Ronnie Wood: rock of ages

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 19/01/2014

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The way Ronnie Wood tells it, the Rolling Stones is really a giant machine. The public only gets to see the surface decoration: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and himself, plus assorted backing musicians.

But behind the superficial glamour, a monster of a contraption grinds away, its assorted cogs and gears meshing perfectly: A ruthlessly efficient mobile rock 'n' roll factory, staffed by an army of sound, lighting and staging crews, promotions and merchandise people, minders, personal chefs, life coaches and physiotherapists.

Every few years, someone turns the key and the whole huge operation lumbers back into life and begins another slow circuit around the globe.

"The organisation behind this band is enormous," says Wood by phone from his London home. "And you just have to slot in and play your part.

Once the big wheel starts turning, you just get on board and go with it, and next thing you know you've been touring for two years straight! Fortunately, we're all pretty nomadic and very used to living out of suitcases. Everyone gets a bit fidgety when we're not on the road."

They came, they saw, they made a righteous racket. The last time the Rolling Stones played here was in 2006, on their A Bigger Bang tour.

With the haircuts of 17 year olds and the wrinkled faces of granddads, their skinny frames festooned with leather, lycra, silver jewellery and flowing silk scarves, they played Jumping Jack Flash, Start Me Up and Satisfaction to roars of nostalgic approval, then headed back out to the airport.

And when they finally left the South Pacific, they took away a New Zealander with them as a souvenir. Not just any New Zealander, mind. It was Auckland neurosurgeon Andrew Law, who joined the entourage to look after Richards' battered bonce.

Richards fell from a coconut tree during a brief break in Fiji. He was, says Wood, "playing Tarzan", then hit the beach, hard. "When he said 'My teeth are bleeding!', I knew something was badly wrong."

The accident sounded like something of a joke at the time. Richards once exuded a genuine sense of dissolution and danger, now here he was, an accident-prone granddad in a Hawaiian shirt, tumbling off a teensy palm tree at a posh holiday resort.

But the fall could have killed him, says Wood. Richards was airlifted to Auckland, where Law performed an emergency operation, drilling into Richards' skull to relieve pressure caused by the fall.

"When Keith was up to it, we carried on with the tour, and that New Zealand doctor came with us for a good while. Keith's right as rain now, and can't wait to get back down there again."

The Stones are confirmed to play Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday April 5th. It will be their seventh visit to our shores, with the first, minus Wood, way back in 1965.

Now 66, Wood joined the band for their 1975 world tour, and has played with them ever since. His elegantly shambolic guitar interplay with Keith Richards is the stuff of legend.

On a good night, they bat solos back and forth with such an easy skill and grace, it's like witnessing some sort of wasted Wimbledon of riff tennis.

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But besides as a sonic singles partner, Keith Richards serves another very useful role for Wood: That of media decoy. Received wisdom has it that the primary heroin-binging, cocaine-hoovering hedonist in this band is Richards. This is not the case. As the UK's Guardian newspaper once observed, Wood is "a man so debauched, so obliterated by

drink and drugs, and such an all-round pain in the arse that Richards once put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him".

"Well, actually, that bit is wrong" insists Wood.

"It was a knife. And that was years ago. Actually, that kind of thing was nothing unusual. We used to go at each other with knives, broken bottles, all kinds of things. That was just part and parcel of those drug-crazed days. Things would get a little deranged."

An alcoholic who has been through rehab eight times, Wood was born in 1947, in the West London borough of Hillingdon.

He grew up in a tiny council house, the son of a long line of "water gypsies" who operated canal barges, and began drinking heavily from the age of 14, with his thirst increasing further still when he played in the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces during the late 60s and early 70s.

Typical day's intake? Eight pints of Guinness, a bottle of vodka, then on to Sambuca, brandy or whisky. He also snorted an entire snowfield of cocaine, causing so much nasal wear 'n' tear that he reportedly had a plastic septum inserted into his nose in 1975.

In May last year, ex-wife Jo Wood told Fox News that herself and Ronnie had been "pioneers of crack" during the 70s: "It was called freebasing, now it's called crack. You made it yourself. That was half the addiction I think, making the bloody stuff up and then you sat there and smoked it like a looney. Ronnie always used to say, "I never did chemistry at school so I'm making up for things".

Wood sighs when I mention it.

"Yeah, OK, but even in the depth of my using, I knew I'd never cross over a certain line. Even when I was right out there on the edge, my gypsy genes gave me a bit of immunity, I think. But then, suddenly, nothing worked anymore. The drink and the drugs started to backfire on me and I'd get in these really bad moods. I became a real pain in the arse. I was forever telling my best friends to f... off and so on. It wasn't good. Something had to change, so I went back to rehab, and next year will be my fifth year of recovery. I'm really enjoying it, too."

During an earlier spell of sobriety in 2003, Wood claimed he hadn't played a single unintoxicated gig in 40 years.

Does he think his massive drug and alcohol intake was a way of managing his anxiety, helping take the edge off when playing in front of such enormous crowds?

"Nah, mate. For me, the time off stage is far more terrifying. I can't wait to get on stage, generally, for a bit of peace and quiet! Nah, drugs are more useful for cheering you up during all the boring stuff like travelling or waiting around, but over the years you learn by experience that you're better off in your own skin than in a self-induced stupor. I play with much more clarity, now, and I keep surprising myself by what I can do when I'm clear and focussed. I love goin' out there with Keith and practising our ancient form of weaving as we build up this thing together. It's an intuitive sort of interchange, built around what we leave out as much as the notes we play. It's magical, really. And it's great to have [early Stones guitarist] Mick Taylor back in the picture as well. With him on board for this tour, the weaving gets even more intriguing, as the audience will see when we get down there."

A highly unscientific survey conducted among friends who've bought tickets to the upcoming show revealed a common theme: Better see them now, 'cos they may not be touring much longer.

With a combined age of 277 years, the four principal band members are not so much spring chickens as autumn boilers these days. The Strolling Bones, some call them.

But Wood seems mystified that anyone cares about their advancing years. The players he obsessed over as a teenager - Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Elmore James - kept right on playing until their hearts stopped beating. He hopes to do the same.

Wood was still in short pants when he made his musical debut, aged 9, in his brothers' skiffle band. After a couple of short-lived mod bands, he joined the Jeff Beck Group in 1967, moving on a few years later to the Faces alongside close mate Rod Stewart. But he always kept one eye on the Stones.

"I always knew I was gonna end up in this band. They were already mates, of course. I remember waking around the periphery of Hyde Park in 69, and this big car pulls up through a whole sea of people and out steps Mick and Charlie. Mick comes up and says, 'Ullo, Face', which is what he called me then, 'cos I was in the Faces. And we talk away for a while and then they say, ‘OK, we gotta go and play; we'll see you soon'. And I said, ‘Yeah, sooner than you think'. I was always confident I would end up in this band, and a few years later I did. Mind you, I did a 17-year apprenticeship before they finally made me a full member! But I wasn't looking at the pay packet; I was looking for an adventure, and I certainly got that."

During this 17-year "apprenticeship", Wood was only paid wages when the band toured. To earn a crust during down times, the former art student picked up his paint brushes again, and still exhibits regularly to this day. Most of the work's pretty ropey, but that doesn't stop people buying it: In 2005, his painting Beggars Banquet sold for £1 million pounds.

"I've done a lot of paintings of us on stage, alongside some abstracts and landscapes, animals and horses and ballerinas. All kinds of stuff. I love capturing the movement of animals or the human form. It gives me as much reward as I get playing music. And since I've been sober, I've got better at it. The colours are clearer and the compositions make much more sense somehow. I'm lucky I've still got good eyesight so I can do it, though my hearing's suffered over the years, of course."

It has to be said that Wood is no oil painting himself. Prominent nose, dark little eyes, a chain-smoker's rough skin, seriously sunken cheeks - the result of sebaceous cysts from heroin - and a huge Adam's apple, with deep creases running from nose to mouth like those on a ventriloquist's dummy.

At one time, he took so many drugs, his teeth started falling out. Wood claims he glued one of them back in himself.

At 66, he's still skinny as a teenage boy and sports the same "mod rooster" feather-cut he's had since 1973.

"Yeah, that's right, and I don't dye it, neither. People think I black up me hair, but I don't. It's my old gypsy genes that keep it so black. I still wear girls' 27-waist jeans, too. Even through all the drinking and the drug days, I stayed like a stick, with hardly a morsel of flesh on me. Just big enough to hold up a guitar, you know. Since I sobered up, my body's in even better nick; I feel younger and look better. My new wife also keeps me young."

Ah, yes. The new missus. It came as a shock to many when Ronnie walked out on Jo Wood, his wife of 23 years, in 2008. Theirs was regularly held up as one of those rare rock 'n' roll marriages, a union that endured, despite the odds.

And then, suddenly, it didn't. Ronnie succumbed to cliche, running off to Ireland with a teenage cocktail waitress. He later married theatre company owner Sally Humphreys on December 21, 2012. Jo pronounced him a "plonker" in the press, but admitted she loved him anyway.

"The tabloids tried to make a big deal out of my marriage split, yes, but they couldn't dig up any dirt on Sally. She's a proper girl, Sally; a good working girl with her theatre work and so on. It's been fantastic, being with her. We've had such a great adventure together. And I'm still very good friends with Jo. We bump into her quite often. She gets on very well with Sally, so I'm very fortunate."

Within a month or so, the Rolling Stones machinery will sputter back into life for its latest circumnavigation of the globe.

Wood's already itching to go. He's really looking forward to catching up with the guys, he says; between tours, they hardly see each other.

"We're all so different and we all lead such different lives. It's intriguing, even for us, when we get together again before tours. People would be amazed to be a fly-on-the-wall at those rehearsals, I can tell you! Mick's extremely different in temperament to Keith, and then there's Charlie, in his own reclusive way, who'd prefer to be sitting on his Chesterfield watching the snooker or the cricket. But through it all there's a strong sense of camaraderie between us that transfers through to the music. We appreciate each other's differences, and that's helped it work over the years. None of us holds grudges when things go wrong."

It helps that they all come from broadly similar backgrounds, reckons Wood. He may have flash houses in London, Barcelona and Ireland, but he hasn't forgotten his humble beginnings on a tiny estate, the first generation of barge people to be raised on dry land.

"Yeah, I'm proud to have that water gypsy blood. It keeps my feet on the ground, and I never forget where I came from. All of us are like that, really. Everyone in this band came from little council houses and so we appreciate everything that has come our way over the years. We never forget our roots. I still go and visit me mum's sister, my aunty Mary, on the same old estate where I grew up. She's 99 this year and still rocking it, you know. Hopefully I'll be the same, if I get to her age."

Rolling Stones play Auckland's Mt Smart stadium on April 5. Limited tickets still available at ticketmaster.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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