I first saw Ian McLagan, fittingly seated behind a keyboard, with the Rolling Stones in 1981. There was obviously a lot going on around him – Mick preening, Keith chopping at his guitar, Ronnie Wood playing to the crowd – but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d discovered the Small Faces about a year before after being given the US compilation There Are But Four Small Faces by the guitarist in my first band. It had changed my life. Now, here was the band’s inimitable keyboardist, in the flesh.
I don’t remember much more than flashes of that first sighting, but I have a clear recollection of seeing Mac again in the 90s, when he joined Billy Bragg on tour to promote the album of Woody Guthrie lyrics that Bragg and Wilco had set to music as Mermaid Avenue. It was a great show, and Mac’s organ was the glue that held it all together while seemingly floating above it at the same time.
But when I got word that Mac had died on Wednesday in a hospital in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, after suffering a stroke the day before, neither of these memories leapt to mind. Instead, heartbroken, I thought back to a few more personal encounters.
I first met Mac about 15 years ago on one of his frequent trips to New York City in support of his solo career. My band at the time had built up a bit of a name for itself, mining the same vein as the Small Faces and Faces, and I thought I was kind of a big deal. I wasn’t, of course. And besides, Mac had seen it all before. But, when one of his minders introduced us, he was kind and supportive. And, much to my enjoyment, he put me in my place with wit and charm and (literally) a wink.
Not long after that Mac sent me a copy of the Faces box set, signed to me and the band. Later, he sent his book and a copy of a Small Faces compilation, also both signed. Each time I thanked him sincerely, and we kept up a correspondence by email.
Over the years I interviewed Mac about one project or another and I came to believe that he knew my love for his work and playing was sincere. I’m sure I made it clear that I wanted to work with him, but what I remember most vividly is that he always made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Even when he would go on about one of the many times in the music business in which he’d been screwed, we still ended up laughing together at the end.
Then, not long ago, I reconnected with Mac’s former bandmate in the Small Faces and Faces, Kenney Jones. I’d met Kenney in 1993 through Pete Townshend but hadn’t seen him since. We spotted each other across a crowded party and picked up right where we’d left off. There were a few special Small Faces projects in the works, Kenney told me, and he asked if I’d lend a hand. I said yes before he finished the question.
Over the next year or so I got to talk to both Kenney and Mac quite a bit, and it was my honor to collect recollections of the significance of the Small Faces from Paul Weller, among others, for the Here Comes The Nice The Immediate Years Boxset 1967-1969, as well as a fabulous introduction to the liner notes from Pete. I remember when I circulated Pete’s email to everyone. It was wonderful and we were all elated. Of course Mac also didn’t miss the chance to point out that Pete had spelled his name wrong. We had another good laugh.
Along the way I mentioned to both Kenney and Mac that I was recording new material and that I really wanted them both to play on it. They were each supportive and almost matter of fact about it. “Of course I’ll play on your record,” Mac said to me when I sheepishly pressed him on the phone one day. “It’s what I do.”
Both Kenney and Mac were set to record their parts last Spring, but I had so many things on my plate – and I of course didn’t want to seem in any way entitled to having them help me out – and things dragged on. June passed and Mac promised he’d record his parts in August when he came back from a UK tour.
He called me from the car one night after his return on his way to barbeque in Austin with a friend. We talked about everything but the recordings, and laughed, and laughed. In fact, I remember laughing so hard that I had tears in the corner of my eyes.
We put off those sessions yet again, and now there are tears of a different sort. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that Mac was my friend, because he had so many and because it always thrilled me when we talked that he knew who I was and what I was up to and cared that things were going well.
I put the Small Faces on my turntable last night after I got the news of Mac’s sudden, untimely passing. He touched my life in a meaningful way with his music and I’ll always have that and cherish it. And those songs we were going to work on together will always feel a little empty to me without his special touch on them. But right now all I can remember is how he made me laugh. I’m sure that’s how he’d want it to be.