He wears it well: Rod Stewart on why he’s never been happier, his love of touring and a strange friendship
nlike his contemporaries Paul Simon and Elton John, Rod Stewart has zero intention of coming off the road. He still sounds incredulous at Elton’s plan, which he earlier described as a money-grabbing way of selling tickets — “to have a retirement tour for three years? I’ve never heard of that” — but he’s certain about his own future: “I would have to be nearly in a bloody wheelchair to retire.”
The 73-year-old rocker just released a new album, Blood Red Roses, which after two and a half decades of working his way through other people’s rock classics, soul classics and the great American songbook is his third slate of original songs in five years.
“I thought the credibility of me writing songs had disappeared,” he says. “It was one of those things that I lost a bit of interest in, and got a little lazy, but when I finished writing my book [Rod: The Autobiography, published in 2012], all the stories came flooding back. I had meetings with families and friends in the old bands and they gave me lots of things to write about.”
Musically, it raids his entire past, from Celtic-influenced folk to Seventies funk disco to those slick Eighties pop ballads, but don’t expect a return to some of his more eye-catching early lyrics. “Oh dear, terrible, yeah I know, it’s a different time, mate, it’s all gone #MeToo now.”
He says this in a slightly camped-up way. I mention Lily Allen’s recent comments about the music industry being rife with abuse of women. Has that been his experience of it? “No, listen, I’ve got to try and remember, let me think, I’ve been on tour with Stevie Nicks and Cyndi Lauper, but I haven’t really been around enough women. I’ve got six women in my band and I look after them like they’re all princesses, but I can’t answer your question. I wasn’t around, I didn’t see it, let me put it down to that.”
Stewart seems to have embraced a new sexual politics on the album’s opening track, “Look in Her Eyes”, which he says is a warning to young men not to push it with women. Does he think the Tinder generation are hung up on casual sex? “I don’t think the generations now are as much interested in sex as me and my comrades were back in the day,” he says.
Rod and women. They’re inseparable. Look at Stewart’s career through time, and it’s hard not to associate its phases with the (invariably blonde) model or actress he was dating at the time. Even the most stickto-what’s-in-the-grooves muso will have an image of the singer with Swedish actress Britt Ekland that links to 1977’s Footloose and Fancy Free (and the songs that are written about her on it), or with model Dee Harrington in the years between Every Picture Tells a Story (1971) and Atlantic Crossing (1975).
In the early days, Stewart’s relationships always seemed to end when he was OLD FLAMES: seen out with a new flame. Lost love is something of a theme on the album. “Honey Gold” is a paean to a mystery woman, with clues such as “I remember you at a rally for peace in the summer of 95”, “You even partied with the Faces” and “You’re just a country girl”. “It’s a song about a girl that I looked up to, beautiful dresser, beautiful girl,” Stewart says. “This was in the Seventies and I haven’t seen her for a while, but the last time I did see her, she looked just as gorgeous.” Stewart’s not planning to give it away, but when I wonder if it might be Joanna Lumley, whom Rod briefly dated in 1973, when he was still a member of the Faces, he laughs. “Well, you might say so, haha! Let me look into that one, I’m not saying it is and I’m not saying it’s not.” One song includes the line: “Humour before looks, works every time.” Given his own track record, does he think looks are more important for men? “[That line] works both ways round,” he says. “I mean, I’ve dated some beautiful women, I’ve had Playboy centre-spreads, and you go and talk to ‘em, and I’ve had better conversations with dining tables. Give me a woman who’s not so good looking and can make fun, talk about politics, talk about football even, over looks any day.”
Stewart didn’t write his current single, “Grace”, a cover of an Irish ballad about the real-life Grace Gifford, who married her fiance hours before he was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. That’s a rebel song, isn’t it? “If you mean it’s an IRA song, it isn’t,” he says. “They were the Irish freedom fighters then, but more importantly it’s a great love song.”
“Farewell” is about the death of a close friend, Ewan Dawson, and the lyrics trace a path back to the Sixties, when they were still paying to get into the Flamingo club in Soho (The Beatles hung out there, didn’t they? “I never saw ‘em — they were Northerners”).
“This was our time, our space, our songs and our generation,” Stewart sings. Is he proud of what his generation achieved? “Absolutely,” he says. “Everything was new... there’s a lot of crap on the radio nowadays — maybe I’m old fashioned but it’s very difficult to hear any good stuff. Whereas when we started in the Sixties, what we were doing, what the Stones were doing and the Yardbirds and the Animals, everything was new, ‘listen to this’, you know.”
Stewart was there at the start of the blues boom. He cut his first solo single in 1964, a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s innuendo-laden “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, which didn’t sell at all, then, at 19, he got a job touring with British blues pioneer Long John Baldry, and later, singing (alongside Ronnie Wood) in the Jeff Beck Group.
Stewart came out of Archway, north London, and the inflections are still there in his voice. He was the youngest of five children, a much-loved, late-life baby, conceived towards the end of the Second World War.
For a time in the Seventies, he was in the position of having a successful solo career, while still being lead singer of a great rock band. The Faces were formed out of the ashes of Sixties mod band the Small Faces (of “Lazy Sunday” and “Itchycoo Park” fame), with the addition of Stewart and his friend Ronnie Wood. The band produced some classic rock songs, such as “Stay with Me”, “Cindy Incidentally” and “Pool Hall Richard”, but tensions around Rod’s solo success meant they fell apart — with bassist Ronnie Lane walking out, then Stewart announcing to the NME that he was leaving the band. Wood, of course, subsequently joined the Rolling Stones.
The band had a reputation for hard-drinking and boisterous, sometimes ramshackle live performances. Does he miss the camaraderie? “Yeah, I love Woody but I have the same thing with the guys in my band now... having a drink, having a laugh, you know, but nothing will ever replace the Faces, they were absolutely unique and we’ve only got three of us left now (Lane, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died from pneumonia in 1997; keyboardist Ian McLagan, from a stroke, in 2014) so we better hurry and do this reunion tour.”
Rod with, from top, Britt Ekland, Alana Hamilton, Kelly Emberg and Rachel Hunter