A Glittering Rock Reunion Becomes the Best of Get-Well Gifts for Guitarist Ronnie Lane

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

He came onstage only at the end, clutching a helping hand as he hobbled unsteadily toward the microphone. "How do you like my friends?" former Faces guitarist Ronnie Lane asked the crowd of 14,300 at San Francisco's Cow Palace. The answer, judging from the roaring, deafening reply: plenty.

And small wonder. Standing behind Lane on the Cow Palace stage was the most regal reunion of rockers since the Band's Last Waltz in 1976. Among them: former Led Zeppelinist Jimmy Page (making his first U.S. appearance in six years), guitarists Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, singer Joe Cocker, drummer Kenney Jones of The Who, Rolling Stones Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. The sterling British all-stars had come together not for profit or politics, but for a four-city, nine-concert, fund-raising tour to help longtime buddy Lane and his fellow victims of multiple sclerosis.

For the ailing Lane, 37, the trek from Dallas to Los Angeles, San Francisco and finally New York would not be easy. To prepare for the grind, the former bass player had gone first to Fort Lauderdale for 18-hour-long sessions in a hyperbaric-oxygen chamber. The iron lung-type device, similar to those used by decompressing deep-sea divers, is the newest and perhaps most controversial means of treating MS patients. Although some doctors regard the effects of superoxygenating the blood as chiefly psychological, Lane credits the chamber with much of his improvement and hopes proceeds from the concert tour will make the costly treatment (about $1.89 per minute) available to more of the 250,000 MS patients in the U.S.

It was music, however, and not medical controversy that filled the Cow Palace stage. Clapton, looking more like a debonair 39-year-old cousin to the royal family than a once-rowdy rocker, led his famed backup players through reprises of Layla, Cocaine and other past hits. Beck, 38, offered his usual mix of combustive guitar playing and calisthenic leaps. Page, gaunt as ever at 39 ("like a guitar with legs," Lane once quipped), roused old-time Led Zep fans with a long instrumental version of his now-classic Stairway to Heaven. In the end, however, Lane himself, wobbly and frail at 119 pounds, upstaged all by leading a simple sing-along of Goodnight Irene to close the two-and-a-half-hour show.

If the concert seemed a bit creaky (one flinty critic dubbed the aging players "a great dinosaur band"), few could fault the obvious affection that brought its stars together. "To hear Ronnie had this condition really hit hard in the mouth," says Page. "Everyone who ever knew him thought he was one of the greatest guys." Adds Kenney Jones, one of Lane's former bandmates: "There's a bond between us as musicians and as people. We go back a long time."

Back to the early '60s, in fact, when Lane and Jones first teamed up in the group Small Faces. "We was just kids," Lane now reflects. "And my idea of rock 'n' roll was something beautiful. We didn't think about the dirty dressing rooms or the dirty businessmen. All we knew was tinsel. We was mods, and we were pretty cool."

In 1970 the group evolved into the Faces, the backup band for singer Rod Stewart. Lane, however, became disillusioned. "Money reared its ugly head," he says. "It got to be a me-me-me type of thing. It was so ugly." Quitting music briefly in 1975, he married and moved to Wales to take up sheep farming. Little by little he began noticing a lingering sense of fatigue and a loss of coordination, the first symptoms of the progressive nerve disorder that was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. When Eric Clapton asked him to go on tour in 1975, Lane obliged. But while playing guitar one day, his left hand suddenly went numb.

Although the disease is not thought to be hereditary, Lane's mother is a longtime victim of MS, and the singer knew well what lay ahead. "I thought, 'I can take it,' " says Lane. "But it just keeps on and wears you down. You start to lose control of your bladder, and then what do you think of yourself?" Increasingly helpless, Lane found his marriage foundering and "began drinking with a purposeā€”to cash in on my life insurance. I'm ashamed to say it, but when John Len-non was shot, I envied him."

Three years ago Lane moved into the north London home of Boo Old-field, a divorced mother of two and a good friend. Despite drastic remedies, including acupuncture and snake-venom injections, his condition worsened. "He was unable to keep up a conversation. It was like living with a zombie," says Oldfield, 31. After reading an article about hyperbaric oxygen in the London Sunday Times, Lane tried the treatment. "Within a week he came alive. He was writing music," says Old-field. After 20 sessions, she adds, "he started getting his fingers back, and I started getting excited."

When Lane was denied further treatment for five months because of the limited number of chambers available, Oldfield called on Who guitarist Pete Townshend. The result, with help from longtime rock producer Glyn Johns, was a benefit concert last September at London's Royal Albert Hall. Thanks to the money raised, a hyperbaric-oxygen center is now scheduled to open in London in January. "The night was magic," says Oldfield happily. "Afterward, there were whispers of 'America? America?' "

Lane now hopes to channel much of the estimated $1 million take from the American tour into a new U.S. branch of Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS), the maverick British group that energetically promotes research into alternative therapies for MS. Yet for Lane, the cross-country gigs by his longtime friends have meant more than money. "I feel very indebted to these guys. They're heroes," he says. "This is a rekindling of my dream for rock 'n' roll, the dream that I lost back in the '70s. Now they are all beginning to live up to it. I'm a very happy man."

From Our Partners