Sometimes, when the loss is almost too much to bear, the friends and family of Shawn Lane imagine things unfolding differently.
Perhaps he is a classical musician, dressed in a tuxedo, displaying his musical genius in a concert hall. Perhaps he has quit smoking, lost weight, and stepped away from the self-destructive habits. Perhaps his life is more settled, and worries and loss have not worn him down. In this other world, he is accomplished and happy. And, most important, he is still around.
But this is a vision. Shawn Lane, the celebrated guitarist and musician, will have been gone two years now in September, dead at the age of 40. Instead of a performance by Lane in a concert hall, there will be the Shawn Lane Memorial Benefit Concert, being held Sunday, August 28th, at the New Daisy Theatre.
Having burst onto the musical stage with a talent that won Lane international accolades, honors, and opportunities to play with some of the world's most respected musicians, he just as quickly tumbled into eccentricity, poor health, drug problems, and finally an untimely death.
That geniuses die young is almost a cliché, but Lane loyalists will tell you he was not only a genius, he is a legend in the universe where lovers of pure music orbit. One Web-site mourner called him "the king of tasteful, blazing guitar." Another referred to him as one of "the great ones."
Barry Bays, a friend and an accomplished musician who teaches music at Delta State University, speaks of Lane with a reverence normally reserved for people with the names Hendrix or Clapton.
"He was an important figure in music," Bays says. "Two hundred years from now, they will still be talking about him. He was just inspired, always connected. You can't even say that about Hendrix, because sometimes he was uninspired."
Stories about Lane's musical gifts have achieved the status of folklore: how he upstaged Ted Nugent at one concert or how Billy Gibbons heard him and fell off his chair.
"He was by far the greatest guitar player that ever lived," wrote Buckethead, a guitarist who has played with Guns N' Roses.
When Lane died, his family received e-mails from around the globe from people who had been touched by his music. Guitar Player magazine published an article titled "Requiem for a Master," in which the writer neatly sums up the storyline of Lane's career: "It's an accepted fact among musicians that talent and success do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. This reality has seldom been so poignantly demonstrated as when Shawn Lane passed away from a lung-related illness."
A Legend Ascendant?
Lane was a superstar talent who somehow failed to achieve the fame and fortune that his abilities should have brought him, some argue. The Web-site chatter about him continues at a low hum as people marvel at the facts of his musical ascent and fall. But he has always been something of a legend in music circles.
His mother, Diane Lane, recalls that he played "The Tennessee Waltz" on the family piano after hearing it only once or twice. He was 4 years old. He played the bongos, the cello, and then, around 9 or 10, turned to the guitar. By the age of 15, Black Oak Arkansas had hired him and he toured with the group for several years in the late 1970s.
At the age of 21, he was married, a father, and apparently on the path to a celebrated career. He was known for his "shredding," fast-playing guitar, as well as his versatility. He was playing with legendary bands and artists, among them Deep Purple, Joe Walsh, Ringo Starr, and on the Highwaymen 2 album that featured Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson.
He had his own Memphis band, the Willys, and played regularly at clubs around town and across the country. In 1992, he made his own album for Warner Brothers, Powers of Ten.
That debut led to Lane being named best newcomer of the year by Guitar Player magazine, and he received so many write-in votes for keyboard player of the year that he finished second in the tally.
That was a great year for Lane, and the highlight was when he went to Los Angeles to do a show at the Troubadour, a legendary venue where the Eagles and other greats got their start. Bays made the trip with Lane and played for an audience that included the Warner executives who had made Powers of Ten possible. The show went well - so well that Andy Johns, who produced for Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Halen, wanted to reproduce parts of the album and have it re-released only a year after its debut.
For a month Lane and Bays, along with drummer Sean Rickman, recorded with Johns and spent time in his home talking about music. It was a time etched in Bays' memory. It didn't last. The real world of business intruded when Warner Brothers reorganized. Lane's advocates left the company, and the new team had little interest in promoting Lane's music.
"All of a sudden the support dropped," says Bays. He and Rickman continued to play with other bands and artists, but Lane retreated to his grandmother's home in Memphis and started writing music for another album.
Things Fall Apart
Through all of this, there were signs of Lane's vulnerable side. In the early 1980s, his sister Lisa, with whom he was particularly close, was killed in an automobile accident. Lane was so devastated that he tried to crawl into her casket at the funeral. He would later compose a song for her, "Epilogue for Lisa."
When his marriage fell apart in the early 1990s, Lane went into a deep depression and even became suicidal, friends and family say.
Lane also was suffering from health issues. He had phobias and once insisted that his grandmother throw out all the food in the house and scrub the place down. He also suffered from severe arthritis, psoriasis, and other immune-system problems, which left him in great pain and made it difficult for him to practice his music. He quit watching his diet and began to struggle with his weight, which exceeded 300 pounds.
"I'm going to experience mass," Lane would joke, a reference to his deep interest in physics as well as his weight problems.
On top of all that, his business affairs were a shambles. Friends beseeched him to hire a lawyer or faithful manager.
"Shawn was a great musician but a poor businessman," Diane Lane concedes, a view shared by everyone who knew him.
Lane dealt with his physical pain and his disappointments in one of two ways, friends and family say. He retreated first into learning. He studied languages, among them ancient Greek and Arabic. He read voraciously. Favorites included Stephen Hawking, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Noam Chomsky, and biographies of major musical figures. He had a remarkable memory and digested everything he read.
Keith Daniel, another family friend, observed: "You could throw a dart on a map of the world, and the country it landed on he could tell you the history of that country's music."
But Lane also turned to more destructive escapes. For the most part, Lane had avoided the excesses of a rock-music lifestyle, but by his mid-30s he began to slip. First, he started to smoke, which complicated his already serious health issues. More troubling to friends and family, he also began to use and abuse painkillers, which led to an addiction that he struggled to overcome.
"I hurt, I hurt, I hurt," he wrote in one of his journals.
During the late 1990s, he was touring Europe and making albums with Swedish guitarist Jonas Hellborg. They also made a trip to India, where they were greeted as superstars. But Bays says Lane had changed when he returned from those trips. He seemed unable to fight the temptations that contributed to his health problems.
Nevertheless, his mother recalls, he checked himself into St. Francis Hospital in 2001. He was there on 9/11 and was proud when after 37 days he had weaned himself off the painkillers.
In 2003, he was planning to record an album with Hellborg and Ginger Baker, formerly of the famed group Cream, when he began to experience severe fatigue and breathing problems. He would spend months in the hospital before complications from pulmonary fibrosis ended his life.
Epilogue and Forward
Shawn Lane's legacy has not proven to be much neater than his life. Here in Memphis, a group of friends and family met regularly to discuss putting on a concert to celebrate his musical legacy.
But as often happens in such endeavors, factions developed, disagreements occurred, and issues arose. Lane's brilliance as a musician, as all have conceded, has been equaled by the mess he left with respect to the legal issues surrounding his music. This has led to discord and confusion and probably misunderstandings.
On all sides, there is - barely below the surface - regret or resentment that a beloved friend, brother, and son has not been adequately remembered or rewarded for his unique talents.
Musician Bill Oliver, for his part, misses the friend he knew since childhood.
"Shawn was one of those genius, madness people. ... But my fondest memory of him is his laugh. He was a lover of things, not a hater," Oliver says. "He associated music with happiness. In every other part of his life, there was tragedy."
Bays tries not to focus on the final years when Lane's declining health robbed him of his vitality. Instead, he talks about their many trips to museums, bookstores, Lane's love of his daughter, and the many late-night discussions about every subject imaginable. And Bays and Oliver agree that when it came to music, Lane had few regrets. He never craved stardom or material success, both friends insist.
"He was right where he wanted to be," Bays says. "He had plenty of opportunity to play with big acts, and he turned them down. He didn't care about money or fame. He played the music he wanted to play with the musicians he wanted to play with. How can you replace that with money?"