I suppose it was the leopard-print pants, or maybe it was his tax exile move from England to Los Angeles in the mid-Seventies, or maybe it was the dreaded disco beat underpinning "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Or maybe it was the simple fact that the immensely popular song even asked such a question. But somewhere along the line, Rod Stewart lost the critic fraternity that stood by his early work, and was quickly written off as a hopeless airhead, a slave to fashion. Stewart desired all the money and fame (and worst of all, the women -- anathema to us dork-nosed male scribes) that rock stardom could provide. Instead of paying homage to his Sam Cooke-based roots and covering yet another old Sixties soul shouter, Stewart dared to write his own frivolous fun. "Hot Legs"? Not around here, boy.
Never mind that the very same journalists were constantly finding new kicks with the punk and New Wave era, jumping on each successive bandwagon as if it were the new Holy Grail. Nothing wrong with that, per se. By definition the entire pop music shebang has been about reinventing yourself and relying on new tricks turned at ferocious speed. But if you're ever bored enough to read the criticism of that era (which, granted, compared with today's ad copy reads like lofty prose), you'll find that a band as musically powerful as the Clash was treated like royalty not because the Joe Strummer-Mick Jones twin-guitar attack detonated like an M-80 in your ear, but because somewhere underneath their thick English accents they sang about "leftist" concerns and liked the working class a whole lot.
I am a Rod Stewart fan. But unlike the critics I call my peers, I have little use for the stuff that excites most of them. (I'm happy to note, however, that Lester Bangs didn't see much worth in Rod's early folkie work either.) I dig out those first few Rod Stewart albums and most of them leave me flat. Even a track as hailed as "Every Picture Tells a Story" sounds lifeless and dry, the cardboard-box drums stifled, the acoustic guitars ragged but not necessarily right. He covers "Havin' a Party" or "Twistin' the Night Away" and all I hear is Stewart exposing the roots that were obvious to begin with. Did anyone not hear Sam Cooke in Stewart's rasp? I'm more interested in hearing where Stewart could take his talent, not how well he could emulate his heroes. And besides, for covers, he was always at his best with Bob Dylan or Tim Hardin.
As lead singer of the Jeff Beck Group in 1968, Stewart emerged as a distinctive stylist and a definite frontman. The confines of working with the volatile Beck were sure to suffocate someone with such front-runner spirit, though, and Stewart begged off to join up with Beck Group bassist Ron Wood for a reconstructed (and rechristened) version of the Small Faces. The Faces lasted five years and have rightfully been championed by latter-day proponents of their slovenly rock such as the Replacements and the Black Crowes. They were, in essence, a disaster, a drunken bar band that barely made it onstage on time ever. Stewart managed to work up a strong songwriting partnership with Wood, though, and their chemistry spilled over into Stewart's solo career. Amazingly Stewart managed to keep two careers going at once on two different major labels. While Warner Bros. had the Faces, Mercury Records got Rod the emerging rock star. By his third solo album, 1971's Every Picture Tells a Story, Rod hit pay dirt with "Maggie May," a song that has come to define him as much as he defined the song.
It was surely Stewart's solo success that made things uncomfortable in the Faces. How could it not? Stewart stayed on, however, recording several albums of material, including the Faces nearest-to-classic A Nod Is As Good As a Wink . . . to a Blind Horse (1971). By the time Ooh La La was released in 1973, the Faces had nearly dissolved. Stewart now remembers his former bandmate Ronnie Lane fondly and dedicates a version of the title track to him on 1998's When We Were the New Boys, but during the Faces final recording sessions, things were anything but smooth. "Ooh La La," for example, was recorded four times and the singing chores eventually went to Ron Wood. The band was over.
Rod Stewart's next chapter is where the going gets weird. He settles into a solo career, employing competent producers and bland, faceless session men for his back-up band. His looks get sleeker, his movements tartier, the songs more risque and obvious. Now no one with half a brain thinks the albums from this period are great works. A Night on the Town, Foot Loose and Fancy Free, Blondes Have More Fun, Foolish Behavior -- all are unfocused efforts that suffer from star-studded ennui. Each, however, contains several tracks as good, often better, than the traditionalist material Stewart previously recorded. "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)" from 1976's A Night on the Town has an impressive swagger and a seductive stuttering beat. "I Was Only Joking" from 1977's Foot Loose is incredibly autobiographical ("Now you ask me if I'm sincere/That's the question I always fear/Verse seven was never clear"). "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" from 1979's Blondes, is a dead-on short story of sexual satisfaction in the swinging singles, pre-AIDS age. Stewart doesn't so much define the times as reflect them.
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.
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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.