ronnie lane

Paul and Linda take to the country, or revisiting “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far”

This is a terrific review of the Ram reissue. Often I can’t stand the show-offy braininess of Pitchfork’s writers, but here Jayson Greene just hits too many bulls eyes for me to quibble about it.

Ram, simply put, is the first Paul McCartney release completely devoid of John’s musical influence. Of course, John wiggled his way into some of the album’s lyrics– in those fresh, post-breakup years, the two couldn’t quite keep each other out of their music. But musically, Ram proposes an alternate universe where young Paul skipped church the morning of July 6, 1957, and the two never crossed paths. It’s breezy, abstracted, completely hallucinogen-free, and utterly lacking grandiose ambitions. Its an album whistled to itself. It’s purely Paul.

Greene pokes around the issue of how hated the record was on release, expressed from on high by Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau: “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far.” (Now that there is an insufferably pretentious rock critic).

Greene sees some sort of family dynamic in Landau’s (and generally speaking sixties hipster elite) opinion:

Landau was right, however, that [it] did spell the end of something, which might be a clue to the vitriol: If “60s rock” was defined, in large part, by the existence of the Beatles, then Ram made it clear in a new, and newly painful, way that there would be no Beatles ever again. To use a messy-divorce metaphor: When your parents are still screaming red-faced at each other, it’s a nightmare, but you can still be assured they care. When one of them picks up and continues on living, it smarts in an entirely different way.

I want to run with that messy divorce thing for a moment longer. When talking about the Beatles it seems necessary to state one’s Team John or Team Paul bias. I have always leaned Team Paul.

I was once commissioned to write a book for young teens about the McCartney family. (Still in print! and screaming up the Amazon Best Sellers list: now cresting at #2,727,671!!!).

Specifically it was “Famous Families,” Paul and Stella, but you can’t write about that family without getting sucked into the pastoral idyll to which Paul retreated immediately after the Beatles crashed and burned. It enraged many, apparently, but looking at it today, I just wonder: “Who could possibly have a problem with this?”

Anyway, I’m definitely Team Paul, but yeah, as a product of the broken home that is the Beatles marriage, do want to shout, “I love dad too, and I just wish you two would stop fighting.” And start to cry, retreat to my room, and slam the door. Or I would, if they hadn’t actually divorced four decades ago.

Also, interesting stuff about the City and the Country:

“I want a horse, I want a sheep/ Want to get me a good night’s sleep,” Paul jauntily sings on “Heart of the Country”, a city boy’s vision of the country if ever there was one, and another clue to the record’s mindstate. For Paul, the country isn’t just a place where crops grow; it’s “a place where holy people grow.” Now that American cities everywhere are having their Great Pastoral Moment, full of artisans churning goat’s-milk yogurt and canning their own jams, Ram feels like particularly ripe fruit.

A lot to answer for, from one perspective, but you know, always ahead of his time, that Macca.

I can’t help thinking about the Ram period without also thinking about Ronnie Lane’s parallel retreat from rock stardom. It didn’t come out near as well for Ronnie, who of course was not quite in Paul’s league musically, and didn’t end up one of Britain’s wealthiest men (he was absolutely an idiot with money–kept his rock star dough in a plastic bag in his house), and had the bad fortune to come down with a crippling degenerative fatal disease.

But the rootsy, rustic, slightly clueless back-to-the-country vibe is the same, and a beautiful thing, too. I don’t know what is going on with the famous Beatles Spotify holdout, as I am able to post a Ram  reissue playlist. Maybe that’s temporary. Sadly, there remains a massive hole in Spotify’s catalog where Ronnie Lane’s music should go.

Semi-secret history of rock ‘n’ roll

The Passing Show, the BBC documentary about Ronnie Lane,  is now online,  in six parts. I own  it on DVD and watch it all the time. You really should spend the money to buy it, but I’d understand if you wanted to check it out for free, while it lasts, anyway.*

If you know and love Ronnie Lane as I do, watch  it. If you don’t know him, all the more reason to watch it.

Lane surfaced in the Small Faces, along with Steve Marriott and Kenny Jones (and later Ian McLagan), one of the best bands in the ridiculously thriving London R&B scene in the mid-60s (the Stones! the Pretty Things! the Yardbirds! the Who! the Kinks!). The Small Faces, minus Marriott and with the addition of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, became the Faces, who might have been the GREATEST BAND EVER but it’s hard to tell, because their recorded output, while sparkling, is a little sparse. Playing live, they were legendary.

Lane wrote and sang a slew of good songs for Faces, but apparently was not allowed to sing live, except for the opening verse to a cover of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” I read somewhere that Ronnie once posed  an “It’s Rod or me” ultimatum to the rest of the band. If true, that was a fairly major miscalculation. (“Ronnie, we love you, but he’s ROD STEWART”).

While most Faces songs were boozy, bawdy and strutting, Lane’s were modest and introspective, though not without their own wit and raunchiness. Rod’s were Saturday night; Ronnie’s were Sunday morning. His greatest song, to my mind, is “Debris,” a son’s loving reminiscence, centered on the vivid image of his father combing through junk on blankets at open-air markets in London’s bombed out East End.

Ronnie walked away from the Faces at their peak. He took his money (which he apparently kept in cash, in a bag) and (over)paid for an old bus and a bunch of circus tents and formed the Passing Show, which toured the English countryside, with burlesque dancers and jugglers and sword swallowers and his band. No one really knew what they were doing, and everyone had a great time. Until the money ran out. He lived at a ramshackle farm, where his rock star buddies came around to drink and sing songs, and recorded several wonderful but not especially successful albums.

Then Ronnie got MS, which had also afflicted his mother. His famous music mates (Clapton, Beck, Winwood, Page, Charlie Watts) staged a series of benefits for him and for MS research. He got swindled for a shockingly large amount by a woman in Texas, ended up moving to Austin, and became a fixture of the music scene there when he was well enough to play. He moved a final time to Colorado, where the disease took his life.

The documentary is fairly conventional, but the details and love in the tales told make up for the formulaic structure. In this, the first segment, I especially loved Eric Clapton’s account of the first time he saw the aptly named Small Faces: “These little guys came into the guitar shop and they were really little, they looked like they were like four feet tall. It was like hobbits.” And Ronnie’s account of the early days: “I mean none of us could play. I was just learning to play the bass and Steve was just learning the guitar. But that’s all right. We was keen.”

I don’t know why his story resonates with me so much. His music was lovely, homely in the best sense. He turned his back on rock stardom and became a gypsy. He was the original roots rocker. He didn’t give a damn about money. In America, we prate on about following your dream, but always with the implication that eventually the dream will bring material success. Ronnie followed his, and the results were rather more austere.

Can you show me a dream
Can you show me one that’s better than mine
Can you stand it in the cold light of day
Neither can I

* The DVD runs 105 minutes, whereas the online version represents the trimmed 60-minute TV version.

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