OUTSIDE THE WINDOW OF ROD STEWART’S LONDON flat, the sun begins its slow descent, casting a romantic glow on the Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames river to the south. It’s a chilly November afternoon – the wind is whipping through the streets below – but seven floors up there’s a dead calm. Stewart paces around the small apartment, his London crash pad, sipping tea brewed by his personal assistant, lamenting the night before, when he and his best mates hopped aboard a private jet to fly to Lisbon, where his favorite soccer team, Celtic, was trounced, 3-0.
“I flew all the way to fucking Portugal to see my team get beat,” he says. “Everything was absolutely marvelous until the game started. Then, as we say, they all went pear-shaped. And I’m Celtic’s most famous supporter, so when the other team scored their first goal, the whole stadium looked at me like I’m responsible. It was horrible.” As if he’d admonished himself a million times before, he adds, “I put far too much energy into football.” And it’s probably true; he’s definitely tired, cranky and a little hung over. But Stewart won’t wallow in misery much longer. A minute later he slips off his heavy brown coat and opens the door onto a deck. He takes a seat, shimmies out of a silk scarf to expose his red, splotchy clavicles, takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and tilts his head back. Despite the frigid temperature, Stewart is now tanning, attempting to absorb as much remaining sunlight as possible.
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” he says. “A glass of wine will cheer me up.”
And that’s all it takes. On a day like today, as soon as Stewart takes that first sip of wine – on his way to three glasses, two white and one red, which he calls his daily average – and today’s alcohol meets up with last night’s, Stewart is himself again. And days like this are few and far between: Celtic are enjoying a fairly successful season and, though Stewart may consider it to be less important than football, he is still in the midst of a remarkable career resurgence that began in 2002 with It Had to Be You… The Great American Songbook. That collection of standards, including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “You Go to My Head,” spawned three sequels over the next three years – As Time Goes By, Stardust and Thanks for the Memory. Together, these four CDs have sold 16 million copies around the world, garnered Stewart his first-ever Grammy (for Stardust) and brought fans back to his high-energy shows, which mix his old hits like “Tonight’s the Night,” “Hot Legs” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” with even older hits from his standards repertoire. On his three-year world tour of stadiums and arenas, called “From Maggie May to the American Songbook,” no ticket went unsold. (In 2005 he topped Dave Matthews Band, the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, Green Day and Bruce Springsteen, grossing $49 million in ticket sales.)
And in October, Stewart released Still the Same… Great Rock Classics of Our Time, in which he takes on hits by Van Morrison, Bob Seger, the Pretenders and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Still the Same debuted on the charts at Number One, which is what sets Stewart apart from contemporaries like Paul Simon, Elton John. Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones: While those legends still sell out concerts around the world, Stewart still sells records. “They’re not new anymore,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. When you’ve been around the block so many times, it’s hard to come up with something different. Elton – he put so much love into that album [The Captain & the Kid] – he told me, ‘This is the one.’ And I feel so sorry for him.” He smiles, because Elton John, whom Stewart sometimes refers to as Sharon, has been a friendly adversary over the years. “But not too sorry for him, of course.”
Rock & roll crooner is just Stewart’s latest successful reinvention. His roller-coaster ride of musical tastes began directly under the family piano at their home in North London. “We used to have house parties around Christmas and birthdays, and I used to sneak downstairs and hide underneath our small grand piano,” he told me. “I’d watch everybody dancing and getting drunk. They were awful dancers, really, but I think it gave me a very early love of music.” After his older brother took him to see a Bill Haley and the Comets show, Rod got turned on to rock & roll. Soon he saw Otis Redding and began a lifelong love affair with Sam Cooke.
In his teens he busked on the streets of Paris and Spain, performing folk and blues songs. “Those were my beatnik years,” he remembers fondly. “I was so smelly.” (He tells me that when he visited a Parisian cafe where he used to work, he and his fiancée, Penny Lancaster, were serenaded with “Tonight’s the Night”; they tipped the busker 100 francs.) When he returned home, his parents burned his filthy clothes. “After that, I became a mod,” he says. “And you couldn’t get me out of the bathroom.”
Then came the first of what Stewart now calls “the three key points of success.” Drunkenly playing the harmonica on a train platform one night in 1964, he was taken under the wing of British bluesman Long John Baldry, whom he’d perform with for years, and who would lend Stewart albums to study, like Muddy Waters’ Live at Newport, before Stewart then passed them along to Mick Jagger. After Jeff Beck took him to America in 1968, Stewart’s third key move was to join the Faces, a phase of his life, between 1969 and 1975, that he barely recalls due to the band’s propensity for getting shit-faced before gigs. Regardless, the Faces were one of the greatest party-rock outfits ever.
Still the Same… Great Rock Classics of Our Time is Stewart’s thirtieth solo album. Like his standards albums, it was co-produced by J Records founder Clive Davis, under whose watchful eye Stewart has been thriving since 2002. “It’s a good relationship with Clive,” says Stewart. “It’s give and take.” Davis has been extraordinarily involved with Stewart’s recent projects. Stewart had hoped to follow up the Songbook series with an album of soul covers, but Davis nixed it for the time being. “Clive said, ‘No, it’s about time we did a rock album,'” Stewart says.
Although Stewart did laugh off a couple of Clive’s suggestions like “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and even “Dancing in the Dark”: “I go, ‘Are you crazy? Sometimes you are so off the mark!’ Some songs you just have to leave alone.” When I suggest that remaking songs like Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” or the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” might qualify as songs that should be left untouched, Stewart sums up his approach. “It’s a fine line,” he says. “When the album was finished, I said, ‘Thank God we didn’t make any huge mistakes.’ It’s hard for me to describe why we chose these songs. Bob Seger’s ‘Still the Same’ is tremendous, and Bonnie Tyler’s ‘It’s a Heartache’ still sounds really good on radio. And we did A-B them to see if I added something extra with the vocal, and I did bring them up to date a little bit. The old pipes give it a little lift!” But I uncover a sore spot with Stewart when I bring up the fact that though the album has “rock” in the title, it fails to truly rock, in the classic-rock sense – “It never really rocks out, no,” he says. “But it’s a nice groove, it jells well together.” Later, without further provocation, he comes back to it. “We don’t go too fast,” he says. “I’m very aware of that. I shall take it to the board the next time we meet!” He said that on his next album, which will likely follow the same template – plundering the endless resource of classic rock – he’d like to break the mold. “Clive!” he yells into my tape recorder. “Give me some good uptempo songs to sing!”
“I was trying to find those songs that would be a natural fit for Rod,” says Davis from his office in Manhattan. “I don’t care how brilliant an actor or actress is, they can play some roles better than others.” And Davis was quick to catch on to the lucrative possibilities of what he calls “paying tribute to copyright” with Stewart’s last five albums. “It’s brought Rod’s music, whether he wrote it or not, to his largest audiences,” he says. Stewart’s record company has also provided him with opportunities to hawk his product on TV, as opposed to generating interest through radio. In addition to a memorable turn on American Idol (where he gave contestant Kellie Pickler a bemused and lascivious look), Stewart has appeared on every major U.S. talk show, from The Tonight Show to Martha Stewart. And he’s his own best goodwill ambassador. He is as charming on TV as he is in real life – humble, with a childlike enthusiasm and quick wit. (He even farted near me at one point and tried to blame it on me.) When he learned that Still the Same debuted at the top of the charts in the U.S., he sent a bagpipe band, replete with kilts and champagne for sixty employees, into J Records’ weekly meeting.
It doesn’t take more than a glass of wine for Stewart to get his pipes going. And his vocal proficiency makes for brief studio visits. With his longtime guitarist John Shanks leading a band of crack session cats, Stewart says that five of the thirteen songs on the new album were done in a single six-hour session. His vocal attack on a song is not premeditated. “It’s instinct,” he says. “It comes instantly. I change the melody a little bit – that’s what I give it.” And at that rate, it didn’t take him long to record an international best seller; he’s got more exciting things to do, he says. “In the studio I have the attention span of a flea.”
Though Stewart says that none of the songs on Still the Same have any special meaning for him, it was Penny Lancaster’s idea that he include “Crazy Love” on the disc. Next year, Stewart will marry Lancaster, whom he calls “a gorgeous specimen of womanhood” and who has made a name for herself as a model and photographer. He met her in 1999, after his marriage to model Rachel Hunter had fizzled out. On November 27th, Stewart and Lancaster’s son Alastair will celebrate his first birthday, and his mom is proud to report that he recently took eleven consecutive steps. (Lancaster, who lives up to Stewart’s billing, also told me that they buried the placenta next to a walnut tree.) Alastair is the sixth addition to Stewart’s brood. Liam, 12, and Reneé, 14, attend school in Los Angeles and are praised by their dad for their politeness. Ruby, 19, is an aspiring singer, a big Faces fan, and turned her dad on to Ray LaMontagne. “She’s got the genuine talent,” Stewart says. “We’re trying to put a band together for her, but she wants every member to look like Brad Pitt.” Sean, 26, will soon star in a reality show called Sons of Hollywood, opposite Randy Spelling (son of Aaron). And Kimberly, 27, has been tabloid fodder for years now with her Hollywood exploits. “She’s been harassing me for a new car,” he says. “She just discovered that she had a very serious liver illness from drinking too much. So she hasn’t had a drink or a cigarette in three months, and she feels great. She said to me, ‘Dad, I’m half-Scottish. I thought I was allowed to drink a lot.’ I said, ‘No, darling, it doesn’t work like that.’ “
The family shares five homes around the world: the London apartment and spreads in the south of France, West Palm Beach, Los Angeles and in the town of Epping, about twenty miles north of London. Though he wants them to forge out on their own – and told Sean that he wants no face time in the reality show – he admits he has a hard time letting go. “We just built this 7,000-square-foot house on the estate [in Los Angeles] for my children,” he says. “As it was going up. I was thinking, ‘Oh, you stupid bastard. What were you thinking?’ It’s got sunken baths, walk-in closets, marble floors, moldings….I’ve got a feeling that my kids will be living with me in their thirties, and beyond.”
The next day, I drive up to the estate in Epping, past the gilded gates and down the lamp-lined driveway; an Enzo Ferrari and an empty stroller rest in the courtyard. Beyond that lies a full-size soccer field, where Stewart invites teams from all over Europe to take on his outfit, the Vagabonds Football Club. It breaks his heart, but after re-injuring his right knee at a charity game, the sixty-one-year-old has been relegated to the role of cheerleader. A chauffeur drives us in Stewart’s black Maybach to his local pub, Theydon Oak, where the opposing soccer sides polish off pints after the matches. “I haven’t paid for a drink here since 1986,” Stewart says as he leads me to a table in the back, adjacent to the corner of the bar where the Norms and Cliffs of Epping congregate on a nightly basis.
One of Stewart’s best mates owns the joint and works behind the bar, an unassuming fellow named John Padget, whom Stewart whisks all over the world to join him on tour, and who flew to Lisbon with Stewart in a private jet to watch the Celtic debacle. He pours Stewart a glass of wine so deep that it’s easy to see how three will take the edge off, and pretty soon, Stewart is at the bar, part of another conversation about football, and how Celtic will fare in their upcoming match. With another glass of wine, and then another, Stewart has finally shaken off his team’s loss and looks forward to his 2007 tour. He tells me that his time in the studio, and time spent making appearances, all lead to the performance. “All I want out of life is my wife, my kids and a career that I am always thankful for,” he says. “I’m like a kid, waiting for the twelfth of January when I can start singing for an audience in the United States.” He takes another swig. “There’s a lot more to my world, but that’s what I live for.”