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Rock of Ages: Ronnie Lane Benefit Show Brings Out Clapton, Beck, Page, Stones

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As it happened, there was hope, hyperbaric oxygen treatment — a therapy not yet endorsed by MS specialists — seemed to have a restorative effect on both Ronnie's body and his mind. It wasn't a cure, by any means, but it seemed a start of some sort, and Lane wanted to spread the word. So Ronnie approached Eric Clapton, his old drinking buddy, and asked if Eric would play a benefit concert in London — not just for Ronnie, but to buy a hyperbaric machine that could be used by MS victims all over the city. Clapton immediately agreed. Ronnie Lane, after all, was a special part of his past.

"I first met him when the Small Faces were starting," Clapton explains one afternoon, seated in the lounge of a San Francisco hotel. "It was in Charing Cross Road, in a cafe called the Gioconda, which was well-known among out-of-work musicians. It was one of those meetings where you feel a kindred spirit; it seemed like I'd known him all my life.

"I remember bein' around him when he first started to get signs of it," Clapton says, sipping from a glass of soda water. "I didn't know what it was, nor did he. No one did."

Putting on a benefit for Lane proved relatively simple. Glyn Johns, who'd once produced the Small Faces, agreed to produce the show, and he in turn enlisted the aid of Ian Stewart, the Stones' sometime piano player. Stewart recruited Watts, Wyman and, during a party at Jeff Beck's house, he also snagged both Beck and Jimmy Page, who had broken up his own band, Led Zeppelin, after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1981. Page had since become so legendarily reclusive that everyone apparently assumed he was totally out of the game. "There was a sort of Yardbirds reunion in London last summer," Stewart explains, "and apparently nobody asked Jimmy to play on it, and I think he was a bit pissed off. So at this party, while I was discussing the Ronnie Lane benefit with Jeff, Jimmy came up and he said, 'Nobody ever asked me to play. Why can't I play on it?' So we said, 'Step this way.'"

Ronnie Lane was on the verge of realizing one of the great rock fantasies of the Sixties: a group that would include the three most celebrated guitarists from that seminal guitar band, the Yardbirds. Jeff, Jimmy and Eric had never played together on a stage. The Ronnie Lane benefit was starting to sound like a rather special show. To add to the once-in-a-lifetime aura, Steve Winwood and Kenney Jones came in on the event, Winwood bringing along his own keyboardist, James Hooker, and Beck slotting in his rhythm section: Simon Phillips on drums and Fernando Saunders on bass. Sets and sections were worked up, all production costs — lights, sound and so forth — were donated, and the Albert Hall concert wound up making some $60,000 for England's Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) cause. A video of the show, paid for by the musicians and due out later this year, should further swell the organization's coffers.

That was supposed to have been it. But, says Bill Wyman, "after Albert Hall, everybody was so knocked out by the fun and the camaraderie of it that they said, 'We gotta do this again.' "

The group finally settled on a tour of the United States, with all proceeds going toward the establishment of an ARMS branch in this country. Bill Graham agreed to promote the shows gratis — a considerable donation, considering the scarcity of suitable halls for multiple dates at the height of the ice-hockey and basketball seasons. The all-star ensemble — with Joe Cocker pitching in to replace Steve Winwood, who had prior commitments — then flew to Dallas for three days of rehearsals, got themselves fairly well together and set out for a benefit blitz that would take them from Dallas to San Francisco to Los Angeles and then would culminate in two shows at New York's Madison Square Garden.

By all accounts, everyone involved gave it their very best shot: no ego flare-ups, no extravagant road behavior and, most remarkable, no lateness.

"The punctuality is frightening," Graham said one night in San Francisco. "It's like having a scout troop out on a hunt. It's hard to believe that it's rock & roll."

Wyman agrees: "The timekeepin' is astoundin'. When they say, 'Be in the lobby at 6:30' and I get down there at 6:32, everybody goes, 'Yer late! One van's left already!' I'm used to goin' down at 6:30 and waitin' till 9:00, you know? And then someone sayin', 'Oh, Keith's still in bed.' "

Arranging the order of performance might have been tricky under the normal conditions of a commercial concert, but according to Clapton, the running order seemed to work out quite logically.

"We decided I would be the host, if you like, because Glyn and I and Ronnie started this thing rolling. So I thought I'd go on first and introduce everyone. Then there'd be an intermission; then Jeff would go on, then Jimmy — because it seemed apparent that Jimmy, being out of the public eye for so long, would be the main attraction. Then we'd all go on together for the finale."

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