Rod Stewart still doing it his way
Rod Stewart has a few regrets but really, he wouldn't change a thing in his life, the rocker tells Michael Hann
We are talking about soul music. Rod Stewart is telling me what a disaster his 2009 covers album Soulbook was. "It was a cock-up," he says, his raspy voice made raspier still by a developing cold, "simply because you can't beat the originals. You'll never beat the originals because they're still on the airwaves."
He didn't hear Cliff Richard's soul album from 2011, then? Stewart looks a little astonished. "He didn't do a soul album." He did. Revue-style live show, too, with Percy Sledge, Freda Payne and James Ingram on the stage with him. Stewart looks even more astonished. "Really?" Yup. He looked a bit out of his depth, though. "Oh, bless him."
At 68, hair still spiky and sandy, skin the colour of antique furniture, Stewart remains a musician, then. If he is better known for countless things that have nothing to do with music - a list of statuesque, blonde partners (including three wives) longer than that of Cyprus' creditors; a selection of myths and legends ranging from him having been an apprentice professional footballer to his having invented a way of taking cocaine anally - then it should be remembered that no one would know any of those stories if the music hadn't captured the public imagination in the first place.
The couple of albums he made with the Jeff Beck Group in the late 1960s laid down the template that was then developed and coloured by Led Zeppelin. The solo albums he made for Mercury in the early '70s were perfect fusions of his musical loves - soul, folk, rock - and the second side of his 1971 album Every Picture Tells a Story is as perfect a 20 minutes as rock has produced. The Faces, the group that ran concurrently with those albums - and with whom he would be delighted to reunite next year after everyone's schedules are clear, developed a reputation, through the booze fumes, as the surest guarantee of a good time that live music had to offer.
The problem for many listeners lies in the 40 or so years since. Which is a long time, even if they have been punctuated with the occasional gem. Never mind that Every Picture and its attendant single, Maggie May, both topped the US and UK charts simultaneously - Stewart never seemed afraid to lower his standards in search of hits.
But you know what? He gets a free pass, because most singers don't even manage his few years of near perfection - even if he doesn't seem too fussed about his art. It's perhaps telling that he seems more interested in talking about football, north London property prices and our respective children than he is about Time, his new album - and the first on which he has contributed songwriting since 1998's When We Were the New Boys, a misfiring effort that also featured him covering Oasis and Primal Scream.
What happened to his writing? Why did he stop? "A combination of the Great American Songbook albums, being somewhat lazy, and certain remarks made by a high-flying executive at a record company saying that my songs were s*** and didn't sound like nothing new. Songwriting's never been a natural art for me; it's always been a bit of a struggle. I just thought it had got up and left me. I'd done the best I could and maybe I'd got nothing to write about any more."
He only started writing again because his friend Jim Cregan forced him into it on a visit to Stewart's mansion in Essex, southeast England (he splits his time between there and Los Angeles). "He comes round for Sunday dinner when I'm in the country and always brings his guitar. I watch him come up the drive and … 'Oh, f***ing hell, he's brought his guitar again'. He's always pushing me to write a song.
"So he says, 'Come on, siddown, let's have a go'. I said, 'No, I wanna have a little lie down. Just had Sunday dinner'. So he said, 'Come on, have a little go'. So I started singing, and he took it home, worked on the track a little bit, added a couple more guitars, and that was Brighton Beach."
That's one of the semi-autobiographical songs on the album, reflecting on his weekend beatnik days, hanging out under the pier with his girlfriend and his acoustic guitar in the early '60s; it's complemented by songs about his children, his dad, his divorce. It's all very pleasant, though those who love Every Picture are unlikely to be putting it on constant rotation, despite the acoustic guitars and mandolins and fiddles being a presence again.
The critics, the sneerers, perhaps despair of Stewart because he has never been apologetic about his success and its trappings: he's always happy to show off his latest car, blonde, house. "I've always put myself out there for ridicule," he says. "And the rewards are just wonderful, so I'll take any stick the press can throw at me."
Among the rewards were the women Stewart couldn't keep his hands off. Large chunks of his autobiography, published last year, are devoted to his efforts to keep his various girlfriends separate from one another, or from the press, before he chose fidelity in 1990 with his second wife, Rachel Hunter (they parted in 1999, divorcing in 2006). "There was a lot of smoke and mirrors in those days," he says. "It was like a Brian Rix comedy. One door slams, someone runs out in their brassiere, another door slams and someone comes out with their trousers round their ankles. It was very much like that."
Did he never think: is this worth the effort? "Nah," he says, sounding rather wistful, despite his devotion to wife No3, Penny Lancaster-Stewart. "It was lovely. The only time it was getting sad was probably the late '80s, when we had this 'Long Hot Summer' - me and one of my best mates were in the south of France [he was making a video with Tina Turner]. And the girls were just coming in and out, from all over Europe. It was wonderfully easy, but there was a sadness about it, a shallow emptiness. Once you'd got your leg over, that was it."
In the book, he describes sleeping with a roll call of women. "Let me say it was a minimum of three. It wasn't like one every night, coming in and going. It wasn't that bad! Three would be the number. Probably a maximum of four.
"I dunno how I got away with it. I was never ever a good-looking guy, but I knew I had a certain amount of charm, and most importantly I was the singer in a rock group. And I had a couple of bob. That's what turned the key in the door for me."
Did it make it harder to find The Right Woman when he had so much choice? Because he - in his prime, at least - could probably pull more women even than me. Probably.
He looks shocked. "Than you?" Than me. There's silence for a couple of beats, then a rattle of outrageous laughter. "I thought you were serious. I'm a rock singer! It's easy. That was always my downfall. There's always someone prettier or better looking. Maybe I believed something magical was going to happen. And it did eventually."
The women aren't a myth. Some of the other things are. Stewart was never a grave-digger ("I measured up the graves") nor an apprentice footballer ("I was good but I wasn't good enough"). He made those stories up to make himself more interesting in interviews. But the anal ingestion of cocaine is true.
After his Faces bandmate Ronnie Wood discovered a hole in his septum, the pair decided to eschew the nasal route - which also helped Stewart protect his voice - and pack their coke into emptied aspirin capsules to take in suppository form. There was a problem, though: "It didn't have the same thrill as putting it up your nose, you know?" And presumably it removes some of the social element from the ritual of taking drugs. "No, you can't go in the toilet with the lads and lay one out." He hoots with laughter.
We part, and I mention I'd been playing my kids his old albums in the car. "Did they like them?" Sorry, no. But you know the maxim: spare the Rod, spoil the child. "Spare the Rod, spoil the child," he laughs delightedly. "Exactly."
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