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Music to his fears
by Marty Racine
Houston Chronicle; Houston, Tex.; Feb 24, 1985

YES, to dream. To consider reasonable options in the pursuit of your potential.

We're born figuring the world to be a wonderful and logical and grow up realizing it's a pretty strange place in which to conduct a life.

Smiling through clenched teeth, life deals mysterious cruelties like multiple sclerosis, a severely crippling disease that strikes without warning and attacks the central nervous system with a variety of symptoms ranging from blindness to bowel and bladder incontinence to paralysis to suicidal depression. Now why did it do that to anybody, to Ronnie Lane?

Lane, founder of the Small Faces, one of the ``British invasion's'' best kept secrets and a branch in the family trees of Humble Pie, Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, was diagnosed for the disease nine years ago. Today he lives in Houston, a continent from home, 20 years removed from when he and Stewart and Wood and Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan were cocky little rock 'n' roll kids who knew the world was to be conquered by music and a lot of moxie.

So much for dreams.

``This is all about a nightmare, really, a real-life nightmare.'' Ronnie Lane is summing up the first truth. He's sitting nine floors above downtown Houston in the recently established national headquarters for ARMS-America - Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis. It's a grand and glorious late winter's day. The western sun streams through the window. Outside, people think they have troubles. Outside they worry about catching the bus.

``It's how to deal with real-life nightmares. Because there is such a thing, believe it or not. They do exist. And they come and visit you - or your loved ones.

``And then your trouble starts.''

The trouble started for Ronnie Lane in 1976. Gradually he lost control of his bodily functions. In 1981 MS delivered a crippling blow which knocked him off his legs and into a wheelchair and left him literally speechless. Fed up with the it's-just-fate attitude of the established Multiple Sclerosis Society, Lane, producer Glyn Johns and noted guitarist Eric Clapton spearheaded an effort that culminated in an all-star benefit concert in September of 1983 at London's Royal Albert Hall. Many of Lane's musician-pals and a Who's Who of the old school of British rock gave their time: Wood, Stewart, Clapton, McLagan, Jeff Beck, Charlie Watts, Jan Hammer, Simon Phillips, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Paul Rodgers, Bill Wyman and others. The event raised $500,000 for ARMS of England, which had been established in 1974.

The show was so successful the musicians agreed, without Lane's urging, to a four-city tour of the States, held at the end of '83 in Dallas, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The celebrated tour, called by some the ``concert of the year,'' raised about $1 million, which, not without effort, was used to launch ARMS of America, Ltd. - a public, totally independent, non-profit foundation headquartered in Houston due to Lane's association with local attorney and fellow MS sufferer, Mae Nacol, who with her sister Barbara (now president of ARMS-America) had established a treatment center here for MS. The money goes to fund research into the causes, cures, treatments and prevention of MS; to establish a 24-hour telephone counseling service; to provide membership with a newsletter; to develop a library for educational services and up-to-date information.

The check was presented at a news conference here last December. In a short speech to the assembled journalists and city officials, Lane issued a challenge: ``The Brits started USA-ARMS, and I would expect the American musicians to keep it going.''

One who listened was Michael Heyman, local rock and blues guitarist who had recently returned from points north. Heyman approached Lane and ARMS about a benefit concert. The upshot is the ``Ronnie Lane Appeal for ARMS,'' to be held Thursday at Fitzgerald's nightclub featuring an auction (lined up so far to donate items are Mr. Peabody's vintage clothing, Erotic Cabaret, Tila's restaurant, the Ale House nightclub, King Biscuit restaurant and Golden Guitar) and hours of entertainment from some of the city's better known bands: Dr. Rockit, the Natives, Little Screamin' Kenny, Shake Russell, Alan Haynes, the Footnotes and the Bedbugs. Others may be added. Lane will attend and is expected to sing, although he is unable to play guitar. Small Face Ian McLagan, who's toured with the Rolling Stones, will be there, too. The music starts at 8 p.m.

Ironic, that in illness Ronnie Lane is even more of a personality than he was in health. ``Strange how things work out,'' he replies, wearing a wry grin that breaks occasionally into a smile as big as a man's heart. He's alternately chipper, silly, feisty and angry. He speaks slowly, but out of forethought, not disability. He looks better than he did two months ago at the news conference.

One of Lane's functions as volunteer at the ARMS headquarters is in manning the toll-free counseling line (1-800 USA-ARMS). What kinds of calls does he receive?

``They're varied. Some come on very optimistic, and, `Very nice to meet you.' Then you get the others, who are in the pits, you know. Very despondent. I try to help them. It's hard to get through when someone is that down . Because I know how down they are; I've been there. And I know that anything I say is ineffectual. I'm all right. I've cracked it. They're still there. They just have to realize that that's what they have to cope with.

``I would also say: `Don't panic.' Never panic. It doesn't help. I've never known panic to be of help in any situation.

``The way I accepted MS in the end was not to accept MS. Because you can't accept MS. It's bleeping LOUSY. But I could accept the challenge. That was a different way of looking at it. I could accept the challenge.

``It's a strange disease, you know. It robs the quality of your life completely. Unbelievably. Because up until it came on, there wasn't anything like that in existence in my life. I never had anything except the odd cold.

``I had to relearn how to do just about everything. Everything, you know. When they told me (diagnosed it) I knew I had something pretty heavy coming. I knew it was going to be pretty bad. But I still didn't really believe that it could devastate as much as it does.''

Lane's first reaction was to go on a bender. ``I started drinking. Got into a self-destructive phase in my life. Which was - an experience. But I never got there, did I? You know why? Because it's hard to kill vermin.''

The support of friends and loved ones so crucial to anything like this was missing in the beginning because, Lane says, ``I didn't tell 'em straight away. It was something I'd rather keep to myself. I wasn't proud of having MS. As a natural fact, quite the opposite. I was ashamed of it. It didn't fit my personal image of me. So, while I could, I didn't let anybody know. I just started raving, and adventurizing. But it got me in the end. I had to own up. If there had been more of an advisory capacity for people who have MS when I first got it, I wouldn't have gone on that self-destruct thing. A bit of revelry is all right. But you have to learn the difference between scratching your arm and tearing it to pieces.

``I don't know how they found out. I think I told Eric (Clapton) about it eventually, when it got so - when some of the effects came on in a way that I couldn't make out. But he was one of the people I was on the self-destruct binge with, anyway. What would he know about it? He was doing a pretty good job himself!''

His self-esteem crippled, his profession stolen by disease, Lane could only eventually turn his life over to the pursuit of destroying the indestructible. The fighter in him emerged, and suddenly, so far from the dreams of youth, he found himself not on the stage or in the recording studio, but behind a desk of an organization he'd never given a second thought to.

``Well, there's nothing else to do,'' he says. ``I've got a second career, although I didn't choose it. I have chosen it now. Someone needs to be doing it, especially if we get somewhere. If we get somewhere, then I will accept the bleeping disease. I mean, this is what life has dealt me, fate has dealt me, and, you know, I watched my mother go through this bleeping disease. I saw what it did to my father. I knew what it did to me. Well, we've been to the moon since then, you know. We have the capacity to blow up the world umpteen times. And meanwhile, something like MS is kind of accepted: `Oh, so-and-so's got MS. That's hard luck.' Well, it is hard luck. But surely there's a bit more to it than that.

``So I came to Houston last summer. I was going to go to Florida to take some HBO (``hyperbaric oxygen,'' a decompression treatment similar to that given to deep-sea divers suffering from the bends), and Dr. Philip Jones, who's on the board now (of ARMS-America) suggested I go to Houston to meet Mae Nacol, who he said was a remarkable lady. So I came here, and surely enough she is a remarkable lady. Me and the boys had raised this money for America, not to take back to England. So I went back, trying to get Mae accepted by the Brits as the head of a USA-ARMS. We got it in the end, but it took quite a lot of pressure, a lot of political pressure.

``I mean, how on Earth could they expect us to come over here, raise all this money, and take it back to England, as if this (disease) is peculiar only to England. I felt an alternative to the complacent MS Society is just as valid in this country - more so, really. I found HBO, for me personally, to be of some benefit. (He takes treatments at the Houston HBO Medical Center.) Whereas, the MS Society warns that it will give you brain damage, will burst your ear drums, and all this terribly frightening bleep. And it doesn't at all. All it did for me was, it took the fatigue away and brought me back to life enough to be able to speak again. I couldn't even SPEAK, you know. I couldn't get me mouth around a bleeping word. I couldn't think of a word I wanted to say, anyway. I mean, I was gone. Bleeping gone.

``And it's ACCEPTED, you know. I mean, there's a lot of people in that condition I describe to you now. And it's accepted. So they should try HBO to see if it does them any good. It doesn't always work. This disease is bleeping weird. You can't say, `This will do something good' or `This won't.'

``I didn't know how I was going to get back to doing anything at all. But anyway I did, as much as I could.''

Lane says he picks up the guitar ``now and then. But I can't actually play. The fine senses (of touch) - that's gone. Without the fine sense, I mean I can't say I can play the guitar. I can hammer a couple of chords together and get an idea for a song. Maybe if I concentrated and worked very hard at practicing I could get some of it back. But I'm concentrating on so many other bloody things that have to do with walking. Then bleep the guitar; it can wait, you know.

``But there's a lot of things that I miss. I don't think playing comes before any of the other things, really. It's the whole bleeping landscape of things I can't do anymore. At the moment, anyway.''

Barbara Nacol has set a timetable of six years to discover the cause or causes of MS and says that ARMS research money will go toward theories other than the normal viral theory that's been researched since 1948. One alternative is the ``fat embolism'' theory, which in layman's terms means that fat gets into a vein and goes to the brain, causing leakage. The toxins in the blood destroy the tissue.

To that end, Lane says, in addition to the HBO treatments, ``I observe a low-fat diet.'' He also takes physical therapy at Blalock Physical Therapy under the supervision of Dr. Rex Nutt. ``He gives me a hard time,'' he says mischievously.

About his old running mates, the Rod Stewarts, the Ian McLagans, all the cocky rock 'n' roll kids, Lane explains that, ``We're still friends. There's been some (acrimony), I suppose. But the point is, there was a time when we all got along very well together. And we had a good time. We should never forget that.''

Yes, the dreams of youth. Should never forget, either, Lane says, that ``you don't even grow up thinking that your life can be taken away from you, and that you can be left behind. It's too weird. Your life's taken away, and you're left here . What the bleep do you do?''

Inadvertently a question begins with, ``So when you were diagnosed for MS in 1967...'' No, 1976, Lane corrects. ``Sixty-seven was a very good year.''



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