Rod Stewart Says He's Sorry

The one-time disco doll goes on the road and finds his rock & roll roots

Singer Rod Stewart clowns around in a hotel elevator prior to a concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California in 1981. Credit: George Rose/Getty

NEW YORK CITY

Atriumph, Sir!" the little man kept saying as he hoisted his champagne glass in Rod Stewart's direction. "A triumph!" He was balding, with a pencil mustache and a dark, rumpled suit, and nobody seemed to know who he was. Not that it mattered; the scene inside the glitzy Manhattan disco was utter chaos, and one pie-eyed little man didn't make much difference.

The disco had offered to throw a "small, intimate" party for Stewart, his band and friends after the first of his two Madison Square Garden concerts last November. It was near the beginning of Stewart's 1981-'82 tour, which eventually would carry on until March, and which would present a newly rejuvenated Rod Stewart to the public. On this night, Stewart himself didn't seem to mind the mayhem inside the disco, but Russell Shaw, his right-hand man, was seeing a loony, and quite possibly an assassin, behind every pair of glazed, bloodshot eyes.

"Rod, let's get out of here," Shaw kept saying. "We should try to hold out a little bit longer," Stewart tried to reply, but he was drowned out by "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?," which was blaring full throttle from the sound system. A phalanx of discolitas was dancing and giggling and making faces at him; a garish neon sign was blinking NEW YORK LOVES ROD STEWART on and off, on and off. And the little man was still talking. "A triumph!" he reiterated. "What will it be next, Mr. Stewart? Films, perhaps? Hollywood!"

"Listen, mate," Stewart said, leaning toward the man so he could be heard above the unholy din. "I'm not falling over backward trying to find a part. I have too much music to make. Too much music."

Shaw staged a retreat into the disco's back room, and Stewart and friends went pushing through the mob, which pressed in from every side, grinning, leering, asking for autographs. Finally, after more urging from Shaw, the group dashed for the limos and fled. "I talked to that little bloke with the mustache," Stewart reported. "He hadn't even been to the concert."

Robert! Your shoes! I think you need a new pair," said a grinning Rod Stewart as he gazed down at my cracked, tattered Adidases. It was a couple of months before his Madison Square Garden Shows, and Stewart was in New York to appear on Saturday Night Live. Since I had met him for the first time not more than a minute earlier, I wasn't sure how to respond. I hadn't been at all sure I was going to like the guy, and here he was making fun of my shoes. Besides, I had been up all night and was chugging cup after cup of coffee in a frustrating, fruitless attempt to be coherent. We sat in the living room of Stewart's Manhattan hotel suite, talking desultorily, me asking unbelievably routine rock-star-interview questions and getting unbelievably routine rock-star-interview answers:

"Who were your early vocal influences?"

"Ramblin' Jack Elliott early on, and after that I moved on to black artists. Sam Cooke was a big influence, as far as the voice. At one time I copied black singers, but I don't think my voice sounds particularly black anymore; it just sounds like me. It's a very copied voice."

So he is stuck up, I thought. Making fun of my fucking shoes. . . .

"Listen," Stewart said suddenly, "I was up at nine this morning, rehearsing for Saturday Night Live, and I'm fallin' asleep. Could we get back together in three or four hours, downstairs in the bar? I'd really appreciate it. I'm just so fucking tired. . . ." We mumbled mutual apologies and stumbled off.

I left with an advance cassette of Stewart's new album, Tonight I'm Yours; when I got home, I put it on and was surprised at what I heard. As far as most critics were concerned (and I agreed), Stewart had been in artistic decline since the mid-Seventies. He hadn't made a solo album to match Gasoline Alley or Every Picture Tells a Story, his early masterpieces, and the bands he'd put together since the breakup of the Faces in 1976 had been either ordinary or tastelessly flashy or rhythmically club-footed or all of the above. The first sign that the illness might really be terminal was the 1976 album A Night on the Town; it began promisingly, with two of Stewart's most evocative songs, "Tonight's the Night" and "The Killing of Georgie," but it ended appallingly, with the Mac-Donald/Salter composition "Trade Winds," a piece of pretentious MOR — "the trade winds of our time" indeed!

And then, in 1978, came the nadir, Blondes Have More Fun, which included such profundities as "Ain't Love a Bitch," "Dirty Weekend," "Attractive Female Wanted" and, of course, "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Foolish Behaviour, released in 1980, did include "Oh God, I Wish I Was Home Tonight," which proved that Stewart's songwriting talent hadn't dissipated entirely. But it was still a long way from the cocksure yet sensitive rock-and-soul of his best work.

And now here, without warning, was Tonight I'm Yours, a commanding, utterly convincing return to the eternal verities of passionately personal lyrics and kick-ass rock & roll. The new band was a big help, but the triumph was unmistakably Stewart's. I headed back to his hotel, determined to find out how he had managed such a spectacular coup. On the way, I decided to forgive him for kidding me about my shoes.

I hope the album's as good as I think it is," Stewart said before I even had a chance to mention it," 'cause I've taken so much of a bashing over the last three or four years."

After no more than a couple of hours of sleep, Stewart was bright, alert and contagiously enthusiastic. And he seemed willing to talk about that "bashing," which had to do with more than just the deterioration of his music. To the punk rockers of the mid-Seventies, he was the perfect symbol of everything false, bloated and self-satisfied in the rock-star establishment. He'd left England and his working-class roots far behind and become a tax exile. Even worse, he'd settled in Tinseltown, U.S.A., in a mansion in the exclusive Holmby Hills area, where his neighbors included Gregory Peck and Burt Reynolds. He'd become a fixture in the gossip columns, a Hollywood playboy who went out with blond, long-legged stars and starlets and models and didn't seem to have much else on his mind.

His flashy lifestyle reached an apotheosis of sorts in the late Seventies, when live-in girlfriend Britt Ekland sued him for $12.5 million in palimony. When the punk rockers and their sympathizers weren't gleefully enumerating these transgressions, the critics were savaging his albums. It seemed that nobody liked Rod Stewart anymore --except the silent millions who kept right on buying his records.

"I deserved a lot of the knocking that I got," Stewart said decisively. "I had it coming. I went through a period when I lost all contact with rock & roll. I was completely wound up in self-image; I mean, all you have to do is look at the album covers from that period. There I am on A Night on the Town, wearing that stupid boater hat.

"Sometimes a woman can really persuade you to make an asshole of yourself," Stewart continued. "That fucking boater hat, for example, that was Britt's idea. But I can't stand to listen to 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' anymore; that knocking I got did me a lot of good. I realized I'd let a bit of credibility go right down the toilet, and I think I've finally returned to what I do best, to shoutin' rock & roll."

Stewart drained a kamikaze, leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. "And," he added, "I can hardly wait to get back out on the road with the boys."

"Tora, Tora, Tora(Out with the Boys)," the careening Chuck Berry rocker on Tonight I'm Yours, celebrates the rock & roll male bonding so dear to Stewart's heart. "My wife hates that track," he said, "absolutely detests it, because of what it stands for. And that makes me happy." He chuckled and reached for another drink. "Alana asks me, 'Why do you stay out drinkin' with the boys in the band until three in the morning after you've been with 'em in the studio all day?' She's got a point there. I really enjoy her company, too, and I'm really working at marriage. But I really think that if you're gonna make rock & roll, you've got to live the lifestyle."

Living the rock & roll lifestyle isn't difficult when you're making a name for yourself; in fact, it's almost impossible to avoid. You're on the road or in the studio month after month, with the boys in the band as your only constant companions, and with drinking, taking drugs, picking up groupies and generally raising hell your only means of letting off steam. When Stewart was a member of the balling, brawling Faces, he lived the lifestyle to the hilt. Once Stewart became a megastar, however, he didn't get out on the road very often. Tours came once every two or three years; the rest of the time he chased blonds, went to parties and, in his spare time, wrote songs.

His relationships with women were shallow, he admits. He expected fidelity from them but exempted himself, and as a succession of live-in romances and extracurricular affairs took up more and more of his life, his songwriting grew more and more superficial. Stewart's lyrics had once been among the most sensitive and thoughtful in all of rock; he must have realized, if only in the middle of a few sleepless nights, what was happening to him. Working at marriage with Alana, who was as lovely as any of his previous paramours but had a head on her shoulders, too, was one way of fighting the rot that had set in. Another way of fighting it was getting back out on the road with a new band, the right band at long last, and living that rock & roll lifestyle again. There was just one problem — all too often, the demands of family life and the demands of the road pulled Stewart in opposite directions.

After Stewart and I finished our drinks, we headed downtown to the Ritz, a large New York dance club, where Tina Turner was performing. For the occasion, she donned a blond thatch of fake hair — a Rod Stewart wig — and ripped into several of his songs, much to his delight. After the show, he went backstage and, on the spur of the moment, invited her to sing "Hot legs" with him the following night on Saturday Night Live.

The afternoon of the broadcast, they had a brief, inspired run-through, but as showtime rolled around, Stewart fidgeted nervously. When Turner finally joined him onstage and started gyrating to "Hot Legs," he wiped the sweat off his forehead and skipped out of camera range, giving her center stage. "Did you see the way she moved?" he marveled afterward, as we crowded into a limo and headed for a Saturday Night Live cast party at Studio 54. "Those legs! Let's face it, rock — roll has always been about sex appeal. I'm sure the Stones wouldn't be drawing 90,000 at a throw if Mick weighed fourteen stone."

It was at least the second or third time that evening that Stewart had mentioned the Rolling Stones. Their 1981 tour was monopolizing the rock press, and even the ordinary entertainment and news media, but that wasn't the only reason they were on his mind. There's a rivalry there, a rivalry that goes back a decade or more. After all, Stewart and Mick Jagger are rock's reigning sex symbols and two of the music's most distinctive vocal stylists; comparisons have always been inescapable. Stewart officially dismisses talk of such rivalry and is measured in his appraisal of Jagger: "Mick's a bit more of a showman, and I think I'm a bit better as a singer."

There's a lot more to the story than that. Back in the early Seventies, Stewart's closest friend in the Faces was guitarist Ron Wood. Beginning in 1975, the Stones began paying court to Wood. He was still officially a Face when he played with Jagger and company on their 1957 American tour, but as they drew him into their orbit (and Stewart's solo career increasingly prospered), the Faces, always a somewhat precarious conglomeration of talents, disintegrated So Wood went with the Stones, and stewart has never really found anyone to take his place. Their Stewart shared roots and similar senses of style had made them perfect onstage foils, and the Stewart-Wood songwriting partnership had been responsible for some of Rod's finest accomplishments, including the title tunes from Every Picture Tells a Story and Gasoline Alley. The two had also been inseparable mates, and Stewart still misses him.

But those who bemoan the fact that Stewart and Wood didn't stick together tend to overlook the fact that Rod has formed another longlasting musical partnership, comparable in some respects to his collaboration with Wood. Stewart writes and arranges songs and co-produces his albums with red-haired, freckle-faced Jim Cregan, a holdover from the first post-Faces Rod Stewart band.

Cregan may not be flamboyant onstage, but he's got more than a taste of Ron Wood's devilish streak. At Studio 54, with the Saturday Night Live party well under way, I found myself standing next to him on a catwalk above the dance floor; a moving platform with lights on it was gliding by us, back and forth over the heads of the dancers. "I dare you to get out on that thing and dance with me," Cregan challenged. "I dunno," I muttered, "looks kinda dangerous. . . ." Cregan grinned wildly. "I double dare ya," he added. That did it. We hooked our legs over the railing and began to clamber out onto the platform when Studio 54 regular Steve Rubell collared us. "That thing's dangerous," Rubell said. Cregan and Stewart, who was standing nearby, looked at each other, grinned and cackled maniacally.

The Studio 54 festivities began to wind down around five a.m., but Stewart wasn't ready to call it a night. "C'mon back to the hotel and come up for a minute," he said. "Just for a minute." It was six a.m. by the time we reached Stewart's suite, but he still wanted to talk. "I never get to talk about music like this," he explained. "I mean, it's practically unheard of. Everybody always wants to know about Britt fucking Ekland and the palimony business."

The conversations wandered, as early-morning conversations will, but when it turned to present-day rock & roll, Stewart, to my surprise, talked knowledgeably and at some length about the Sex Pistols, the Clash and other punk and New Wave groups. Back in the mid-Seventies, interviewers who questioned him on the subject drew testy responses. It was evident that he'd listened hard and rethought his position since then.

"The Sex Pistols were a bloody marvelous thing," he said. "They were everything that period was supposed to be, and they broke up and didn't give a shit. I really like the Clash — 'The Magnificent Seven' is wonderful, one of the best tracks of last year, I reckon, and 'Hitsville U.K.' should have been a big hit. But you can't keep whining and moaning about the state of the bloody world for the rest of your life. The so-called saviors of rock & roll, and I include the Clash in that, just haven't matured."

Around ten a.m., Stewart got up to stretch and ambled over to the radio. Up and down the dial, the fare was pretty dismal — Wnew was playing Pat Benatar. "She's a closet Olivia Newton-John," Stewart muttered. "Here, let's do something about this." He picked up the telephone and succeeded in getting disc jockey Dan Neer. "This is Rod Stewart," he began. "If you don't believe me, call this hotel and ask for me, I'll give you the room number. . . ."

"I recognize your voice," Neer said. "I know it's you." "Oh, great," said Stewart, sounding a little tentative. "I was just getting ready to check out of here and fly back to L.A., and I was wondering if you could play . . . er . . . 'Johnny and Mary' by Robert Palmer and anything, anything by Otis Redding." Neer obliged, but first he played Stewart's "Young Turks." The sound of it must have awakened Alana, who had gone to bed several hours earlier. She came drifting in from the bedroom, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, to find us sitting at the same table, in the same chairs. Alana surveyed the scene and shook her head. "You're all crazy," she said.

Rod Stewart married Alana Hamilton, formerly Mrs. George Hamilton, in 1979. The wedding that ended rock's most celebrated bachelorhood looked like a typical Hollywood/Beautiful People liaison from the outside, but looks can be deceiving. Alana looks like some sort of blond fairy-tale princess, so decorative and delicate that mere mortals approach her at their peril. Then she opens her mouth, and what you hear is a twangy Texas drawl. Suddenly she isn't the unapproachable princess anymore, but a refreshingly down-to-earth, down-home girl. She may be fonder of the social whirl than her husband, and fonder of home and hearth, as well. But Stewart isn't likely to start believing his own press releases again as long as he's with her.

After Stewart's first show at Madison Square Garden and the disastrous party at the disco, we again ended up back in Rod's hotel suite. "You aren't going to stay up all night again, are you, Rod?" Alana asked as she went to bed.

"Oh, no, dear, we'll just listen to some music for an hour or two," said Stewart, the picture of innocence.

"I want you to know," Alana said to me, "that when we got back to Los Angeles after our last encounter with you, Rod came down with the flu and was sick as a dog." Stewart hung his head.

"Good night, dear," said Rod. "Well," he said after she left, "I've got this tape of old Jimmy Reed records that I haven't heard in a long time. . . ." We said good night in the vicinity of six or seven a.m.

Stewart was dissatisfied with his first Garden show and talked me into coming back the following night. He didn't have to twist my arm. The first evening's show did fail to capitalize on the momentum the individual numbers built up, but, song for song, it was utterly transcendent rock & roll.

But Rod was right. His second Garden show cut the previous evening's performance to ribbons. Backstage before the concert, the band went through a warmup, with the musicians huddled together, playing through practice amps. Stewart, resplendent in leopard-skin tights and a satin jacket, shouted lustily through an amp of his own. He counted off a Chuck Berry medley, and the guitars slashed away at the rhythm while Tony Brock pounded out a backbeat on a wooden chair. Jimmy Zavala blew hard on his tenor sax, his face turning bright red, while Stewart hopped from foot to foot in front of him, egging him on. Everyone was watching Stewart, and Stewart twirled and danced from musician to musician, singing right into their faces, looking them in the eye and shouting into the microphone, his incisive phrasing propelling the music forward.

They came to the end of the Berry medley and lunged without a pause into "Tora, Tora, Tora (Out with the Boys)." Stewart lunged ecstatically as his musicians clustered around him, jabbing at him with the necks of their guitars, catching his enthusiasm and feeding it back with sledgehammer force. Stepping into that room was like stepping into a rock & roll hurricane; the energy and excitement were ricocheting off the walls. "I wanna talk about motorbikes, cars and things," he sang. "No sophistication, no designer jeans/I'm no angel but I know what I like/A little rough-and-tumble on a Friday night." He looked awfully happy.