Robin Lane’s story goes back to her ’60s days as a child of Hollywood glamor, her long tenure as a Boston rock survivor, and her recent renaissance as a musical counselor for abused women.
By Brett Milano
A few years back, film professor and director (and Arts Fuse film critic) Tim Jackson was looking for a particular kind of story to tell. “I wanted to tell something about creativity, something about aging, and something about women,” he recalls. It was Jackson’s wife who came up with the obvious answer: What about that woman he’d been playing music with for the past three decades?
The result is When Things Go Wrong, Jackson’s documentary about singer/songwriter Robin Lane, which gets its first public screening at the Regent in Arlington on April 4. A true local treasure, Lane is probably best known for her early-’80s near-stardom with the Chartbusters, a band that includes Jackson on drums and still plays on occasion (They’ll perform with a few special guests after the screening.) But her story goes back to her ’60s days as a child of Hollywood glamour, her long tenure as a Boston rock survivor, and her recent renaissance as a musical counselor for abused women. “The story divides nicely into three acts,” says Jackson, an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art. “I’ve seen a lot of rock documentaries, and they’re always about bands who are successful and ‘How did they get to be so wonderful?’ Or else they’re about people who are so damaged that you can’t believe they’re still alive. I’m more fascinated by the people in the middle, regular folks who live a creative life. That’s one of the questions I wanted to look at: How does a creative person make it through?”
Lane’s life, however, is far from run of the mill. Her first showbiz connection is one that her Boston fans didn’t always know about: She’s the daughter of Ken Lane, Dean Martin’s longtime pianist and the writer of his signature tune “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” As Jackson explains, “He was a distant father at best—We leave [their relationship] ambiguous in the film, and I think it was ambiguous in her life. But when I started shooting and had Robin standing on the beach telling me about her father, I knew she was willing to talk about anything.” This includes her teenage life among the Laurel Canyon music royalty; she lived with Neil Young for a time and famously sang on his 1969 album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. “She was incredibly beautiful and enormously talented, so she was noticed.” Jackson had to leave a few priceless rock ‘n’ roll stories out of the film, simply because there are so many. He doesn’t mention, for instance, that Lane was sitting directly across the table from Stephen Stills when he wrote the classic “For What It’s Worth.”
Lane had her wilder days in Los Angeles, but by the time she came to Boston she was something of an anomaly; a folk-rocker who could play with punk bands at the Rat. She was more seasoned than her Boston contemporaries—and by then, a lot straighter. “Asa and I were the bad boys [guitarist Asa Brebner, still a Boston scene mainstay], but Robin never did a single drug on the road, she had Jesus. She was very good at putting up with us.” Like many other great Boston bands, the Chartbusters got close to national success—closer than most in fact, with two critically praised albums for Warner Brothers. In a scene bound to draw a houseful of boos, Lane got told she’d lost her contract because she’d gotten pregnant and couldn’t be a sex symbol anymore—though Jackson thinks that was just a convenient excuse to drop the band after their second album didn’t hit. “I didn’t wind up talking much about [the Chartbusters’ lack of bigger success], because I personally didn’t find it that interesting—I hate to do that thing where you have some minor success in a band, and that becomes the major achievement in your life.”
In telling the story, Jackson also had to confront the darker elements in Lane’s past—particularly her relationship with Leroy Radcliffe, the Chartbusters’ former guitarist and the father of Lane’s daughter. “I had heard that Leroy had been abusive, though I didn’t see any evidence of that while we were on tour. When you’re touring that much, things get a little unreal. And I was talking to Bill Flanagan [MTV producer and Lane’s longtime friend] who said, ‘You know, there’s two sides to every story.’ So I knew that I had to talk to Leroy myself, which was something I hadn’t planned on doing. Hadn’t seen him in years, but I went to LA where he was living in a houseboat. And he was looking great, friendly as could be. So I just said it: ‘Did you beat up on Robin?’ And he was honest — He said ‘I was abusive, but I asked her forgiveness and she gave it to me unconditionally’. Robin told me that was true.”
The story ends on an upbeat, focusing on Lane’s current work under the A Woman’s Voice banner: helping trauma survivors to heal through songwriting. It also focuses on Lane’s relationship with her daughter Evangeline, another bright spot in her life. “When you get to the last third of the story, the men disappear altogether,” Jackson notes. “So it really becomes a feminist story, about her resilience as a woman.” A Woman’s Voice was in fact the movie’s working title, but When Things Go Wrong, also the title of Lane’s most famous song, seemed more appropriate—especially if you know the song, which is about keeping hopeful when things get tough. “I realized that everything in the movie informs the songs Robin writes,” Jackson says. “For Robin this isn’t the swan song, it’s not her memorial. It’s a creative life that she is continuing, and that’s what makes it uplifting.”
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.