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

Back from the Sixties and better than ever, Britain's rock elite band together to help an old buddy

Eric Clapton Jeff Beck Jimmy Page Joe Cocker Charlie Watts Bill Wyman Kenney Jones Paul Rodgers  Ronnie Lane Rolling Stone
Photo by Bonnie Schiffman
Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Paul Rodgers, and Ronnie Lane on the cover of Rolling Stone
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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.

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."

Despite the ensemble's most strenuous endeavors, however, there were still some rough spots by the second show in San Francisco: no surprise, perhaps, given the perilously brief rehearsal period that preceded the tour. Clapton's set that second night lacked force — it must be years since he's opened a show, and the lack of built-up audience energy to feed off of took its toll. Andy Fairweather Low, whose early band, Amen Corner, had one of the bluesiest British hits of 1967 with "Gin House," turned in a fine reading of "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," and Cocker, backed by Claptons unit (with Fairweather Low on rhythm guitar), turned in unaffected, if unexceptional, versions of such past hits as "You Are So Beautiful" and "Feelin' Alright." The high point of the show was Jeff Beck's effortlessly masterful set, which featured superbly controlled sonic displays by Beck, ferocious drumming by Simon Phillips and a crystalline reworking of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready."

Equally fascinating, in its own funky way, was the off-the-wall set by Jimmy Page, who hadn't played in public since the last Led Zeppelin tour, in 1977. As Kenney Jones later remarked, "He's probably one of the bravest among us — he's really putting himself on the line."

Page's set was a triumph of style over substance. With Beck and his keyboardist, Jan Hammer, cleared out, a small white spot opened up on the right of the stage, and suddenly, there he was: cigarette pasted to his lip, a cascade of black curls tumbling down over his eyes — the very picture of wrecked rock-star elegance. First, he removed his long white scarf — to resounding applause, of course — then the various rings on both his hands, and then he rolled up his sleeves and set to work. Had he played not a note, the audience would have been with him anyway. But he picked up his black Telecaster and, leaning back in classic Zep fashion, proceeded to dig into "Prelude," a haunting instrumental piece from the soundtrack of Death Wish II, which Page scored. After two more mysterioso instrumentals — an arcane form at which Page is an unquestioned master — he brought on Paul Rodgers, the former lead singer of Bad Company, a band that recorded for Led Zeppelin's Swan Song record label. Page and Rodgers have been collaborating recently: after an acceptable flail at "Boogie Woman," a tune off Rodgers' recently released solo album, Page sat down with a Danelectro — one of the great cheesy guitars of all time — and began diddling out a long and haphazardly organized "work in progress" that, according to Rodgers, who wrote the lyrics, will eventually be called either "Midnight Moonlight" or "Bird on the Wing." This piece was, to put it tersely, a rambling disaster. It was followed by a supremely flaky instrumental rendition of the epochal "Stairway to Heaven," toward the thrash-crazed end of which Beck and Clapton strolled out and attempted, as best they could, to join in. Page appeared to be on another planet.

The finale was direct and effective: Clapton peeling off the intro to "Layla," with Beck and Page chiming along and Wyman, Cocker and the rest of the crew pitching in, too. Cocker did a strong "With a Little Help from My Friends," and then Ronnie Lane, dressed in a plain black suit, with an assistant holding each arm, made his way to the front of the stage. "Thank you very much," he said. "What do you think of my friends?" The house erupted in thunderous applause, and Lane and the entire company launched into a strong and charming version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene." Almost three hours, and finis.

It was not a totally satisfying show, partly because the individual talents sometimes, of necessity, had to be subservient to the ensemble sound. But there was still one more show to go at the Cow Palace, and who knew what might happen then?

Saturday dawned dark and windy. There had been a party the night before at Bill Graham's elegant digs out in Marin County. No members of the press were allowed, but according to all reports, it was a relatively restrained affair: a certain amount of the traditional stimulants, music by Stax/Volt, plenty of curry — but, according to Joe Cocker, "not enough booze." Still, some revelers didn't make it back to their hotel until seven the next morning.

More judicious souls spent the day shopping. Macy's made a pile off this tour, and so did Wilkes Bashford, the city's ritziest clothing store, where Kenney Jones picked up some sports jackets and Eric Clapton went for shoes, some Giorgio Armani shirts and a Kieselstein-Cord belt — lizard with silver buckle — of the sort that retails for anywhere from $335 to $6500. That may be the most titillating backstage fact let of this otherwise decorously conducted tour — with the obvious exception of anything Jimmy Page was up to in the long hours he spent in his hotel room. There were the tiniest intimations of tension between Clapton, who kicked a debilitating drug problem more than a decade ago, and Page, about whom such a thing has never been said. But when asked how he sees Page and, for that matter, Beck after all these years, Eric is intentionally obscure: "I think their characters have become very clear — have become compounded."

At the end of the show each night, when the rest of the musicians would mix backstage, Page would climb directly into a waiting van and be whisked back to his hotel. This was the most in-demand session guitarist in London in the mid-Sixties — a man credited with playing on early records by the Kinks, the Who and half of the rock acts that set foot in a studio — and yet here he is twenty years later and he can't get invited to a Yardbirds reunion. And when he finally does set foot onstage after a six-year layoff, he whips out a near-solo instrumental version of "Stairway to Heaven" and another song that's not even completed yet. The man is a mystery.

"This tour has got him moving again," says Ian Stewart, who's fond of Page, "and I hope he can find something to do after this. It's a shame that he just sits at home and does nothing. He seems to miss John Bonham very much; but at the same time, I think he'd like to play. It's just that . . . maybe nobody asked him for two or three years; I don't know. Jimmy's pretty laid back, really. He's still very interested in music. He's always coming up with obscure things, like classical things and Bulgarian folk things. We had a big natter the other night about Django Reinhardt guitar solos. So the interest is still there; he just needs a bit of motivation."

As it turns out, there was motivation aplenty in the Saturday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which pop critic Joel Selvin, reviewing the Thursday-night show, praised Jeff Beck ("sensational"), faint-praised Clapton ("agreeable") and deep-sixed Page as possibly "one of the most overrated guitarists in rock."

At least partly in response to this cavalier slagging, one suspects, the show that final night in San Francisco was the best of the three-night stand. Clapton sweat through his set, and it was about as good as straight white blues gets. Beck, playing without a pick, was once again brilliant — the most aggressive and incisively lyrical guitarist on the big-time circuit. (Singer Maria Muldaur sat in the audience shouting, "Eat your heart out, Jerry Garcia!")

But the real killer, charismawise, was Jimmy Page. When he wove out onto the stage wearing a pair of Lennonesque wire-rim shades and the kind of screaming, spangled-lapel jacket that nobody's had the courage to manufacture since 1968, and leaned into the microphone with a pointed "Good evenin' — it's nice to see some friendly faces out there," well, one couldn't help but suspect he'd spent the entire day in his room reading Selvin's review.

"I think I should make one announcement," he said silkily. "Now is the time for the people in the press boxes to go out and get a drink." And without further ado, he peeled off that wacky jacket, strapped on his guitar and — grasping the neck as if it were Joel Selvin's — pumped out a set's worth of bold and often beautifully textured guitar. "Boogie Woman" came across with real crunch, and even the "work in progress" sounded a little more together. "Stairway to Heaven," after all these years, is probably a matter of individual taste.

The concert concluded splendidly: although Page was noticeably out of tune by the time "Layla" came around, Clapton and Beck locked into the riffs and didn't let go. "With a Little Help from My Friends," with all four drummers slamming down on those famous prechorus fills and Cocker turning in one of his strongest vocals, was every bit the equal of the famous Woodstock performance fourteen years ago. By the time Ronnie Lane was guided out for "Goodnight Irene," it was clear that these creaky old geezers still have a lot of wallop — and heart and soul — left in them.

They also seem very clearly defined in light of this emotional event: Clapton, the dignified, in-the-tradition bluesman, limited only by his material, not his talent; Beck, the erratically recorded but undeniable inheritor of the great screamer-guitar tradition of the Sixties; and Page, the sensitive space case. What did they get out of all this? The pleasure of one another's company, says Beck.

"We've never been rivals — it was only the press that ever made it seem so. This has been a ball. I realize that you've got to go out and play and tour, and not just purely rely on video to reach the masses. Because video's not happening, really, to me. A live concert is still magic and always will be. I mean, there's no substitute for the real thing."

"When I saw Ronnie," Clapton says, "I knew that there was a way that I could help him, that it was possible to do this. It doesn't take much. It just takes a little bit of time and a little bit of sincere work. And the rewards are boundless, you know?"

Would it be trite to attribute the Ronnie Lane benefit tour to that much vaunted "spirit of the Sixties"?

"Yeah, that could be true," Clapton says. "There was a great deal of camaraderie in the Sixties that doesn't seem to exist now — a lot of cross-referencing going on, which I don't see much of now. But then, I don't hang out with the young generation. I stay with my own kind. Maybe it does go on, who knows?"

Well, Bill Graham knows. After the final Cow Palace concert, Graham lets slip a little story. "I shouldn't tell you this," he says, correctly, "but Neal Schon was here last night, and he said, 'Bill — we should do this. The young musicians! We could get Carlos Santana and Eddie Van Halen and myself together . . .'

"And I said, 'Come onnnnn, are you kidding?' " Graham chuckles at the absurdity of the idea. "I said, 'Which part would you play?'"

This is a story from the January 19, 1984 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 413: January 19, 1984
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