Rod Stewart Faces the American Dream

A solo spotlight, a Hollywood mansion, a glamorous girlfriend and lower taxes . . . Every picture tells a story, don't it?

November 6, 1975
Rod Stewart and Britt Ekland
Rod Stewart and Britt Ekland
Annie Leibovitz

By sundown the 55,000 people packed into the Los Angeles Angels' Anaheim Stadium for this "sunshine festival" have stolidly endured six hours of a rather warm day, karmically dubious hot dogs and runny Cokes. According to opener Mick Fleetwood, the erratic sound system at the stadium began to function properly only at the end of his group's set and was capable, during Loggins and Messina's marathon performance, of creating the illusion in a listener of being simultaneously in two separate moments. Yet few leave the stadium. The thousands wait, restless but secure in the knowledge that sooner or later they will be treated to Rod Stewart and the Faces.

The 500 or so guests milling in the backstage visitors' area are not so convinced of that eventuality, as bits of information quickly spread among them: The truck bearing Faces instruments and sound equipment from Barstow has broken down. A helicopter has been hired to airlift the guitars and amps. The helicopter will not arrive in time. The necessary equipment is hastily rented from Studio Instruments; but will Ron Wood deign to play a rented guitar? The 15-piece string section in attendance backstage is told it will not be needed this evening. The Tower of Power horns will go on as scheduled. But will the Faces?

The stage seems perfectly set for some sort of resolution – symbolic at least – of the rumors, suppositions and expectations swirling about this group since its inception and coming to a head in recent weeks. Rod Stewart, who has maintained a solo career throughout his tenure with the band, has just released his first solo album for Warner Bros., the Faces' record company, ending the dual-label arrangement that had seen his own LPs released by Mercury and that had drawn attention to the disparity between his own well-focused output and the unevenness that has always marred the Faces' recordings. The album, Atlantic Crossing, his first to be recorded completely in America and the first to be made without any assistance from the other Faces, is selling briskly in America and phenomenally well in England, where the Gavin Sutherland-written single from it, "Sailing," is perched at Number One. Rod, during a four-month separation from the rest of the group preceding this tour, was quoted as saying the experience of working with the pros at Muscle Shoals had made him realize he had been wearing blinders for years, and that he had never been closer than he was right then to taking leave of the band.

Adding to the logic of a Faces rift is the unprecedented situation of their guitarist Ron Wood ("Woody" to one and all), who is also co-rhythm-lead with Keith Richards for the Rolling Stones. Surely, pundits insist, Woody (who also works at a solo career of modest proportions) must sooner or later make a choice – and who could refuse the chance to be a Stone? Then there is the factor of Rod Stewart's new girlfriend, movie actress Britt Ekland, the former wife of Peter Sellers and former companion of Lou Adler. Gossips posit this relationship isolates Rod still more from the rest of the group.

Little details of the way this Faces tour is being handled do nothing to discourage the thought that Warners would welcome Rod's cutting his group ties; the in house tour itineraries, for instance, are titled not "Faces" but "Rod Stewart."

William Gaff, manager of both Stewart and the Faces claims that there is no truth to the rumors. In explanation for the itineraries he says, "Rod Stewart's name might have been promoted more for this tour but that's because he has a new album. If the Faces had a new album, we would have promoted them more."

Rod and Woody, from the sanctuary of their dressing trailer backstage at Anaheim (which is being combed for signs of tension, for portents of the Faces' fate) make faces for photographers through a window; Ron kisses the glass. Rod emerges a few moments later in full makeup, blinking his blue eyelids and swigging Courvoisier. He stands for more pictures, surrounded by admirers. Tetsu wanders through the crowd, nodding and grinning, a girl on each arm. An airplane traces Rod Stewart and Faces in white exhaust against a darkening sky and the multitude on the other side of the barriers shrieks when the final letter appears.

When boredom has reached bursting point, suddenly the band is striding toward the stage and everything falls into place. The visitors all are caught up in the momentum. Those who were ready to give up and leave are running for positions: All sorts of precarious but plausible perches become apparent and groupies and stars alike scramble for a look at the show.

From the first, the sound is terribly muddy, with the guitar nearly inaudible. Indeed, Woody hardly plays his borrowed axe for the first tunes, seeming simply to hold it. The group is full of flash: Woody, cocky with cigarette and oversize sunglasses, wearing a white Japanese hapi over a blue Turkish blouse; Rod, peeling off silk to reveal his deeply tanned torso, darker than his madeup face. But the sound makes any kind of pacing impossible. The microphones of this hastily assembled system – some of it loaned by Fleetwood Mac – keep giving out, in a systematic fashion that Rod chooses for most of the concert to interpret as humorous. As soon as the band achieves a comfortable groove, his voice mike blows. Rod, laughing, runs to another at the side of the stage. It too goes out midchorus. Gamely he rushes to a third which is good only for another few bars. The sequence repeats itself mercilessly.

The worse it gets, the more Stewart works to keep the audience occupied and involved, to get them to create the experience the erratic electronics are denying them. "Come on, we really need you now," he urges. He has them clapping in time and, for two numbers, singing the words with him. Between tunes he apologizes for the atrocious conditions. He bemoans the absence of the string section. He says how nice they wanted it to be and his distress is unfeigned. "How about Loggins and Messina, weren't they great?" he asks, cuing applause and covering a lull during which technicians strain to patch up what can't be; and, "Let's hear it for the Tower of Power horns!"

Rod begins to be more at ease. He sits down to rest at two points, once during Kenny Jones's drum solo. Now, reenergized, he dances forward in locomotive fashion, hands pumping in front of him like pistons; the audience roars. He turns a sitting somersault. He pulls Woody over to him and they make semihumping gestures at one another.

But the equipment, temporarily acquiescent, crankily reasserts itself and at last Rod gives in to his frustration. When the mike he is shouting into goes dead, he picks it up by the stand, lifts it above his head and hammers the stage with it, seven, eight, nine, ten times. A decidedly non-Faces moment, but cathartic. If the crowd has not yet realized the extent of the band's effort to overcome conditions, it does now. As Rod and Woody, Mac, Kenny, Jesse and Tetsu jolt through their final songs, it all comes together in a jagged but coherent whole. The horns reappear for "Twisting the Night Away," the last official selection, a rousing finale that has the stadium crowd and the band reeling and rocking as one. The Faces have somehow managed to make this potential disaster work for them. It's been a strange performance by a headlining band but its final moments are powerful enough to carry us jogging into the parking lot, hearts singing, heads holding the memory of our last glimpse of the group: pushing their amps over in disgust on their way offstage.

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