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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Stewart's beautiful loser found perfect company in the Faces, and on their second and third albums they pounded their blues away with a ragged kind of drunken boogie that made alcoholism seem like more fun than baseball or sex. Long Player and -- Nod Is as Good as a Wink . . . to a Blind Horse, both issued in 1971, epitomize the reckless joy and fearless abandon of rock and roll so masterfully you'd think the Faces created the stuff between pints in their rehearsal space. Ron Wood's guitar was fat and fuzzy, a testament to the open-chord legacy of Keith Richards. Ronnie Lane's bass roamed all over the bashing rhythms of drummer Kenney Jones, while keyboardist Ian McLagan filled every space with boogie-woogie flourishes. Amid the sodden roar, Stewart spilled his guts, screaming and crooning songs of love, loneliness, regret, and chaotic good times. The fraternal spirit ran thick, as did the band's acceptance of their loser status. This flowed over into Stewart's lyrics, resulting in defeatist classics such as "Too Bad," "Bad 'N' Ruin," "Pool Hall Richard," "Miss Judy's Farm" A songs that more than ten years later would be influencing insecure punks (Paul Westerberg and the Replacements) and boogie-mad revivalists (Chris Robinson and the Black Crowes).
The humility in those songs would never again surface in Stewart's music, although he released a few decent singles between the Faces' 1976 breakup and his forsaking of artistry for celebrity. The soul-tinged Atlantic Crossing (1975) had its moments, as did its followup, A Night on the Town (1976). From there the albums blur together, the singles mere reflections of Stewart's creepy ability to conform to the desires and demands of the marketplace: He could be Depeche Mode ("Young Turks"), Robert Palmer ("Dynamite"), Steve Winwood ("Downtown Train") A practically anyone, it seemed, but Rod Stewart. Seizing another marketing trend, Stewart reunited with Wood (a Rolling Stone since 1976) for an acoustic set that aired on MTV in 1993 and was released the same year as Unplugged . . . and Seated. It was hailed by some as a return to form, but in reality it wasn't. Too much was missing: There was too little conviction, too little spirit.
Last year saw the release of -- Spanner in the Works, a typically desultory set that features a well-intended but awkward tribute to "Muddy, Sam and Otis" and feeble covers of Dylan's "Sweetheart Like You" and Tom Waits's "Hang on St. Christopher." Near the end of Spanner, though, there comes a sign -- a spark that can't help but ignite the fires of anyone saddened by Stewart's fall from grace. Fittingly, it's a song by Sam Cooke, the soul-singing genius whose influence is woven throughout Stewart's greatest music. "Soothe me," comes Stewart's voice, crooning the song's title over a slick but slightly gritty rendering of the melody. Immediately you hear something: The voice is alive, awakened, and for the first time since God knows when, interesting. After more than twenty years in the darkness, Rod Stewart had -- momentarily, at least -- found the light. As the song fades out, you're reminded of how good the man used to be, how good he was when the song and the voice clicked in unison. When it's over, you want to buy him a beer. Or two or three.
Rod Stewart performs Saturday, May 11, at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave; 530-4444. Showtime is 8:00. Tickets cost $30 and $50.