I’m Zelig, Robin Lane says, laughing.
She’s joking, but the label also fits.
Lane may be a footnote now — her group Robin and the Chartbusters had one of the first videos on the first day of MTV — but for two decades she was in the flow of rock and roll history.
Lane spent a lot of time in Laurel Canyon and grew up a Valley girl with her father, the piano player for Dean Martin. Five minutes into our conversation, she has casually and self-deprecatingly mentioned that:
— She first saw a totally stoned Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead perform an early free show.
— Being friends with Electric Flag’s road manager got her into their first show with Cream at the Fillmore in 1967. She ended up sitting on the steps outside, trading swigs off a bottle of Southern Comfort with Janis Joplin.
— She met Danny Whitten, then in a band called The Rockets before he would join Crazy Horse, at a party. He introduced her to a couple of friends named Stephen Stills (“I was in awe of those songs”) and Neil Young, who invited her to his cabin. Later, she sang on “Round and Round,” which landed on “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.”
— One night she danced with a slobbering drunk named Tim at a club. A year later, she was trying to score some pot and drove to a house above Sunset Strip. She was mesmerized by the music coming from the place, just guitar and a voice, what a voice. She followed the sound, walked in and met Tim, the drunk Tim everyone else knew as Tim Hardin.
— A few years after that, she meet a Brit who later would write that he was “seduced by the songs that seem to pour out of her.” They married after a whirlwind romance. Five years after their divorce, Andy Summers became the guitarist for a band named The Police.
“I was around all these musicians,” she says. “I wanted to be like them.”
“You reflect on things as you get older,” she adds, later. “What could have been.”
These days, Lane works with a very different group of writers.
Thirty minutes into our talk, it feels like Lane leans in focused. She talks about the songwriting collaborators she hangs out with now, the work she’s been doing for more than a decade.
They are people like Heidi, the woman whose pedophile doctor father abused her and rented her out to his colleagues. Together, they wrote a searing song, “False Memory Syndrome,” that lashes out at the defense he lamely tried to mount.
You can’t hide your sins no more, mama, papa
these memories you know they’re true
you can’t remember how convenient for you
your lies are thick you pick them well
well now it’s my time and I’’m gonna tell
They are the girls from Roxbury YouthWorks who were victims of human trafficking, portrayed in the song “Stronger.” They are women in the Western Massachusetts Correctional Alcohol Center, where she co-wrote the rap song, “Broken Wings,” with some women
The arc of Lane’s life from California golden girl to pioneering female rocker to songwriting therapy with her Songbird Sings nonprofit is chronicled in “When Things Go Wrong,” a documentary by Tim Jackson, the drummer in The Chartbusters. (The title comes from her biggest hit).
Jackson’s documentary stands out because it’s not the now-familiar tale of the rise and fall of a star. It is the story of a working musician who just couldn’t capitalize on her one break for a variety of reasons.
“I didn’t want someone who had risen to fame,” says Jackson, who produced two previous documentaries. “I didn’t want someone who was destroyed. I wanted someone right in the middle and Robin was that. That’s why I admire her. She’s resilient. She’s talented. But she’s just like all of us, trying to get those things all right.”
Jackson and Lane point to Mike Lembo, the band’s young manager. He didn’t tell them of a potential conflict managing a then-emerging Tom Petty. He didn’t wield a firm hand creating a consistent image. “He could have done something really marvelous with her and I don’t think he gave her all the support or vision she needed and she needed a lot of support and vision,” Jackson says.
For her part, Lane points out she isn’t crying about the twists and turns of her career. “At this point, I understand what happened,” she says. “I didn’t understand business at all. I was just a musician and a songwriter. I didn’t have any sense of business or marketing or how to do it. Still don’t.”
While the film raises the issues of abuse, it doesn’t linger on them. Lane was raped at gunpoint and her father tried to approach her as a girlfriend later in life (“Nothing happened,” she says). The documentary chronicles the long arc of her story beginning with growing up in California. By the end of the film, though, Jackson says he consciously removed all the men — manager, bandmates, lovers, critics — so only women appear telling the story.
“What I needed to do was create an open-ended discussion about the issue of women, trauma, and abuse,” he says. “I don’t know the answer to the questions raised in the film.”
In California, Lane grew up the daughter of Ken Lane, best known as Dean Martin’s piano player and the writer of “Everybody Loves Somebody.” Her home life was chaotic; she had several stepmothers.
She got into the business as a folk rocker, penning beautiful songs like “Benjamin,” about the boy she had early and gave up for adoption. It’s a centerpiece of the documentary. “I was writing tons,” she says. “Just poured them out. There’s something about youth. You can take something universal and have your own spin on it.”
Years after The Police broke up, she had lunch with Summers, who told her those songs were her best. “He said, ‘ I didn’t like the music you wrote with the Chartbusters. You made yourself mediocre’,” she recalls. “Yet, those songs never got me signed. I think I could have been signed then, but, really, a record company had one female and that was it.”
She was not Laura Nyro. Or Melanie. Label executives were not interested.
Eventually, she moved to Boston. There, she fell in love with the emerging punk music of The Clash and The Sex Pistols and her sound changed. She heard two guitarists who’d played with The Modern Lovers, Asa Brebner and Leroy Radcliffe. and thought they would work with her. Jackson, the drummer, and Scott Baerenwald, talked themselves into the band. The Chartbusters were born.
“I remember making a concerted effort to have everything sound not like I used to sound,” she says. “Old fans and friends were going, ‘Oh my God, what have you done?’ They were running around saying Robin has gone insane. She’s lost her mind. I kind of did lose my mind. I lost the mind I had before that was folkie music.”
She notes she started out playing folk rock that talked about real problems and then moved away from that in the 1970s.
Punk brought the issues back to the forefront. “I wanted something that was more social commentary,” she says. Lane also is open that she suffered a couple of mental breakdowns over the years.
With the Chartbusters, she was a paradox. A woman fronting a band of males. A born-again Christian (at the time) singing rock.
Within months of forming the band, they were a hit. They signed to Warner Brothers. Their 1980 debut, “Robin Lane and the Chartbusters,” featured the hits “When Things Go Wrong” and “Why Do You Tell Lies?” MTV made “When Things Go Wrong” the 11th played on the network when it debuted on Aug. 1, 1981.
Lane suffered the sophomore slump. The second album, released in 1981, tanked. Lane got pregnant in 1982 and that was the end of the band (until the inevitable reunions). The pregnancy, Lane says, “was just a reason to get rid of me because the second album didn’t do as well as the first.”
In the documentary, Lembo says having a child as a female rocker is trying to break, was the wrong path at the time. Lane disagrees. “He went along with it (dropping her) instead of fighting for me,” she adds.
She moved to California, hoping to make it as a songwriter. A cut, Waiting for Telstar,” on a Susanna Hoffs solo disc helped pay the bills. It didn’t work out. She moved back to Boston, putting the band together and playing solo while writing songs. She got married again and they had some money. When that marriage ended, she had lean years, living in a subsidized apartment at one point.
One day in 2001, she was walking around looking for a community health center and came upon a women’s resource center in Turner Falls. “I had no idea what that was,” she says. “If you had told me then I would be working with women who had been abused or had mental health issues or all sorts of domestic violence, I would have been, hello, I don’t think so. That’s not my thing.”
She joined a writers’ group. They learned she was a songwriter and asked her to teach them. Lane says she began to more deeply understand her own issues, issues she’d dismissed over the years. “If you take it on, you say ‘Holy shi,” so I just never took it on,” She adds. “But as I was working with these women, it drove a lot of my own mental issues that weren’t resolved because I was never healed from that stuff.”
How many songwriting sessions has she held over the years? She doesn’t know. Maybe 100. Maybe 200.
The girls at Roxbury Youthworks, when told they were going to write a song, said no thanks. But on her second visit, they came up with rap verses telling their stories. For Lane, “Stronger,” was her first shot creating a rap tune. “I told them to write about what happened to them and we would do a rap song,” she says, before singing the chorus over the phone. “Everything that has happened to me has made me stronger.”
When I was a little girl 7 years old, I grew up in the streets
nothing to eat no where to sleep me myself and eye is all I ever needed
but little did I know I needed a family. I didn’t have nobody, I didn’t have no money
I didn’t have anything except for me I cried myself to sleep every night
I used to smoke and drink all the time the only thing I needed was to take care of myself
I used to be in gangs I used to be bad remembering the consequences I would have
but still when I pray nothing really happens I still believe that my life rebounds on nothing
there’s a lot more things that happened in my life
but I don’t reminisce on them because I’m fly…like a kite
Now I’m 16 years old, I’m happy and I’m brave and bold
For Lane, has helping other women helped herself?
“Totally. Totally,” she says. “That’s kind of what’s helped me so much is helping other people and having it be less about me,” she says, then laughs. “Although you can’t get away from yourself. After a few years of doing this and realizing how great this was and how much I was getting out of it, I was like oh, my God, Robin, you’re being selfish again. Stop being so selfish. You’re getting too much out of this. It’s not fair.”
She laughs again, the laugh of someone at ease after a long, long journey.
For more information, go to: Songbird Sings.