When Kim McLagan died in a car accident in August 2006, it hit especially hard because I knew how devastated her husband Ian McLagan was. You’ve never seen a veteran couple so in love. Kim was Ian’s angel and they made each other laugh.
I was at the Statesman when the sad, stunning news came and I was supposed to write an obit on the 57-year-old former British model, ex-wife of Keith Moon and best friend of Beatles wives, but I just couldn’t move. “How’s that obit coming along?” an editor came by after about half an hour. No place colder than a newsroom. He came by again and said, “I need it NOW!” How was I supposed to write when my friend’s life had just been torn apart? But I plowed through and got it done. Can’t tell you how many times that scenario repeated in my mind and I told the editor to leave me alone to grieve.
When I found out that Ian McLagan, Manor’s only member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had died Wednesday after suffering a stroke, I had one part of me saying to get an obit up. But I let myself reflect for awhile, going for a drive while Facebook and Twitter were blowing up. I was thinking about how Mac, this member of British rock royalty, was much more a musician than a rock star. He was part of the community, not gated off from it. Mac hustled gigs to pay the bills- good gigs, mind you. And when he had enough money, enough songs, he made albums like this year’s United States, which upped his roadwork. McLagan died the day before he and his band were to embark on a cross country tour with Nick Lowe. Lowe became worried when the ever-dependable McLagan failed to show up for rehearsal Tuesday. Friends checked in on the keyboardist and found him in his bathtub, barely breathing, apparently the victim of a brain hemorrhage. At 2:39 p.m. Wednesday McLagan, 69, was dead.
Unlike other Sixties and Seventies rock icons, McLagan didn’t come to Austin to retire on his laurels. He came here to thump that piano and sing like he and his mates were up to no good. He could break your heart when he sang about Kim, but he could also make you forget everything besides needing another beer with a romping pub rocker. He had a tradition to uphold!
The music world has never seen anything like the British Invasion of the 1960’s, when the Beatles, soon followed by the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Hollies and many more mopheads with bad teeth, took the best of American music, from the blues to Buddy Holly, dressed it up on Carnaby Street and sent it back over the Pond as an exotic new strain of rock n’ roll.
Nobody’s had a vision of what Heaven might be that beats London in 1965 and Ian McLagan, keyboardist of the Small Faces, was right in the thick of it. Unlike the entourage-laden bands of today, who pretty much keep to their own circle, the British bands of the ’60s all hung out together. Like astronauts who’ve walked on the moon, they were a special fraternity. No one else could understand what they were experiencing, though everyone else was trying real hard to find out.
After Ron Wood joined the Stones, Rod Stewart went solo and the Faces broke up, McLagan toured as a sideman for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg and many more. He also had his own group, the Bump Band, for club work in Los Angeles, where almost all the British rockers moved in the ‘80s.
While on tour with Rod Stewart in 1994, Ian and Kim signed the papers to buy a two-story wooden house on 15 acres six miles outside of Manor. This was right after the big earthquake in L.A. He loved that the town had a British name and that there was a great restaurant, Little Thailand, not too far away. But the main reason the McLagans chose to live near Austin was because Mac’s best friend from the Small Faces, Ronnie Lane, lived here. Lane had been diagnosed with MS in the late ‘70s, but had made remarkable progress since moving in 1985 to Austin, where he was embraced as a musical hero, not just for the Faces, but his Slim Chance solo record and the Rough Mix collab with Pete Townshend.
But Lane couldn’t take the Texas summers and, newly married and in declining health, moved to Colorado just two months after the McLagans arrived. He died in 1997.
“Ronnie was the soul of the Faces,” McLagan said in ’99. “Rod’s songs are all about girls and parties, but the reason they worked is that Ronnie would follow up with a song that went deeper.”
McLagan wrote two songs about Lane — the rollicking pub song “Hello Old Friend” and the touching “Don’t Let Him Out of Your Sight” – and included them on his 2000 LP Best of British, which garnered universal great reviews, but didn’t sell too well
That year, McLagan also released his autobiography All the Rage. When I went out to Manor to interview him, the photos from the book were scattered around his studio. One showed a 17-year-old Ian riding in the back seat of a car being driven by Howlin’ Wolf, who used McLagan’s Muleskinners band as backing on a British tour. “Wolf was the coolest,” he said. “When we met him, he put his arms around all five of us, pulled us towards him and said, `My boys.’”
There were lots of photos of Mac hanging with the Stones, whom he toured with in ’78 and ’81. “So many great times,” he said as he thumbed through a stack of photos of him and Mick and Keith and Ronnie and Charlie. “When I saw the Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond that first time (circa ’62), I knew that that was all I ever wanted to do. There was never a Plan B.” The Stones picked McLagan and his Bump Band to open their historic 2006 concert at Zilker Park.
Early signs looked for McLagan to play for tens of thousands again in the summer of 2015 as a headliner this time, with the reunited Rod Stewart and Faces. McLagan’s keyboards were as essential to the Faces sound as Johnnie Johnson to early Chuck Berry, so the prospect of a reunion got Mac excited. Now, that was a rock n’ roll band, women.
“The Faces definitely had a reputation for partying, ” McLagan said, when we sat down for a pair of Guinesses in the Laughing Dogs Pub inside McLagan’s house. “It was something the record label was all behind, this image of us as elegantly boozing rock ‘n’ rollers.” Every day the band would check into their hotel rooms and greeting them would be a full bottle of their liquor of choice (Jack Daniel’s for Mac). Often the band members would take their half-empty bottles onstage and swig throughout the show, accenting the band’s charming recklessness. Even though Rod Stewart wore scarves and dated supermodels, the Faces maintained a working-class connection mainly because they refused to take any of this rock ‘n’ roll stuff seriously.
It was an attitude Mac brought to Austin, where he and his band played almost every Thursday at Lucky Lounge.
Nashville may have the Country Music Hall of Fame and Seattle may have the Experience Music Project, but Austin had a living, breathy, rock your face off monument with Ian McLagan. A fabulous keyboard player, who’d played on such important records, McLagan was confident in his place in rock history. But we also remember him fondly as a man who carried himself less as a legend of the British Invasion than that white-haired bloke on piano who’s gonna bury your favorite young band.
COLOR PHOTOS BY THERESA DiMENNO