By Lynne Margolis
(LSM Jan/Feb 2015/vol 8 – issue 1)
When Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Ian “Mac” McLagan passed away Dec. 3 following a massive stroke, so many people were gathered inside his hospital room, anyone who didn’t know better might have thought there was a party going on. In a way, there was; through their tears, the fellow musicians and friends who comprised the renowned keyboardist’s Austin family gave him the sweetest sendoff they could, surrounded by love and the music of his heroes, from Muddy Waters to Booker T. & the MGs.
They knew McLagan, 69, who helped craft the inimitable sounds of British rock bands the Small Faces and Faces, served as a Rolling Stones sideman and shared his Wurlitzer and Hammond B3 talents with dozens of top artists, from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams to Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen, would have preferred a festive send off to a mournful one. He was, after all, a member of two bands renowned for their love of a good time. The Faces famously placed an actual bar onstage during their shows, and the Faces retrospective box set McLagan produced in 2004 was titled Five Guys Walk into a Bar….
The tributes that flooded news and social media after his death unanimously affirmed how beloved the diminutive rocker was — not just for his extraordinary musical talents, but because he made everyone he met feel like they were his best friend.
Jo Rae DiMenno, his publicist and one of his actual best friends, remembers meeting him in London at the 1986 Faces reunion concert at Wembley Stadium. Small Faces/Faces bassist Ronnie Lane, stricken with multiple sclerosis, had traveled there from Austin with DiMenno, his live-in caretaker. McLagan, then living in Los Angeles, brought his wife, the former Kim Kerrigan Moon.
“We all clicked, and Mac said, ‘We’re friends for life; we’re friends forever,’” DiMenno recalls. He even grabbed some paper, scribbled down the lyrics to Vera Lynn’s popular World War II song, “We’ll Meet Again” (“Some sunny day, some sunny day, we’ll meet again some sunny day”), dated it, and handed it to her.
The McLagans moved to Austin in 1994. When Mac released Spiritual Boy, his 2006 tribute to Lane, who died in 1997, he hired DiMenno to do PR. She also handled his subsequent albums, including Never Say Never, his 2008 tribute to Kim, who died in a 2006 car accident.
The loss devastated him, but his dark eyes recently had regained some sparkle, due in part to positive career developments and newfound freedom from the migraine headaches that had plagued him for years. (They subsided after he received a heart stent in 2013.)
The Small Faces/Faces’ 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 2013 release of the Small Faces box, Here Come the Nice: The Immediate Years 1967-1969, renewed interest in his contributions to two bands considered the bridge between the first wave of the British invasion and the pub- and punk-rock that followed. With new manager Ken Kushnick, McLagan secured a deal with Yep Roc Records for the 2014 release of his well-received Ian McLagan & the Bump Band album, United States. The day he died, he was to have begun a holiday tour with Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets, to be followed by planning meetings with Faces mates Kenney Jones, Ron Wood and Rod Stewart for a long-awaited 2015 reunion tour.
A clue to their continued allure lies in this quote by rock critic Dave Marsh in their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography: “The Faces were committed to two things: one another and the idea that if they stomped on their blues just right, everyone within earshot of their rollicking boogie would have an evening of unmitigated, boisterous fun.”
McLagan had a hand in writing favorites of both bands’ catalogs, including “Cindy Incidentally,” “You’re So Rude,” and “Three Button Hand Me Down,” and his playing helped turn “Itchycoo Park” and “Stay With Me” into stateside hits. He also put his stamp on Stewart’s “Maggie May,” “You Wear It Well” and other classics. And that subtle keyboard intro to the Stones’ “Miss You,” the one that clarified, “this is not a disco song, it’s an R&B song” … that was Mac’s, too.
But friends and fans loved McLagan as much for his delightful personality as his considerable chops. He loved trading tales, especially in pubs that served Guinness on tap. He loved to tell jokes, and actually had a webpage devoted to them. His weekly performances with his Bump Band at Austin’s Lucky Lounge were as much a platform for his comic story-telling as his nimble-fingered playing.
McLagan’s impish wit, big grin, and quick laughter made him fun to be around. His big heart, deep soul, openness, and humility made him cherished. His Manor home was filled with his paintings, many of them capturing the auras he saw during his migraines, but above a room dubbed the Laughing Dog bar was a depiction of three beloved canines, collars of the departed draped over its corners. He called his recording studio Doghouse, and gave me what remains one of my all-time favorite pieces of advice: “Don’t trust people who don’t like dogs.”
He didn’t think of himself as a rock star. He thought of himself as a guy who loved to make music and was lucky enough to get to do it with a lot of cool people. When fans admiringly approached him, he was always sweet and gracious — and genuinely appreciative of their compliments. Whenever I witnessed those interactions, I never sensed even a hint of false modesty or impatience.
In a celebrity-obsessed culture prone to treating famous people as if they’re better than mere mortals — a situation many of them are all too happy to exploit — Mac never expected or demanded special treatment, and was grateful, even surprised, when it was given. He was the embodiment of down-to-earth; he knew fame was illusory at best, that it didn’t pay the bills — and ironically, that made him even more worthy of the pedestal his fans proffered.
Four years ago, I did a story that involved asking several renowned Austinites about their “coolest moment.” McLagan talked about meeting Howlin’ Wolf when he was 19. McLagan’s band at the time, the Muleskinners, had been hired to back Wolf and Hubert Sumlin on three U.K. dates. They pumped Wolf about Chicago and any blues wisdom he could offer.
“Anything he had to say, we listened,” McLagan recalled. He got to ride with the famed bluesman between two of the gigs; a photo of him sitting behind Wolf, he said, “just shows me in absolute heaven.” The image appears in his autobiography, All the Rage: A Riotous Romp through Rock ’n’ Roll History.
He also collected his heroes’ autographs — not just when he was 19, but when he was already world-famous himself. During another interview, he confessed he was hesitant to release instrumental songs because “I always compare myself to Booker T. — and I stop right there.”
“What if he’s out there comparing himself to you?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” he answered, as if the notion were absurd. In 2013, during an interview before members of the prestigious Hudson Union Society, “where today’s leaders come to discuss tomorrow’s ideas,” he said of his idol, “I’d hate to be stuck somewhere where he’d say, ‘You wanna play something for me?’ I’d run off. … I’m like a giggly girl around him.” When McLagan learned he and the “Green Onions” composer were trading off dates on the same rented Hammond, he left a note on it. He kept the setlist he received in return in a safety deposit box.
McLagan never lost his humility or forgot his roots, which further endeared him to Bump Band members Jon Notarthomas and Scrappy Jud Newcomb. Bassist Notarthomas, who worked for a few years as the band’s driver and “de facto manager” before joining in 2009, notes McLagan’s Small Faces/Faces mates, including drummer Jones, who joined the Who, and late Small Faces singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, who started Humble Pie, might have played more stadiums. But they all started out in the same place: As students of American blues and roots music.
“These other guys might have made millions and have a lot of gold records on the wall — Mac’s got a couple, too — but there’s no question that he’s playing for the love of the music. … He really is, at the heart of it, a blues journeyman. And he’s doing the circuit, the same [as] those guys they so admired in the early days of all this music that influenced the British invasion, and he’s making that connection and keeping that flame alive. He was really so close to the core of where all that music came from. And he could play to a room of 40 people and was just glowing about it.”
McLagan became discouraged when the expense of touring made it harder to travel with his full band, but Notarthomas convinced him the two of them could do more intimate “evening with” performances. In 2013, they wound up in Philadelphia a night ahead of the Stones.
Notarthomas remembers how proud McLagan was when Philadelphia City Paper critic A.D. Amorosi noted that Philly Mayor Michael Nutter’s declaration of Rolling Stones Week in honor of their performance should have noted the presence of their old friend and collaborator as well.
“I’m here to right that wrong by placing McLagan’s performance at the tiny Tin Angel alongside the Stones’ more epic undertaking at Wells Fargo Center,” Amorosi wrote. “… While the crinkly, bluesy likes of ‘I’m Hot, You’re Cool’ and ‘Little Girl’ were particularly dashing (to say nothing of his supple balladry and the forlorn crevices of his vocals), it is McLagan’s mere presence that was the highlight of this show. He could have just showed up and talked (which he did mostly) and his audience would’ve been rapturous.”
As a child, Notarthomas says, he wanted so badly to grow up to be a British rocker, his parents sent him to speech therapy to lose the “affected English accent” he’d adopted. But when he wound up in Austin, he played more country and folk than rock, and wasn’t trying to change that.
“Not seeking the gig, to end up in Ian McLagan’s band, with a bona-fide British rock star, was pretty special to me,” he says. “I love the guy and I’m gonna miss him. And I love that from the first day I played with him, not even really being a bass player, that he accepted me as if I was Ronnie Lane or Woody or Bill Wyman or any other great player he played with. He was an incredibly trusting and accepting guy.
“And once you’re in the club, you’re in the club. And I hugely appreciated that he made me feel that way.”
Guitarist Newcomb, who accompanied McLagan for 20 years, shares that sentiment.
“I’ll always appreciate and be so thankful that he believed that I loved rock ’n’ roll the same way he did, and that was good enough,” Newcomb says. “We hung out one time and I was his guitar player. I learned so much from him. … I think I will miss playing with him for the rest of my life, just because I don’t think there’s anybody that I’ll run across with that particular kind of musicianship. It’s a type of playing, the type of music that I was inspired by, growing up, to actually pick up a guitar.”
He admits it took him several years to shake off lingering disbelief that he was playing alongside someone he regarded so highly. It’s not that he was starstruck, Newcomb explains. “But I had recently gone from being this shy, introverted teenager who had been lucky enough for people to ask me to play in bands, and then a couple of years after that, I was playing with Mac. It’s that bizarre flip, like the same coin, but the two sides, where you’re like, on one hand, ‘Yeah, I’m the perfect guy to work with, because I love his music more than anything,’ and then on the other side, you’re like, ‘This is so far above me.’”
No matter what troubles the band experienced, from touring tensions to McLagan’s profound grief after Kim’s death, Newcomb says, “I cannot remember a single gig where we weren’t having a great time. Even when we’d be on the road and running late and everybody’d be cranky or hung over or whatever, it was just always magic.”
Their appearances at September’s Americana Music Festival went particularly well, Newcomb says. “He [said], ‘Scrap, I just feel like the whole thing has just moved up to a different level.’ Like we’re being looked at in much higher regard. And it really did feel like that. …
“The very last gig that the full Bump Band played, the very last rock ’n’ roll blowout that Mac had, it was a bar in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and it was 150 or 200 people, and they were goin’ crazy, and we were crammed on this tiny little stage, but it was exactly what he loved,” Newcomb says. “For all intents and purposes, it could have been the best gig that band ever played. It was as good as anything I ever remember, and he was blown away at the end of it. He was like, ‘Man, that was magic; that was incredible.’”
That was in October.
“He went out on the highest note that maybe I’d ever seen him on, certainly since Kim died,” Newcomb adds. “He’d just put out a great live record [and] a great studio record. In recent years, he was getting a lot of really cool session stuff. He was in a great place … he was happier than he’d been in a long time. He was on a label that was able to fly him places and promote him. And he was looking forward to seeing his granddaughter … and then getting together with Kenney and Woody and those guys.”
I wish the long-anticipated Faces reunion had happened back when it was originally planned, in 2008 or ’09. But it’s not as if McLagan would have collected his earnings and retired. In March, he appeared on a South By Southwest panel titled, “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll: 50 Years of the Rolling Stones.” When the question of whether rock’s oldest bad boys should continue touring came up, he scoffed at the notion of packing it in. Saying he’d never be able to give up playing, he joked, “What they call a retired musician is a corpse.”
With a photo of his beloved Kim by his bedside and his song, “Date with an Angel,” filling the room, Mac left this earth encircled by love, a currency worth more than any bank balance could reflect. But those of us whose lives he touched know we’re truly the rich ones.
Ian McLagan is survived by his brother, Mike, son, Lee, and a granddaughter. Donations in McLagan’s name may be made to the Stephen Bruton Artist Wellness Program or the SIMS Foundation.
TRIBUTES TO MAC
“To say we’re reeling backstage is an understatement. But the show must go on. No one knew it better than Mac. … He believed absolutely in the power of music, and its ability to make people feel better.” — Nick Lowe
“I’ve met my share of famous musicians. Some were pricks, and others were polite, if relatively uninterested in small talk backstage. Some were even perfectly friendly. None were as welcoming and down- to-earth as Mac. Everybody was his equal. Everybody was his friend. He wanted to laugh with all of us.” — Eric “Skillet” Gilmore, Patty Hurst Shifter
“I have lost a dear friend and British rock has lost one of its greatest players. RIP Ian McLagan.” — Billy Bragg
“There is no band that can lift my spirits and make me feel more alive than the Small Faces and Faces. Thank you Mac for your music and your readiness to be the brightest smile in the room. Thank you for your kindness when I was in the opening band in 1998 … patiently signing my Small Faces box set and telling me stories about that shirt Steve [Wynn] gave you. Thank you Scott McCaughey for having me drum on those the Minus 5 tunes that you then had Mac and [Jeff] Tweedy add to. I never achieved the lifelong goal of playing live with a Face, but you made the recording come true and I love you for that.” — Linda Pitmon, of the Fauntleroys, the Minus 5, the Baseball Project, etc., and wife of Steve Wynn
“It has been a roller coaster of emotions. First I was delighted to announce the arrival of my first grandson and then had to announce the death of my dearest friend and bandmate Mac Ian McLagan. … He shared some of the most wonderful years of my life and I am still shocked. … He will always be with us. He has gone to join Steve and Ronnie but way too soon, on a journey to the other half of the moon. All my love, Kenney” — Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones
“Ian McLagan embodied the true spirit of the Faces. … I’ll miss you mate.” — Rod Stewart
“How is this possible there is only one left? One out of an incredible four who brought so much to the industry and the world? My heart is heavy for Mac’s family, but [I] find light that he is reunited with his beloved Kim. In truth my sadness is mostly for Kenney! Talking last night we both said how the two of us will work hard to keep the Small Faces alive. He made me laugh at the end of our call with ‘I’m fucked now, they are all up there back together and they’ve got Keith Moon … they don’t need me anymore.’” — Mollie Marriott, daughter of Small Faces singer/guitarist Steve Marriott