The Ronnie Lane benefit show, an ad hoc agglomeration of Sixties British guitar stars and heavy friends, arrived in San Francisco on December 1st, settling into the 12,500-seat Cow Palace for a three-night charity stand for multiple-sclerosis research. Predictably, the backstage scene for those three concerts was a New Waver's nightmare. There, lolling among the potted shrubs and old Fillmore posters arrayed around the blue-carpeted guest enclosure, with Japanese lanterns and helium balloons bobbling gaily overhead — there, looking for all the world as though they had a right to go on sucking up air, were the ancient likes of Boz Scaggs and Carlos Santana and Wavy Gravy and even Michael Lang, the dimple-cheeked cherub who brought you (or your parents) Woodstock. And whenever it seemed that the uncoolness quotient reached a peak, somebody like Neal Schon of Journey would come strutting through the gate and further thicken the Old Wave ambiance.
Conspicuous by their understandable absence from this frolic were any of the leading young members of San Francisco's flourishing new-music community. Why should they come? Why should they care? Guitar stars? Sixties superheroes? These kids suffered through the superannuated scene for most of their young lives — remember the Seventies? That music just doesn't speak to them. And if it did, it would have nothing to say. Right?
Jeff Beck is thirty-nine now, but he doesn't look appreciably different than he did in the Sixties, when he was breaking guitar barriers with the Yardbirds or having those celebrated wrangles with Rod Stewart in the Jeff Beck Group. He is standing off to one side of the backstage artists' lounge, his eyes fixed on a giant video screen and his mouth slightly agape with admiration. The squirming, sweat-soaked image up on the screen is that of Eric Clapton, relayed via closed-circuit transmission from the stage out front. Clapton is fronting a very solid band that includes bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and drummer Kenney Jones of the Who, and they are leaning into a spirited rendition of the old Freddie King hit, "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?" As Clapton calls out a key change and suddenly bends back to pluck a bunch of blue notes out of a D chord high up on the neck of his guitar, Beck can only wag his head in appreciation. "Great," he mutters, as Clapton sails off above the shuffling rhythm. "Fucking great — there's nobody can touch him on that stuff." Clapton's guitar crests on a sparkling spray of notes, then tunnels back down into the song as he shouts out another verse in his hoarse, imploring voice. "He's having the time of his life," says Jeff Beck, beaming.
As the song ends, Beck stoops down to show something to Ronnie Lane, the one-time Small Faces bassist, who's seated in a wheelchair by his side. It's a Polaroid snapshot of a glitter-clad groupie who showed up at one of the two Dallas shows that kicked off this brief benefit tour, which has united Beck and Clapton and a host of other Sixties rock icons for the first time in their onstage careers. Ronnie gets a kick out of the picture, and Jeff ruffles his hair with obvious affection, then disappears up the stairs to the second-floor dressing rooms to prepare for his own set.
Lane turns his attention back to the video screen, where Clapton's long fingers are once again flying over the frets of his Stratocaster. Ronnie's own hands lie limply in his lap, but he follows each slurred note and hammered string with the appreciative eyes of a man who once played pretty fair guitar himself, back in the old days. Suddenly, someone is sliding an actual guitar onto Ronnie's lap; it's Boo Oldfield, his girlfriend and tireless aide-de-camp. She's brought him a vintage Chet Atkins-model Gretsch, a real beauty. Someone on the other side of the room is offering it around for sale. Ronnie smiles and, with considerable concentration, brings his left hand slowly up to the fretboard and lays his fingers lightly across the strings. It's as much as he can manage, but it feels wonderful, just holding a guitar again. He hugs it to his chest and stares back up at the video screen, where Clapton has been joined by Joe Cocker. Great, soulful singer, Joe. And Eric and Bill and Charlie — such beautiful players. Ronnie's face is suddenly filled, as it often is these days, with a heart-swelling mixture of warmth and wonderment. "To think that my having something so negative . . . could result in something so positive," he says. Up on the screen, Joe Cocker closes his eyes and starts to sing "Worried Life Blues."
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a terrifying disease; no secondhand summation of its ravages can convey the horror of it more vividly than an encounter with one of its victims. Lane's extraordinary spirit in the face of this cruelly crippling affliction has had a galvanizing effect on his many musician friends. They are all around forty now, famous "survivors," as it's inevitably put, from the first British rock generation to be touched by brilliance. All share a common grounding in the blues, but were often portrayed as pop "rivals" in the Sixties and have rarely, if ever, come together as musicians. In pursuing the style of music they learned to love as kids, they have achieved often astonishing degrees of commercial and artistic success — only to watch that popular esteem (if not their long-running bank accounts) dwindle and sometimes disappear as times change and fashions fly by. Some have been undone by drink or drugs, others by puzzling personal quirks. They have been through the mill, and probably thought they had seen it all. Then they saw Ronnie Lane. Here was one of their own generation cut down like a weed in what is generally thought to be the prime of life. It was a chilling experience. Bill Wyman, who once recruited the Small Faces from an adjoining studio to play on his "In Another Land" track on the Satanic Majesties album, recalls encountering Lane at a 1981 Stones show.
"I was shocked to see him in that condition," Wyman says. "I'd heard he wasn't well, but you never really realize how afflicted people are until you actually see them again. I mean, you remember them as they were."
"I first found out Ronnie was sick when I visited Eric," says Jeff Beck. "I just happened to call on him, and the phone rang and it was Ronnie. They were on the phone for a long time, and I started thinking, 'Come on, Eric.' But then when he hung up, he told me. He said, 'Ronnie's really, really bad.'"
But how could they help, when doctors were at considerable pains to reassure Ronnie that no help was possible? In the end, they had but one gift to give: although their careers may no longer be powered by the passionate ambition that had fueled their early fame, their commitment to the spirit of music — music as they understood it, which is to say blues-based guitar-band music — remains undiminished even in deepening middle age. Their gift would be music — music to battle this damnable disease and, maybe, to beat back the night that was fast enshadowing their own mortal turf. Music, in short, for life.
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