I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 3)

It was on that same Saturday night, which we spent in Blackpool, ready to set up for Sunday’s show at the Opera House, that I should have spotted another threat to the ongoing equilibrium of the band. We were staying at the inhospitable Norbreck Castle, whose plaster turrets and crenellations were as flimsy as its aspirations to grandeur, but although we were residents, we weren’t allowed to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, because we didn’t have ties, and it was only on the say-so of a benevolent receptionist that we were grudgingly accommodated in the less pretentious Cabaret Grill, which was where, halfway through our meal, we were joined by Ronnie Lane, his partner Kate, and their baby son Luke. Unlike the rest of the band, who were commuting to each gig from London in a private plane, Ronnie was driving from town to town with an AA road map and his Land Rover.

“If you’re going to be on the road, you might as well be on the road,” he told me later, “and if you want to live at home, you might as well live at home, because if you don’t totally accept that you’re on the road and that’s it, that’s your lot, private jets back to London for a few hours a day ain’t going to make it home. You’re living a split, and you ain’t going to get any benefit out of it at all. What’s wrong with life on the road? There’s nothing wrong with it if you make it a life on the road. You say, ‘I won’t take the motorway here, I’ll take the B-road, because it goes through this country and that village, and I’d like to see this and I’d like to see that.’ You might as well enjoy it. I can’t understand this rushing there and rushing back business. I ain’t going to rush anywhere, not unless I absolutely have to.”

True to his word, he would do his best not to rush on the Faces’ next American tour in the spring of 1973, renting a Winnebago camper whenever time and distance allowed. Even so, somewhere between Minneapolis and New York an unarguable truth hit him: this wasn’t why he’d learned to play guitar, not this uninspiring, sapping routine of travel, gig, hotel, no. The equally inescapable consequence was that he would have to leave the group.

Once he had started thinking that way, it wasn’t hard to come up with other reasons for not staying in the Faces. He was in no doubt that Rod held back his best songs, as he had most recently with ‘True Blue’, for his own records. He would not turn a blind eye to the looming shadow of Rod’s solo success, which he recognized as a threat, not just to the longevity, but to the very entity of the Faces. He couldn’t ignore the slow, but unstoppable spread of separate billing on posters – Rod Stewart and the Faces – by promoters bothered more by the prospect of missing a single potential ticket sale than bruising musicians’ egos. And he felt gagged as a singer, especially on stage, where his vocal role was reduced to backing harmonies and the opening verse of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – “and not in my key either, you can guess whose key it was in.” He was also frustrated by the slow progress of the Faces’ follow-up to A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, especially Rod’s infrequent attendance at sessions and unhelpful appraisal of tracks necessarily recorded in his absence, and, when Ooh La La was eventually released, he was disappointed by its critical reception, and appalled by Rod’s deliberate, disloyal distancing of himself from the record.

On 12th May 1973, as the Faces were waiting to go on stage at the Civic Centre in Roanoke, West Virginia, Ronnie said the words that had been used countless times by different members of the band, but until now only in fun, parodying a pop star’s foot-stamping tantrum at a trivial setback, like a lukewarm cup of tea or a brandy-and-coke with no ice: “I’m leaving the group!” He left no one in doubt that he meant it. December’s high jinks were a distant memory and when, during the set, he spat an obscenity at Mac, the keyboard player caught him with a vicious kick, leaving 10,000 West Virginians wondering whether it was part of the act. There was one more US date, four nights to fulfill in London, then Ronnie Lane was gone.

Was Kate Lambert the Faces’ Yoko Ono? Clearly she was the one who had Ronnie’s ear, and he did leave the group, but that’s too crude a connection. At that restaurant table in Blackpool, the most obvious sign of her influence was the way he dressed, more like a poacher than a pop star.

John Peel turned up at the Opera House, his second appearance already on the tour. The Faces fan had previously attended the Newcastle show, arriving early enough to join the crew in a Chinese restaurant round the corner from the City Hall. He sipped a light ale while the roadies ate, but, back at the venue, his chronic shyness got the better of him and he spent the hours that remained until show time hiding in a lavatory cubicle.

Newcastle was also notable for the number of apparently jobless young men hanging around the back of the City Hall, offering to lend a hand. Most left when it became clear that carrying stage cases wouldn’t earn them a private audience with Rod Stewart, but one who stayed couldn’t stop telling us how he was going to be a star himself. A record company was interested in his songs and any day he would be on a train to London to sign a contract. It would be serendipitous to reveal that the would-be pop star was a milkman’s son called Gordon, who wore a striped black-and-yellow jumper. But this wasn’t Sting and, though I kept an eye out for the young man’s face, I never did see his photo on a record sleeve or in the music press. That deluded hope, doubtless recited to Led Zeppelin’s crew a week before, must have been what got him through the day.

The second week of the tour included three London dates, the first at what was now the Brixton Academy, the other two at the Edmonton Sundown. Their décor identified both venues as twins of the more famous Rainbow Theatre, but, with their stalls stripped of seats, they were infinitely preferable places for a party. Especially a party with no limit on the numbers. Watching the crush that started in front of the stage, but soon spread to every corner, I wondered if anyone was counting those coming in, concluding that they couldn’t be, because at Brixton the capacity must have been exceeded several times over. Even the seated balcony looked over-full and anything but sedate, its parapet bouncing like a trampoline under the fans’ pounding feet, and that was before the band came on. Downstairs, meanwhile, conditions looked manifestly dangerous.

It didn’t help that the Faces were late, or that the wait sent the temperature soaring from tropical to uninhabitable rain forest, but during the show I must have pulled more than thirty girls, giddy or on the point of passing out, from the crowd and carried them to the relative cool of the stage side. It wasn’t easy, because they weren’t all size zero and bodies were squeezed so tight it was like drawing a cork from a bottle. To make my job harder, Rod insisted that under no circumstances was I to put myself between him and his audience, so some girl would be screaming at me that her friend had fainted, while I watched helplessly as the floppy corpse starting to sink into the sea of bodies, counting down the choruses until Ron Wood took his solo and I could mobilise myself.

Barely given time to get their breath back, they were offered a choice: out through the stage door, where there was unlimited fresh air, but no re-admission, or back into the crush beside the stage. Not one of them picked the first option. Waiting to re-enter the arena for the encore, casually balancing a vinyl ‘Cindy’ football on his red Anello & Davide pump, Rod grumbled that I’d been conned.

“They’re just faking it to get backstage.”

I indicated the obvious: that there were no girls backstage, not in the area I looked after, anyway.

“Didn’t do them much good then, did it?”

After the second night in Edmonton, a kick-about with one of the promotional plastic footballs turned into a full-blooded match, for which the carpeted expanse of stalls was almost ideal, only the slope towards the stage giving it the tilt of a Cup giant-killers’ ground, although, by playing from side to side, across the auditorium, the gradient advantaged neither side. It was easy to pick out Rod’s mates, because they knew how to play, but otherwise it was like a pick-up game in a primary school playground, with a mob myopically pursuing the ball and most players wanting to be in Rod’s team. I was happy to pick myself against him and trade occasional nods of acknowledgement at passes successfully struck to a player in space or two-footed tackles avoided. I played in a tough Sunday morning league, so I could handle being hacked, but even so I ended up with more bruises and grazed skin that I ever collected on Hackney Marshes.

All too soon we were in Manchester for the last night of the tour. It was a Saturday, and I knew Rod had been to watch United. I also knew the result, so I was surprised to find him irrepressibly chirpy, considering Leeds had equalised moments before the final whistle. On the way to the stage he spiked me with an elbow.

“Guess what I saw this afternoon?”

I shrugged. He grinned.

“Denis Law’s knob.”

Fast-forward to 1975. Discovering I was in LA, Rod invited me to turn out for his Coldwater Canyon Casuals one Saturday afternoon. I climbed out of my car at his house in Bel Air, carrying the trainers I’d bought that morning, but he greeted me with a frown.

“Where’s your kit?”

“I thought this was a proper match. I assumed it would be supplied.”

“Shirts, not shorts or socks.”

“I’m hardly going to find a sports shop round here.”

“Well, you’re not playing for my team in jeans.”

“I’ll watch.”

“Fuck off, you’re playing. I’ll see what I can find.”

Rod returned with socks and a pair of shorts.

“Here, these are too big for me.”

They might have been too big for his scrawny hips, but they were more than snug on mine. It was like pulling on a corset. I got into them, but anything more vigorous than short – and, as I was instantly aware, unintentionally mincing – steps threatened not just the seams, but the fabric stretched taught across my buttocks. I sensed these would not be my finest ninety minutes, and I was right. I hadn’t performed so tentatively since reluctantly making up the numbers for an important cup-tie in the disconcerting grip of gastroenteritis. I was little more than an observer. Apart from Rod, who would have shone at any level of amateur football, the outstanding player was the Average White Band’s Hamish Stewart, tall, well-built, athletic, a handful for the opposition defence.

After the match Rod drove me back to his place to collect my car. Mick Jagger’s brother Chris, a spectator at the match, had squeezed into the back seat of Rod’s Excalibur, an American millionaire’s cock-eyed vision of a pre-war European sports car and a rich man’s toy if ever there was one, as ostentatious as it was impractical. Rod seemed to like the looks he got driving it, though. Outside his house, he took me aside.

“Make sure you take him with you.”

I asked Chris where I could drop him.

“Where are you headed?”

“The Ramada Inn on Sunset, then the Troubadour to see Maria Muldaur.”

“That’ll do me.”

“How d’you mean?”

“I’ll tag along with you. They know me at the Troubadour.”

When I went to shower, he was channel-hopping, the remote control pointed at the TV like a pistol, but by the time I re-emerged from the bathroom, he was ordering a meal on room service. He’d picked up my key to read out the room number, but if he was embarrassed at being caught out, he hid it well. He cupped his hand over the phone.

“D’you want anything?”

I only ever played once in London with Rod, in Highgate, not far from where he’d been brought up. It was meant to be a friendly, but you could tell what the opposition were thinking as we lined up for kick-off. I recognised several players from Sunday morning football, in particular two brothers who took no prisoners. Watching Rod skip round and over tackles and, when he did get whacked, jump straight up and get stuck in again, I had to admire his bravery, as well as his skill. He didn’t shelter in the safety of celebrity games, where who you were counted for more than how good you were, and the unspoken motto was “I won’t kick you, if you don’t kick me.” He played with his non-showbiz mates, exposing himself not only to the routine violence of metropolitan football, where former apprentices and failed professionals you’ve dared to dribble the ball past gob at your feet and tell you deadpan, “Do that again, and I’ll break your fucking leg,” but also to the special treatment reserved for those with anything to envy, and when it came to being flash, Rod ticked every box: fame, money, and all that went with them. He must have come up against opponents who figured he deserved a kicking for no other reason than his poster was on their girlfriend’s wall. But he didn’t hide, he took them on, earned their respect, and accepted their eager handshake at the end of the game.

It was after that match, in The Wrestlers pub on North Road, that he asked me where I’d bought my boots. A sports shop in Battersea, I told him.

“I need a new pair.”

He’d told me he was renting a flat in the West End. “What’s wrong with Lillywhite’s?”

“No, I’d rather get them in a proper shop. I’ll pop down to your place. Tell you what, name a pub and I’ll pick you up there.” I wrote directions to The Plough on the back of a beer mat. We picked a date and a time, two in the afternoon.

Rod was late, as I had expected him to be, and it was almost closing time when he turned up. Having been kept waiting and, as a consequence, having downed more pints than I’d meant to, I was all for going, especially since those three o’clock stragglers who weren’t gawping at Rod were peering through the gaps in the etched front window at the chauffered Rolls Royce outside. But Rod insisted on a quick one, so it was well after three when we got to the shop. After my embarrassment in the pub, I was pleased that we had the place to ourselves, but disappointed when, after trying on several styles in different sizes, Rod couldn’t find what he wanted. But it wasn’t an entirely wasted visit, because he ordered a pair. The manager filled out a slip, but clearly felt uncomfortable having to ask Rod Stewart for a deposit.

“That’s all right, mate, I’ll pay upfront.” Rod pulled out his wallet and made a show of looking inside. “Change a hundred dollar bill?”

The manager answered with an old-fashioned look, then checked his watch. “You’ve missed the bank too.”

Rod turned to me. I reached for my pocket.

It would offset the unavoidably mythical nature of this tale to report that a cheque dropped through my letterbox first post the following day. But it didn’t. I collected Rod’s boots a week or so later and, the next time I was in the West End, took them to a mansion block near Regent’s Park. The concierge said he thought he’d seen Mr Stewart go out, but phoned the apartment anyway, without response, so I left the parcel at the desk. I had to wait for my money until the next time Rod toured the UK.

* * *

I don’t recall exactly when Pete Buckland owned up about The Plan, but it must have been at a point in the tour when I’d been accepted into the Faces family. This plan, by then aborted, had been hatched the moment Mike Gill had phoned Pete to say a New Musical Express journalist wanted to join the road crew for their UK tour. The Faces had had a fractious relationship with the UK music press, who, like the British public, had been slower to embrace the band’s brash showmanship than their American counterparts, and here was an opportunity to get their own back. This hack would be worked just as hard as anyone in the crew, and he couldn’t grumble, because that’s what he’d volunteered for. And being more used to pushing a pen than humping gear, he’d be a physical wreck by the end of the first load-in and on his way back to London with no story, certainly not one he wouldn’t be embarrassed to see his byline above.

It was as if the band had anticipated the abrasive review of their live Coast To Coast/Overture And Beginners album that Charles Shaar Murray would write for the NME thirteen months later, and resolved to get their retaliation in first. But the plan hadn’t worked. They’d picked the wrong guy or, rather, the wrong guy had picked them. I’d handled whatever they’d thrown at me, even – and I was now more convinced than ever that it hadn’t been an accident – a PA cabinet. However they had tested me, I’d passed. I’d drunk as much as anyone, done as many drugs, chatted up more girls.

What surprised me was that I hadn’t been aware that anything unusual had been going on, having quickly got over the laughter in Gaff Management’s reception and dismissed Mike Gill’s warning as spinsterly advice. Even Pete and Chuch’s first night intrusion had seemed no more than what anyone ought to expect to happen on the road. Just as surprisingly, I didn’t notice any difference to the way I was treated, once I had been accepted and the plan abandoned. If I hadn’t felt hard done-by before, I didn’t sense any soft-pedalling now, but I felt good about myself, because the roadying, which I’d viewed as a means to an end, an opportunity to collect material for an unusual story, had been a real job, and I’d done it.

That final night – December 23rd – was a fitting end to the tour. Roared on at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall by a full-house as ecstatic as Old Trafford’s Stretford End must have been when United had taken the lead that afternoon, the Faces pulled off their finest performance. At the end Rod gestured thanks, and reminded the crowd, “Manchester, you’ve never let us down.” Us. Twelve months later, he would drum a fist against his heart and repeat, “My people, my people.”

It was when the house lights blazed after the final encore that it struck me this was the end, not that there was time for sentiment or reflection with the last load-out to be done double-quick, if we were going to catch the band in their hotel suite for a farewell drink. As it was, when we got there, most of the bottles were empty and the Faces were ready to leave, and there was only time for Rod to lead one arm-in-arm, knees-up chorus of ‘Auld Land Syne’ before the goodbye hugs.

Back in London, writing up my piece, I found myself missing life on the road and questioning who I would see again, and when. Sooner than expected was the second answer, because I had a call from Pete in the first week of January, asking if I’d like to help out on a gig instigated by Pete Townshend to pull Eric Clapton out of his reclusive heroin addiction: rehearsals at Ron Wood’s house in Richmond, then Guildford Civic Hall, and the concert itself at the Rainbow Theatre on January 13th.

Clapton had been a hero of mine since the Yardbirds, so naturally I said yes, and wound up acting as assistant to LMS recording engineer Ron Nevison. The letters LMS stood for Lane Mobile Studio, and we towed the silver Airstream caravan from Richmond to Finsbury Park with the Land Rover Ronnie had favoured over nightly flights on the Faces tour.

In March, the Faces and the Who headlined a made-for-TV music festival in a massive indoor sports arena in Den Haag, Holland, and I was back on the crew for a weekend notable for a prodigious intake of amyl nitrite and amphetamine sulphate, the Eagles’ first appearance outside America, and, after we’d climbed the rigging to man the spotlights when the Dutch technicians insisted on taking a break just as Rory Gallagher was about to go on, a fat cash bonus from the promoter that made it the most lucrative day’s work I’d ever done.

For the Faces’ end-of-year UK tour though, the crew was fully manned. I sat at my desk in Clapham, tapping typewriter keys and counting the days until Christmas Eve’s closing show at the Edmonton Sundown. It was the 12th when Pete called to ask what was I up to? Winding down to Christmas, I told him. Why? One of the crew had got into a fight with a steward in Manchester and been beaten so badly, he was in hospital. There were three days off before the last seven dates. Could I fly up to Glasgow and join them there? I delayed my answer just long enough to make him think there were alternatives to weigh up.

The Faces weren’t the same with Tetsu Yamauchi on bass. With Ronnie Lane’s departure, the gentle working class ballads that were the yin to Stewart and Wood’s boisterous yang had gone too. The Faces would carry on for two more years, but when Rod, spurred by Ron Wood’s dalliance with the Stones, announced his inevitable exit, he was able to excuse himself by lamenting that when Ronnie Lane left, the heart went out of the Faces. By then, the ‘them and us’ that had once defined a disobliging outside world and a misappreciated band now signified those musicians and their allies in the crew who spent their off-stage time hell-bent on heavy drug use and those who didn’t. The band was too addled, too divided, too terminally sick to continue, but none of those things meant that this wasn’t true: that for a couple of years at least the Faces were the best rock and roll band in the world.

By then Mac and I were not only pals, but songwriting partners. A song we wrote together was covered by one of the Beatles. Okay, so it was Ringo, but a Beatle’s a Beatle. My biggest thrill, though, came with a song that was never released.

‘Good Idea At The Time’ was one of several songs tendered by Mac when, in 1976, he, Steve Marriott and Kenney Jones reunited as the Small Faces, with Rick Wills in for Ronnie Lane on bass. Along with several more of our songs, ‘Good Idea At The Time’ got recorded and, although Mac took the lead vocal, Steve’s voice, as unmistakably his as it had been on ‘Watcha Gonna Do About It’ in 1965, came in for the chorus, as clearly as if he’d elbowed Mac away from the mic: ‘Didn’t think about it/Never stopped to doubt it/It just seemed like a good idea at the time.’

* * *

What did I learn on the road? That, for a sixteen-hour day, a roadie’s pay was pitiful. That sleep was scarce, and regular meals and a balanced diet unimaginable. That much of the work was heavy, some of it even dangerous. That roadies were – and doubtless still are – driven by an unwavering devotion to the band they work for and a justifiable pride in their ability to construct, in a day and often against long odds, the most favourable circumstances in which their employers can perform, then to dismantle that habitat and recreate it somewhere else the following day. That the best of them are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of most: driver, engineer, electrician, labourer, bodyguard, servant, jester. That they look forward to the first gig of a tour, long for the last, then wish they were back on the road again.

The Faces treated their close-knit crew well. Pete, Chuch and Russ were more than workers, they were companions. When the band split, so did the crew. Pete helped Rod hand-pick a new backing band and went on the road with him; Russ had followed Ronnie Lane in 1973, his voice a fount of reason sometimes drowned by the babble of dreams; Chuch, Ron Wood’s right hand, went to work for the Rolling Stones, and was still working for them when a heart attack killed him in 2002 at the age of fifty-four.

What I found in the Faces was family: a family that was, unlike my real family, demonstrably loving, loyal, supportive, tactile, truthful with one another and, above all, fun to be with, lots of fun. I took to them at once. By the tour’s end, Pete Buckland felt more like a brother than my real brother ever did. Mac became my brother too. And brothers are what we’ll always be.

Bound by these new ties, I rethought much of what I knew, conscious of the irony that, although I was the one who’d been to university, I was learning more from them than they would ever learn from me. Unsurprisingly, one of the things I learned from them was: education was overrated. Like other musicians I admire, they could have breezed into university, had they not previously been let down by a post-war school system that noted – and vigorously punished – the disruptive influence, but failed to spot the bright spark. It was education’s loss though, not theirs.

The Faces gave me the confidence to go my own way, and the self-belief to get to where that would take me. I learned to laugh at adversity, to celebrate success, to show those you love that you love them. I adopted the group’s catchphrase of “Fuck the gig” and found it worked in other contexts, not least “Fuck the bank.” Because the only thing that really counted was not to fuck your family, not to fuck your friends. For pointing out which, I thank them.

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