December 20, 2012


A mini-odyssey through rock biographies

by Rod Stewart
378 pages, Century

Review by Pat Black

If you’ve been to a big football match in Scotland in the past thirty-five years, the chances are Rod Stewart was there, too. Rod was born in London during the Blitz, but his father was Scottish, and the old Stewart clan ties are strong: Rod can’t keep away from all things Caledonian.

When it comes to matey, blokey stuff like going to watch the football, getting bladdered and having a big song-song later, Rod’s cornered the market. And if Rod appeals to the blokes, well, he has been known to appeal to the ladies as well.

One thing’s for sure; back in the day, if a blonde, long-legged lady should stroll across Rod’s path, the football and the pranks and the gruff manly laughter would go in the bin, and he’d be off after her.

This curious mix of rough n’ ready, matey larks and his at times pathological adoration and pursuit of women is apparent in this autobiography, a leisurely jaunt through Rod’s life and times from a long-haired Carnaby Street wannabe in the early 60s to the stadium tours and elephantine record sales of today.

The elements are all there; the youngest of five, Rod benefited from the tough love and camaraderie of his father and older brothers, desperate to join them on the football pitch. He doesn’t quite mention his older sisters having so much of an influence, but I would bet that they did. Image and appearance was important for Rod, even before the singing. 

As he grew and the 1960s started getting into gear, Rod turned into a bit of a scenester. He discovered Dylan, went “hippy” and joined ban-the-bomb marches (it’s on one of these foetid camp-outs that he met the lady who would inspire Maggie May), eschewing soap and water simply to fit in. Then he went the opposite direction, going all Mod – smart as a new pin, fabulous shoes, Savile Row suits, the lot. And don’t forget the hair.

It’s during this period that British bluesman Long John Baldry discovered him playing the mouth organ at a London train station late at night, and gave him a spot as backing singer in his band. Just like that, Rod was on his way.

When I was a kid, playing my guitar and wanting to start bands and what have you – so terribly serious about it all! – it frustrated me that I didn’t have time to practise as much as I’d like; to “get good”, as Bill and Ted would put it. Knowing what I know now about certain major recording artists – the Beatles, and Rod, here – it would seem that these guys were exactly the same. The difference was, they got out there and got into it, they learned on the job and made their mistakes as they went along, instead of sitting in bedrooms, fretting over the most complicated chord changes in the book. 

It’s long been stated that the John Lennon of skiffle band days in his teens did not actually know how to play the guitar. Ignoring the not inconsiderable question of his natural talent, which I completely lack, it seems that Rod, similarly, didn’t know what he was doing when he started. He had a mouth organ and could blow a few notes, but he couldn’t suck any… No-one had told the young Rod how to play the instrument properly. But he bluffed it out and got away with it. What an absolute chancer!

But still, he wasn’t just mouth and trousers. Rod has a voice – one of the most distinctive in the world, a natural gift that he used to the full. It’s this, as well as large dollops of charm and chutzpah, that allowed him to ease into other bands after adventures on the road with Long John Baldry. His big break came with another very serious man with a guitar, Jeff Beck. There are many laughs to be had when, after playing breakthrough shows in the States with The Jeff Beck Group, people would come over to Rod and go, “Great show, Jeff!” One hardly has to imagine Beck’s scowl.

But it was with a less serious man with a guitar that Rod formed a lasting bond. Ronnie Wood and Rod formed the Faces with the remnants of the Small Faces (I always wanted to start a covers band of the latter called the Small Faeces, but sadly this never came to fruition). These two formed an intense fraternity that continues today. Even before playing music together, they started off admiring each other’s clothes and hair in clubs. Even consider the names – Ron and Rod. They’re comic strip characters, a pair of ragamuffin brothers always getting into scrapes. 

They are very similar in appearance, apart from the colour of their hair – the cheekbones, haircuts, twinkly eyes and, of course, gigantic beaks. Their affinity has echoes of the mirror of Narcissus. There’s a touching moment where Rod admits that they used to do each other’s barnets, each trusting the other implicitly to ensure they were perfectly groomed before concerts. Although the pair were notorious pranksters, and the opportunity for lifetime-lasting pre-show humiliation was available here at a shake of the scissors, they were deadly serious about making each other’s hair look as beautiful as possible. It puts me in mind of a documentary I saw about veteran British rockers Status Quo, where frontmen Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi had a ritual of getting ready at the same time; they moved in tandem, mirroring each other unconsciously, even down to the number of brush strokes they would put through their hair, perfectly in time.

Anyone scrambling for a homoerotic subtext to this closeness misses out on the idea of comradeship and brotherly love. But it’s true that Stewart, in some of his outfit choices if not his demeanour, was as fey as Jagger in his time. Again, alongside the earthy charm, there’s a sensitive, vain, almost effeminate side, a curious blend that was irresistible to women.

What I will say is that there’s only one moment of pure jealousy Rod admits to in this book, and that’s when he confronts Mick Jagger at a nightclub. “Are you going to steal Ronnie Wood for the Rolling Stones?” “I’d never do a thing like that,” Jagger replies, without blushing.

As well as the singing and football, Rod is famous for bonking. While he may cringe a little at the sight of his bum bobbling around for the video to Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, he is less embarrassed about it bobbling around the world in service of any number of blondes. Whether it was on the road with the Faces, or during his rise to megastardom as a solo artist, Rod is candid that there followed “scenes of a sexual nature”.

Rod’s long-term love affairs were intense, and he went to great lengths to charm the pants off his quarries, no matter what time or expense was involved. It must have been astonishing for these ladies in question, whether they were famous or not; imagine a rock star, sending dozens of red roses wherever you go, jumping in a private jet at the drop of a hat, hiring yachts in the tropics for weekend breaks. It must have been hard to resist, and indeed it was. Not many escaped Rod’s rod in the 1970s.

And yet, for all the book is rich and ribald in its details of his picaresque lifestyle, Rod’s behaviour was sometimes appalling. No sooner had he got what he wanted (including Britt Ekland), it seems that the younger Rod’s eye drifted immediately – even after babies were born to some of his partners.

This, then, is the true insight into the world of the rich, famous and powerful rock star: do what thou wilt.

Rod would think very little of leaving the missus back home in London and going on little adventures to far-flung places including Australia and New York, picking up models he was obsessed with, shagging them, being caught in the press, and then going home to “face the music”. In one memorable episode, Rod tries to separate himself and his paramour on a Concorde flight in order to avoid a stramash with the paparazzi on his return to London, only to turn around and see that the girl was sat beside Rupert Murdoch. Nae luck!

He does accept that this behaviour was indefensible and must have caused intense psychological pain. A dalliance with Kelly Le Brock almost under the very nose of Kelly Emberg is particularly breathtaking. Later, when he admits to cheating on his pregnant partner, he admits: “This was the behaviour of an arsehole.”

That said, Rod does write one of the all-time great love letters, in the form of a telegram dispatched to Britt Ekland, composed when he was feeling lonely while she was filming abroad. “I’m fed up pulling me plonker. Please come home.”

In the late 80s and early in 1990, a newly single Rod’s behaviour tallied with that of the court of Caligula. When shooting the video for It Takes Two in Cannes with Tina Turner, Rod hired out a villa and had a “long hot summer”, where basically his mate and himself would make phone calls and bring out whatever model they fancied. Details are not gone into, but are easy to imagine.

The drugs admissions are there, too – Rod liked cocaine. It’s almost a shame to put Rod’s superb nasal instrument to waste in this regard, but after Ronnie Wood showed him clear daylight coming through his septum one afternoon, the pair followed the “French method” of taking cocaine – rectally. Rod says he doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore, but there is a weird section where he details getting a bit silly with steroids, in order to protect his voice, which would fail him on several alarming occasions later in his career. It’s hard to imagine a ‘roid raging Rod Stewart, but he assures us it all happened.

We all slow down a bit – even Rod. Well into his forties, he became obsessed with Rachel Hunter, a 21-year-old Kiwi model who ticked all his boxes (long legs, blonde). After a four-month romance, the pair were married in December 1990. For the first time, Rod was properly serious; he wanted the kids and family thing. He says he was never unfaithful to her.

And yet Rachel Hunter did the unthinkable. After eight years of marriage, and bearing him a couple of children into the bargain, she left him.

This was the great tragedy of his life, and had probably never happened to him before. Here, at last, the horror of the broken heart that he used to sing about so beautifully. We are treated to the incredible image of Rod Stewart reading self-help books, going for therapy and lying on the couch watching daytime TV in his big empty house in Los Angeles, a hot water bottle clutched to his chest, listless and devastated.

Rod’s since found wedded bliss, and even more children, with Penny Lancaster, another lady with very familiar attributes. A cancer scare came and went for Rod, which he seems to have ridden out with his usual immense good fortune. A malignant tumour on his thyroid was completely cleared up through surgery within weeks of discovery without need for chemotherapy, thus preserving his sacred locks, and sparing him his voice. The book strikes a fine note to finish on, looking forward to another year of touring and recording, as well as some big football games coming up. On top of this, there’s an over-arching feeling of well-being and gratitude for Penny and all the children he has in his life. So far, so good, eh?

The book’s style has that same twinkle and up-for-a-carry-on swagger which charmed millions of people on the stage. The “Digression” chapters were among the best, in particular the ones detailing his obsession with model railways (which he shares with Neil Young, the subject of the next entry in this series), fast cars (he had to help one fellow steal his Porsche after the thief couldn’t get it started) and of course football. In the latter I learned for the first time that Rod was on the pitch at Wembley with the Tartan Army after Scotland beat England 2-1 in the Lion’s den – the famous day when fair Caledonia’s fans invaded the sacred turf and tore down the goalposts, an iconic punk rock moment in the summer of 1977. There’s an incredible photo of Rod being carried shoulder-high on the Wembley pitch. He says that when he rejoined his father in the stands, he discovered that his Cartier watch was missing. But once the story got to the press, the watch turned up in the post, unharmed.

This is probably one of the best rock star autobiographies I’ve ever read, and doesn’t seem to have been ghosted. Although his editor, the journalist Giles Smith, was possibly a factor in the flow of the prose, the voice is unmistakably Rod's. Whether you’re a fan, insatiably curious, or even if you simply want to be shocked at the antics of a rock star in his pomp, this is well worth a read.

In these days of easy-access online music and more and more diffuse musical platforms, is this a story of a fading era? It’s quite telling that there are comparatively few modern band-based male megastars in the music world. In Rod’s day, he was vying with his pal Elton John and David Bowie, as well as bands like Queen, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who… That sense of rock royalty, the old stagers of white boy British rock and their unlimited excess, appears to have gone. It’s telling that these dinosaurs are mostly still here, in rude health into their late sixties and seventies, still at the top. Who is the next Rod Stewart - Michael Buble? Bruno Mars?

Rock star behaviour will never go out of fashion, though. As Rod says: if you were a millionaire, world famous, with women falling at your feet wherever you go, would you behave any differently? A very serious question.

I’d add a rhetorical one: have you ever wished it was you?

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