Ronnie Lane’s Lonely Battle
Ronnie Lane remembers the day, about five years ago, when doctors first told him he had multiple sclerosis. How could he ever forget? “They just looked at me with an awful, pitiful, sort of helpless expression. It was scary –– really scary. When they look at you like that, you know they can’t bleedin’ do anything, and oh, do you feel alone.” Lane stares silently at the hands he can no longer control, the legs that hardly work, the once happy-go-lucky life that now lies in ruins. “I can be in a crowded football stadium,” he says, “completely alone.”
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is incurable. That’s what the English doctors told Ronnie Lane. But then late last year, Fred Sessler reentered his life. A longtime business associate of the Rolling Stones, Sessler knew Lane from his glory days with the Faces. Sessler had left the music business, taken his rock & roll money and invested it in a controversial MS therapy that involves daily injections of diluted poisonous snake venom. Basing himself in Florida, he opened the Miami Venom Institute. Keith Richards’ aunt, who has a severe case of MS, was a patient there, and by last November, so was Ronnie Lane, the former, now-penniless rock star. Sessler paid for everything, and Lane slowly started getting better. The venom injections, combined with a rigorous program of therapy, can’t cure MS, but Lane says they did arrest the physical deterioration associated with the disease. Suddenly, he had hope.
But then earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration intervened. The FDA did not approve of Sessler’s venom treatments and closed down the Miami Venom Institute, forcing him to move his operation to Jamaica – and to put a heartbroken Ronnie Lane on a plane back to London.
Outside the small, tidy apartment in the London suburb of Kentish Town, a daylong drizzle drips through the trees. Inside, a small electric heater struggles to take some of the chill off the afternoon. A battered Hammond organ, a souvenir of happier times, stands against a wall in the living room. Lane bought it years ago from Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. His hands can’t finger the keys anymore, but music still fills his head, and with the assistance of Boo Oldfield, he still composes songs. Boo is a dark, pretty, determined woman, and this is her flat. She took Lane in when his life was at a low ebb –– a bottomed-out chronicle of two failed marriages, a pair of sons (now three and nine years old) he was rarely able to see and, finally and most devastatingly, this cruel, crippling disease.
“Do you know about MS?” Boo asks from the kitchen, where she’s brewing a pot of tea. “It’s where the outer layer of the nerves breaks down. It’s like a short circuit.” She brings the tea into the living room, and Lane, who’s sitting quietly on a couch, asks her for a packet of Sweet’n Low. He’s confined to a stringent diet –– no sugar, no fat, no gluten. “Bread’s out,” he explains. “Anything to do with wheat flour is out.”
“Rice flour you can use to make lots of things,” Boo cheerily interjects. “It’s not that bad.”
“She’s baked a few cakes with rice flour,” says Ronnie, slowly stirring his tea, “and I think I like it better.” He’s trying to be optimistic, but suddenly his smile turns into a bitter, twisted grin. “That’s just looking on the bright side of things,” he says. “Let’s look on the really dull side –– it’s awful!”
So are the snake-venom injections. (Before he left the States, Sessler provided Lane with a year’s worth of the venom for home treatment.) “How can I describe it?” Ronnie says wearily. “Can you imagine the strands of your hair hurting? That’s what happens. And when you blink –– like that –– it’s like your eyelids are made of sandpaper. I was quite prepared to feel bad, like with the flu or mumps. But I’ve never had anything like this. This is like hell itself.”
(According to a National Multiple Sclerosis Society spokeswoman, venom therapy is “an entirely unproven form of treatment.” And while MS is not fatal itself, complications can lead to death.)
To make matters worse, Lane is broke. What money he had from his days of fame went to doctors. Now he can’t even afford a record player, and British tax collectors constantly hound him for thousands of pounds they claim he owes in back taxes. He agrees that it might be a wise idea to check on the royalties accrued by sales of the old Faces albums and Rough Mix, the lovely LP he recorded with Pete Townshend in 1977, but he’s unable to pay for an audit. Nor can he afford a security guard to watch over his last significant asset, a mobile studio, which he bought with his earnings from the Faces. The 16-track recording van is now parked in another part of London, where local punks –– convinced that Lane was just another over-privileged rock star –– stripped it of equipment. Ronnie was powerless to stop them.
All he has left, really, are his memories. They stretch back 36 years to the East End of London, where he was born. His father was a truck driver –– “a saint,” Ronnie says –– who’d work all day and then spend his nights caring for his two sons and their mother, who also suffered from MS. (As a child, Lane was assured that the disease was not hereditary; when he later contracted it, doctors allowed as how it did tend to “cluster in families.”) It was Ronnie’s father who urged him to take up the guitar as a child.
“In his own kind of truck-driver way, he was very wise,” Lane says. “He said, ‘If you learn to play an instrument, son, learn to play a guitar. You’ll always have a friend.’ It’s a great way of puttin’ it.”
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