Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Passing Show (DVD)

I netflixed The Life and Music of Ronnie Lane: The Passing Show.

A depressing tale in some ways, but it's different from the usual rags to riches to shagging birds till you're blind to drug addiction to rags Rock and Roll story.

Ronnie was the main songwriter for the Small Faces and subsequently The Faces. In the middle of their greatest hit period - without having collected any money - he left them and became a combo farmer-gypsy, hacking away on a farm with working class (rather than the usual middle class) cluelessness and attempting to stage a travelling show of musicians. Not many people turned up and eventually someone absconded with the meager takings. He hung around his farm jamming with some of the best sidemen on earth (as well as Clapton, Beck, Townshend etc.) and eventually developed multiple sclerosis (MS).

He set up a fund for MS treatment and one of the fund raisers was the ARMS tour, with a large number of world-class musicians including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Steve Winwood playing for the charity. According to the DVD, Ronnie Lane's luck held and someone ripped off the fund (much larger this time). This put Ronnie under investigation for running a fraudulent charity. Eventually the stellar sidemen brigade took him out on a number of tours in a wheelchair, he married a beautiful woman who liked looking at scenery with him, and then they lived happily, but not for ever after.

Ronnie Lane's music is marginal to me. A few years ago I couldn't stand fiddle and accordion stuff and I've made no secret of it not being my fave right now. But he was very good at it, sincere and full of feeling and compassion. Beware that the DVD doesn't contain any footage at all of the ARMS concerts. There's some great early footage of the Small Faces, but no complete songs. Various talking heads annoyed me by calling him a "gypsy" all the time, but eventually it was shown that he knew some Rom and they seemed to like him, so I suppose that's okay.

It was a sad, rather than elegiac, story and not just because one already knows the ending. There seems to be quite a few musicians who shone brightly because of, rather than in spite of, nervous system damage. Woodie Guthrie's wanderlust comes to mind. Ronnie Lane fitted that pattern and as I watched him leave The Faces and go to live in a tumbledown farmhouse with no electricity or weatherproofing and plan to run a circus (of all the childhood escapist fantasies!) without any idea how to put up a Big Top or run a generator, I just wanted to go back in time and tell him to stay with Rod and make a few bob. He didn't, and that's left us some good music and a lot of musicianly cameraderie that might not have happened without adversity as the spark, but I still felt melancholy. Perhaps it was the fiddles.

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