesley, since, sung in church by a choir, it would certainly have sounded like a hymn. Expressed most directly in its “God bless us all” plea, the song was infused throughout with a hymnal tone, its melody uplifting, its message that in spite of mortality, life was ongoing, that even in death was optimism. A hymn by Ronnie Lane would almost be worth going to church for.
An unforeseen outcome of the Rough Mix sessions was an immediate opportunity for Ronnie to resuscitate Slim Chance, opening for Eric Clapton on his spring 1977 tour. Clapton, whose acoustic work on the Rough Mix sessions highlighted the selfless restraint and sensitivity he could bring to a supporting role in the recording studio and earned him a co-writer’s credit on ‘Annie’, had fallen under Ronnie’s spell, envying the freewheeling eclecticism and determinedly low-key approach that offered an antidote to the pyrotechnics commanded by Clapton’s own audiences. The guitarist even adopted Ronnie’s Romany look of bucolic shirt, scarf and waistcoat.
In his early thirties the symptoms of multiple sclerosis became harder to ignore, and the next time I saw him he walked as if he was permanently tipsy. Being forced by the remorseless creep of immobility to accept the role of observer rather than participant intensified the aura of wisdom that had surrounded Ronnie as long as I had known him. More than ever, he came across like an ancient sage, one with a long lifetime’s knowledge and experience to impart, the appearance of a younger man adopted to disguise his age. But if increased wisdom was a side effect of MS, it was a cruel trade-off.
In 1984, Julia and I had a son who was born too soon and lived for a day and a half. Ronnie telephoned with a question.
“You know when you see a baby bird dead on the ground? Well, if you look up, there’ll be a nest, and in that nest there’ll be more, healthy babies. It’s like a little Pidgeon has fallen out of the nest. There’ll be more, you’ll see.”
There was more solace, humanity and hope in that succinct analogy than in a hundred Bible stories or Sunday sermons. Julia and I weren’t short of love or support, but nothing made the future look less bleak than the simple, life-affirming image suggested by Ronnie.
He was living in Kentish Town, but within weeks had moved to Texas, where he had been promised regular access to hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Houston. Because the claims made in some quarters for HBO treatment encouraged unreasonable expectations for what it could achieve, the therapy was controversial, but Ronnie knew, having tried it in London, that spending an hour a week in a sealed chamber where the normal amount of oxygen in the air was multiplied many times worked for him. It wasn’t a cure for MS, but it alleviated some of the symptoms. Undeniably, it made him feel better.
I was keen to visit him, but hard up. Someone told me you could fly for free as a DHL courier in exchange for escorting their mail sacks through customs, so I signed up for the Houston run. There was a 48-hour stop-over, and I spent two nights at the house Ronnie shared with his carer, James ‘Big Bucks’ Burnett, an amiably goofy young Texan who drove Ronnie to and from his weekly sessions at the HBO Medical Centre and for a daily swim at the YMCA. I was happy to be able to tell Ronnie that Julia was pregnant again, and repeated our thanks for the help and hope he had given us.
“There’s another Pidgeon in the nest.”
He tilted his head as he looked at me, one eye slightly off to one side, his bony fingers cupped over the top of his walking stick.
“You sure it was me said that?”
Part of Ronnie’s exercise regime was a daily walk, but even though spring had not yet turned to summer, Houston’s climate was debilitating, and I watched him wilt, oppressed by the cloying humidity, so I was relieved to learn that he had moved to Austin, 130 miles west, in Texas’s more temperate hill country. I visited him there in March 1990. He had signed up for a short tour of Japan, a bold undertaking for someone whose central nervous system was under daily attack. Having recruited a band of Austin musicians, he twisted Ian McLagan’s arm to play keyboards. I’d wanted to record them both for my Radio 1 series, Classic Albums, for which the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake was an overdue candidate, and figured that, with Mac at his side, Ronnie would be a livelier interviewee than on his own. I was right. The interview, recorded at Ronnie’s house between rehearsals, was punctuated with laughter and impromptu repartee, hilarity I hadn’t heard from them since 1973. But, back in Austin two years later, when I phoned him to say I was in town and would love to drop by, he replied, “No, that won’t be possible.”
“I only want to pop in to say hello.”
“See you then, Ronnie.”
Like George Harrison, Ronnie Lane played in the shade of louder talents. Like him too, he left an undeniably impressive body of work. His influence is quiet, but enduring. Ronnie Lane mattered, and still does. And I haven’t even mentioned his bass-playing.