One had to do a double take Wednesday afternoon when word arrived that Ian McLagan had died from complications attributed to a massive stroke suffered on Tuesday.
Not the man they called Mac. Not the irrepressibly cheery keyboardist who personified everything fun about rock ‘n’ roll. Not the man who toured the world with The Faces and The Rolling Stones with a smile on his face and a wicked taste for boogie-woogie at his fingertips. Not the man who was right here in Lexington for a two-night engagement a mere six weeks ago.
The latter was the real stunner. McLagan’s previous Lexington visits included two performances at Rupp Arena — one with the Stones in 1981 and the other alongside former Faces mate Rod Stewart in 1993. In late October, there was Mac, onstage at the Lyric Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour and again the next evening for a late booking at Parlay Social.
A week earlier, I interviewed McLagan over the phone for an advance story on those shows and found him to be genuinely modest, upbeat and boundlessly enthusiastic about the music that was still very much the center of his life. He spoke of his love of the piano blues pioneered by Muddy Waters keyboardist Otis Spann, of the lessons in life and music learned by playing side by side in the Stones with piano great Ian Stewart (the newly released Hampton 1981 CD/DVD reveals both of them in action) and the prospect of getting all the surviving members of The Faces, including the previously reluctant Stewart, together for reunion concerts in 2015.
Mostly, though, McLagan seemed excited and more than a little surprised that fans young and old were still hungry to hear him play.
“I’m the luckiest guy I know because I love what I do, and I can still do it,” he told me. “People still come out just to hear the music, too. That’s a blessing, you know? What else am I going to do but play the piano and sing?”
When I met McLagan briefly after the WoodSongs taping, he mentioned he had read my piece on him and was pleased that it “sounded like me.”
What Mac music will I be digging into tonight? The Faces’ swan-song studio record, 1973’s Ooh La La, will make the cut for sure. But so will United States, his most recent studio record. The latter isn’t the kind of big, barrelhouse work one might expect from McLagan. It is instead a more reflective, wistful record by a schooled elder who lived the rock ’n’ roll dream to the hilt and was now purposely downshifting with his chops, integrity and spirit intact.
How fortunate we are that Lexington got to share in one of the final chapters of such a remarkable rock ’n’ roll saga.
Ian McLagan was 69.