The tributes to Ian McLagan that are flooding into the press and the internet mainly take two forms. There are the factual obituaries that set out his musical achievements, the stars he worked with and the hits he played on. And there are the others, which try, in a personal way, to explain why he was so loved. If you’ll forgive me, this one fits firmly into the second category.
My most memorable Mac moment took place in late 1967. Of all things, an attempt on the Guinness World see-sawing record was talking place at the University of East Anglia. As the world record was approached, the DJ put on a song I’d never heard before, a new single from the Small Faces. Those opening Wurlitzer chords hit me so hard that I can remember every detail of the moment to this day. Mac’s riff, then Steve Marriott’s coruscating vocals, PP Arnold’s soulful backing singing and finally, the striking afterthought of Kenney Jones’ drum roll at the end, which emphasizes the attitude that, while the song may be a recording, this was a LIVE band. Whenever that old chestnut crops up and I’m asked to name my favourite single, it is Tin Soldier. Always was, always will be. Ian Mclagan’s playing on that record established him as an intuitive genius.
Apart from modelling my hairstyle on his (even today), my relationship with Mac merely took the form of loving his contributions to the Small Faces, the Faces and The Stones. The Hammond + Leslie swish, as exemplified by Jimmy Smith, is my favourite sound, so I enjoyed, in tandem with my admiration for Mac, a love for the sounds of Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group. But that was a musical thing; they would never have the style of the Small Faces. When I saw Mac playing with the Stones, it never crossed my mind that I’d ever have anything to do with him personally. He seemed, then, to be operating in a rarified rock stratosphere to which mere mortals could never be admitted. How wrong can you be?
It was at the Womad Festival in 1999 that Mac reappeared on my personal radar. As a gig promoter, you never rest, and on that particular occasion we had a show coming up with Robyn Hitchcock. Ticket weren’t going too well, so we went to the festival especially to hand out flyers. I’m embarrassed now, because most of them went straight on the floor, causing awful litter. But Billy Bragg and his new band The Blokes were also playing, and as I watched, I could hear an unexpected but unmistakeable sound: It was that Hammond/Leslie swell, and … surely that little white dot behind the dark brown cabinet couldn’t be … ? When Billy introduced the band and revealed that it was Ian McLagan, the drunk bloke next to me almost had a heart attack. What? That’s Ian McLagan? Ian Fucking McLagan? Oh my God? He lost it so much that security had to ask him to calm down. Hardly any of the assembled world music fans were interested at all, but I was transfixed by the fact that this huge star was so comfortable to be just another member of someone’s backing band, and was obviously having such fun doing it.
I’d read in a biography of Keith Moon the story of how Mac had rescued Kim Moon from her husband’s excesses by effectively doing a midnight flit with her and ending up in LA, but more than that I didn’t know, so, if I’d given it any thought, I’d have assumed that Mac was living the Hollywood high life. But around this time, a mate of mine who ran a pub in Burton Bradstock, Dorset, told me that Mac was often to be found propping up his bar, sipping Guinness and nattering with the locals. The reason? Billy Bragg lived round the corner and Mac would often visit. It seemed highly unlikely but, confession time, I twice travelled to the Three Horseshoes in the specific hope that I would meet, or maybe just catch a glimpse of, the hero of my youth. It didn’t happen, of course, but the locals all assured me that Adrian the landlord had been telling the truth.
Round about then, also, I started going to Austin, Texas on a regular basis. You can’t help but make friends there, and all of them said the same. Mac and Kim had moved there and Mac had rapidly become a local mascot, unpretentiously playing all the local bars on a regular basis with his Bump Band. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. By now, I’d started to put Americana shows on in Winchester and one of our earliest bands was The Resentments, featuring Austin guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who I knew was also in the Bump Band. Would it ever be possible to get them to play for us, I asked? Scrappy looked around the classic UK boozer he’d just played in and replied, I think he’d love it here.
I didn’t give it a further thought, as the whole idea was ridiculous, but lo and behold, in mid-2008 I received an email from one of my most trusted agents: Would you like to book the Bump Band? Well, they were a lot more expensive than any band I’d booked before and I’d been spooked by a Mac solo show I’d attended at the Brook in Southampton some years before, where there were very few people. What if I was wrong, and no one else shared my excitement? But it was impossible to refuse, and so the Bump Band was booked for the tiny Railway.
I got off to a terrible start with Mac. I knew that the Bump Band had a residency at the Saxon Pub in Austin and I had an idea to make him feel welcome and at home. I ordered a banner saying Saxon Pub and went in early to hang it up as a stage backdrop. When he arrived, his first words were, “I ain’t going on till that banner comes down. I fuckin’ hate that place”. Mortified, and cringing with embarrassment, I took down the banner. Shit, I thought. I must have been wrong about Mac. He’s obviously a diva. But I set about helping him, the band and the crew to address a more pressing problem: the Hammond B3 wouldn’t fit though the stage door. In the end, the door had to come off its hinges and the instrument slid in with a millimetre to spare, the entire operation being supervised, hands-on, with great good humour, by Mac himself. It was okay, this was no diva.
I’d always thought of the Railway as being like a Texas roadhouse, so as the Bump Band rocked out to a sold-out crowd, I was in seventh heaven, still in disbelief that this was actually happening. A fan letter and autograph request arrived from the deputy director general of the BBC, for goodness sake! And after the show, far from slipping off to their hotel, the band made a bee-line for the front bar, where Mac hitched up a stool and spent a good hour quaffing Guinness and chewing the fat with the landlord, Fred Eynon, sadly also no longer with us. It was a pattern to be repeated every time he came. ”I love this place”, he would beam. “It’s a proper boozer, not a bleedin’ arts centre”. Meantime, most of the audience would stay behind, either to join in the conversation or watch in awe. There was no sense of a star holding court. Mac was simply a born communicator, someone who loved life and other humans. Needless to say, he was also incredibly funny, natural, humble and exploding with tales of an extraordinary life.
I’m no amateur psychologist, but I have always assumed that Mac’s dedication to gigging in the last few years must have been his way of dealing with the grief caused by the sudden and awful death of Kim in a car accident in Austin. Throwing yourself into work is a way of holding dark thoughts at bay, and no one from that generation of rock stars has toured so hard into their late sixties. That’s why we were privileged to have Mac playing twice more for us, the last time being just a few months ago, in July. In each case, it was touring in a really hard way, driving around the UK as a duo with the wonderful Mr Jon Notarthomas, who not many people may realise was Mac’s rock, quietly acting as his tour manager, minder, protector and bassist. The pair of them caused hearts to flutter as they shared breakfast in Twyford’s village café in August 2011, trying to procrastinate before their trip to the next gig in Bristol. It was the summer of the riots and they were spooked with anxiety. Burning cities were the antithesis of the laid-back, friendly atmosphere of Austin, Texas.
Everyone knows how badly the Small Faces were ripped off as a band, and that the Faces will have spent much of their income on having fun, but it’s still shocking that a man who has contributed to the music of Springsteen, Dylan and the Stones (the riff on Miss You for goodness’ sake) was clearly strapped for cash. These tours were done on a shoestring, with Jon and Mac driving themselves and staying in Travelodges. On July 7, the morning after the last Railway show, they came over to our place for breakfast and, as I cooked their fry-up, Mac’s preoccupation was that they hadn’t sold as much merch as they’d hoped (merch, as any band will tell you, subsidises such tours). Had the table been set up in the wrong place? How could they do better next time? But one thing, above all, was troubling Mac more, and it just sums up the man.
As support, I had booked an artist from Sunderland called Antonio Lulic. I had done this because Antonio has a very moving song about Austin, and I thought it would be appropriate. Now Mac was worried because Antonio had had to slip off to catch a train and Mac hadn’t managed to include a shout-out for him because, quite understandably, he’d forgotten his name. But now Mac was wracked with guilt, fearing that Antonio would think he hadn’t been appreciated. It is so typical that Mac’s only concern was to encourage and acknowledge a young musician.
At that same show, a friend of mine was trying to pluck up courage to ask Mac for an autograph and a chat. In her youth in the sixties, she’d been a massive Small Faces fan. Come on, I’ll introduce you, I offered, but she was too shy. I’ll do it next time he comes, she said. Now there won’t be a next time. I close my eyes and try to remember his mannerisms, his tone of voice, the lightness and frailty you felt when doing a Texan bear hug with him. I don’t envy obituary writers; no matter how you try, you cant put a feeling into words.