Rod Stewart’s bestselling memoir joins a litany of autobiographies this season from fellow musicians including Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson and former Kiss drummer Peter Criss.
While Rod lacks some of the serious introspection Townshend delivers in Who I Am, the book avoids the rambling nature of Young’s Waging Heavy Peace and the unpleasant score-settling of Criss’ truly vile Makeup to Breakup. Reading Rod feels like pulling up a barstool next to a lovable rapscallion as he tells tales of rock and roll excess, two-timing a Playboy Playmate with another, bedding a Bond Girl, fronting two of rock’s most respected acts, snorting cocaine with Elton John and sporting rock’s most famous hair. If this all sounds like a good way to pass a few hours, Stewart’s Autobiography comes with a hearty recommendation. In fact, Rod is everything Stewart’s music hasn’t been in decades: original, witty, honest and fun.
Stewart’s story begins with little drama. The Stewart clan, already four children deep, was close and welcomed his arrival 67 years ago, even if he was, as he writes, a mistake. “Definitely some kind of oversight in the family-planning department.” The family joke went: “Roddy was dad’s slipup. But, as Dad’s slipups go, a fairly lucrative one.”
The entirety of Rod keeps humor handy. In 1968, as vocalist with the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart’s confidence was crushed after a set by Beck’s opening act. The roar of boos from 2,700 unimpressed New Yorkers drifted backstage as his band was about to make its American debut.
“This didn’t do much to settle my nerves, which were already badly jangled by a number of factors, including the size of the venue (so much larger than the 200- to 800-capacity clubs we had been playing in Britain) and the worrying thought that I was about to perform, for the first time, in a county in which people were allowed to own guns.”
Of course, Stewart’s hair merits its own chapter. His early efforts at creating the signature spikes, fortified with sugar and water to keep them stiff, proved no match for London’s mass transit system, where trains blast through tunnels and create quite the back draft. “Picture me if you will, then, carefully dressed and styled for the night, accompanied by my mates, and standing down in Archway Station as the train thunders in — and all of us cowering into the wall, with our arms up over our heads, trying to protect our bouffs from getting toppled by the wind.”
Soon, Stewart would aim to protect something else: His pride. Rooster-headed rockers Stewart and Faces bandmate Ron Wood had the opportunity to be immortalized by the Plaster Casters, who crafted a famous collection of celebrity molds, not of hands and feet but of a different body part. But first, the pair were shown the casts the groupies had made for Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon.
“Woody and I took a look at the rather challengingly splendid specimens on the table before us, considered for a moment the slightly more modest scale of our own endowments, and said ‘Hmmm. Nah, I don’t think so, thank you.’ ”
Rod isn’t as endowed with musical analysis as fans might wish. Such popular albums as Foot Loose & Fancy Free and Tonight I’m Yours aren’t even mentioned. But there are some revealing admissions. Stewart considered not releasing Maggie May. “How could you hope to have a hit single with a song that was all verse and no chorus and no hook?” The song became his first No. 1 single in 1971.
He wouldn’t have that concern in November 1978 when he cheerfully released his biggest and most misunderstood hit, the Tom Dowd-produced Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? Flirting with disco, even if he was singing in the third-person, a point critics fail to grasp, was a deal breaker for the too-cool music press. “It was only a pop record, of course, but if you had picked up a music paper at this time you would have thought I had opened a chemicals factory that was poisoning the water supply in a deprived area of the world,” he writes.
Of course, that would happen in the last decade with his series of Clive Davis-sanctioned standards albums, a period he notes with relish that has been the most commercially successful of his career.
Just as his many exes have done — aside from actress Britt Ekland, who sued him for palimony in 1977 — you’ll forgive Stewart almost anything. As Rod makes clear, the man exudes an inordinate amount of charm, good humor and self-deprecation that make his flaws forgivable offenses. Even the cover albums.
The infectious Rod ends on an upbeat note. He seems to have found lasting love with third wife Penny Lancaster. The two share a part-time home in West Palm Beach. He’s done playing the field, he insists, although given his past when he writes, “I’ve put my last banana in the fruit bowl,” it reads like a cliffhanger.
Howard Cohen is a Miami Herald staff writer. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.