Does it bother you that when critics and fans talk about the the Stones' golden age, they always mean the years before you joined – the Sixties and early Seventies?
Ron Wood: It only bothers me because I wasn't on those albums. But I can do those songs better now – as good, anyway [laughs]. Even though I wasn't on Exile on Main Street, I know it inside out. I teach the band more about those songs than they know. They'll go, "How does that middle bit go?" I have had the songs in my head for so long – I know what's happening next in each one. [Keyboard player] Chuck Leavell will know the actual structure of the songs, how they were arranged. I do it by feel.
On the 1975 tour, officially you were subbing for Mick Taylor, who had just quit. How much effort did you put into learning his guitar parts note for note?
I knew those solos in my head. I could reproduce them, with tremendous respect, on my part, for Mick [Taylor]. It's like painting: If I look at some Expressionist or Impressionist work, I can reproduce it. In the Sixties, when Mick was in the Gods, I used to stand in for him when he was too nervous to go on. He didn't feel he could play any good. He'd say, "Ronnie, please do my bit, I can't go on." I'd go, "Mick, c'mon, you're great." "No. I can't go on."
I'd play his set with the Gods, then come back out and play with my band, the Birds. Mick would come back later: "Thanks, man, for covering for me." That shyness was his downfall, whereas I just go for it. I'm not technically as good a guitar player as Mick.
What kind of deal did you get for doing the '75 tour?
I'm the world's worst businessman. I did my own negotiations. I got a hundred grand for the whole tour. I was standing next to [photographer] Robert Ellis. He said, "Are you sure you don't need help with that contract?" I said, "Why?" "You've got it upside down."
Did you think of the '75 tour as an audition? "If I get this right, I've got the job."
The Stones were the band I wanted to be in. The Faces were corroding at the time. There was a really bad vibe. And without the engine room concentrating, you can't have that whimsical feeling up front. I thought, "If I can get these 140 songs that have suddenly landed on my head…" It was intense — to get hit with all of those Mick Taylor lines, to echo what Brian [Jones] had done, then to add my own bluesy input to it all.
Charlie thought I was a natural. Mick asked me to join. Keith asked me. But we never formally announced it. For some reason, they never wanted to say I was the man. They just let it seep in.
You gave up a lot to join the Stones: the writing and singing you did with the Faces, your starring role as guitarist.
It was a relief to be in the Stones: "Let somebody else call the shots." I respected what Keith did as a guitarist. But there were lots of things I could take over, like solos and doing lots of slide guitar, which is my big dream.
I miss the songwriting. I'm credited for songs with the Stones: "Everything's Turning to Gold" [1979 B side], "Dance, Pt. 1" [on Emotional Rescue, 1980], "Black Limousine" [on Tattoo You]. But it's a futile thing, because they've got songs stacked up on the back burner. I'll throw suggestions in, but they'll go, "Sorry, mate, we've got these hundred ahead of you at the moment." So I do things like film music. I'm working on some at the moment.
How was "Everything's Turning to Gold" written? It's rare to see a third name in the credits with Jagger-Richards.
I came up with the chorus when my son Jesse was born. It was inspired by him. I basically wrote the whole thing. Mick wrote the verses – there's few verses actually, and the whole song relies on the choruses. "Dance" was like that too. But it's like Lennon-McCartney. Mick and Keith always split the credit. If I write a song with Mick or Keith, it's immediately split three ways.
You still play with Rod Stewart on occasion. How would you compare the way you work with him and Mick onstage?
Rod lets me sing. He loves it. And he wants me to come to the front, lead the whole band. He says, "We don't do nothing without Woody's say-so" – which is wonderful. With the Stones, there is this embedded thing – legend, really. Everything we do has to have the Stones' stamp, which is an exciting thing to go along with and live up to – to bring the juice, carry it to the max. Without a challenge, we'd be boring.
Are there restrictions you have – what you play, where you stand – onstage with the Stones?
Oh, yeah. That's extremely to the forefront of my thinking as I'm playing. For example, where I lay back is very important. Otherwise I can blow the whole song. That's the same with every individual member, even the leading members of the band. Like Keith's intros – sometimes you'll get a bit of bang 'n' crash. Mick looks at me like, "What the fuck is that?" And Keith's like, "Talk amongst yourselves for a minute, and I'll try that again." [Smiles] Keith can get away with that. If it was me who fucked up an intro, I'd have the whole Stones world down on me [laughs]. But that's all right. You have to be responsible for what you can and cannot do. It's a fine line, and I love that. That's what keeps us so fresh.
There are plenty of things I can do. Mick gives you the freedom to run around. I can run around with him if I want to. The only way I can really fuck up is by being too loud. That is a sore point with Keith and Mick. I'd get my guitar wrapped 'round my head by Keith.
How do you and Keith create guitar parts for Stones songs, onstage and on records?
Keith and I have this unwritten law where he'll lay back and I'll let go, or I'll lay back and he'll go for it. We rarely conflict. Once in a while he'll growl at me: "Hey, this is me. Back off." Then a few licks later, I do the same – "Fuck you, this is me" – and he'll move back.
In the studio, we're not in the same room together. I'm usually with Mick and [co-producer] Don Was. Keith will often do his bits first. But "One-Take Ronnie" – that's what they call me. I'm always better on the first take. They'll play me the song, then they'll play it again for me to play on, and I'll do my thing: a lick here, a lick there, sometimes bring in the slide.
The new album was so improvised. I did all my overdubs in four days. On "You Saw Me Coming," that is Mick on bass, Charlie, Keith and me, cut live. We should do more like that, like in the Faces' days where we would just take off – eyes down, meet you at the end. In songs like "Stay With Me," the Faces had a structure, then we'd go for it. There are songs on the new Stones album, like "Rough Justice," that remind me of the Faces so much. I did all the slide on my original "Stay With Me" guitar. It's beaten up, but it's still got a fantastic sound.
How would you describe the changes you've seen in the relationship between Mick and Keith? And how bad did it get?
Growing up has a lot to do with the way they get on – accepting the fact that "OK, I'm never going to change this guy. And we're joined at the hip, whether we like it or not." They're sharing jokes and hugs now. They're getting on so well – as opposed to the Eighties, when it was murder being around the two of them, trying to repair things. Mick would say, "Keith hates me so much." And I'm going, "He really respects you and loves you. He just doesn't know how to say it." Meanwhile, Keith's going, "I don't know if he wants to fucking talk to me anymore." And I'm saying, "Just believe me – why don't you call each other up?"
There are stories where I was the diplomat in those days. I knew when to step in. And I instinctively know when to get out of their way. But it's all about keeping that institution – the Rolling Stones – going: "Whether you like it or not, you guys are going to have to patch it up, or forget everything."
Did Charlie's cancer force you to think about your own health and mortality, particularly your battles with alcoholism?
When I started taking drugs and drinking, I was sixteen. I hadn't grown up. I've had my aims and ambitions. I always knew what I wanted to do. But I was stoned throughout. I have a lot of growing up to do. It's a great challenge, but I think, "Fucking hell, is it too late?"
I try to do my best every day. You have a great gig or rehearsal, and afterwards you want to reward yourself. I have to go home and put CSI on the TV. Instead of having a drink, it's "Let's get involved in some forensics."
It's very difficult to shake the habits of forty-odd years – the smoking, drinking and drugging. I was talking to Keith and [saxophonist] Bobby Keys last night. The two naughty boys were in my room here, in recovery [laughs], and they're going, "Yeah, baby, remember that hotel . . . ?" And right away, that feeling rubs off. That high, the reminiscing – that's the hardest thing to deal with. I still miss the actual doing.
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