In an exclusive interview, Grant Smithies talks to Rod Stewart about our Rach, model trains, football and his New Zealand concert in February.
To some people, Rod Stewart is a bit of a joke. It's easy to see why. There's that unfashionable, endlessly "thrusting" Christian name, for one thing, and that husk-o-matic singing voice.
There's his abiding fascination for young blondes and his reputation as a bit of a piss-head. There's that peroxide-blonde dunny-brush hairstyle, that suspiciously smooth perma-tanned face, and the distressing fact that he still struts about like a randy rooster in tight leather pants, despite being 62. And, of course, there's no denying that he has sung some disgraceful old tat over the years.
The rot set in 1978 with a humungous hit that no truly tragic Christmas office party should be without. Over a relentless disco bassline he asked questions we didn't want to have to answer, most notably "Do we want his body?" and "Do we think he's sexy?"
As one British writer put it at the time: "A whole world of no."
More recently, Stewart has had a late-career makeover as a swing-era crooner. In his seemingly endless Great American Songbook series, he applied the sandpaper and golden syrup to a host of classic ditties by the likes of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin.
"I've sold 17 million of those records," says Stewart from his Los Angeles home. "Actually, it's probably closer to 20m by now, 'cos more of them sell every day. Those records had better returns than real estate, mate! A few people came out with the usual rubbish, you know, `old bastard sings the classics' and so on, but I've had criticism all me life, so it's just water off a duck's back.
"Mind you, I had some misgivings myself at first. I felt like a rock'n'roll traitor. But I enjoy singing those old songs, so I'll be singing a few of them when I come down to New Zealand."
Yes, you heard right. In February, the man they once called "Rockin' Rod Stewart" is bringing his leathery larynx to New Zealand, the birthplace of his former wife, Rachel Hunter. It will be his sixth visit.
"I love New Zealand," he says in a luxuriously throaty rasp. "I've been down there a lot over the years, of course, when we were still together. We used to have some good times, visiting all the relatives and so on. And I still get on well with Rachel. I wouldn't say it was a total bed of roses, but we get on because of our kids, Renee and Liam.
"And Rachel's grown up considerably in the last 10 years. She's seen the light of day, I think. She's become a really good person."
Stewart has been married three times, most recently to photographer Penny Lancaster earlier this year, and has fathered seven children along the way with five women, many of them models. His oldest child, born when he was 19 and immediately adopted out, is now 43; his youngest is nearly two.
Stewart seems to find his string of marriages, affairs and divorces almost as hilarious as the tabloids do. He once said: "Instead of getting married again, I'm just going to find a woman I don't like and give her a house." He laughs when I remind him. "Yes, I did say that, yet here I am, married again and happier than I've ever been. I've said a lot of stupid things in my time, of course. I once got into a lot of trouble when I said that marriage licences should be like dog licences, because then you could decide whether or not to renew them each year. People just didn't seem to see the amusing side."
Funny guy, Rod Stewart: warm and friendly, with a laugh like a concrete mixer. Great bloke to go out drinking with, I'd imagine, as long as you could avoid having to talk about his latest music, which is far from flash.
Faced with Stewart's recent saccharine ballads, it's hard to believe that the late "Godfather of Soul" James Brown once called him "the world's greatest white soul singer".
During the early 70s, in particular, Stewart was on fire. While nurturing a parallel career as lead singer of The Faces, he knocked out four killer solo albums, each featuring a ragged blend of rock, folk and blues, predominantly played on acoustic instruments yet fired up with the energy of the very best rock'n'roll.
"People say to me, `Why don't you make another record like Every Picture Tells a Story or Gasoline Alley?"' he says. "But I'm 62 now; my feelings are different. It's like asking Bob Dylan to write "Blowing In The Wind" again. It's bizarre!"
And then, God bless him, Stewart says one of the most candid things I've ever heard from an ageing rock star. "To be honest, people my age, like Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Elton John and the Rolling Stones, a lot of us haven't really got anything to say any more. The recent records I hear by those artists, they're just endlessly going over old ground. We've been going so long we've all run out of new things to say. That's why I've pretty much given up writing songs these days. I'd rather choose somebody else's songs and cover those instead."
Born in London in 1945, Stewart was the fifth and youngest child of Scottish couple Robert and Elsie Stewart, who ran a newsagents. He grew up obsessed with football and music, and once busked around Europe before being deported from Spain for vagrancy.
A few years later he was chucked out of an early version of The Kinks because the drummer's mum hated his voice, and eventually joined the Jeff Beck Group in 1968, making two well regarded albums before joining The Faces.
He was a sight to behold in those days. There's a famous photo of Rod in the late 70s, skinny as string, walking down the gangway of his private jet, wearing huge sunglasses and a white fur coat, the sun lighting up his blonde rooster-comb of hair, an assortment of beautiful women and burly minders trailing behind him. He looks like the epitome of international rock'n'roll playboys.
You can smell the money, the booze, the sex.
"I looked fantastic back then, didn't I?" he laughs. "Ah, those were the days. They really were." But most of the other rock stars we saw in photos like this crashed and burned soon after. They progressed from pot, acid and champagne to barbiturates, cocaine and heroin, and a few years later their paparazzi photos were more likely to capture sad scurryings into rehab clinics. "Yes, well, I've never been to rehab in me life, and I'll tell you why: football. Up until a couple of years ago I played football nearly every weekend, and you can't play with a hangover or messed up on drugs. That meant that Friday nights I went to bed with a pretty clear head, and sometimes I'd be playing Sunday morning, too, so I'd go to bed early on Saturday night as well. I looked after my body like a finely tuned Ferrari at the weekends, though during the week I admit it was more like a Ford Cortina."
These days he's a slightly dinged-up old Rolls-Royce, past its best but still humming along nicely, and still reeking of serious money. That he squandered his voice on a lot of substandard material is beyond question, but what the hell: some of his crappiest records have been his biggest sellers.
After those first four great solo albums, he veered towards schmaltz. "I Don't Wanna Talk About It", "Sailing", "Have I Told You Lately That I Loved You?", "Tonight's the Night" and "The First Cut is the Deepest" set new heights for rock sentimentality, or depths, depending on your sensibilities. Since then there have been unfortunate flirtations with disco, new wave, R'n'B and jazz standards, and then last year he returned to his mainstream pop/rock roots with Still the Same, a covers album of alleged "rock classics" including Bonnie Tyler's 40-fags-a-day croak-fest, "It's A Heartache" surely a piss-take of his own gravel-gargling style in the first place.
One of his greatest early songs, "Maggie May", is about being seduced by an older woman, but for much of his adult life, it is Stewart who has played the wrinkly seducer. The notches on his bedpost have been predominantly blonde. Why, Rodney, why? "My thing for blondes probably dates back to when I was a kid in the 50s and saw pictures of Marilyn Monroe. She was the original blonde bombshell, and maybe that first childhood infatuation stayed with me. Who knows? But really, I have no huge preference; it's just the way things turned out. With women, you have to sort through the pack. No, I take that back. That sounds terrible. What I mean is that you have to find the right one for you, and that can take time. The main reason the marriage I'm in now has worked where the others didn't is that we spent a good six or seven years courting before we tied the knot." Courting? What a lovely old-fashioned word. It's words like this that remind you that Rod Stewart former international playboy, one-time sex god is an old man now. In another decade or so he may be asking "Do you want my body?" of medical science, rather than yet another hot blonde. The fact he has evolved from priapic wild-man into genial old duffer is reinforced by the fact that his favourite hobby, after football and marriage, is model railroads. "I'm furiously working on my railroad right now, actually, because it's going to be on the cover of Model Railroader magazine at Christmas time," he says proudly. "You know, model railroads have come a long way. All the trains have little computers in them now, so there's steam and sound and so on. People think it's just a matter of clipping the rails together and watching it going round, but it's a very three-dimensional hobby because you make the landscape, too. I'm making a wee house right now, while I'm talking to you. My fingers are covered in glue, and I love it! I find it very relaxing; I can come in here to my train room and the rest of the world can go f–- itself. I'd recommend model railways to anyone, so put that in your article, but don't call it a f–-ing train set, or I'll come down to New Zealand and lay one on you."
- Rod Stewart plays Auckland's Vector Arena on Monday, February 18. Tickets on sale from November 8 through Ticketmaster.
- © Fairfax NZ News