I see your wheels are rusting in the backyard
I know that we’re not going anywhere
We used to roam so freely,
It’s been so long.
I take my dreams to bed now,
Where they belong.
—Ronnie Lane, “April Fool”
Although “April Fool” is a song of middle-age resignation, Ronnie Lane was only 31 years old when he recorded it. Then again, he was already past the midpoint of his life when it appeared on Rough Mix, the album he recorded with Pete Townsend, which was released in 1977. Born on 1 April 1946, he died on 4 June 1997, just 51 years old, from complications due to multiple sclerosis.
By the time Plonk recorded “April Fool,” he’d already been diagnosed with MS. He'd also already toured the world as a member of two seminal bands: the Small Faces and the Faces. And he’d already burned through considerable cash he’d earned from those bands, in large part by touring the UK with the Passing Show, in which his solo band, Slim Chance, was supported by a costly and impractical carnival. The tour was a dream of his, a response to the years of impersonal stadium concerts, but from a pragmatic, pounds-and-pence point of view, it was one that definitely belonged in the realm of bedtimes and lullabies.
I first heard of Lane thanks to the ARMS benefit concerts of 1983. A gaggle of his better-known colleagues—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page among them—banded together, literally, to perform a few shows to raise money for MS research and treatment. I traveled from Philly to New York to see one of the concerts at Madison Square Garden. And even all the way from my seat one row shy of the ozone layer, I felt the camaraderie, the warmth, the love, and the magnetism that radiated from the stage, like the waves of heat that shimmer from the pavement on the hottest days of the year, when Ronnie was helped to a mike by two towering, burly men so that he could lead the ensemble in “Good-Night, Irene.”
That night my obsession with Ronnie Lane began. Thanks to my then-husband, who worked in radio and was a rock-music maven, I came into possession of one of Lane’s few solo albums. On a trip to Montreal we met a record-store owner who made me tapes of his other solo albums. When several years later I had surgery to remove a spinal tumor, surgery that I was told could leave me paralyzed, I listened to those albums almost continuously during my recovery. I titled my third novel One for the Road after Lane’s album and song of the same name.
In 1989 or 1990, Lane played a gig at New York’s Lone Star Café. It was a tiny venue, and maybe a dozen of us were in the audience. Before showtime, Lane’s wife wheeled him into the back of the club—he was in a wheelchair by then—and left him alone for a few minutes. After another attendee made his way to the back to have Lane sign an album, I summoned up the nerve to pay court as well.
He was a scrawny figure, almost dwarfed by the square metal frame of the wheelchair. When I stammered my thanks for all the pleasure and inspiration his music gave me, he said, “Why, thank you, darlin’.” His voice was as cracked and creviced as an old asphalt driveway after an especially harsh winter, but his nearly black eyes twinkled, and his entire face beamed. It was almost as if my remarks meant as much to him as his music had meant to me.
Ten years after he died, I moved from the States to England, a move I’d dreamed of since I was 10 years old. When I wrote my final editor’s letter for the magazine I edited at the time, I quoted a song Lane had written while still with the Faces: “Can you show me a dream, can you show me one that’s better than mine?” Three years later, when I had to return to the States, I played “April Fool” over and over again.
I’m now just about the age Ronnie Lane was when he died. Often I wonder whether I should be taking my dreams—of living once again in England, of having my novels published—to bed as well.
But then I think of Ronnie Lane at the ARMS concert, singing with all the gusto and heart he could, surrounded by his friends. I think of how he continued to write and perform, to carry on with his mates, even while weakened and withered from the MS, and of what other music he might have produced, what moments of happiness he might have brought to his family and friends, if he hadn’t been cut down so young. Because all it takes, sometimes, is one or two moments of pure joy to make everything else worthwhile.
And then I remember a few such moments of pure joy from an early 1970s performance of his Faces song “Richmond” on Top of the Pops.
Happy birthday, Ronnie Lane, and thank you.