Rod Stewart: Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band…

Rod Stewart’s autobiography shows that knowing too much about cultural heroes might be part of what’s wrong with the culture…

Rod: The Autobiography by Rod Stewart (image courtesy Goodreads)

There have been a spate of rock star autobiographies over the last decade or so from classic rock’s legends. One assumes that after having so much written about them that was true/untrue/somewhere in between they wanted to have their say.

Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton – all have written interesting, if at times slightly self-indulgent, biographies of themselves (how self-written these “autobiographies” are is probably arguable from a strictly literary standpoint). From these we learn that Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend had troubled childhoods and that each has been long engaged in the “search for self” because of childhood trauma. We also learn that Bob Dylan and Keith Richards are never, ever, ever, ever going to give anything away that might break the front or dispel any of the mystique they have long worked at building around themselves. If they can do so, they will die in a way so that we will exclaim “That is so cool!”

And then there’s Rod.

Rod: The Autobiography is 380 pages long including the discography. For the most critical readers – those rock music connoisseurs who condemn Rod for his twin sins of “breaking up The Faces”(which isn’t true, Keith Richards broke up The Faces so that he could get Ron Wood into The Rolling Stones) and of leaving both England and his greatest artistic period, the early solo albums, behind and becoming rock’s greatest lounge singer – the last 200+ pages will be a trying experience of trying to keep the various beautiful blondes sorted out all while lamenting how Rod Stewart prostituted his great talent to Mammon and mammaries.

That’s not the experience one should have. I have been as critical as any serious student of rock (and I have been on both sides of the fence as both musician and as commentator) of Rod’s seeming squandering of his talent as a singer for the sake of popularity. But after reading Rod’s explanations (and, to be sure, excuses), I am inclined to forgive him. Before those of you who find him permanently unforgivable go apoplectic, allow me to explain.

One characteristic that makes Rod: The Autobiography an enjoyable read is Rod’s wonderfully self-deprecating self-assessments. He freely admits, for example, that he never got further than a try out with a low level English soccer team (one of the myths that has long surrounded Stewart is that he could have been a top footballer had he not become a major rock star). His love for the game (and the strong bond that love forged between him and his father and brothers and that he now shares with his sons) is clearly genuine and endearing. In fact, one of the strongest messages in Rod is that of the importance of family to the man – and for a guy with as many wives, ex-wives and children – both in and out of wedlock – as Rod Stewart has, he shows remarkable love and affection for them all. One can’t help but think of Rod The Mod as a better exponent of “family values” than many who proclaim their support of that ever more amorphous commodity. He’s equally self-ridiculing of his love of silly clothes, his fastidiousness about his hair, and his fascination with all creatures long-legged and blonde. If ever tone helped a writer, it helps Rod Stewart. The most bittersweet, touching chapter in the entire book is about his time with The Faces – the excess, the egos, the joys, the disappointments, the collapse of the group and its ultimate validation: induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In as good an example of what we might call “the Stewart style” of storytelling, he ends the chapter with this anecdote about his mother to sum up his involvement in one of rock’s most influential bands:

Still, I’m mindful of the last days before my dear old mum died in 1991, aged eighty-five, when i would go to see her and sometimes find her sleeping. The confusion was most certainly upon her in those last few years, and very often she would wake up and say, ‘Oh. hello, Roddy. How are the Faces doing?’

They’re doing fine, Mum.

The other, perhaps less flattering to Rod Stewart, characteristic of Rod: The Autobiography that makes it a worthwhile read for both casual and serious music fans alike is how revelatory it is of a rich rock star’s alternating acute self-awareness and acute lack of self-awareness. When Rod talks about his work – and his lack of self-confidence concerning his early solo work, the work that made his artistic reputation – he is keenly self-aware that he is not and never has been a good judge of his own achievement, especially so when he has just completed an album. In his personal life he is keenly aware that he was a prodigious – and often self-destructive – philanderer and that he has cost himself some relationships that might have been extraordinary with his caddish behavior. But within a few sentences Rod may digress (and a charming feature of this book is that Rod offers numerous chapters called “Digressions” wherein he addresses such weighty matters as his deep love for soccer, his trademark spiky hairstyle, and his affection for flashy sports cars, particularly Lamborghinis) and talk about how madly in love he was with this or that 20 year old tall, blonde underwear model who’d caught his eye or about how he spends too much money chartering private jets to fly him to soccer games.

I’d like to say that this alternating insight/lack thereof makes Rod a complicated guy. That would explain, at least, some of the self-revelatory self-indulgence of this book.

It does not.

Rod Stewart may be a lot of things, but a complicated guy he isn’t. He’s relatively binary – he loves his family, fast cars, beautiful blondes, and being a rich rock star. He dislikes England’s national team (soccer, of course), a couple of former staffers who betrayed his trust, the paparazzi, and the idea of being poor. Certainly he has ambivalence – he worries that he wasn’t a good enough father to his older children (with reason). But he is about equally ambivalent about what “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” did to his legacy as a rock singer. He knows he can’t write great material with any frequency any more. But he’s inordinately proud about how well his Great American Songbook series of albums sold (over 20 million units). And he waffles between thoughts of retirement and plans for going on until he simply can’t anymore.

What Rod: The Autobiography reveals is that, to paraphrase a line from contemporaries of his, he’s just a singer in a rock and roll band.

And he’s okay with that. So I suppose we must be okay with that, too.


5 replies »

  1. nice, nice review, jim. great punch line.

    and i do think that sums it up. just read a sue grafton (who may well go down as the best of the american genre writers when it’s all said and done) and she talks about falling in love with a musician who projected angelicism on the stage, marrying him and being disappointed, and how it wasn’t his fault. it’s not rod’s fault he’s not what we might wish him to be.

    lady diana once admitted being “as thick as two planks.” it was never her fault that we projected a level of thoughtfulness and insight on her that she never had.

    rod stewart, as best i can tell, is an amiable soccer oaf who can sing a bit. he behaved irresponsibly because, in the words of columist ray ratto explaining tiger woods, “because he could.”

    i saw him live a few years ago at a mike milken charity do. he’s a wee fellow. it’s hard to get the image of him in bed with some of his tall ladies out of my mind now.

    and anyway, why in the heck did richards want woods in the stones? they look too much alike and play too much alike.

    • Great comments, Otherwise. I probably should read some Sue Grafton.

      That projection thing is examined beautifully in “Broadcast News,” don’t you think. Under appreciated film, that, in my opinion.

      That question about why Keef wanted Woody in the Stones? Sometime I’ll take you to a cocktail party full of pro rock musicians. I suspect you’ll hear the consensus as that the choice was more about Keef than Woody.

      BTW, Faces when they were relatively sober? As good or better than the Stones as players. Mick and Keith had it all over them as songwriters, though – and that’s where the legacy is made…. Faces wrote a few great, many very good songs. Stones wrote many great songs. And many very good….

  2. Very fine book review. Thoughtful, nice witty touch. He did tons and tons of covers from his early days, so the Songbook work isn’t surprising. Like all of us, he is who he is.