He wears it well: Rod Ste­wart on why he’s never been hap­pier, his love of tour­ing and a strange friend­ship

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

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.”

Har­vey Chris

Rod with, from top, Britt Ek­land, Alana Hamil­ton, Kelly Em­berg and Rachel Hunter

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