Robin Lane and Songbird Sings

by Jeff Suwak

Everything is broken. Can I mend those broken wings? It's up to me to find a way out of here—to fly with broken wings.
-Song from Songbird Sings Prison Project workshop

Music impacts people's lives every day, but musician Robin Lane takes that concept to a whole other level. With her nonprofit organization Songbird Sings, Lane helps sufferers of trauma find peace through songwriting workshops. Working with veterans, victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking, prisoners, and pretty much anyone else who may benefit, Lane leads music-writing novices through the whole process of creating their own songs. In crafting and performing the tunes, workshop attendees work through their own trauma and suffering.

The Songbird Sings method isn't a cure-all, of course, but dozens of testimonials attest to its effectiveness. Through the organization, Lane has made - and continues to make - a direct, tangible contribution to people's lives.

So, who is this Robin Lane person who has taken this curative task upon herself? Well, it's funny you should ask, because she recently took the time to talk to Songfacts and explain just that.

Round and Round

The first record Lane ever sang on is also the most enduring. The song is titled "Round and Round," and it appears on Neil Young's second solo album, 1969's Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. It's no passing contribution, as few who've heard the song ever forget Lane's vocals, even if they don't know who it is singing them. As Johnny Rogan observed in The Complete Guide to the Music of Neil Young, "It is the haunting vocal work of Robin Lane that makes the song so successful."

Lane lived with Young for a few weeks around that time and was a familiar part of that legendary Los Angeles scene. One day Young invited her into the studio and started playing. "I thought we were rehearsing," Lane says in Jimmy McDonough's Shakey. "I didn't even know what I was singing... Neil was the original punk rocker."

I asked Lane for more details on this story, but she had nothing more to add. It was par for the course in my conversation with her. Whenever I asked about her music, her responses were generally along the lines, "yea it happened" or "we kind of threw it together."

The most animated she got while we talked was in telling me about the species of bird migrating overhead while she walked her dog, and when discussing the topic of Charles Manson.

It's not that Lane is rude - not at all. She's very humble, friendly, and easy to talk to. She just didn't seem interested in embellishing her music career or promoting herself.

In regards to the Manson stuff (since I brought it up), she was very interested in the case. "I love that kind of stuff," she said, referring to true crime stories, of course, and not actual murder.

Lane occasionally partied with Bobby Beausoleil, the Manson disciple who killed Gary Hinman (and whose incarceration possibly inspired the follow-up murders, depending on who you ask). She said they called him "Bobby Bummer" because he was always dark and depressive.

Lane also had a run-in with the Manson Family while she was camping near Yosemite. Charlie was gone, but this group of dirty hippies, who she recalled as being very nice and friendly, kept talking about their wonderful leader.

Lane was very intrigued when I told her that Fugs frontman and counterculture icon Ed Sanders had written a book on the Manson Family just after the murders. It's a little-known work that was pretty quickly subsumed under Bugliosi's Helter Skelter.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand...

Lane lived with Young for a few weeks and made her contribution to "Round and Round." She also is on record saying that Young was inspired by the death of Lenny Bruce to write the Buffalo Springfield song "Mr. Soul." During those now-iconic times, Lane was smack-dab in the middle of a scene that would soon become legendary. This was no mediocre talent, either. No one who's heard her voice would ever think that.

Still, as seems to be the case throughout her life, Lane felt she had to do her own thing. She packed up her bags and headed east.

When Things Go Wrong

Read music journalism of the early 1980s and you'll see Lane touted as one of the hottest female talents on the scene. Washington Post music critic Geoffrey Himes went so far as to write, "Though Blondie's Deborah Harry and the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde have had more hits and better press, Robin Lane looms large as the most talented female artist to come out of New Wave Rock."

That's no small claim, but check out Robin Lane and the Chartbusters and you'll see why Himes felt confident in making it.

The Chartbusters were comprised of Lane, Asa Brebner, Modern Lovers member Leroy Radcliffe, Scott Baerenwald, and Tim Jackson. They formed in 1978 and made a big splash on the Boston club scene - to this day they still have a strong following in Boston.

They cut their first album in 1980 with Warner Bros. The eponymous record features the song "When Things Go Wrong," which holds the distinction of being the 11th music video ever played on MTV.

With her characteristic nonchalance, Lane told me she didn't witness the video debut.

"I didn't see it," she said. "I didn't know MTV was going to be such a big deal. I didn't understand what it was."

I asked Lane to expand on the song, but she said there wasn't much to say. No grand backstory or deeper meaning. But she didn't like the chorus. "It annoys me," she said, and that was that.

The Chartbusters toured with The Cars, The Kinks, and Hall and Oates. Press at the time went gaga for them. Yet as with many great talents, they never quite broke out the way they were expected to. The band broke up in 1985, after releasing one more Warner Bros. studio album (Imitation Life in 1981).

Ironically for a musician with one of the first songs played on MTV, some have blamed the advent of the music video for the Chartbusters never quite breaking out. Once videos began, a musician's image became just as (in some cases more) important than their music. Lane certainly had the look, but she wasn't the type to aggressively work the press and flaunt her sexuality like Debbie Harry or Madonna. Lane was more interested in having a child than playing that game.

There was something else bubbling beneath the surface, though. Unseen by all, Lane had been suppressing memories of violent abuse from her childhood and her adulthood. She'd kept it all tamped down through the years of her musical career, but the time had come to face it.

Songbird Sings

After a lot of soul-searching, Lane started to seek her own healing through helping others. She began helping women who'd suffered abuse. She helped those women write over 200 songs over the course of multiple workshops before officially starting Songbird Sings.

Today, the workshops are free for participants, funded by donations. Supporters include Pearl Jam's Vitalogy Foundation and Paul and Theo Epstein's Foundation To Be Named Later.

Since that early '80s heyday, Lane has released some solo work, toured, and reunited with the Chartbusters for 2003's Piece of Mind. At this point, though, Songbird Sings appears to be her calling.

Looking at the arc of Lane's life story, I couldn't help but think the somewhat romantic idea that destiny had sheltered her from rock stardom so she'd find her true calling with Songbird Songs. I asked Lane if she'd ever thought that was true.

"Yea, maybe," she said. I could actually hear her shoulders shrugging over the phone. "I don't know. Sometimes I think that."

It was the trademark self-dismissiveness that made Lane a somewhat frustrating interview, all while making her a true pleasure to converse with. After an hour-long conversation in which she gave me pretty much none of the insight I was hoping for into her songs, she left me with the very clear impression that no one could do Songbird Sings better than she can. She's about as real as they come.

More on the Ed Sanders connection in this story about the forgotten history of Woodstock, New York.

October 8, 2018
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