Rod Stewart - The Billboard Cover Story: "The Next Chapter"

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.

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.

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-deprecating anecdotes, delivered with a crooked grin, a voice flecked with whiskey smoke and a soupcon 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. But 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."

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."

"Time" delves deepest into Stewart's past on the rousing "Can't Stop Me Now," a career overview that recounts the first time the "record company man" told him, "We can't sign you, son/'Cause you don't fit the mold/With your hair and your nose/And your clothes." It wasn't the last time Stewart would have a dispiriting conversation with a music-industry executive.

According to Arnold Stiefel, Stewart's manager of three decades, his creative dry spell stemmed from a label bigwig "telling him around 18 years ago that what he was doing wasn't good enough. Rod always felt that was the moment after which he couldn't write anymore." Stewart himself felt the pressure as the years passed: "There hasn't been much success with people in my age group and genre when it comes to new material."

Ironically, however, Stewart's inability to come up with new songs resulted in, as he claims in "Rod: The Autobiography," "the most commercially successful decade of my entire life." Creatively stuck at the dawn of the millennium, Stewart returned to a conversation he and Stiefel had had nearly 20 years earlier. "In 1983, I'd just become Rod's manager," Stiefel says. "We were having dinner, and he said, 'I'd like to record some songs I grew up hearing--all gay things you like, like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.' At the time, I thought it was an awful idea. Rod was dealing with a backlash from his core male fans for abandoning his street-troubadour persona for disco and Hollywood. I said, 'Let's put that away and come back to it.'"

That's exactly what they did following the commercial and critical nadir of Stewart's 2001 album, "Human." The first of his solo releases to not feature one original song, "Human" peaked at No. 50 on the Billboard 200-"Rod's lowest chart entry ever," Stiefel says--and has sold only 244,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. To reclaim his mojo, Stewart worked up a few versions of pop standards with producer Richard Perry, the results not exactly inspiring a bidding war. "It was like when all the movie studios passed on 'Star Wars,'" Stiefel recalls. "I presented the tracks to Val Azzoli at Atlantic, and he said, 'Absolutely not.' Then I took it to Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker at DreamWorks. That seemed the right thing to do, as they'd been at Warner Bros. during Rod's amazing time there. They told me it was a career killer. The only person who understood was Clive Davis. He knew how to make an event out of Rod performing these great songs written in the '30s, '40s and '50s."

Davis immediately signed Stewart to his J Records label. "I loved the concept--that inimitable voice recording classic copyrights," Davis says. "It wasn't imposed on Rod as a commercial contrivance, but was organic within him: He'd grown up with these songs. We started from scratch with the choice of repertoire, the arrangements. I told Rod they should have the movement of Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers]. It was very collaborative, right from the beginning, with Rod Stewart as the centerpiece, making sure the bar was never lowered." The result was the five-volume "Great American Songbook" series. "Those records opened Rod up to an additional audience, and showed how long a great career can last," Davis says. "They really grew into a franchise and phenomenon."

No kidding. The first four, released yearly from 2002 to 2005, have sold more than 9 million units, with the first moving 3.3 million, and the second 2.8 million. (Only 2010's fifth--and arguably best--volume, "Fly Me to the Moon...," failed to break a million.) Even more surprising, considering his treasure chest of era-defining hits, the series' third release, "Stardust," provided the sole Grammy Award win in Stewart's career--the 2005 statuette for best traditional pop vocal album. "If all you had to do was record the Great American Songbook, many artists would've already done it," Davis says. "Others tried, before and after, but they didn't create that magic that Rod did."

Stewart had hit on a formula that eluded his contemporaries, most of whom relied on touring revenue as their album sales dwindled. And a formula it was, sustaining not just five volumes of "Great American Songbook," but 2006's "Still the Same...Great Rock Classics of Our Time" and 2009's "Soulbook" (which paired Stewart with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Mary J. Blige on a set of R&B classics). "It was a sleeper candidate," Davis says. "The success did not happen from airplay or a radio hit--the way albums traditionally make a mark. We created a word-of-mouth experience, marketed through unorthodox procedures--television, restaurants, boutiques. And everyone who heard it bought it."

"I thoroughly enjoyed [doing] 'Great American Songbook,' I really did, but that's finished now," Stewart says. That period came to its natural conclusion when Stiefel began shopping six new Stewart originals that provided the basis for "Time"'s creation. "I didn't like at all the offer [that J Records parent company] Sony made to keep Rod," Stiefel says. "When I played the songs for [Universal Music Group chairman/CEO] Lucian Grainge, though, he melted."

UMG, however, wanted to release a Christmas album first. "As Rod now had two young children, the idea of a holiday release appealed to him," Stiefel says. And it continued the "Great American Songbook" trick of applying Stewart's rock-tinged vocals to familiar chestnuts. The David Foster-produced "Merry Christmas, Baby" entered the Billboard 200 at No. 3 and has sold 863,000 copies, according to SoundScan. (It also provided Stewart and Universal with a catalog perennial that will heat up every holiday season.) When Billboard tallied 2012 earnings earlier this year for its annual Moneymakers list, Billboard estimated that Stewart took home $6.5 million--and uniquely among artists age 60 or older, a healthy 45% of his earnings (or $2.9 million) came from album and track sales.

"Merry Christmas, Baby" was released on Verve, but "Time" would find a home with Universal's new addition, Capitol Music Group. Stiefel sees it in part as a response to selling off Parlophone's assets as a result of UMG's acquisition of EMI. "At the time, they were losing artists like Coldplay and David Guetta, and Steve Barnett wanted to make his mark," he says. "Capitol's proved to be really good at radio with artists like Katy Perry, but more important was how much Steve wanted to do it. This is uncharted territory: How does an iconic artist put out a new, self-written, self-produced album when no one over 40 is selling?"

"A record like this is not a sprint, but a marathon," Barnett says. "But we have a great, multitrack, global plan spanning different formats." Stewart may be a heritage artist, but his promotion and marketing remain contemporary. "Merry Christmas, Baby" debuted in a presale on shopping network HSN, which Stiefel claims moved 30,000 additional units in the album's crucial first week. He estimates a Starbucks partnership contributed another 100,000 sales. The campaign for "Time" is no less resourceful: The paperback edition of "Rod: The Autobiography" goes on sale the same day as "Time"'s release, and Stiefel cites a Mother's Day promotion with 1-800-Flowers packaging vinyl and CD copies of "Time" together with flowers and a copy of Stewart's book. Barnett points out that Capitol will simultaneously work traditional radio outlets (two NPR concerts are planned) along with extensive digital strategies: a private concert held April 25 at Los Angeles' legendary Troubadour nightclub was broadcast on the Internet and promoted through a ­social-media contest flying winners to the event from around the world. As well, in less than a month, Stewart has gained more than 1 million followers on Facebook, with complementary efforts on Instagram and Twitter. "Rod's tweets are great--but a year ago, he didn't know what those things were," Stiefel says.

Stewart will also return to the live arena--always a strong suit. (He set a record for the largest-ever concert audience with a 3.5 million-strong crowd in Rio de Janeiro in 1994.) In July, Stewart will extend for two more years his successful Las Vegas residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, the AEG-run venue home to superstar mega-shows from the likes of Celine Dion, Elton John and Shania Twain. "Getting up onstage, that's what I'm meant to do," Stewart says. "I love it. The acoustics are perfect at Caesars, and there are no bad seats. Sometimes I'll wander into the audience and sing from there. I sat down next to one guy, and he was so scared--maybe he was with someone he wasn't supposed to be with!"

"Rod's perfect in that market," AEG Live president/CEO Randy Phillips says. "It's 90 minutes of his big, funny rock star personality and nonstop hits--'Tonight's the Night,' 'The First Cut Is the Deepest,' 'Maggie May.' He knows what people want, and people know that's what they're going to get when they buy a ticket." In October, Stewart will embark on the Live the Life tour, its 10 dates in major-market arenas hitting 15,000- to 20,000-capacity venues like New York's Madison Square Garden, Chicago's United Center and L.A.'s Staples Center. Opening all shows will be another British classic-rock voice, Steve Winwood. "I would imagine we could sing together on 'Gimme Some Lovin'," Stewart says.

The conversation pauses when Stewart's wife Penny enters the room with their 2-year-old son Aiden, who adorably climbs on his dad's rowing machine and starts pulling away. "Hello, dada!" Stewart says, transfixed. He spots his first child with Penny, 7-year-old Alastair, in the distance, proudly noting he's wearing the Celtics' green-striped team uniform: "I have all my children brainwashed with sports. I watch my son Liam play hockey, and it makes me so proud, seeing him come out with 'Stewart' on his jersey."

Domestic business quickly takes center stage. There's a Sunday roast being planned for Ron Wood, to coincide with the Rolling Stones' upcoming L.A. tour stop. On this particular evening, Stewart is taking five of his children out to dinner. Daughter Kim soon appears with Stewart's first grandchild, Delilah, on whom Stewart can't resist doting. This newfound contentment with domesticity echoes throughout "Time." While a number of tracks maintain Stewart's deeply embossed loverman image, they're contrasted equally by declarations of fidelity like "She Makes Me Happy" and heartfelt advice from father to son on "Live the Life." "For a long time, it was hard work, writing those songs--like doing math," Stewart says. "I didn't enjoy the process--I had so many other things I wanted to do, like shagging and drinking. Now it's totally the opposite. I love it."

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