Bad 'N' Ruined

The artistic demise of Rod Stewart is a cataclysmic event in rock and roll history, a betrayal of his abilities and potential that has been written about many times by many esteemed rock scribes. No piece of criticism, however, better illustrates the husky-voiced singer's mid-Seventies nosedive than a comparison of two of Stewart's best-known songs from the decade: "Every Picture Tells a Story," the taut, galloping lead cut from his 1971 album of the same name, and "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," an egocentric, disco-fied come-on from 1978 that spent a mind-boggling four weeks at the top of the Billboard pop chart.

In "Story," Stewart is a globetrotting young adult racked with insecurity and plagued by misfortune; a shameless romantic who's nevertheless afraid of commitment; a hapless goof who can't get his hair to look right in the mirror or even get a cup of tea without inadvertently causing pandemonium. In the end he finds true love without even looking for it. All this happens amid a cascading, relentless racket created by slashing acoustic guitars, winding bass lines, and some of the greatest drumming in pop-music history.

In "Sexy," Stewart plays a jive-ass ladies' man prowling the discos looking for the night's quick fuck. He encounters a potential conquest and feigns shyness while placing his cards on the cocktail table: "Come on, honey," goes his well-rehearsed pitch, as slick as the assembly-line dance groove that carries it, "let's spend the night together." The pitch works, the couple fuck, and then they spend the early-morning hours watching TV, the culmination of a plot that's no more interesting than the swirly 4/4 mush concocted by what surely must be bored studio hacks.

Rod Stewart's creative deterioration has been hard to watch, not just because what he has become is so thoroughly awful, but because he so completely shed the very traits that made him unique among the rock and roll deities of the Seventies. He didn't lose his talent, nor did he squander it; rather, he forsook it for a nice, long snort up the mirror of Hollywood celebrity, then finger-snapped his way through the next two decades, undermining his previous accomplishments with unctuous inanities such as "Infatuation," "Passion," and "Hot Legs."

In the early Seventies, though, as a solo artist and as one-fifth of the gloriously sloppy band the Faces, Stewart personified a kind of working-class Everyman at a time when most rockers were flirting with either high-gloss glam, reefer-head Satanism, bloated conceptual opera, or patchouli-soaked spiritualism. Stewart brimmed with compassion and condolence. He would revel in the spiritual and carnal pleasures of the world, but would also wonder at times how the place could be so cruel and heartless. His songs were intelligent, witty, and packed with the nuance and drama of real life. They could be wildly funny and imaginative ("Maggie May") or maudlin and weepy ("Gasoline Alley"); warm and sentimental ("You Wear It Well") or despondent and laced with remorse ("Mandolin Wind"). His songs spanned a musical territory that included covered soul and R&B, British folk and American rockabilly, honky-tonk country and barrelhouse blues, singer/songwriter confessionals and wanton rock and roll raveups. His reach was without limit. Like Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, and his idol Sam Cooke, Stewart could sing anything and make it work.

The son of blue-collar parents, Stewart emerged amid the blues-crazed London of the mid-Sixties. He apprenticed with various blues and folk combos, cut a few singles, and did some studio session work before joining the Jeff Beck Group in 1967. Aside from his uncanny melismatic resemblance to Cooke, Stewart sounds fairly mediocre on his early recordings; only "I've Been Drinking," a melancholic blues churner, hints at the glory to come. In 1969 he made his solo debut with The Rod Stewart Album, working with a studio group built around Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and Beck Group alumni Ron Wood on bass and Micky Waller on drums. A casual, ingratiating collection of barroom laments and bluesy boogie, the set provided the blueprint for an ensuing string of brilliant albums. There were seven in all, and each remains staggering in its emotional depth and unrivaled in the spirit of camaraderie among its participants.

Three of those albums were made by the Faces, formed in 1969 when Stewart and Wood (playing guitar now) joined the Small Faces after vocalist/guitarist Steve Marriott left the band to go blow out his voice with Humble Pie. The revamped Small Faces' debut effort, 1970's First Step, was tentative, lacking focus, but it was bolstered by a few hell-raising stomps (including "Three Button Hand Me Down," one of Stewart's first underdog anthems) and the poignant ruminations of Faces bassist and co-vocalist Ronnie Lane.

For the next five years Stewart would flip-flop between the Faces and a solo career backed by the musicians used on The Rod Stewart Album, making great records with both. On his own Stewart indulged his every musical whim, revealing the range of his musical tastes and the clarity of his vision. Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story, and Never a Dull Moment -- the albums issued under his own name between 1970 and 1972 -- move from sentimental folk to charging, acoustic-based rockabilly to stomping, loose-limbed rocking funk. Covers by songwriters of every ilk were woven seamlessly into the originals written by Stewart and various collaborators. Regardless of who wrote them, each song helped paint Stewart as something of a beautiful loser -- self-deprecating, humble, a bit naive, seldom at the winning end of the stick but the kind of guy you'd like to run into at the corner bar. The kind of guy you'd gladly buy a beer or two. Or three or four.

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