The Pain of Shawn Lane
True genius often passes through our midst unheralded. Like a streak of lightning that momentarily lights our darkened path, Shawn Lane entered our hearts through the medium of music and then was gone. Through his music we grasped a glimpse of eternity. Through his passing, we learned that he continued on his musical mission while battling chronic pain.
Shawn Lane was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1963. With his natural affinity for all things musical, he began playing his sister’s piano at the age of 8 and soon played at a high level. A few years later Lane would move on to the electric guitar, the instrument that would become his speciality and for which he would long be remembered.
With diligent practice, the precocious Lane displayed technical mastery of the electric guitar while playing at unfathomable speeds. Unlike other players, Lane’s speed would not come at the price of fret board accuracy. When asked how he developed his speed, Lane modestly attributed it all to his “freakish nervous system”.1
Indeed, the connection between his mind and his fingers was certainly freakish, almost autonomic.
Word of Lane’s early prowess travelled through guitar circles rapidly. Contemporary axemen and music industry insiders learned of his work through audio tapes and video footage. No less a guitar luminary than Paul Gilbert, renowned shredder and former lead guitarist of Mr. Big, called Shawn “the most terrifying guy of all time”2, making reference to Lane’s complex playing style which was “finger torture”3 for many accomplished players.
Although Lane auditioned (and subsequently played) in the band “Black Oak Arkansas” in his early teens, his abilities far outpaced the conventional rock ‘n roll sounds of this moribund Arkansas outfit. Instead, Lane turned in new directions even less commercial and less palatable to the masses. In 1992, Lane released his magnum opus, the “Powers of Ten” CD, on which he composed, produced and engineered almost all of the songs on the album—a remarkable achievement.
It would seem the story should be onward and upward for a man of Lane’s rare talent. He was young, well-respected, and bursting with creativity. Perhaps more than this, Lane was a down to earth gentleman who always made time to share his musical wisdom with fans, regardless of skill level. On several occasions, Lane discussed his influences and other musicians who inspired him, much like a fan, even though his own music could justifiably dominate a conversation.
And he exhorted players of all skill levels to play music for the sake of music, and not to get overly obsessed with technique.
Moving toward a fusion sound would give Lane the opportunity to spread his wings, fly over uncharted musical waters and further pique his creativity. However, it would further distance himself from widespread acclaim and acceptance. Like all great thinkers, Lane’s focus was always on the quality of the final product, not on its broad acceptance, so this evolution was not something Lane would regret. His musical vision would always come first.
Unfortunately, Lane was limited in many ways by a congenital illness that ultimately hampered his playing– Psoriatic arthritis.
Psoriatic arthritis is a chronic disease characterized by inflammation of the skin (psoriasis) and joints (arthritis). Approximately 10% of patients who have psoriasis also develop an associated inflammation of their joints. Patients who have inflammatory arthritis and psoriasis are diagnosed as having psoriatic arthritis. According to Lane, he had this condition since he was a young boy, and it was virulent.
“This arthritis attacked everywhere, all in my hands, my neck, my arms and every bone in my body. I couldn’t even move and I had to take lots of pain medicines to try to live. It hasn’t really got any better because there’s not really a cure for arthritis or psoriasis.”4
Though Lane was not one to complain about his condition, the effects of psoriatic arthritis were painfully apparent. In order to control his pain, Lane was given cortisone (steroid) injections which gave him temporary relief and allowed him to play live gigs, but these treatments caused him to gain a lot of weight.
“It’s really painful. The only thing you can use for it is Cortisone. But I had it so much over every part of my body and I used Cortisone treatment so much I got Cortisone poison and developed what’s called ‘Cushing’s Syndrome’ from too much Cortisone in the body.”5
Again Lane laboured through this personal ordeal with the valour of a sage sent to Earth on a higher calling. Though weighing over 300 pounds, Lane refused to succumb to his ailments for his own well-being and, ultimately, for the greater good of music. In a few short years, Lane’s youthful face transformed into the grizzled look of a veteran axeman. What never changed were the same sweet sounding notes that emanated from his guitar that never betrayed his pain.
Lane formed a musical merger with Jonas Hellborg, who was an enormously talented guitarist in his own rite, and the person who introduced him to Indian and Pakistani music. For Lane, the ethereal sounds and rhythms of Eastern music and instruments opened up a brand new frontier for him to traverse and explore.
Although the introduction of Eastern elements into Lane’s music further isolated him from mainstream guitar music, Lane’s goals were far loftier than that. It seems he was put on this earth to push the boundaries of the electric guitar to points previously unsurpassed. Ironically, even on his slower and melodic songs, Lane was able to seamlessly insert some speedy guitar licks without compromising the structure and tenor of the song.
If it didn’t affect the quality of his playing, Lane’s illness certainly affected the frequency of his playing.
Like many chronic pain sufferers, Lane had trouble even getting out of bed on some days. Many of us know how even with the assistance of doctors, medical conditions such as fibromyalgia which have no known aetiology can be debilitating and limit our enjoyment of life. Alas, Lane suffered in much the same way, waking each day and evaluating what he could and could not do, and slowly losing his muscle tone and agility from inactivity.
“It hurts my playing and my fingers aren’t as loose as they used to be. But if I rest a lot and I tour, and I just basically just rest and then show up and play then I’m OK. But stress and other physical functions tire me out and I can’t do anything.”6
These words are not far from the mouths of many chronic pain sufferers. Often the only prescription is rest, but to be able to concentrate and be creative with painful limbs is a tall order. Mere survival is usually the order of the day. The rigors of touring and travelling in buses through foreign lands like India most certainly took its toll on Lane, but somehow he found his way and played these gigs, even for local villagers and passersby.
Sadly, Lane’s own country, America, lacked (and continues to lack) a national health care system.
One wonders what would have become of Shawn had he been able to see the best doctors and to have all the necessary testing required to treat his condition. A harsh reality of America is the limited options available to people without health insurance. Lane was painfully aware of this issue:
“The problem is that in America, there’s no health care, national health care. And I never had the money for insurance, so I couldn’t even get health care anywhere. I could only go to the charity doctors and then get maybe some more Celebrex or Vioxx, but no real extreme treatments.”7
Whether “extreme treatments” would have prolonged Lane’s life is uncertain. In Shawn Lane we have the embodiment of class and genius, prodigy and pathos, and it is tragic that he may not have had access to the best medical treatment available. But these questions are moot since Lane passed away on September 26, 2003, after lung surgery.
It is reported that Lane passed away after learning that he would have to spend the rest of his days on medical oxygen. Ironically, one of Lane’s best songs, “Time is the Enemy”, darkly foreshadowed his own future, which would involve composing and completing music through pressure and pain. As those suffering from chronic pain know, one must make the most of one’s “good days” as they can be few in number.
Considering Lane’s infinite talent, noble demeanour, lack of commercial notoriety, and the tragic circumstances that led to his premature death, one can draw some parallels between Lane and the artist Van Gogh: Two solitary figures absorbed in their craft for the sake of their own well-being, sublimating their enormous creative energies into beautiful art to be posthumously enjoyed by legions of admirers.
A new generation of guitarists are discovering Shawn Lane through videos posted on YouTube.
Interested fans can quickly view previously rare footage of Lane in his childhood and trace his career right up to the months preceding his death. And there is ample reason to believe Lane’s fanbase will continue to grow long after his own death.
Devotees of the avant-garde guitarist known as Buckethead may be amazed to learn that their lanky hero dubbed Shawn Lane “by far the greatest guitar player that ever lived.”8 Such accolades will help to ensconce Shawn Lane’s name among the pantheon of guitar greats, and ensure that his talent will be admired and enjoyed by younger fans for years to come.
In honour of the 5th anniversary of Lane’s passing, this poem was composed to keep Shawn’s courageous memory alive.
THE GREAT SHAWN LANE
From you, Beethoven, Bach, and Lane,
The substance of my dreams became,
You built cathedrals in my brain,
And lit my long extinguished flame.
Though Shawn, you played with endless pain,
Your death was surely not in vain,
The songs and lessons do remain,
And through them all you live again.
Perhaps we’ll one day meet again.
And hear your miraculous licks,
We hear you up there in Heaven,
Jammin’ with Rhodes and Hendrix.9
The great Shawn Lane –may he rest in peace.
1. Shawn Lane talks about Speed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhkbSBxPYcU
2. Paul Gilbert talks about Shawn Lane: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Hux7r7FlXk
3. Ibid, see note 2.
4. Shawn Lane interview by Richard Hallebeek: http://www.richardhallebeek.com/interviews/lane.php
5. Ibid, see note 4.
6. Ibid see note 4.
7. Ibid, see note 4.
8. This statement was made by Buckethead upon learning of Shawn Lane’s death: http://www.bucketheadland.com/faq/faq2/FAQ_2_0.html#55
9. This poem was written by Jessie Baker. The first three lines of this poem are loosely based on the poem “Dead Musicians” by Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967).