Pete Townshend's appreciation of Ronnie Lane
Last year, Ronnie Lane, the heart of both the Faces and Small Faces and a solo artist in his own right, would have turned 60. Although Lane died in 1997 from complications associated with multiple sclerosis, 2006 held a small bounty of birthday gifts for the bassist who lived in Austin for some six years during the late Eighties and early Nineties.
First, keyboardist Ian McLagan, who moved to Austin the year his former bandmate departed for the cooler climate of Colorado in 1993, issued a wonderfully heartfelt tribute to his friend Lane, Spiritual Boy: An Appreciation of Ronnie Lane. Pete Townshend got in the act next when his historic collaboration with Lane, 1976's Rough Mix, received the 5.1 surround-sound treatment and appended unreleased Lane tracks. Finally, The Passing Show, a revelatory documentary about the man once nicknamed "Plonk," aired on the BBC before being commercially released around the world.
Featured prominently among the talking heads waxing nostalgic in the film about Lane was the Who's Townshend, who was moved by Austin's adoption of Lane and the musical revitalization the Face enjoyed during his stint here. In the midst of touring the Who's first studio disc in 25 years, Endless Wire, a trek hitting San Antonio's AT&T Center March 20, Townshend took time to chat about his friendship with Lane as well as his other solo and Who-related pursuits.
Austin Chronicle: Is Chicago a home base of sorts for you these days?
Pete Townshend: Yeah, kind of. I've built up a good bunch of social acquaintances here. My girlfriend, Rachel, did a show at the House of Blues, as well, so we've been doing all kinds of things, having fun.
AC: I was listening to a show you and Rachel do on the Internet called In the Attic. It's amazing.
PT: Thank you; it's kind of crazy. It's very informal and very loose. You can see some of it now; she's got a new Web site, which is www.intheattic.tv. You can see some of the songs and the kinds of things we do. We're thinking it might one day go to television.
AC: One gets to hear things you don't ordinarily play, like "Blue, Red and Grey" and "Greyhound Girl."
PT: It's an unplugged environment. People that are used to that kind of fireside music scene in Austin would really enjoy it, especially if you like Ronnie Lane's music. It's informal.
AC: When the Small Faces and the Who were around town in England in the mid-Sixties, was one more of a mentor to the other?
PT: I think we both came from our own place. We were from West London, and they were from East London. We really only met once we had become successful, but we got on very well. We respected each other. They were much more lighthearted than the Who. Of course, my friendship with Ronnie was a lifetime friendship; that was almost like meeting a brother. I know of a lot of people actually who met Ronnie and felt the same way.
AC: You wrote for the Who solo, Pete Townshend compositions, but Ronnie worked successfully with Steve Marriott. Did he ever ask you about writing with different people, or would you ask him what it was like to be in a songwriting team?
PT: I think it was the latter. I've never really been able to co-write comfortably. I suppose for me it's probably about control. When I sit down with somebody else, I find it quite tricky to get past the fact that there's a kind of creative negotiation going on, which I don't know that I've got the generosity of spirit to deal with. Ronnie was extraordinary in that respect; he could work with anyone. He was so adorable but such an underestimated musician in those early days. He wasn't a real Who fan. He wasn't into the punk rock that the Who was into. He loved coming around and listening to my demos, the little things that I did that the Who never recorded. He was the first guy that ever encouraged me to do a real solo record, which I actually did with him on Rough Mix. Prior to that, I put out a few demos for a thing called Who Came First, which was a game Ronnie and I did together. We made an album or two dedicated to the Indian teacher that we followed back in those days, Meher Baba.
AC: I think the first time the public heard you together was his song "Evolution" on Who Came First. It's interesting that on your solo album you gave over a track to Ronnie.
PT: What's interesting about that song is that it was very much a solo track. We recorded it in my home studio, and I felt very much a part of it. He was very much a part of what I was doing in those days. Our relationship was very intimate, kind, thoughtful, very constructive, and quite spiritual in quality. He brought out something in me. He broke me down, I suppose, with his humor. But when we did that song, I was just stunned. What he had actually done is taken Meher Baba's very complicated description of the universe and the way that consciousness travels and grows and evolves and turned it into a really amusing, lighthearted, and funky song. That was Ronnie's way: He was a real storyteller.
AC: How much of Rough Mix was actually a collaboration? Or was it a Pete Townshend song, a Ronnie Lane song?
PT: It was the latter; it was one on, one off. However, for me, that album was a divine collaboration, a life-changing record. 1976 was a very critical and intense year for me in a whole number of different ways. I did a lot of stuff with the Who and a lot of extramural stuff, too. And, I can remember it was the first time when I realized that Ronnie was getting sick. We had a little argument about something; he accused me of treating my wife very badly and said something a bit indecent about me. I pushed him or punched him, and he just went flying. I thought, "Well, he's a little guy, but God, this is a bit strange." He really went flying.
I helped him up, and I said, "What's up?" And he said, "Oh, I just lost my balance." And I said, "You look like you are drunk." I went back, and somebody else in his circle said to me, "We think Ronnie might have MS." That was the very first time I realized that was happening. So, it was a wonderful time, in a way, to be with him and support him and try to knock him out in the middle of a rile.
The other thing was that the record was critically acclaimed. It made me confident that I could pursue a solo career. It may also have been the record that sewed the seed of doom for the Who. I think already by '76, I was running out of ideas as to how to get the Who to move to the next level, if there was one. We were so busy on the road. We got this reputation for being a hotel-room-smashing rock band, which didn't fit in with many of my personal ideas, but I was in it; I was of it. I'm not denying my role in it.
AC: You're on the road with the Who right now in support of Endless Wire. How's the new material coming across for you and the audience?
PT: It's going very well. The part of the new record, which I call a mini-opera, "Wire and Glass," is fairly rockin', so that goes down quite well. At one point it's just Roger and me onstage for two of the songs with an acoustic guitar. It's a slightly different record; I made it entirely by myself at home. I worked on an eight-track tape machine. I used the computer very, very little. I often thought about Ronnie while I was making it about the encouragement he gave me to stick to my guns and to play as much of the music myself as I could. That was easier for me to do this time because there is no Who band. We have a great band that we tour with, but if there's a Who nowadays, it's definitely Who 2. It's just me and Roger. We are a duo now, and everything is very new for us, but I'm pleased with the record, and I'm really pleased to be out on the road. I have got my partner, Rachel, my family, with me. I miss the dogs. I miss my son. I miss my home, but it's as good as it gets. We are having a really good tour.
Pete Townshend's SXSW keynote address is Wednesday, March 14, 6:30pm in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Austin, across from the Austin Convention Center.