The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Sing It Again: Rod Stewart Interviewed
Chris Roberts , October 22nd, 2015 08:46

After five decades at the top, Rod Stewart finds himself telling Chris Roberts about stage-fright and swagger, recovery from illness, disco fever, wearing too much make-up and missing his shin pads

Portraits by Penny Lancaster

I’m going to assume you know who Rod Stewart is.

He’s the singer of whom an American magazine infamously wrote, “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody. And sells more records than ever.”

I guess those losers just weren’t feeling 'Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?'

Oh Rod, with your five decades of enduring success and your place in the twenty best-selling artists of all time and your eight children by five different mothers and your estimated fortune of well over £120 million and your collections of Ferraris and Pre-Raphaelite art: where did it all go wrong?

There’s a TV interview he did in the States not long ago with Katie Couric where, almost before he’d sat down, she opened with, “Rod, this is your life”, and a giant screen showed a tacky collage of every known ex-girlfriend and wife of his, 99% of them blonde. I ask him if that was awkward.

“Aaawk-waaard!!” he says, in the exaggerated, spoof manner in which we the people of 2015 say “awkward”. He swears he didn’t know it was coming and they sprang it on him. I say I don’t believe him because the history of Rod as serial seducer is one of the bullet points of his mythology, but he’s adamant. “Aw, I was sort of flattered in a way. Y’know, I’ve done pretty well with women. Basically I’m an old softie romantic. I like to think so anyway. I haven’t made too many enemies along the road, I don’t think. Britt Ekland I might have, but that’s all right, she never has a good word to say about me. Don’t ask me why.”

It’s her birthday today.

“Is it? 74?”

73, it says in the paper.

“Huh. OK. She used to make me wear so much make-up that the band would call me 'Avon Calling'. 'Ding dong, here he comes, our singer, The Avon Lady…'”

This was after you made your mid-Seventies Atlantic crossing, and the rock fraternity who’d previously loved you turned against you because you’d gone a bit camp?

“Yeah. 'Rod Goes Hollywood.' A bit camp? It was certainly camp! It was meant to be somewhat camp, ha ha! I think I got influenced by the girlfriend at the time, Britt. She made me wear too much eye shadow and things like that. Frilly shirts. Rotten trousers. I mean, glam had been around long before, but I think I may have taken it just a step too far…”

How did you react to the flak? Did it put you off your stride?

“Yeah it did, it hurt. Because inside I was still just the same North London guy, y’know, and young – nothing had changed. I’d just moved locations. Because in those days taxation was ridiculously high. And I didn’t know how long my career was gonna last. It was the Wilson government, I think, and that chancellor… Dennis Healey… he just died, didn’t he? So, we were paying 98% in the pound. A lot of musicians left around that time. But I was tricked into it too. My then manager said: 'Look, you just go out there for a couple of months, I’ve got you an apartment, maybe write some songs.' But when I got there, he said: 'Right, here’s the deal, you’ve got to stay here for a solid year and you can’t go back to the UK.'

“But then I got used to it, and I met Britt, and the rest is history, and my kids are still growing up there. I loved it, still do. I’m a sunshine boy. I can’t deal with rain.”

Rod’s got a new album out, Another Country, his 29th, some 46 years after his first, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. It’s been a wildly buoyant career, refusing to lie down despite mockery, illness, frequent irrelevance and near-constant glorious absurdity. At seventy, Rod Stewart -a CBE, just like Philip Larkin - is held in affection as a survivor, a light entertainer, a symbol, a cartoon, a bona fide old-school superstar, a man who doesn’t pretend not to love the things most heterosexual men love, and a God-given voice which often elevates his material to heights it has little right to reach. He now, having sold an insane number of records, simultaneously straddles two demographic postcodes like a colossus: the lucrative Strictly/Loose Women/ Buble/ Groban market, and the credible Faces reunion heritage-rock terrain. The recent reissues of his old albums have rightly drawn high praise. His autobiography, Rod, was a candid, irreverent blast, and to begrudge him these golden years of his schtick, you’d have to be either a music journalist or perversely proud of that stick up your butt. Anyway, the man has lived life to full, and has stories to tell.

Meeting him in person after buying Sing It Again Rod as a 12 year old is both strange and not. He doesn’t saunter in wearing a kilt, playing keepie-ups with a football and swinging his dick like a lasso, but otherwise he is Totally Rod. Full Rod. Peak Rod. Smart leather jacket, black tie, cockerel hair. Looks twenty years younger than he is. Just like you’d expect, he puts you instantly at ease, affects no airs and graces, calls you “mate”, and takes offence at nothing. Sits on the sofa, rubs his knee. Chats away like you’re just two guys chatting away, about the important things in life: women, booze, football, music.

Actually that’s glib: he’s given up half of those and is a sentimental family man (his second eldest, Kimberley, has a four-year old daughter with Benicio Del Toro, so Rod’s a grandad). With hindsight maybe it was me that kept bringing the conversation back to women, booze, football and music. Because it’s Rod Stewart. Looking at his spectacular life, it’d be a dereliction of duty not to. Fans were never jealous of Rod’s roister-doistering ways; he was so upfront and so evidently, gleefully pleased about it all. He was the cat that got the cream, but disarmingly said, “Wow, look! Cream! Fantastic! How lucky am I? Isn’t life brilliant?”

So we talk about his life and career in chaotic order for an allocated half an hour, just two regular blokes, in a swanky London hotel that makes me feel my best shoes are cheap (they are), but which Rod could probably buy in a blink. He’s as unguarded as anyone of that stature could be. Sometimes he hangs himself. Sometimes he redeems himself. Always, he’s Rod Stewart.

“Ah, Sing It Again Rod, yeah, that had the whisky-glass cover. They don’t do sleeves like that any longer.”

They don’t make them like Rod any longer.

So you wrote most of this new album having regained your confidence with 2013’s Time, your first UK number one in 37 years? (That was a record gap in itself: his last number one was 1976’s A Night On The Town, the one with 'Tonight’s The Night', the single that stopped 'God Save The Queen' going to number one, 'The First Cut Is The Deepest' and 'The Killing Of Georgie'.)

“Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. Time got this tremendous response from fans, and that gave me encouragement. I was a little hesitant – it’d been a while, what would I write about? But I thought: be as honest as you can, and that’ll see you through. There’s a song about growing up in London after the war, and one about putting my kids to bed, and one about football, and even a reggae song.”

Do you ever think you’ve been too honest?

“Nah, my life is an open book. Always has been. I mean, everything’s in the autobiography – have you read it?”

It’s very funny. A lot of rock stars’ memoirs are cautious and boring. That one isn’t.

“Yeah, also I managed to sort out a lot of the half-truths and out-and-out lies that have been written about me. I was never a grave-digger, I just worked measuring plots. I never played for Brentford. I never had throat cancer. I didn’t! I had a nodule, a cyst, on my thyroid. And they went in and ripped it out. Now it could have been cancerous, but it was benign. Thankfully. But the press… pffft. Admittedly in my early days I might have gilded the lily, true. Might have said I was a professional footballer when in fact I just went for trials at Brentford and wasn’t good enough but I didn’t have the guts to say that to journalists. So I told them I’d decided to be a singer instead. So far from the truth!”

But the “cancer scare” in 2000 must have worried you…

“Oh I was worried, yeah. I didn’t know how it was gonna go. But see, the thyroid is nothing to do with the vocal cords, it’s a little below them I think. The only reason my voice suffered after the operation was because when they put the tubes down there it damages the vocal cords, and there’s a certain amount of memory loss when you undergo something as traumatic as that. So you have to pretty much teach your voice how to do it, all over again. Reawaken the muscle memory. I mean, it took me six months. When I got back, I got me band in the garage and belted songs out every day. One day I’d be able to go, “Wake up Maggie…”, the next day I’d manage, “Wake up Maggie I think I got something to say to you…”, and so on until I’d got the whole song. You have no idea the amount of water I have to drink to look after the voice. If I’m doing, say, three shows in three nights, I certainly can’t do interviews. The voice is closed down and you don’t talk for the whole day. You write things down on bits of paper. My kids understand it’s one of the days not to talk to Daddy.”

You appear to be in fine fettle. Age has changed. Seventy used to be crooked, grey pensioners playing bingo. Now it’s Rod Stewart looking exactly like Rod Stewart and energetically promoting a new album.

“Yeah, but I swear that’s the music business. Maybe having two young kids keeps me young and fit too. But this is a great business to be in – it occupies you, engages a good part of your mind. Just doing interviews is great – keeps me remembering stuff. And writing songs too. I think it’s when you close down the mind, that’s when the ageing process bashes you round the head.”

Funny to think rock & roll was supposed to kill off its beloved young. Now it’s the elixir of eternal adolescence…

“Ha, it’s working for me, I think. But also I am a genuine fitness fanatic. I’ve had a full-time trainer for fifteen years. I take it seriously. Only stopped playing football when I was sixty eight… sixty eight and a half, in fact.”

I love the male pride Rod takes in emphasising that extra half.

“About a year and a half ago. Aw man I miss it so much. The preparation, a good night’s sleep on Saturday nights cos I played Sunday mornings. [I miss] just getting my kit all ready. And my boots. MY SHIN PADS. Towards the end I was down to playing 35 minutes, cos my knee, after operations, was so painful. And then of course I’d have to do a concert in the evening, in Las Vegas. And I’d limp onto the stage. Literally, limp. Couldn’t get out of the dressing room. So – it had to go. Good innings though.”

Since you stopped playing, do you find watching it isn’t as much fun? Like there’s a glass wall between you and your enjoyment of it?

“Er, yeah. Sometimes I can’t even be bothered to watch my mates play. Then they’re all in the dressing room after, going, 'You shoulda done this, you shoulda done that' to each other and I feel totally out of it. And the beer comes out but you don’t wanna have a beer, do you, cos you haven’t earned it.”

You have 'The Drinking Song', a catalogue of past reckless frolics, on your new album. But you never were as much of a hedonist as people think, were you?

“Well, I drank a bit, but…”

You were never a druggie?

“I never bought any drugs. Never. We did some coke sometimes, but it was never important to me. The main reason being, again, that I was playing football twice a week, and you just can’t go on the field the morning after a skinfull of that. Well, I couldn’t, personally. I’ve just never been a real druggie person. But I still like my wine every evening.”

Every evening, still?

“Every night. I’ll have two glasses, maybe three. I can’t have a glass of water or a Coca Cola with my food. It’s a European thing, ha ha!”

Back in The Faces’ touring days you drank like a fish though, right?

“Yeah we all did. Basically we were a band with no confidence, that’s why we turned to the alcohol. It was the booze that made us do it.”

It gave you your swagger?

“There was a lot of swagger going on in the dressing room beforehand. We all used to drink Mateus Rose. I think we put that on the map, with that funny-shaped bottle, y’know? We’d see how drunk we could get, routinely, because we wouldn’t have been able to play otherwise. There’d be an unspoken limit. 'Are we all jolly now? Yes? We’re all quite jolly? Right, let’s go on.' And the audience took that on board as well, they were on the same level.”

So the song is true?

“Every line. Except about getting tattoos: in fact I got my tattoos done when my dad passed on. I got a Scottish lion and a Scottish thistle in remembrance of him – I wasn’t drunk. But a lot of mates have got regrettable tattoos while drunk, like you do. And yeah the bit about all of us walking into a hotel in our underpants is true. Well we’d just done a gig in Paris and were getting changed on the bus afterwards and thought: let’s see what happens if we all just walk through the lobby like this.”

Luckily people didn’t have camera-phones then.

“I wish they did, mate. I’d have liked to have seen what it looked like.”

Does Beverly Hills feel like home now? Or does a part of you pine for (his birthplace) Highgate? (I’m being funny, his big UK house is in Epping. He’s too much of a showbiz pro to diss our island.)

“LA and here are both home. Y’know, my children are in LA and that’s the centre of activities, I guess. But I come here on holidays, or in this case to promote this album…”

Now and again Rod makes game attempts to get us back onto the new album. I’m too wilfully obtuse to pick that up. I don’t want to talk about his reggae song. He isn’t that bothered. He asks me if I’ve got kids, and when I say no, he mutters, reflectively rather than unkindly, “Ah, so you wouldn’t understand…” He describes how the new song 'Batman Superman Spiderman' is about tucking his youngest son into bed and telling him bedtime stories. I remark that you can trace the evolution of his lyrics across his career from party animal to (another new song) 'Can We Stay Home Tonight?'

“Yeah, well, that’s progression for you”, he shrugs. I am being schooled in growing up with dignity by Rod Stewart.

I guess your fans have grown up in parallel to you, graduating from carefree irresponsibility to what’s generally referred to as something meaningful.

“That’s the best way. If you can do it. I just like to write stories, with a beginning a middle and an end. When I sing the Great American Songbook, I’m riding on someone else’s extremely broad shoulders. But writing honestly about my life, I’m my own guide. There’s no comparison.”

Do you think your fans (unlike, say, Bowie’s) think: He's an Everyman, he’s not that different to me?

“Maybe. I mean, c’mon, I don’t write particularly complicated lyrics. They’re pretty easy to understand and to get. But then the voice I’m fortunate enough to be given is what probably makes them sound more important than they are.”

It does give them a gravitas.

“Gravitas”, he echoes, amused. For some reason he finds this word mildly hilarious.

Do you ever ponder how different your life would have been without what Leonard Cohen called the gift of a golden voice?

“Not a day goes by”, he says, suddenly serious. “Not a day goes by. And the single act of being in the right place at the right time, sitting there playing harmonica on Twickenham railway station when Long John (Baldry) discovered me and gave me my first job. Y’know, if I’d got the train before or after that one, who knows?”

Is it true that you had terrible stage fright early on, with The Jeff Beck Group?

“Yeah, yeah, well, the reason was I’d never been to the Americas. So in my young mind New York City and LA were full of cool black people who all had really great voices and could sing me under the carpet. So when we were supporting The Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East, the first show with that group, I said, 'I cannot go out there. I feel like I’m a pretender. An imposter.' They all said, 'C’mon, c’mon…' So the curtain went up and I started singing crouching behind the amps. Eventually I stuck my head over the parapet, over the top of the amps, and thought: 'Shit! They’re all hippies!' Ha ha, well it was a Grateful Dead crowd. So that was it, I strolled out and sang away.”

And you hated music lessons at school, didn’t you?

“I’d had a teacher called Mr. Wainwright, who’d pick on me. 'Stewart! Come up here and sing a hymn!' And he’d hit people. It was terrible, he was terrifying to me at that age. So I’d get out of music lessons by being sick, or pretending to be sick by making fake sick in a dish with my mate and showing it to the teachers. It’s funny how I remember his name still. Bully must’ve left a big impression. Y’know those big blackboard dusters? He used to throw them at me. And bits of chalk, from twenty feet away. He could’ve blinded me! Couldn’t get away with that now. They can’t touch kids any more, can they?”

I try to get Rod talking about some of his best old lyrics. I quote the couplet from 'The Killing Of Georgie' which goes, “Youth’s a mask and it don’t last/ Live it long and live it fast”. He joins in halfway through, which is something I enjoy. I say: That’s a great line, that’s like the very essence of the “rock lifestyle”. Then I say: It’s like Oscar Wilde! Rod makes a noise indicating modesty that goes, “Tchah.”

“True story, that”, he adds, deflecting.

It was quite bold for its day, too.

“Ooh, bold!” he says, in a fruity Dick Emery voice. I don’t know why he does that. “Yeah it was. The BBC refused to play it because it had the word “gay” in it. And yet there I was a few weeks ago, singing it at Hyde Park, on the BBC. Ha ha. Funny old life.”

My other favourite is the finale of 'I Was Only Joking' (from 1977’s Footloose And Fancy Free), which goes, “Quietly now while I turn the page/ Act One is over without costume change/ The principal would like to leave the stage/ The crowd don’t understand.” That seemed so powerfully out of character for you then, as if you were confessing dissatisfaction with the carousel of fame, with the effort of Being Rod Stewart.

Again, Rod, being male, being Rod, deflects. “HE’S IN PAIN!!!” he wails, in a mock over-the-top Brian Blessed voice.

I have to scale this back. I’m not talking to Morrissey. So you were just having a bad day?

“No no no, you’re [just] looking for a bit of poignancy in a song, I guess. So, I mean, that was a good day! You don’t have to be miserable to write sad songs, and you don’t have to be in love to write a love song. I just try to connect with that frame of mind.

“We did 'I Was Only Joking' as the last song at Hyde Park. So it ended with that 'leave the stage' line, which was spot on. Jim Cregan my old mate came up to play the solo on it, then we both got down on our knees for that ending. As I was singing that line, I thought: Christ, I’d better help him up, he’s an old age pensioner, ha ha. This was a few weeks ago. There were sixty thousand there.”

I’m now rambling about 'You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything', and Rod talks about playing that at the recent Faces reunion. I’m pressing him on individual couplets like a nerd. He’s trying his best, but, y’know.

“I can’t remember specific [details]. I mean, at that time if I was writing lyrics, I’d be racing, let’s get this done, because I had to do so many other things. I didn’t want to be locked in a room too long writing lyrics.”

I say the wrong thing. So you’re telling me one of the great moments of rock that swings was a rush job?

“No no no – not a rush job. No mate. Lyrics would never get used if they weren’t as good as I thought I could get them. It’s just that the others were all out having a good time, and I’d be stuck at home or in a hotel room writing these lyrics. It didn’t seem fair!”

While your solo career was taking off and The Faces were ongoing, you had a hell of a work load.

“I did. I was making two albums a year. That was probably what started the break-up of The Faces, yeah. When I joined the band I’d just signed a solo deal with Mercury, which I made the band fully aware of. And they were perfectly OK with that. Until 'Maggie May' became a hit, and then of course it became 'Rod Stewart And The Faces', which pissed some of ‘em off. Well, it pissed me off as well. I’ve said this a million times – I would’ve stayed in the band forever.”

But it was changing beyond your control anyway.

“Yeah, we’d lost the soul of the band when Ronnie Lane left to go and do his gypsy tour around Britain. And once we lost Ronnie, then I think the other Ronnie (Wood) was always gonna join The Stones eventually. But hey, they were five hilarious years.”

And the recent reunion was fun?

“It was good. There’s something about The Faces – even though there’s only three of us left, it still exists. Which means its heart must be located between the drums and the guitars. It floats along, never too sure if it’s gonna sink or swim. We started one number and it was all out of time so I made them stop because, y’know, people have paid good money here. Ronnie said, “Well OK, we will start it again, but it’ll be exactly the same.” And that was the spirit of The Faces.”

Briefly, you were also the spirit of disco. 'Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?' got more stick than even you were used to circa ’78 and the Blondes Have More Fun album. But today it is recalled by most with nothing but love.

“That and a few other songs seem to sum up that whole disco era now. People love it. I do it every night. They absolutely love it, so I had the last laugh. It’s not about me. It’s a character in a story.”

Were you into the disco scene at the time? Did you go dancing?

“Yeah! Who wasn’t? I mean the Bee Gees made that great hot album. What was it called?”

Saturday Night Fever? (Main Course is better, but I’m guessing Rod’s thinking of this one).

“Yeah. Amazing. And 'Native New Yorker' by Odyssey, and Chic - [both] great bands. A period of music that was wonderful. Disco, punk. '[The idea that] you can’t like both.' Why not? Nothing wrong with liking both.”

It was a phoney war.

“Punk was good for all of us though. People in the audience thought: 'Oh I could do that! Bloke up there’s only got two chords, I can do that.' It made it accessible. I like to think people thought that with The Faces as well. Regular guys thought: I could be in that band. They’re not doing anything I can’t do.”

On the subject of his covers of Tom Waits’ 'Downtown Train' and 'Tom Traubert’s Blues', Rod says, “Tom says I put a swimming pool in his house with those.”

When you interpret other songs, do you study the original, or just do your thing?

“I never study the original, no. When I first heard 'Downtown Train' I knew there was a melody there that he nearly had. That he didn’t quite get. So I just pushed the melody.” (If this sounds arrogant, it’s also entirely accurate.) “It’s a great song. Tom’s one of the all-time wonderful lyricists, he really is. Wow, so clever. Paints vivid pictures with his words. That’s something I don’t do, I’m just an everyday story-teller.”

We talk more about football – he’s genuinely knowledgeable about the Scotland team (“Strachan’s a good mate of mine”) – and when I laugh that we should change the subject, he goes, “No, it’s good mate, I love it." Somehow I find myself telling him that, as kids, my friends and I thought that, as “playboy” role models went, George Best and Rod Stewart were much cooler than James Bond.

“Pffft”, he chuckles. “Oh George though, what a player. What a sweetheart. Found some great pictures of him the other day, cos I’m moving house in the UK. Y’know how you find stuff that’s been in drawers and boxes for years? Some wonderful pictures of me and him, kicking around together when I first went to LA in ’75.”

You mean knocking about together, or kicking a ball around?

“Yeah, kicking a ball around, yeah.”

Were you drinking buddies?

“No, no, not at all. Any time I was with George I was never in a pub with him. He came to concerts, I went to games…”

Your paths from there went dramatically different ways. Yours happily, his tragically…

“Yes. They did. Well I think I was always more in control of my life than he was of his. Sadly as an athlete you’re only as good as your body is. Whereas I can keep going and going and going. As long as I look after my voice. Which I do.”

Rod Stewart claps his hands and shifts in his seat to signify that our bonding session has run its course. “All right mate”, he says. “Better get on. One more and I’m done for the day.” I tell him his hair looks great.

“It’s still in place. It’s still there.”

Do you keep it like that now because you like it, or because you kind of have to?

“Well I keep it because I don’t want to be bald. Ha ha, that’s a funny question, you should listen to that back afterwards. But it won’t lay down now, it’s there for the rest of my life. To my dying day, it’ll still be sticking up in the air.”

Another Country is out on October 30