Sunday, February 3, 2013

Rod, The Autobiography: He Wears It Well

A year and a half ago I reviewed a biography of the [Small] Faces entitled Had Me a Real Good Time. It told the story of a bunch of wild English boys living the dream in the 60s and 70s (and 80s, 90s and on) drinking, singing and shagging their way to the top of the charts. Rod Stewart was just one of these lads, and now he tells his own story in what really appears to be his own words. And it seems that the previous book was no exaggeration whatsoever.

2012 was a great year for rock music autobiography. Neil Young’s scattershot ramblings in Waging Heavy Peace led things off, and Pete Townshend’s intimate confessions in Who I Am certainly made clear just who he was, but neither of those volumes had the rock’n’roll swagger down as proudly as Keith Richards’ Life did in 2010. But if it’s swagger you want, Rod the Mod brings it in the plainly titled Rod: The Autobiography. The book could’ve been called "Blonde on Blonde" considering the number of fair-haired beauties Mr. Stewart has bedded, and wedded. Blondes were who he was looking for, he emphasizes, especially young blondes and preferably of the absolutely gorgeous variety. He found lots of ‘em.

Rod is written in Stewart’s own voice. If he had help the ghost writer submerged his own personality beautifully, because all through these 400 pages you are convinced that Rod is talking to you. Who would have thought that this fellow with the spiky hair, who has sold over 150,000,000 records, and continues to sell out concert halls around the world would be such an engaging writer? Even after five volumes of the American Songbook, and this year's White Christmas, the world’s enthusiasm for him hasn’t been dampened! And he has one fabulous sense of humour. The jokes are laugh out loud funny.

He is touching when he describes his early career, growing up in post-war England, learning the guitar, joining up with blues legend Long John Baldry. He was so young Baldry had to speak to his mother for permission to tour. Somehow Baldry’s stature and uppercrust accent set her mind at ease, as Long John was setting Rod on the road to excess. Stewart’s remembrances of Baldry are heartfelt and moving.

The Jeff Beck Group in 1968
Stewart’s memory of The Jeff Beck Group is not so warm. Beck was a hard taskmaster, who expected the same level of devotion to the music from each member of the band as he did from himself. Stewart describes the decline of the Back Group: “In 1969, with things getting ever more fractious and beginning to spiral downwards, Jeff kicked Woody out of the band because he felt he was complaining too much, which in turn had the effect of stretching my patience with the whole project. There was no fun in it without Woody…”   Of course there were lessons to learn in every situation…“That said, a guy called Doug Blake came in to play bass, and had what was, in retrospect, an important influence on me. Not only did Blake take to the stage, no matter how hot it was, in a frock coat and a pair of fingerless mittens, he also had a trick of flipping his bass guitar in the air and catching it again, which would in turn prompt me, slightly competitively (not wanting to be upstaged by the bassist, of all people), to throw my microphone into the air and catch it – a tiny lob the first few times, and then higher and higher as confidence grew. It was the beginning of a whole new phase for my stage act: the opening of a whole new repertoire of movements.”

After Beck deserted the band the night before a gig at an outdoor festival responding to a false rumour about his wife cheating on him with the gardener, the Jeff Beck Group was no more, and Rod was solo again. (Oh, the festival they didn’t play? Woodstock!)

Stewart’s early solo albums are perhaps still his best. Filled with folky songs and acoustic guitars, a mandolin, and sensitive backing from people like Ron Wood, Martin Quittenton and Micky Waller the records are a treasure. While he was recording these quiet masterpieces for one label, he was fronting the Faces and rocking the socks off audiences all over. His memories of the delicate balance between maintaining two successful careers (band member and superstar) are fascinating. It was always going to be a tough proposition, and when concert promoters started advertising Rod Stewart & the Faces, the writing was on the wall. Rod gives enough inside information without deepening any wounds. It makes for fascinating reading. But the main thing you’ll derive from Rod how great it is to be Rod Stewart. Money, women, fame, and the world was his oyster. He honestly appears to enjoy every bit of it. Even now.

Sure he’s finally settled down with a woman he claims to be the love of his life, but if we learn nothing else from his book it’s that Rod is constantly being confronted with offers from younger and blonder women. Your heart goes out to him! You can’t help but like the guy. He admits his flaws, owns up to his bad records, rejoices in his good ones, confesses to lies that have been told about him, and tells the truth about his love for (of all things) model trains. Rod is a genuine revelation, and one fine read, sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, you may even find yourself shaking your head as he repeats the same mistake again, but through it all he remains open and likeable. This might be my favourite tell-all book so far!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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