This column wasn't supposed to be an obituary, although it was meant to sound a knell of finality, if not death. This is my last column for New Times; I've decided to go back home to Memphis to work on a project that seems too good to pass up. After all, when opportunity introduces itself, the best thing to do is shake hands and buy it a drink. Anyway, I've known for a while now that I'd be writing this column, but to be honest I had no idea what I was going to say.
In a way, I've said enough -- or at least it feels to me like I've said enough. (Locals whose work I've ignored would no doubt argue that point, but too bad.) For better or worse, I think my passions and biases have been made painfully obvious since I started doing this column more than a year ago. During that time I've at least tried to do a little justice to the artists in town who've done things that moved me in one good way or another. I thought it would be redundant in this final column to simply recount the shows and records and bands that have caught my eyes and ears. If nothing else, I didn't want to go into another blabbering rant about the importance of Harry Pussy, the boggling adventurousness of Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, or how much I love Cafe Nostalgia, Nil Lara, Star Crunch, Frosty, and the fine folks at Churchill's and Cheers, even though this is my last chance to do so.
A few people around town offered advice on how to wrap things up, at least one of whom suggested I use the space to bitch and moan one last time about how Miami is too much of this or too much of that and ain't it just a horrible place to be. In other words, a parting shot. But frankly, I don't have much use for parting shots. They're too petty, too easy, too pointless. And besides, I feel as though I've spent plenty of time complaining about this and that. (Just ask XS's Michael Koretsky, who blasted me a couple of months back for having the audacity to bemoan South Florida's miserable national-music scene.) Though I would never claim to have walked through my nineteen months in this often bewildering burg with a perpetual grin and kinds words for all, I was fortunate enough to meet some damn fine people and hear some damn fine music. I hooked up with someone kind enough to run off copies for me of Bob Dylan's complete Basement Tapes (among other elusive items). I ate well, I found some great used records I never dreamed of stumbling upon (Pere Ubu's Terminal Tower, Joe Berry's "I'm a Fool to Care," and the Sir Douglas Quintet's The Return of Doug Saldana), and discovered the healing, redemptive, mind-clearing powers of son, Presidente, ocean swims, and jumbo plates of black beans from Exquisito Cafeteria. By anyone's criteria, life could be a whole lot worse.
Unfortunately none of the above really seems quite as important in light of the June 4 death of British singer, songwriter, and musician Ronnie Lane, the ex-Small Faces bassist who succumbed to multiple sclerosis after living with it since the mid-Seventies. Although I've been wondering for years just how long he'd stick around, it didn't surprise me that Lane expired when he did: Although we're only midway through it, 1997 has been a year tainted with death. There have been too many to keep track of, but the ones I remember clearly are plenty: Townes Van Zandt, a Texas songwriter whose art I struggled with for years before finally hearing its poetry and dignity mere days after his New Year's Day death; Richard Berry, the man who wrote "Louie Louie" (among other essential gems) and that rare R&B artist who never let the injustice of being ripped off by labels and publishers turn him into a cynic; LaVern Baker, a tough-voiced pioneer of rock's infant years and as outspoken about record-company greed and chicanery as Berry was quiet; Faron Young, next to Ray Price the greatest disciple of honky-tonk hero Hank Williams. And then there are the recent hospitalizations of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, Carl Perkins, and Bob Dylan -- three little reminders that even the greatest rock and roll visionaries are mere mortals.
Lane was on hit records made by some very popular groups, but his flirtations with fame were brief. I've loved his stuff for years -- the humility, vulnerability, and self-effacement that defines it, his good will and ceaseless good spirits, and the ever-present tinge of fatalism that reminds you how easily highs can turn into lows.
Along with Steve Marriott, Lane was the driving force behind the Small Faces, a seminal group from the early Sixties mod scene in England who never quite broke in the U.S. Although the band found a shred of success here following their mutation into a poppy-psychedelic folk ensemble (see Ogden's Nut Flake from 1968), the group's finest stuff came early, when they rivaled the Who for sheer grit and R&B firepower. Sadly, there's never been one definitive collection of the group's best work -- or rather, one that's stayed in print for more than a year or two. Sire issued a fine anthology back in the mid-Seventies that has all but disappeared, but there has yet to be a CD-era collection that even hints at the band's strengths.
When Marriott left the band in 1970 to form the bludgeoning boogie ensemble Humble Pie, the Small Faces became the Faces with the addition of Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood. Then the fun began. On their first three albums -- First Step, A Nod's As Good As a Wink ... to a Blind Horse, and Long Player -- the Faces perfected a kind of boozy, sloppy, and utterly charming working-class rock and roll that was powerful but loaded with nuance, swaggering but tempered with the band's self-deprecation. Although their hits were mostly written by Stewart and Wood, Lane's contributions (both his writing and his high, cracked voice) helped flesh out the band's persona and personality, especially "On the Beach," "Tell Everyone," "You're So Rude," and "Last Orders Please" (in which a bombed Lane is licking the wounds of a newly broken heart in a bar where the jukebox taunts him with Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears"). And his roving bass playing was a throwback to the supple styles of Chuck Berry sideman George Smith and Motown stalwart James Jamerson.
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Lane left the Faces in 1973 and took to the road with the Passing Show, a traveling circus complete with fire eaters, jugglers -- the whole bit. In the studio he set about concocting a brilliant fusion of stomping blues, bashing rock, and dark British folk with the group Slim Chance. They never found an audience in the U.S. (and barely drummed up interest at home in the U.K.) and only one of Slim Chance's four albums was released in the States. It's a great one, though: Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance, issued in 1975 by A&M, shimmers with the diversity and clarity of Lane's vision, from the hilarious blues of "Ain't No Lady" to the sweet melancholy of "Give Me a Penny," from the loopy street-parade instrumental "Anniversary" to a version of "Blue Monday" in which Lane sucks up the pity of Fats Domino's classic like the first beer of a Friday-night drunk.
By the late Seventies Lane had become debilitated by MS; his final album, See Me, arrived in 1980. Better, though, was 1977's Rough Mix, his one-off collaboration with good friend Pete Townshend. Despite the inclusion of some of Townshend's best solo work ("Misunderstood," "Keep Me Turning," and "Street in the City" in particular), it's Lane's "Annie" that steals the album and stands as his career-defining moment. An elegy that uses the arrival of winter as a metaphor for change, for death, "Annie" provides the best words I can think of to close this column, and I hope that someone had the good sense to remember them when thinking of something fitting to etch on Lane's headstone:
"Hear the children, they call, Annie
Every leaf must fall, Annie
God bless us all, Annie
Wherever we'll be."
-- By John Floyd