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With the onslaught of the Eighties, Stewart faced mixed times. The word "dinosaur" had come to mean anyone with a career going back more than five years and for the most part, musicians from the Sixties seemed ill-equipped to deal with the changing times. Stewart, his looks as photogenic as ever, fit in comfortably with the new video age. But creatively he appeared content to sing atop whatever a producer could muster. Stewart delivered sporadically. Tonight I'm Yours, from 1981, featured "Young Turks," a song with a snappy beat and an infectious keyboard riff. Certainly anyone still looking for Stewart the soul singer should have figured out by now that Rod was purely a pop singer.
And a damn fine one at that. Out of Order (1988) included "Forever Young" and "My Heart Can't Tell You No," two songs that featured the grandiose stadium sound that defined Eighties pop. The drums blast like cannons, the keyboards create a plush cushion, and the guitars squeal in mock-heavy metal tones. And from underneath it all comes Rod Stewart singing as well as ever, his rasp wrapping itself around the notes, squeezing out whatever emotion he could find. (He also works out Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" to less than fantastic results.)
It all reminds me of those mid-Seventies George Jones records where producer Billy Sherrill took country music's greatest voice and buried it amid strings and back-up choruses. Yet underneath the polyester leisure suit stood a man ravaged by drink and drugs who couldn't hide the torment of his life. He recut his old hits. The voice had only grown warmer and deeper with age. The producer wanted him to fit in with Nashville's scene. Although nothing could ever replace the raw-boned beauty of Jones's early honky-tonk recordings, hearing Jones spew the truth from underneath the excessive layers of Sherrill's studio chicanery made it all seem that much more real -- like living in the real world where you sublimate your desires to get ahead only to speak your mind at the first opportunity.
Stewart does this, too. As a rock star with no interest in building credibility when he could be filling arenas, Stewart has accepted the industry's rules for getting ahead, and he has allowed that to dictate a certain amount of the presentation. His ear for great songs remains his own. Tom Waits's "Downtown Train" may have never been geared for the cataclysmic read Stewart delivers but the song is so sturdy that it loses nothing in the overstated translation. "Will I see you tonight?" Stewart asks. Where Waits had mumbled it, nearly throwing away the simple, stately melody, Stewart throws caution to the wind and goes for it; he makes it anthemic beyond Waits's wildest belief.
Stewart has continued this way. He mass-marketed Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately?" a song so deceptively simple and unusually open in its direct reach for the heart that in today's world of cynical irony it sounds like a breath of fresh air and like something from an entirely different era. (Let's see the chickenshit from Pavement write something as brave.) Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe," a song Stewart had covered on his Every Picture Tells a Story album, is brought out for his Unplugged release. And his latest album, When We Were the New Boys, though not the "return to form" his record company touts (to which I'd add, he has no form to return to), features Stewart tackling the songs of Oasis, Ron Sexsmith, Graham Parker, and Primal Scream, hitting some on the head and occasionally missing and nailing his thumb.
We tend to forget in this age of self-importance, of award shows, and halls of fame that rock began as a mutant hybrid, a messy music that in its heart knew its strongest appeal was just how stupid everything was in the end. Disposable crap, pure and simple. Sure, Stewart kicks soccer balls into the crowd. Sure, he changes stage clothes every fifteen minutes. Sure, he might not be sincere all he time. He's a showman, a pro. His music is no longer messy -- in all likelihood, MIDI sequenced down to the last note -- but in his heart he knows how ludicrous it is, how ridiculous it looks for a 50-something-year-old man to prance as he does. But the crowd loves it and he'll never have to grow up. And on top of all that he sneaks in a damn fine songwriter from time to time. Now what's wrong with that?
Rod Stewart performs at 8:00 p.m. Thursday, February 18, at NCRC, 2555 NW 137th Way, Sunrise. Tickets are $48 and $65. Call 954-835-8000 for details.