The music of Rod Stewart helps us to remember many of the small but extremely important experiences of life which our civilization inclines us to forget. Compassion. Care for small things. The textures of sorrow. Remembrance of times past. Reverence for age. Stewart has a rare sensitivity for the delicate moments in a person’s existence when a crucial but often neglected truth flashes before his eyes and then vanishes. The amazing character of Stewart’s work is largely due to the fact that he can recall these fragile moments of insight to our minds without destroying their essence.
A I listened to Gasoline Alley the first time, I found myself saying again and again, “He can’t understand that.” But he does. The tone of his voice and the authenticity of his phrasing let you know that he’s doing much more than just singing the required lyrics. “The one who shared just about all he had / In a one sided love affair,” he moans in “Lady Day.” As he goes on he admits “I get scared when I remember too much” and at the end of the song recognizes that the girl to whom his confession is dedicated is not even listening.
I suspect that experiences like this are virtually universal. Ever pour your heart out to someone and then find that he (or she) just couldn’t care less? These are the moments Stewart is interested in and he never fails to capture their distinctive colors. It’s almost frightening.
“Country Comforts,” for example, conveys perfectly the situations, personalities and feelings of rural life. I’ve been listening to country-rock albums of the recent vintage for some time now, but Stewart’s version of this song is the only recording I can remember that awakens in me a genuine nostalgia for the rural life of my own childhood. Old Man Grayson, that stubborn old coot, refuses to use those new-fangled machines in his mill. “It just ain’t natch’rl.” “He’s a horse drawn man until his dying day.” And Grandma’s really looking fine — well, fine for 84. She asks you if you could come by an fix the barn. You say “yes,” but quietly hope that in her senility she’ll forget your promise. “Poor old girl, she needs a man down on the farm.”
At his best Stewart comes very close to Thoreau’s meaning in the early pages of Walden: “The mass of men lead live of quiet desperation.”
The two Rod Stewart albums are together the most important listening experience I’ve had since the Band’s first album. His music speaks with a gentleness and depth which seems to heal the wounds and ease the pain. The question of which of the two albums is the better does not interest me in the least. The music and spiritual content of them both is so totally extraordinary that I cannot really separate the two in my mind. Gasoline Alley is for me merely the second volume in what I hope will be a continually expanding “Collected Works” of a supremely fine artist.