One of the many ways in which I have been fortunate in my life is that whenever someone important to me has died, it has been expected and received with some measure of relief. I’ve had two grandparents die after prolonged illnesses and now one of my greatest musical heroes has left us under similar circumstances. Shawn Lane was the single most incredible musician I have ever witnessed. His talent was boundless and his skills otherworldly. Yes, he was probably the fastest guitar player in the world, but more than that, he was a composer of exceptional depth and breadth, a master improviser in any genre, and a virtuoso on both guitar and keyboard. After a series of painful weeks at Baptist East hospital in Memphis, including a lung biopsy last week, he lost a long fight with a variety of health conditions on Friday evening, September 26, 2003.
The man was pure music. The tragedy of his existence was that he was blessed with every talent imaginable but had no means by which to deliver it to the world at large. Through various dealings with an industry that doesn’t value pure instrumental genius, a series of shady business characters (the first of which being Maumelle’s own Butch Stone), and his own inabilities as a businessman, Shawn never got a fair break and that’s why you’ve probably never heard of him. Had this been the 18th century, Shawn would have easily found a patron to fund his endeavors and tolerate his eccentricities. Alas, the 20th century wasn’t ready for Shawn, nor the 21st.
I only met Shawn once: at Juanita’s in the mid-90’s when was playing with his trio along with Jonas Hellborg on bass and Jeff (Apt. Q258) Sipe on drums. The entire show was improvised. I’ve never seen musicians play like that and I doubt I will again. After the show, Shawn listened politely as I babbled on and on about his Powers of Ten CD and how great the show was. He gave me his phone number and said if I was ever in Memphis to call him and we would hang out. I never made the time to take him up on that generous offer, and now I never will. It was one of those many things I kept thinking I would always be able to do at some indefinite point in the future.
And now at age 40 he’s gone. His catalog is erratic – many of his best works are out of print. The full Shawn Lane discography can be found here. You can get to know Shawn by reading this 1992 article from Musician magazine. It gives a good insight into who he was, and it ends with this appropriate message:
"It’s all a trade-off in that . . . it’s time. It really comes down to time. You don’t know how much time anybody’s got left. You might be hit by a car or just drop dead any minute, so what’s more important to you? To spend all this time doing something you don’t like at all, but have a couple nice cars and a nice house, or would you rather live in maybe a less nice house and drive a less nice car, but spend your time doing what you enjoy?" He laughed, turned away and started playing "Bennie and the Jets."
Thanks, Shawn, for everything. You’ll be sorely missed.