Rod Stewart on ice baths, the Easter Rising and decades of success
The 73-year-old rock musician says he is not in the ‘pipe and slipper club yet’
They don’t make them like Rod Stewart anymore. Fifty-four years after an idle bit of harmonica-playing at Twickenham Station led to his first professional hire, through decades of chart success, wild days, wilder outfits and plenty of women, he saunters into the gym outpost of his Essex mansion complex looking in excellent health, from the spikes of his famous hair down to his swanky brown trainers. He’s just completed his regular workout: a gym circuit, 10 lengths in his indoor swimming pool, then a dip in his ice bath – his new favourite instalment.
“It’s changed my life,” he enthuses. “All my injuries, my dodgy knees from playing football all my life, it’s all gone. They’re expensive, but even if you have a dustbin, fill it up with ice and water, get into it so you’re waist-high, and wow, it’s the best thing.”
It’s endearing the DIY dustbin solution has even occurred to him. He’s worth £180 million (€201m) according to the UK’s Sunday Times Rich List, but once the son of a sweet shop owner from Scotland, always the son of a sweet shop owner from Scotland.
As Stewart appreciates, he’s led a charmed life. Regardless of rising from humble beginnings, not many could step from The Jeff Beck Group to The Faces to a solo career selling 200 million records without breaking gait. Nor could many date the unholy trinity of Playboy models, former Miss Worlds and Bond girls, and be admired (along with longtime friend and Faces bandmate Ronnie Wood) by plenty of other ladies including fellow icon Janis Joplin.
“She definitely wanted to have it off with one of us,” he recalls of the dalliance. “But she wasn’t mine or Woody’s type – we liked them a little slimmer.”
Now 73, he lives a settled existence in this home with his third wife Penny Lancaster and their two young sons. But while in The Faces, Stewart embodied the rock’n’roll lifestyle: the high-profile romances, the world tours, partying to excess and even earning a ban from the Holiday Inn chain (which prompted the band to check in to their hotels as Fleetwood Mac instead).
I ask him how he looks back on his wild days, and he’s aghast.
“I’m not in the pipe and slipper club yet, you know. I can still go mad. I’m going up to Glasgow tonight to watch Celtic, I’ll have a few bevvies and a shout and all of that. But The Faces and The Who were the original smasher-uppers of hotels,” he says with some pride.
The Faces – called The Small Faces before he and Wood changed the average height of the band – brought to the world enduring classics such as Stay with Me and Ooh La La when they weren’t misbehaving. But it all went a little wayward after Wood left to join The Rolling Stones, and Stewart’s first solo album set him on a different path (“There’s some fabulous tracks on that album, considering the title is An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, and the cover of the record is an old man chasing a child,” Stewart says of his debut). Eventually, The Faces split in 1975.
“We’d taken it as far as we could, with Ronnie Lane being such a gypsy, Woody being poached by the Stones - Mick [Jagger] said he’d never nick Woody, yeah right - and me wanting to do a solo album,” he says. “I don’t think we could have got much further. The original members of the band [Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones] always wanted it to be a band. So did me and Woody, but our careers were blossoming.”
So began his solo career proper, one that’s as much about the signature hairstyle as it is the blondes on his arm, as it is his impressively flamboyant wardrobe – much of which is found in the attic of his Los Angeles home.
“I’ve still got it all – it would fill up this room easily,” he says, gesturing to a gym floor that’s larger than my flat. “But my kids used to use a lot of it. They’d go up there, sort out all the old fashioned bell-bottomed Adidas tracksuits and stage leopard skins, all that stuff. I can’t fit into some of it anymore, it’s too thin. But usually everything comes back in fashion. Fashion comes and goes but style stays forever, as they say.”
Booze and drugs
The partying, well, that continued. The best accounts are found in his 2012 autobiography Rod, where he documents the salacious use of booze and drugs. “If I hadn’t considered the drinking/shagging/carrying-on to be at least part of my terms of employment – and if I hadn’t done my best to hold up my end as nobly as possible in those areas – I would have felt I was letting down the union,” he wrote.
It reflected in the company he kept, among them, the late, great footballer George Best.
“I knew George very well. There’s great pictures of me and him and Willie Morgan, who used to play for Manchester United,” he says, turning a little more serious. “When he’d come over to the States we’d kick a ball together, have a drink together. Every time I was with George, I was sort of awe-inspired, like I am with footballers. He loved life, but he loved the drinking side even more, and obviously that’s what eventually killed him.”
Fortunately for Stewart, he managed to not fall too deep into the downward spiral, thanks to his football obsession, he explains.
“I never smoked in my life, I dabbled a little bit, but when I was living in California and even going through my worst period – between 1979 and 1980 when I was doing a bit of that [he taps the bottom of nose with his forefinger] – it was football that kept me on a level line, because I had to get up in the morning. We had 9.30am kick-offs and it was an hour’s drive away, so you couldn’t have hangovers. That kept me on the straight and narrow. I always wanted to keep myself fit, as you can see. I didn’t buy all this stuff just to impress you,” he grins.
Along with the football, other consistencies have journeyed through the decades with Stewart, like his friendship with Wood: a rock’n’roll bromance of the ages.
Has he ever visited Wood’s Co Wicklow home, I wonder?
“I don’t think he’s there anymore, he’s here in the UK,” he says. “I don’t know where he pays his taxes, but I know he’s got a house in the country here, and one in town [London, presumably] and another in Barcelona.
“I keep in touch with him when I can, and when we meet up it’s just like 1972 again. Nothing changes. We both go back into that mad sense of humour we’ve both got.
“I sent him a picture of me the other day, sunbathing somewhere in America. I had a piece of wood about that long, that wide, can you imagine it?” he chuckles, gesturing to a piece of wood around six inches long and three inches wide. “It was a sunny day and I put it along my nose, then took a snap captioning it: sunblock. You’d have to see the picture. He thought it was amazing! Sunblock.” (With eight children to his name, he’s allowed the odd dad joke.)
Growing old gracefully and disgracefully
When it comes to constants, there’s also his musical output that’s bothered the top of the charts across six decades. While Stewart’s adapted in genre, his unmistakable gravel-grilled voice marries moments of pop fromage with tunes that still hold today, like Maggie May, You Wear It Well and Downtown Train. Then there’s the disarmingly emotive tracks that single out Stewart as one of this generation’s finest vocalists; like Angel, the anti-homophobic The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II), and Handbags and Gladrags – the latter of which gave The Stereophonics their biggest Irish hit and provided a suitably melancholy theme tune for The Office.
For those who associate Stewart simply with sharp suits and leggy women, it’s worth remembering that Every Picture Tells a Story managed the impressive feat of knocking John Lennon’s Imagine off the top of the album charts, and I Don’t Want to Talk About It / First Cut Is the Deepest kept The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen off number one on the singles charts.
More recently, he refreshed old standards with his Great American Songbook series, renewing his momentum. And now he’s finding the right balance between growing old gracefully and disgracefully.
“I can’t write songs like Hot Legs, Stay With Me, Do You Think I’m Sexy and Tonight’s the Night anymore,” he says, with the self-awareness that’s underpinned his career. “Those songs were written in my twenties and thirties and I’m not that age any more. I want to write more. . . I don’t want to say important songs, because those are important songs too, but I want to write songs on a deeper level.”
Enter Blood Red Roses, his 30th album, and one which shows the breadth of Stewart as we know him. It starts off the warming melody of Look in Her Eyes, followed by the thigh-slapper of a tune Hole in My Heart, with less-than-serious lyrics like: “I’ve been isolated/Undomesticated/I can’t even seem to boil an egg.”
Elsewhere, it’s more solemn, for example Didn’t I was written in response to the opioid crisis in the States. It’s the lead track of the album; its lyrics are taped to the makeshift rehearsal area in the corner of the gym, so he can learn them ahead of his performance on the Graham Norton Show the following week.
The Easter Rising
Then there’s his cover of Grace by Seán And Frank O’Meara, which he first heard at a Celtic cup final in Glasgow. It’s a poignant track which reflects on the bond between Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford as they married in Kilmainham Gaol, hours before Plunkett’s execution by firing squad.
There’s a video on YouTube of Stewart playing Grace for the first time in Las Vegas, with the full explanation beforehand. Think what you want about him, there’s some chutzpah in pausing the party vibe of a Vegas show to introduce this sombre point in Irish history.
“I played it in Madison Square Garden in New York too, about three months ago,” he says. “I explained the uprising and the English occupancy – I don’t say British, I say English – and I said that this was a rebellion to get the English out of their country. They just wanted freedom.
“On the screens, we showed Grace and Plunkett, the prison, and the lyrics, so everyone got it. There was dead silence in the stadium, then the applause afterwards! It’s captured everyone’s imagination.”
After he decided he wanted to cover the song, he wanted to understand the Easter Rising. “So I went to Dublin and took a tour around Kilmainham Gaol. Have you been there?” he asks. I nod.
“Jesus. The inhumanity to man. I mean, those were supposed to be civilised days. The tour guide explained the prisoners got some straw, just a bucket to shit and piss in, no blankets, and the weather would just come right into the cell. Extraordinary cruelty.”
We can imagine there won’t be a dry eye in the house when he plays Grace in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork next year.
“I know, right? I’m going to cry. My backing singers will cry. There’s a few songs I don’t want to sing every night because they’re so passionate – one is Grace, another is I’d Rather Go Blind. I purposely leave them out of the set for three nights, so that when we do them, they’re fresh. But I think when we do the British tour next year, Grace will be in every night. I wanted it to be the first single on the album. I’m so proud of it, and I love it so much.”
He’s only still announcing the dates, but it’s notable that the Cork show takes place after the Brexit deadline. Does he think it will have an effect on world tours from UK-based artists like himself?
“I don’t think so. I’m of the opinion that there should be a second referendum,” he says. “I think the public have been misled. They’ve been lied to plus London wanted to stay in, Northern Ireland wanted to stay in, Scotland wanted to stay in. And it’s turned out to be a total mess. We can’t break away and there’s going to be stalemate.
“Will it affect the music industry? I don’t think anything ever does. Take the last recession in 2008 – it didn’t affect the industry at all, and I was touring then. But I think it will affect every other industry.”
If Brexit won’t stop Stewart in his tracks I wonder if, like his good friend Elton John, he might stop touring of his own volition?
“No, never,” he says without a second’s thought. “And a farewell tour wouldn’t be 300 shows, that’s for sure. That’s his decision, but it did make me laugh. I sent him a text saying, “What, again, dear?”
Never mind the age-defying benefits of an ice bath, it’s this sparky energy that proves he’s not ready to retire just yet.
‘Blood Red Roses’ is out now. Rod Stewart plays Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork on May 25th, 2019. Tickets are on sale now.
PANEL: The five lives of Rod Stewart
Since first stepping into the limelight, Rod Stewart has evolved with the times. Here’s a look back at his most famous phases.
Rod sings the blues
Fronting the newly-formed Jeff Beck Group in 1967, the move combined a rock virtuoso with a soulful singer. Stewart lasted two-and-a-half years before tensions caused Jeff Beck to call time on the band – the day before they were due to play Woodstock.
Rod the Mod
Arguably his natural state of being, Stewart came into his own as part of The Faces, but the dapper clothing, mullet hairstyle and love of a rollicking melody endured beyond the group.
Rod does disco
Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy era – with his hair more bouffant and blonder, spandex trousers tighter and buttons down lower – is a world unto itself. Relive Stewart’s chic-influenced sounds on new track Give Me Love.
New millennium, new direction. The Great American Songbook series of classic tracks given the Rod Stewart treatment, spans five albums and various spin-offs. The standards gave him a new audience, and led nicely to a coveted residency in Las Vegas.
Now in his sixth decade as a singer, he’s settled into the life of a veteran rock star by balancing a more sensible nature while holding on to his signature style and sound.