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Rod Stewart: The Jeff Beck Group Could Have Played Woodstock

In new memoir, the singer remembers his first U.S. tour with the Jeff Beck Group in 1968

Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Micky Waller and Jeff Beck
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
October 19, 2012 9:00 AM ET

Rod Stewart's new memoir Rod: The Autobiography (Crown, out October 23rd) traces the singer's life from his childhood in post-war London through the rise of The Faces and his own solo career through his many marriages, divorces, children and grandchildren. In this exclusive excerpt, Stewart writes about his stint in the short-lived but highly influential Jeff Beck Group and their first tour of America, in 1968 – and his friendship with Jeff Beck Group bassist Ron Wood, who would go on to play guitar in The Faces.

No one ever forgets their first view of Manhattan, rising into the sky ahead of them, nor their first drive up its concrete canyons. Woody and I were in ecstasy – possibly even silenced momentarily, gawping at the scale of it all. In terms of architectural grandeur, it didn't have much in common with Orpington. We had been planning all along that, as soon as we had checked into the hotel, which was at around lunchtime, we would make a pilgrimage to the Apollo Theater in Harlem: the home of the musicians we had worshipped for so long from so far away. We were pretty naïve about it. We didn't even think it might be a dangerous place for a couple of unaccompanied white boys to go. One taxi driver ran his eye up and down us, in our Swinging London finery, with our combed-up hair and highly visible jet lag, and flatly refused to take us. But another drove us up there, and probably because of the way we looked – because we were unmistakably musicians or performers of some kind – nobody was bothered about us. In fact, we felt welcome. We walked under the marquee that spread the width of the pavement, paid entrance fees, and saw an afternoon session, with Martha and the Vandellas on the top of the bill, after which we left in a state of enchantment.

If you had told me, in our returning taxicab that afternoon, that one day I would be back at the Apollo to sing on a bill that included Wilson Pickett, the Four Tops, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and, indeed, Martha Reeves, I would have laughed so hard I would have paid the fare. Yet it came to pass – in 1985, for the "Motown Returns to the Apollo" show, where I took the opportunity to kneel in adulation at the feet of James Brown. I was a very proud man that night, as I am sure you will understand.

The day after my and Woody's adventure on 125th Street, we played our opening show: the first of a four-night stint at the Fillmore East, on Second Avenue in the East Village. The promoter Bill Graham had recently converted this old theater into a 2,700-capacity rock venue, an East Coast counterpart to the Fillmore that he was already running in San Francisco. We were due to go on after a band called Buzzy Linhart's Seventh Sons. Backstage, Jeff began to explain an idea he'd had about joining the first two numbers together to give the show a more theatrical opening, but I wasn't really listening to him because my attention had been drawn by an awful noise seeping through the dressing-room wall, as if cattle were being horribly tortured in an adjacent room. They weren't, though. It was the sound of Buzzy Linhart and every single one of his Seventh Sons getting the mother and father of all boo-offs from 2,700 unimpressed New Yorkers.

This didn't do much to settle my nerves, which were already badly jangled by a number of factors, including the size of the venue (so much larger than the 200- to 800-capacity clubs we had been playing in Britain) and the worrying thought that I was about to perform, for the first time, in a country in which people were allowed to own guns.

Most worrying of all, though, was the that, within the context of the whole "grungy Motown rock" idea, I was, essentially, a white guy trying to sing like a black guy, and I was fairly sure, this being America, and specifically the Lower East Side of New York, that when the curtain went back the audience would be revealed to contain some genuine black guys who might have some quite strong opinions about that kind of thing.  (I was wrong on this count: the audience was almost completely made up of white, long-haired hippies.)

So I sang the first lines of "I Ain't Superstitious" from a semi-crouching position behind the amps at the back of the stage. I wasn't entirely hiding, you understand. I was just trying to look like I was busy doing something important and technical: changing a fuse, maybe, or fixing a plug. When the first verse passed off without (a) a stage invasion by aggrieved blues purists, wanting their money and their music back, and (b) noticeable gunfire, I found the courage to stand up and come forward into the  lights.

Whereupon we proceeded to blow the place apart. Absolutely destroyed it. Hammered them with colossal versions of "Rock Me, Baby" and "You Shook Me." The theater went nuts. I looked across the stalls at one point and it was a churning sea of tossed hair, as far as the eye could see. I had never witnessed a reaction like it. I had certainly never been part of a band that generated a reaction like it. Encore after encore.

The American girls that I met on those first trips to America – the ones who came to the shows and then hung about with us backstage afterwards – struck me as more friendly, more open, and more up for a laugh than the girls in England, but not necessarily more promiscuous. They needed to be charmed and persuaded, though an English accent seemed to help. The problem was, the budgets for those Beck tours often only allowed for a twin room for Ronnie and me, which could have been restrictive, from the point of view of entertaining female company. But we were ingenious enough not to let it become so. We created a modicum of privacy for each other by building a wall between the two beds out suitcases and any conveniently loose hotel furniture, such as dressing tables, chairs, or wardrobes, converting the room into an ad hoc suite, or subdivided sex parlor.

But then, in the dark, behind the screen, going about our fumbly business, the schoolboy gene would kick in and Woody would make a ridiculous noise, and I would make an even more ridiculous noise, and then an escalating "ridiculous noise" war would break out, culminating, frequently, in one or the other of us knocking down the barrier and burying the adjacent couple in a mound of luggage and chair legs. The extent to which our companions for the night found this as amusing as we did tended, I suppose, to vary. Frankly, in retrospect, to be a groupie attached to me or Woody on those nights, you would have needed the patience of a saint. Very often we got more pleasure out of each other than we did out of the girls.

Another game we liked to organize was entitled "Wood & Stewart Operations," for the purposes of which our shared room became a surgery and we became doctors, complete with toy stethoscopes and white gowns, ready to offer girls an examination and possibly even an operation. Many girls ran a mile in the other direction at this suggestion. Many, however, didn't.

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. 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.

Our last American tour was a short jaunt up the East Coast intk the summer of 1969, taking in the Fillmore East, where it had all begun, Maryland, and the Newport Jazz Festival, with the intention to end the trip at some outdoor event or other in upstate New York in August. On the eve of that last show the band was billeted in a hotel at JFK Airport, the plan being to hop over to the event and back and fly out to London on the same night. But then the call came through. The gig wouldn't be happening. Jeff had already flown out on the 5:30 flight that afternoon. Apparently he had got wind from somewhere of a rumor, which turned out to be false, that his missus was having an affair with the gardener, so he was quite keen to go home.

The name of that festival we didn't play: Woodstock. Ah, well. Seen one outdoor festival, you've seen them all.

Adapted from ROD: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY Copyright © 2012 by Rod Stewart. To be published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc., on October 23rd.

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