I heard your footsteps at the front door, and that old familiar love song. ‘Cause you knew you’d find me waiting there, at the top of the stairs.
Those lyrics weren’t written by a heartsick bloke waiting for his lover to come home. They were composed by an artist recalling his boyhood days in a working-class London neighborhood, waiting for his tireless dad to return from his Sunday morning trudge to the local junk market.
You were sorting through the odds and ends,
You was looking for a bargain.
Ronnie Lane, the artist once described by Mojo writer Wayne Pernu as “the East End urchin with the pastoral vision,” wrote those lyrics for a song called “Debris” (the Brits pronounce it DEB-ree). The Debris was a term used by the locals to describe a makeshift market thrown together on the bleak streets of a city still bearing very visible scars of the WWII Blitz.
To a child it must have seemed a far-away, almost magical place, chock-a-block with the kinds of utilitarian items that imaginative kids transform into playthings…the types of twisted, tarnished bric-a-brac that tykes like me once stored like treasure in old King Edward cigar boxes.
I went there and back,
Just to see how far it was.
And you, you tried to tell me,
But I had to learn for myself.
Now, in case you were absent from school the day your history teacher presented the chapter on Pioneers of 1960s Mod Culture, allow me to tell you more about the sensitive fellow who penned those poignant words. Ronnie Lane was a singer, songwriter and bass player for The Small Faces, an early British mod-rock/R&B unit composed of singer Steve Marriott, drummer Kenney Jones, and keyboardist Ian McLagan. The group’s name derived from the fact that all the boys were under 5’5”. A face was ’60s London slang for a particularly stylish mod rocker. Put it all together and you’ve got four Small Faces.
Ronnie was not only the band’s co-founder, he was its heart and soul. And it wasn’t just because he wrote or co-wrote all of the group’s original material. No, there was something else. He had a kind of sweet-sad weathered countenance: a spotty, sun-starved face, and bad teeth typical of all the Queen’s subjects who relied upon Britain’s publicly-funded National Health system. Or maybe the physical shortcomings stemmed from years of post-war food shortages and rationing.
And compared to his mod mates, Ronnie’s hair always looked like the girl next door had cut it as practice for her cosmetology exam. In short, he looked POOR. And to me, that meant he had soul.
Years later, when I had access to music magazines and male rock-fanatic friends, I learned that my assessment of him was correct. He was not only poor, he had a home life wracked by illness. Ronnie’s dad Stan was a truck driver who worked long days and even longer nights, tending to the health of his wife Elsie and son Stanley, Jr., both of whom suffered from multiple sclerosis.
Throughout his life, Ronnie referred to his persevering, jovial dad as a saint. When Lane and Marriott began conceptualizing The Small Faces’ seminal concept LP “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake,” in late 1967, it came as no surprise that the central character — Happiness Stan, who ventures off to find the missing half of the moon — would reflect the image of Ronnie’s dad.
But “Debris” is the rocker’s true paean to the parent who once told him that if he learned to play an instrument he’d always have friends. It turned out the boy would never have a closer one than Happiness Stan himself.
Oh, you was my hero!
Now you are my good friend.
I’ve been there and back,
And I know how far it is.
“Debris” was featured on the 1971 album “A Nod is as Good as a Wink….to a Blind Horse.” By this point, the band had morphed from Small Faces to Faces, following the departure of Steve Marriott and the addition of frontman Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood.
After the release of The Faces’ fourth album, “Ooh La La,” in 1973, Ronnie Lane quit the group, transitioning from sharp-dressed electric rocker to gypsy-garbed backroads troubadour. He formed a folky country-blues band called Slim Chance (the name itself reflected Ronnie’s sharp sense of irony), and launched a carnival-like tour called “The Passing Show,” complete with circus tents, barkers and an occasional ringmaster. By 1976, Ronnie, like his mother and brother before him, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but continued to record and tour with such artists as Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend.
Ronnie spent the final 13 years of his life in America, settling first in Texas and later Colorado. Wheelchair-bound, he remained as active as possible, playing, writing and recording through 1992. By this point, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood were funding his medical care. He succumbed to pneumonia during late stages of MS in 1997, at age 51.
Ronnie’s “Debris” was always a mainstay on my Music for Mood-Spinners mix-tapes (parts 1, 2, etc.), and later on my iTunes playlist of the same name. (And I’m not kidding. I DO have such a playlist, and I fire it up every time I crave some luscious, rainy-day soul-stirring.) “Debris” is the most tender, beautifully arranged song in the entire Small Faces/Faces catalog. When I eventually learned that Ronnie Lane penned this song as an ode to his father, it took on even deeper significance. All of that old black-and-white newsreel footage of bleak post-war Europe flooded my head as I listened to Ronnie sing about waiting at the top of the stairs for his dad to return, second-hand goods in tow, to the family that so desperately needed him.
But I left you on the Debris.
Now, we both know you got no money.
And I wonder what you would have done
Without me hanging around.
Sleep well, Ronnie Lane. There is a special place in my heart for people like you who so movingly honor the ones who enriched their lives.
Here’s the original “Debris” track,” from The Faces’ “A Nod is as Good as a Wink.”
And here’s Ronnie performing the song live with his band Slim Chance. The clip includes a performance of “Ooh La La,” another gem he wrote during his Faces days.
© Dana Spiardi, June 19, 2016