Rod Stewart: The Billboard Cover Story
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
Rod Stewart does not disappoint-even his driveway befits a rock star. Actually, it's a gated road, and it sprawls uphill toward a chateau-like Beverly Hills manse, its considerable expanse lined with classical statuary, burbling fountains, artfully manicured foliage and impossibly blooming flowers. It's the landscape-architecture equivalent of Stewart's trademark spiky 'do-carefully maintained, not one leaf out of place.
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Upon reaching Celtic House-a compound of lavish structures named in honor of Glasgow's Celtic Football Club, one of Stewart's many loves-the dazzle continues: ornate crown mouldings, Corinthian columns and, everywhere one looks, massive Pre-Raphaelite paintings of cherubim. In his riotous 2012 memoir "Rod: The Autobiography"-which hit No. 4 on the New York Times' Best Sellers list-Stewart notes that when he has trouble sleeping, he counts his paintings: "Normally, by the time I get up to about 130, I'm ready to go off."
Rigorous in its recall of Stewart's life and four-plus decades as one of rock's most flamboyantly entertaining frontmen, "Rod: The Autobiography" stood out from the pack of last year's rock memoirs as both funnier and more revealing than any other-although much of what it revealed was a man who seems to have spent much of his life tippling in the pub with his best mates, or in bed with a model (preferably the blonde variety). Meeting Stewart in the flesh, though, it's impossible to resent the gent's good fortune. Quite the opposite-the way his charisma fills and transforms the space around him, one ends up feeling you're sharing in it.
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Having just finished tea time, the trim 68-year-old ambles into the workout area adjoining his Astroturf soccer pitch, dominated by an enormous green Celtic logo. (He prefers the regulation-size field at his U.K. estate covered in actual grass, which gardeners trim with scissors to keep in championship shape.) His decadent lifestyle doesn't seem to have aged him-if anything, it's the reverse: It feels as though a few pounds and some lines in the face are the only thing separating the man in front of you from the Rod Stewart whose honey-and-gravel vocals, scarves and restless passions-artistic, erotic and economic-defined rock stardom in the '70s.
Stewart accentuates his youthful vibe with the pink, gray and black pinstriped blazer he's sporting, a clear nod to the figure he cut as "Rod the Mod" in swinging London. Back then, starting in 1964, he emerged as less a full-born rock star than a 19-year-old learning his craft, still living with his parents, and saving any spare quid to buy his first sports car. "This jacket could've come from [London mod-fashion hotspot] Carnaby Street then," he says, settling into a plush couch. "Oh, God, how I used to walk down Carnaby, wishing I had a few more pounds to buy that jacket, that sweater. Now, I have a wardrobe that would fill this room."
During the next hour, Stewart unspools an array of self-Âdeprecating anecdotes, delivered with a crooked grin, a voice flecked with whiskey smoke and a soupçon of syntax belying his Cockney roots (he frequently replaces "my" with "me"). He ranges through all areas of his life, from fatherhood (he's spawned a brood of eight) and the joys of his third marriage to Penny Lancaster-Stewart (he's faithful, but making as much love as ever) to career milestones (like nearly blowing the Jeff Beck Group's New York debut back in '68 due to nerves).
If Stewart seems particularly reflective, there's a reason: His various mythologies and eras have been brought together on his upcoming album, Time, due May 7 on Capitol. It contains the first songs Stewart's written since his 1998 album, When We Were the New Boys. A unique amalgamation, Time combines contemporary production with the rootsy instrumentation and confessional storytelling that turned Stewart into a megastar with his 1971 breakout LP, Every Picture Tells a Story. The mandolins and fiddles embroidering Time's "Live the Life" indeed evoke his first Billboard No. 1, "Maggie May"-even before his voice kicks in, you know it's a Rod Stewart song. "I am a bit of a folkie," he admits. "That's what got me started: Acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles were my first love.
This album wasn't meant to be a breakthrough. I'm just doing what I do best.
"The record reminded me of 'Maggie May,' and discovering Rod in my youth-it's very reminiscent of that era," Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett says. "To have one of the great artists of that generation, with his history, write a record that's so clearly important to him, who wouldn't want to be a part of that?"
True to its title, Stewart's new album traverses his four-and-a-half-decade career in sound and subject. There's a charging guitar rocker, "Finest Woman," that recalls the string of albums he cut with the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces from 1968 to 1973, defining the sound of the '70s in the process. (Stewart and Beck's partnership beat Led Zeppelin to super-charged heavy blues by a year, while the Faces beat the Stones to boozy shambolic boogie by two.) The dancefloor-driven boudoir groove of "Sexual Religion" even evokes a spiritual twist on Stewart's 1978 disco-tinged chart-topper, "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"
While "Sexual Religion" reinforces Stewart's enduring eroticism, much of Time exposes the vulnerabilities underneath his rock-god exterior. It's disarming to hear Stewart sing everyman lines like "I'm a stubborn kinda fella, never thought this could happen to me/I could smoke and drink and gamble just as I pleased/Now I'm working out daily and watching my waistline" on "She Makes Me Happy." Even Time's sole cover-"Picture in a Frame," by Tom Waits-holds a deep personal meaning.
Waits has proved an unlikely muse for Stewart. His 1989 cover of Waits' "Downtown Train"-a new track on the four-CD retrospective Storyteller-hit No. 3 on the Hot 100, ushering in an era of artistic rebirth; his version of another Waits song, "Tom Traubert's Blues," proved another high point during the '90s. "'Downtown Train' bought Tom Waits a swimming pool, and 'Picture in a Frame' will pay for a new roof on his house," Stewart says with a laugh. "Really, I can't say enough about Tom-he has such great imagery, which is an area in which I could do a bit better. I recorded 'Picture' because it has special significance for Penny and I. We broke up for a little while after we first got together. As we parted, I asked Penny, 'Do you think you could leave me a picture of yourself?' I then put it in a frame beside my bed. As a result, that song has a lot of meaning for us."
NEXT PAGE: Breaking the Writer's Block
He recounts that inspiration in great detail in "Rod: The Autobiography," a book that reveals his deep connection with his family, as well as with more than a handful of women (he generously acknowledges most deserved better than he gave them), and revels in countless yarns from a life he calls "a long luxury aircraft ride." One of the many stories seemingly honed to perfection in the pub is Stewart's hilarious and terrifying account of helping an armed but hapless carjacker who couldn't start the tricky ignition of his Porsche.
Stewart also talks about musical turning points, from the day Bob Dylan transformed his life to how he almost left hits like "Maggie May" and "Forever Young" on the junk pile. And he dispels some of the myths that followed his rise to fame. No, he didn't really almost become a professional soccer player (exaggerated, not least by Stewart's footie-obsessed father), and yes, he addresses that thing you've heard about a dalliance with a ship full of sailors in San Diego. "The book is very personal, especially the story about the semen and pumping my stomach and all that," he says. "When Howard Stern interviews me, he's going to have a field day with that."
According to Stewart, his new album's retrospection stems from the process of putting together his memoir, which broke a writer's block that kept him from penning new songs for nearly 15 years. "Something clicked, and I realized I had things to write about again," he writes in the final chapter. "A whole life's worth of topics, in fact." The first song emerged during an impromptu 2010 writing session with longtime sideman Jim Cregan. "He's my annoying mate I've known all me life," Stewart says with a smile. "He'd always bring his guitar around, pestering me with his chords."
The result was semi-autobiographical ballad "Brighton Beach," which documents a '60s-era beatnik tryst on the English coast. "I'm most at home when telling a story, whether fictitious or not," Stewart says. Next came the surprisingly frank "It's Over": Set to the signature blend of folk, country and blues that defined his early solo efforts, it's an ode "about divorce and separation," Stewart writes. "Something, as we may have discovered in these pages, I know something about."
"I think it's admirable to be personal on a record, but I didn't sit down to write a song about divorce," he says today. "I don't think I've really given anything away."
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