Musician Ian McLagan survived the British rock explosion of the sixties. Now he lives in Austin, a place he loves to call home.
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Most mornings my neighbor Ian McLagan brings his wife, Kim, a cup of tea in bed and says, “Welcome to paradise, darling.” From their bedroom, the view is of mesquite-covered pastures and tangled woodland dotted with a few houses. In this rural neighborhood set on a slight rise just east of Austin, the days are full of the muted roar of rider mowers, and the nights are alive with cicadas and the coyotes’ howls. The trees and bushes resound to the cardinals’ song, and the wet spring has painted everything such a rich lush green that it could be Ireland—McLagan’s childhood home. Paradise, indeed.
A charming, impish man who looks fifty or less but will be sixty on his next birthday, McLagan exudes constant delight at having landed in such a beautiful place with his life intact. He’s a musician, yes, a fine purveyor of boogie-woogie piano and fiery Hammond, but more than that, Mac, as everyone calls him, is a genuine rock icon, a survivor of the British rock explosion of the sixties who has played with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to the Rolling Stones. He was a member of the Small Faces—literally, the diminutive men about town—who were perhaps the best English band never to hit it big over here. They had just one U.S. hit, “Itchycoo Park,” but back home, the band was one of the most successful groups of the Carnaby Street era, whose songs are constantly recycled on records like The Swinging Sixties and The Sounds of the Sixties. In the seventies, they dropped the “small” and become the Faces, with Rod Stewart joining as vocalist. McLagan’s conversation is peppered with references to folks such as Woody (Ron Wood, who was the Faces’ guitar player) and Keith (Richards). At one point, he hands me an electric guitar, casually mentioning that “this used to belong to Eric Clapton.” Kim, who runs a skin-care salon in Bastrop, was previously married to Keith Moon, the Who’s famously excessive drummer.
Moon died in 1978—the same year that the McLagans moved from London to Los Angeles, where they lived illegally for sixteen years until they got green cards as part of an amnesty for Mexican farm workers. “They asked me if could read English,” recalls McLagan. “I said, ‘I am English.'” Despite his proximity to the recording studios of Hollywood, the smog and the earthquakes got to the couple, and after the big one of 1994 turned out not to the the big one, the McLagans started looking for somewhere else to live.
Although the Faces got to Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, it was with the Bump Band that Mac first saw Austin, back in the late seventies. After his old band-mate Ronnie Lane moved to town in 1985, McLagan renewed his acquaintance with the city while rehearsing for a Japanese tour with Lane’s band. These and other connections made the Texas capital an obvious choice for a fresh start. After days traipsing around cookie-cutter suburbs and not finding anything that seemed to fit, a realtor drove them out to look at this house, even though, as McLagan remembers, “it looked like the Psycho house in the photo they sent us.” The view from the second-story balcony convinced them that they had found their new home, and McLagan’s experiences in the studio cemented that impression. “The first session I did, Michael Ramos (Patty Griffin’s keyboard player) came up to me and said, ‘Welcome to Austin!’ I lived in L.A. sixteen years and nobody ever said anything like that!”
2004 is going well for McLagan, even though he’s played just two session gigs so far. His latest solo CD, Rise and Shine, is getting some nice reviews, and a recent Small Faces compilation has sold very well, thank you. And Mac is very excited about the just-released Faces box set, which, he proudly relates, has been called the box set by which all others must now be judged. Negotiations are even underway for a Faces reunion tour, if Rod Stewart is willing. “He doesn’t do e-mail,” sighs McLagan.
Nine years ago, the McLagans were sworn in as American citizens in a ceremony at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum overseen by Judge Sam Sparks. On their return to the house, they ran into a neighboring rancher who congratulated them. “Well, you know,” said McLagan to his neighbor, “I consider that federal. I want to get my Texas citizenship.” The rancher pointed at Mac’s gate and exclaimed, “Why, you got your dirt right there. You’re a Texan, boy!”