IF EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY, THEN GAZE UPON THIS MATURE MAN and his young bride. Their love is blond. It is real. You could touch it, except that he would probably punch you if you tried. They restrain themselves for the camera. Usually, they are playful, even slightly giddy. For instance, when she arrived at the altar to become his wife six months ago, she grabbed his buttocks, right there in the Presbyterian church, while relatives watched. "My hand somehow dropped down over his bum, and I couldn't resist a little squeeze," she would later say, and who could blame her? His is a very famous bum — one that he has incorporated into much of his work. Nevertheless, he is a reserved, elegant man, even though you might guess otherwise; she is a frolicsome palomino, all legs and spirit. Recently, she spoke of loosing her Great Dane upon his ex-girlfriend, the one who wishes to sue him for $25 million in palimony. "She's the sort of person who gives blondes a bad name," the missus announced, indignant as only a blonde could be.
This pose was struck in Stockholm, where most people are blond, even if they don't want to be. Here he would entertain Swedes as part of a European sweep. For a man who enjoys all that is blond, Sweden naturally holds special significance. Indeed, it was the Swedish beauty Britt Ekland who first taught him to dye his own hair. So it is fitting that this is where he has submitted to portraiture. At once, he returns, with his new wife, to the cover of the magazine for which he and Britt Ekland also posed together sixteen years ago.
"I should say it's about time they put a bit of class on the cover again," he says, sounding like his old self, a wry fellow. "It's usually scumbags on the cover. I've never heard of who's on the cover sometimes." He pauses to reflect upon this perceived incongruity, then concludes, "We must be paying somebody off."
HE IS BACK, ONLY HE NEVER LEFT. "They say if you stay around long enough, you come around in fashion," he likes to say. "You come around in a complete circle." And so he has, with better clothes. Rod Stewart is forty-six, having done what he does for twenty-seven years. He has never gone away, which may not be as interesting as it is astonishing. Eventually, though, it's the sort of thing you do notice. You notice that his eighteenth album, titled Vagabond Heart (after his own, perhaps), has outsold anything he has put forth in a decade. The single "Rhythm of My Heart" currently dwells in the upper reaches of familiarity. And last year's retrospective set Storyteller/The Complete Anthology: 1964-1990 (the cover featured only a hank of his hair) threw his career into a new, estimable light, eliciting staunch critical praise, to which he is rather unaccustomed.
At the same time (and for a man of romance, how can it be coincidental?), he has been reborn in love and stands reformed, restless no more, unless on long plane trips. "I found what I've been looking for," he says. By this he means that he has found his second wife, Rachel Hunter, born twenty-one years ago in New Zealand. She is, of course, an esteemed fashion model whose work with swimwear has delighted many. While looking for her, Rod Stewart has lived a large life, screwing up often, but always doing it suavely, as is his wont.
"The only revenge is living well," he would tell me in his large manner while we dined in a large manor. Earlier I had flown to Stockholm to make sense of his large life and experience all of the raffish grandeur it affords. By the time we parted, days later in his mother England, I would understand much, including how he gets his hair to look like that. Secrets would spill forth, such as the lurid syntax of his most successful pickup line, for which he swears to have no further use. Myths would be exploded — the Truth, at last, about the fabled Stomach-Pump Incident — while new legends would be born. Here, then, is the rarefied world of Rod Stewart, a realm abundant with beautiful women, high testosterone, excellent wine, sturdy beer, stiff brandy, dull hangovers, Italian suits, expensive cars, clean upholstery, private jets, big houses, country pubs, thick steaks, good hygiene and sore throats.
WE BEGIN WITH THE VOICE. His is a great death gasp of a voice, and we are attracted to the fatality of it. It is rife with emotion, as would be any voice that struggles for life. We accept it to be one of music's finest interpretive instruments. When he deigns, for instance, to push a classic R&B tune through the strainer that is his larynx, we hear pain, nuance and wisdom. But mostly pain. "It never ceases to amaze me," he says, "that all this fuss, this huge million-dollar industry that I've created around myself, all comes down to two muscles that bang together in my throat. Weird, isn't it?"
The day I joined him in Stockholm, as with most days he roams the planet, he was worried about losing his voice. So he was keeping it locked in his suite at the Grand Hotel. That way he'd know exactly where it was. A few nights earlier, in Gothenburg, the voice was all but gone, so he canceled his show. Tomorrow night he would cancel again. Doubt always looms, and everyone in his employ frets glumly (refunds and rescheduling must be considered).
Stewart speaks little on show days, in deference to his beleaguered cords. Doctors peer into his throat, with great concern and admiration. Here is a throat! They peer as if beholding a rare gem, flawed but mythic. They poke it with sticks and buff it with cortisone. Somehow it manages to bray artfully, dependably. Yet a voice that always sounds on the verge of collapse turns out often to be on the verge of collapse, and one can only marvel at its freakish resilience. "I've been lucky, I think," he says. "No nodules, no nothing on the throat whatsoever. I've really beat the shit out of it. I've been beating the shit out of it for a long time."
HE MADE HIS BACKSTAGE ENTRANCE WITH INIMITABLE APLOMB AND A HALF-FULL GLASS of wine. (It is magnificent, the way he saunters into your midst! He is like royalty, if royalty did a lot of talking about soccer.) He had alighted from a BMW sedan, deep within the catacombs of Stockholm's Globen Arena, a mammoth enclosed orb with stadium seating. Now he approached along a stark corridor, following Rachel Hunter, who strolled merrily ahead, clad in fur. He wore shades that slid down his beakage. A fine Armani overcoat hung about his shoulders, giving him the air of a swaddled maestro. He sipped at his grape and greeted those who loitered in his path. "Hel-lo, my dear!" he said, a jolly icon. "Hel-lo, old boy!"
Tonight, of course, he would sing. Confident that his voice would prevail, he had come to improve the lives of many less fortunate than himself. Tonight 14,000 Swedes would writhe with pleasure, as only Swedes can, which is to say inconspicuously. Onstage — where his showmanship has no equal, where he gives as few other mortals can or will, where he kicks soccer balls into the audience (in this case, to see if the Swedes were alive?) — he accepted their polite Scandinavian ovations and cannily instructed them: "Now don't get carried away! Settle down, settle down!" Clearly, there was love everywhere in the room.
ON LOVE AND SEX: HE CANNOT REMEMBER MAGGIE MAY'S REAL NAME. "I forget what her name was," he says. "She was one of the first, if not the first woman I ever loved. She was an older woman. But I wasn't at school when it happened, as the lyric suggests. That was just a lie to sauce it up a bit." Exactly twenty years ago he wrote and sang "Maggie May," a tale of sordid love wherein he awakens a woman in late September to tell her how he wished he'd never seen her face, thus begetting his true and everlasting fame. Sex has since permeated all matters Stewart. Sex hounds him, just as he has hounded it. There is no use pretending otherwise; it was there at the start, and it is with him still. We think of him as someone eternally asking us if we think he's sexy, as per his most successful record. And even though it is a character in "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" that asks the question (and not the singer), the distinction is superfluous. He was often wearing leopard-print tights when he sang it. Is it our fault that we got confused? "If I lost any credibility in the rock & roll press fraternity, it would have been about then," he says. "But it's a record that people absolutely love. Anywhere I play it in the world, it's an uplifting, funny old song." (Although it was his only foray into disco, he has chosen to assuage his guilt by donating to UNICEF all royalties the tune earns — so far, upward of $1 million.) Nevertheless, as his signature anthem, it binds him inextricably to a strutting libido, in whose wake there trails a large reputation.
He is rake emeritus, but a rake nonetheless. Tabloids feast on his prey and, by association, on him. As a result, we know more about his conquests than we know about his songwriting. That is the price he pays for pursuing famous beauties. His manager of nine years, Arnold Stiefel issues this interpretation of the phenomenon: "A lot of everyman kind of men, like Rod Stewart, can't help but feel that they are delineated in the public eye by whom they are with."
And so, before Rachel Hunter, there were, significantly, Britt Ekland, Alana Hamilton (whom he married and who gave him two children) and Kelly Emberg (with whom he cohabited for six years and who bore him a third child; Emberg now demands $25 million in palimony and receives $9700 per month for child support). During and after these blond women, there were women of various other tints (Kelly LeBrock, Teri Copley and more) who served at least to expand his legend — a legend that expands even when he is idle. For example, last March, a model of minor note, Raegan Newman, told the British press that Stewart had had her just weeks before his wedding to Hunter, citing such trysting locales as an elevator and a boat. Stewart denied all charges, said his involvement with her predated Hunter and, with the missus at his side, informed the offending press: "I've never made love in an elevator in my whole life. I've twice made love to Rachel in the back of a limousine, but that's about the most unconventional I've ever been."
TO DWELL IN THE SHADOW OF ROD STEWART FORCES MEN TO QUEST FOR HIS standard, to maintain his legacy. So that night, while Hunter stood alone at stage left, watching her man charm Stockholm, two dozen women stood at stage right, watching the man and his musicians do the same. These women wore small quantities of clothing, and unlike the rest of their nation, they danced with abandon to such expertly rendered tunes as "Hot Legs" and "Some Guys Have All the Luck." Hours later these women would wait in the bar of the Café Opera, where in an adjoining room the band consumed a sumptuous dinner hosted by the Stewarts. Many bottles of wine spilled forth. "Watch the expenses, mates," warned the host, who is known for his frugal tendencies. "It's not easy bringing twenty of you out!" (He grumped the next day about the $2000 tab and the woeful lack of appreciation displayed by his employees.) When all were sated, they moved to the bar to join their new Swedish friends. The Stewarts went along, too, but stayed a mere half-hour, for Rachel was bored and Rod was exhausted. But before they retired, the Master had surveyed his men at play.
"I do like to watch them when they go about their business," he admitted days later. "I took a few notes on them. A lot of their approaches leave much to be desired. There are some things I'll have to pass on to them."
WHAT HE KNOWS ABOUT WOMEN:
"Always remember that the greatest thing you can say to a girl — it's always been my killer line — is 'Hello, darling, what have you got in that basket?' [A British accent here is advisable — Ed.] You try it next time. Hello, darling, what have you got in that basket? It just leaves a lot of things open. Basket? Here's the key: We always have to guess what's in the basket. We don't want to know what's in the basket — if you get my drift. And the longer we have to wait to see what's in the basket, the better."
WE DRANK BEER FOR BREAKFAST. That is how he wished to begin his day. He had summoned me at the crack of noon. His wife had gone to pose for a Swedish-department-store brochure. Once she finished, we would fly back to England, where he would nurse his voice until Germans were scheduled to hear it three nights later. (The final Stockholm show had been called on account of strain.) He turned up in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel wearing a brown suit and a floral tie. Since forsaking spandex, he has become a man who always looks more civilized than other men. "The world has lost a lot of its style," he will lament, and so he has made it his life's work to overcompensate. "He doesn't like people who don't dress," manager Stiefel told me. Arnold Stiefel has weathered many Stewart fashion epochs, this one being the most accomplished. "He'll say to me, 'You'll be turned out in a suit and tie tonight, right?' It's important to him. And he has a knack for it. Even his throwaway outfits look better than anything I could scheme up."
This was not always so. Over gravlax and halibut, he tracked his greatest lapses in personal presentation, musical and sartorial. "Isn't it a wonder I've survived some of my fucking terrible career moves?" he said, taking full responsibility for all of them. "Sometimes I worry about me. How on earth I could sing a lyric that went, 'Ooooh, you're gonna getta ... Ooooh, you're gonna getta big love touch!' " Here, in owning up to the theme to the film Legal Eagles, he contorted his face, as if confronting an odor. "What amazes me is that the public will allow me to make humongous fucking mistakes and they'll still come back. They let me get away with it."
On the subject of his curious fashion statements, he was less apologetic: "No one's ever told me what to wear, even though Arnold tries. He'd have me wearing fucking jeans and a T-shirt every day, everywhere. But this is the way I am: You can like it or you can lump it!" Of the "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" period, he grew almost nostalgic. "I was a bit of a tart then," he said simply. When I mentioned leopard tights, he brightened: "Ahh, that was great, mate! I did the leotard trousers before everybody!" (Stiefel on the leopard tights: "What was he thinking?! That was well before me. Please!") Of his hair color: "The stink I got when I dyed my hair blond! Then Sting and the Police did it a couple of years later and they were okay." Pause. "I must admit I do smell the martyr burning on the cross."
AS MEN HAVE DONE SINCE TIME BEGAN, HE WAITS FOR HIS WOMAN. HE IS KEPT waiting. Much of his life has been spent this way. Now he has a working wife, and so he waits for her. I waited with him as he waited for her. We waited at the hotel first. He napped. He watched CNN. He watched General Schwarzkopf's plane arrive in Florida. He watched the general greet his family. "Look at the way he walks ahead of his wife!" he said disapprovingly. "He's happier to see his dog!" Our luggage was piled into a car, and we were driven to the photographer's studio, where the missus was posing. We waited there. He paced for a while. He plunged his hands deep into his suit pockets and whistled. He whistled several fine old tunes: "As Time Goes By," "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)," "Isn't This a Lovely Day." He flipped through a half dozen fashion magazines. At last, his wife was dismissed. She was handed an envelope full of cash for her efforts. She peered into the envelope and told her husband, "It's a fortune." They settled into the back seat of the car, which now sped for the airport. "So," she said, "what did you do all day?" He smiled and told her. "I had two sleeps," he said. "You didn't!" she said, embarrassed. "Two sleeps! Oh, I'm sorry! I'll give you a commission!" He kissed her and said, "It was nothing."
A COMPOSITE ROMANCE, ABRIDGED VERSION:
Rachel Hunter, before she met him, was largely unaware of the vocalist. "I love that she knows nothing about me whatsoever," he says. Before her first birthday he had already recorded his second solo release, Gasoline Alley — the album rock purists regard as his finest. Her only memory of his music: At age seven she and her sister would dance around the house to "Hot Legs." What matters next is that, at sixteen, she became a model, which prompted her to leave New Zealand, which led to much work, not the least of which was her participation in the bodybuilding video Sports Illustrated's Super Shape-Up. There exists a television commercial for that video, and last summer it became Rod Stewart's obsession.
"She was constantly on CNN, advertising those tapes," he recalls. "Every ten minutes she was on. Me and Malcolm, my personal assistant out in Los Angeles, would wait for her to appear. I'd run up to the kitchen, shouting, 'Hey, Mal, she's on! She's on!' I was a bit of a fan."
They met thusly: Out on his rounds last August, he spied her at a Sunset Boulevard club called Roxbury. "There she was!" he says. "So I made my advances, which she took no notice of. With my reputation, I think she wanted to keep a million miles away from me." She: "He was making these funny faces, then he imitated me from the commercial. I was very surprised that he knew me." He: "I pumped my muscles and repeated her line 'You can move up to my video in just two weeks and have a body like mine!' Then I started to break her down." She: "I said, 'Would you please stop doing that, because you're really bugging me,' and I walked off. But I did think he was very amusing."
It was, of course, love. There ensued dreamy meals, pursuit by air (he would fly to wherever she was working just to look at her), incessant phoning, languorous pillow talk and profuse floral seductions. And that was the first week. "It was like a fairy tale," she says.
"I knew within a week I wanted to marry her," he says. "She's got a teasing way about her and an intelligence which I've not found in most models — and I've known a few in me day."
Still, he demonstrated great patience before proposing wedlock. "It was close to two months," she says. He waited until she turned twenty-one in September, then took her for a picnic at a site overlooking the Pacific Ocean. "We had tuna-fish sandwiches," she says. So inspired, he knelt before her and begged her troth, which came forth freely. They were married mid-December in Beverly Hills as 250 mostly non-show-business types witnessed (including his two eldest children, Kimberly and Sean, 11 and 10). "I was always the one who was never going to get married again," he says. "But deep down in my soul, I wanted to be married. It's sort of a sissy thing to admit, so I never did."
IF THERE WERE NO SELF-IRONY ABOUT HIM, HE WOULD PERHAPS be irredeemable. But that is all there is about him. He was the sixth of six children, the runt whose birth came ten years after his nearest sibling's. So here is how he explains his presence in the universe: "There must have been a celebration going on after the war. Dad stuck it in and I was the outcome. It's been a very expensive mistake." Like most of us, he is not all he seems. It is incongruous, for instance, to picture Rod Stewart driving his children to school in the morning. But he does it with relish. Though he is terrible at basketball, he plays with his son, a fan of the game ("I fucking hate basketball because I'm such a fairy when I play"). He dotes madly on his blond daughters, the second being four-year-old Ruby. He pines for the children when on tour, and he has included photos of them in the souvenir tour book (wedding pictures are featured as well). "I make good babies, no doubt about that," he says.
"He's a good father," says Alana Hamilton Stewart, from whom he has been separated since 1984 and with whom he maintains friendly relations. "He loves his children, and they absolutely adore him. He does the best he can under the circumstances. I feel very lucky that he's married someone who cares about the children and their welfare. Rachel's really been terrific."
He is a man with values, then, although they may be selective values. Born of the British working class (his father was a builder in North London, then a candyshop owner), he has refused to leave the working class behind him. Since his beginnings in the Sixties with the Jeff Beck Group and then the Faces, he has made unfancy populist music that sounds best played in public places, loudly. He is another rock star who cannot bear the music industry. "I haven't got a healthy respect for many people in the business," he says, exempting Elton John and a few others. "I don't mean to sound cynical, but I just don't find them particularly interesting." In Los Angeles he plays soccer four nights a week with the people he considers his friends: "Just regular carpenters and regular working-class blokes," he calls them. They are men half his age, whose combined income is dwarfed by his own. Yet he is one of them. At his wedding they stood as honor guards, holding white canes aloft, under which the couple passed into matrimony.
"He's very real and down-to-earth," says Alana Stewart. "He likes to go down to the pub and drink with the boys and just be a regular guy, which used to drive me crazy. He wants to be a regular person."
THE ENGLISHMAN RETURNED TO ENGLAND, WHERE HE FOUND PEACE and perspective. The flight from Sweden, on a tiny Lear that sat seven, had been uneventful. "I'm so fucking bored," he remarked at one point, having perused reams of sports pages, nuzzled with his wife and eaten several pieces of fruit. On British soil a car was waiting, the car being a Daimler, roomy and rich. He and Hunter were driven to his sixteenth-century country estate, in Epping Forest, Essex. Although he has legally resided in Los Angeles since 1975 (for tax purposes), his heart belongs to the monarchy. "I was barren of a house in England until four years ago," he told me. "It was dreadful to come over here and have to stay in a fucking hotel. It put me in tears."
Two nights later, I was delivered, by Daimler, to the Stewart home, Copped Hall, which nestles on boundless verdant acreage, looking old and important among many cows and horses. The Master was alone: Hunter had flown off a day earlier, this time to a modeling job in the States. He dashed from his doorstep to the car, whereupon he directed the driver to his favorite local pub, the Theydon Oak. "In four years, I've never paid for a drink there," he said pridefully. "That's the sort of pub I like."
Inside the cozy tavern, pints of ale generously flowed ("Mr. Stewart always gets a large measure," said Mr. Stewart of his free servings), as themes of retribution and redemption began to emerge. To begin, he bemoaned the scarlet British press, which has shown him no mercy. (Just a week before, London's News of the World published photos, surreptitiously taken, of him and Hunter sunbathing on their own property, he attired in bikini briefs and she in G-string and brassiere. The headline: YOU BARE IT WELL!) "The only thing I don't like about this country is the dread of the Sunday papers," he said ruefully. "You should see the last fifteen years of clips, lad." At this point there is so much gossip to clear up that even his liner notes to Vagabond Heart include a jaunty disclaimer. "Many foolish and hurtful things have been written about myself in the press over the years, most of which have been severely embroidered half-truths," he wrote, in part. "I'm not complaining, just stating a fact.... [But] those who scribble with crooked nib will one day have to answer to the great Editor in the sky."
I suggested that he may not be considered the most sympathetic character, especially given his abrupt marriage to Hunter mere months after breaking up with Emberg, who waited six years to marry him. "What the press doesn't understand," he said carefully, "is that Kelly left me. This has yet to come from my own mouth, but she was the one who left. It's the truth. If it wasn't, I certainly wouldn't say this, because I've got a court case coming up. She decided to leave me — she had another geezer, she bought herself a house, and I was left high and dry. And that's when I met Rachel.
"I'm just sick of it," he went on, exasperated. "Then there's this girlfriend [Raegan Newman], who says I was with her two weeks before I got married. Absolute fucking bullshit! Made love in an elevator! I'm very shy. I do not get my block and tackle out just anywhere! I'm not like that. What did I ever do to this girl? That smelly shitbag fucking bastard bitch."
This seemed as good a time as any to address the most indelible rumor ever to be attached to his or any career: the Stomach-Pump Incident. "Oh, the Cum-in-the-Belly story?" he said jovially. According to legend, Rod Stewart is said to have collapsed one night, more than ten years ago, in any number of American cities, where he was rushed to the nearest emergency room. There his stomach was pumped of its contents, the bounty of which included between one pint to four quarts of semen. (I spoke with urban-folklore expert Jan Harold Brunvand, author of such treatises as The Choking Doberman and The Vanishing Hitchhiker, who knows of the Stewart myth and theorizes it grew out of a similar fantasy, known as the Promiscuous Cheerleader.)
"That story spread all around the fucking world," said Stewart, still tickled by it. "What's amazing is that it's a story that never appeared in the press, as far as I know. I never read it or heard it anywhere on the radio. I wasn't even in the country at the time it supposedly happened. And you know I'm not a queer! It was so laughable, it never really hurt me. What could it have been? A fleet of fucking sailors? Or footballers? I mean, what the hell? Jesus Christ!"
THERE IS SOMETHING REASSURING ABOUT a man who eats asparagus with his fingers. In search of a moral, we had gone to dinner at an ancient, sprawling hotel in Hertfordshire. The cavernous dining room was all but empty, and those few people who lingered at tables could not help but notice the man with the hair and the sleek Italian clothes.
"I love to come to places like this," he said. "I love it because there isn't anybody here." He ate his asparagus with his fingers (biting off the tips, discarding the stems). He ate his chateaubriand with utensils. He ordered three bottles of wine and sent one back, likening its taste to "salt water" and "dog shit." He told the wine steward to fill his glass completely at each pouring. "A bit more," he coached. "I'm a big boy."
He said this about being an elder statesman: "Nothing gives me more satisfaction than looking through the Billboard charts. There's no one else on the British charts today who was on the charts when 'Maggie May' came out." He said this about performing: "I'm a very happy man when I'm up there singing. I get up there sometimes and halfway through a song my arms are going and my legs are going. I think, 'Hold on, mate! You're forty-six! You shouldn't be doing this.' Then I think, 'Yes, you should.' I get my rocks off when I'm playing." And he said this about his heart: "Sometimes I've fallen short of the mark, in terms of loyalty. But for the first time in my life, I'd rather see my cock cut off than be unfaithful to this woman. I really would. It doesn't even cross my mind. I sound so corny, but I'd given up hope of ever feeling like this in my entire life, the way I feel about her. I just grew so complete and centered. I'm no longer on the hunt."
Also, and this seems an essential point, he said that he laughs in his sleep now. He dreams the dreams of heroes and kings. "Great fights, great fights," he said of them, beaming. "I always have fights with gargoyles in my dreams. I had a real punch-out with one last night, a terrible one. I thought it was maybe because I didn't have anything to drink last night, and my body didn't know what happened to it. Or it was because Rachel wasn't there. But what a puncher! They're punching me and we're all sweaty. I loved it. It doesn't worry me in the least.
"It was quite hilarious," he said, leaving all interpretation to other minds. "All I know is that I'm just punching the fuckers, and I'm laughing and punching some more."
By his own account, he has not yet lost a fight.