ROCK / Wood without knots: Ron Wood gets on with everyone. Giles Smith talked to the peace envoy of rock
Thursday 10 September 1992
Not that a stout-only regime rendered the technology any less baffling. At one point during the recording sessions, it became necessary to wire in a second mixing desk. 'How they do it is, they link up by a pulse two 24-track machines. And um, you have one central remote unit, you know, like . . . No, actually you have two. One is, er . . . Like you're hitting rewind on one and punching in an exact point to play from - 032 or something. And when this one reaches that, it automatically combines with this one. And they both hit off exactly the same thing together. Unbelievable.'
Our interview took place in Wood's management office, a terraced house just off the Wandsworth one-way system, south London. It's not the most rock and roll of locations, although Wood may appreciate the fact that the building backs on to a brewery. He tumbled out of a cab at 3pm prompt, wearing a bright mauve shirt, a large mop of hair waving in several directions and a cigarette clenched between his lips. (Wood is rarely not smoking; as a result his speaking voice is roughly two parts vocal chords to nine parts Marlboro Light.)
The little dance routine with which he greeted his PA at the top of the steps and the elaborately formal cheek-kissing which followed, suggested a professional charmer. The PA immediately issued him with a cold can of Guinness and an ashtray, and Wood, who must be well used by now to having his needs swiftly catered for, responded with a display of mock astonishment. He is a sterling rhythm guitarist and a useful slide player, but, as this little scenario reminded you, what Ron Wood chiefly does for a living is muck in with people.
And he mucks in best of all with the Rolling Stones. In 1974, when the search started to replace Mick Taylor (who had tired of the pressures), Mick Jagger announced that he was looking for 'a brilliant six-foot-three blond guitarist who can do his own make-up'. What he got, in April 1975, was Ron Wood: 5ft 10in, black-haired and not, at the time, a conspicuous user of make-up, beyond the occasional touch of eye-liner.
Nevertheless, he fitted the bill. They called him Honest Ron, but in truth, Wood had for some time been behaving in a mildly deceptive manner. He was a member of The Faces, who were fronted by Rod Stewart and whose rivalry with the Stones for the position as top good-time live act is legendary. The Stones had tried to lure Wood away from the Faces as early as 1969, following the departure of Brian Jones. Someone from the Stones phoned the Faces' office, the story goes, where Ronnie Lane took the call; he never passed the message on, and only owned up to this omission five years later.
Still, during the early 1970s, Wood was increasingly slipping away for jam sessions at Jagger's house (they co-wrote 'It's Only Rock and Roll' at some point during this phase). And Wood would tell anyone who spotted him there, in a tone of some urgency, 'Don't tell Rod'. When Stewart left the Faces to go solo in 1975, Wood was able to become a Stone. 'Ron has always been a positive influence in soothing tensions in the band', wrote Bill Wyman in his autobiography. 'He's able to hang out with us all in turn. Acting as a foil for both Keith and Mick, on and off stage, couldn't have been easy.'
Wood says he's managed it by playing a lot of pool and snooker during spare moments backstage. 'Bill Wyman; now, he plays a form of the game called 'Cess Pool', cos he's always snookering you. He's very good at snookering you - even at pool, he doesn't leave you a shot on.' Meanwhile Wood gets to practise at home with his friend Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White, the professional player, with whom he co- owns a racehorse. 'Jimmy comes over as often as he can. He gives me 90 start and still wins.' (The sound of White potting a ball is used as a percussive effect on Wood's new album.)
He says he isn't one of those players who is constantly fiddling with a guitar, working away at his style. 'My fingers have softened up now because I haven't played for a few months. I've still got these hard pads on the ends, though.' But - and this is another indication of his chameleon nature - Wood temporarily becomes a guitar-addict whenever he is with Keith Richards.
'Rather than talk too much, we play at each other and that's our conversation. I mean we do have some funny intermissions, but that's how we converse really, with playing. I quite miss that when he's not around.'
And whatever the tensions in the past, Wood can still muck in with Rod Stewart occasionally, too. 'I just saw Rod last week, we went to the races in San Diego. He hired a plane from LA and we had a little reunion. It was really good fun. Had a bit of a flutter. Rod won dollars 600 on the first race and then lost it all. I didn't do too well, either. Horses are a strange thing. But I still enjoy it, keeping ahead of the bookie. I don't bet a lot, mind - just tens and twenties, that sort of stuff.'
The new album is called Slide on This. It's a collection of rough and ready rock songs, played straight and assembled by a process which Wood calls 'trial and effort. It's uncluttered, isn't it? It's a good old honest album.' Charlie Watts, who finished his own solo record earlier this year, plays the drums. 'He's rock solid, Charlie. That's the whole magic of having Charlie Watts say yes, I'll do your album. You breathe a sigh of relief and say, at least I don't have to worry about the beat. Some people say Charlie Watts and four other people constitute the Rolling Stones, as far as the actual solidity goes. And as far as image goes, people say it's Mick and Keith and three other people. But anyway. Doesn't matter.'
Other contributions come from Wood's pool of Dublin-based pals - U2's guitarist The Edge, Def Leppard's singer, Joe Elliot, sundry members of the Hothouse Flowers. ('I find Dublin is very creative. Have you ever been there?') But given the amount of his career Wood has spent fashioning himself as Mr Guest Appearance, he could have probably pulled in musicians from anywhere. At top flight rock gigs, barely an encore takes place without Ronnie Wood emerging from the wings, bringing a cigarette and a merely tenuous notion of what song he might be about to join in with. Wood claimed he's never been simply promiscuous in this respect. 'I don't like jamming very much and I wouldn't get up with just anybody. I only play with people I like.' But then, if you're Ronnie Wood, that ruling doesn't impose much of a limit.
There he is, in November 1976, on stage with The Band in San Francisco, busking his way through 'I Shall Be Released'. There he is again, with The Eagles at Madison Square Gardens the following year. And isn't that Ron Wood up there with Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, at the Checker Board Lounge, Chicago, four years later? He even busked with Joe Cocker at George Bush's Inauguration party in 1989 (Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, was a big Wood fan).
'It can be quite frightening getting up there and not knowing what's going to happen next. But I think that's what keeps you going. Bob Marley was great when I played with him. I was quite nervous there, because he was the only one who didn't know I was going to play with him. All the rest of his band had invited me, and I had to go up and ask him. I said, 'I don't know whether you know this or not, Bob, but I'm going to be playing with you tonight.' He didn't answer, he just looked at me as if to say, 'Well, if you ain't no good, you're going to be straight off that stage.' But he gave me the nod on stage. We were doing 'Jamming'. He kind of made me feel totally comfortable and I settled right in and stayed on for his whole encore, which lasted about an hour and a half.'
'Now, Jerry Lee Lewis, he threatened to kill me. But then again, that's nothing unusual. Keith's done that a few times as well. There wasn't really any reason - Jerry Lee does it all the time, it's part of his nature. Prince made me feel incredibly at home. But Bob Dylan is always nerve-wracking to play with because you never know what he's going to do next. And nor does he. And some of his chord sequences - forget it.'
Jagger and Richards have solo albums due for release in November and then the Stones are scheduled to re-group at the beginning of next year (now officially minus Wyman and with no stand-in yet announced).
'It's nice to be able to slot in,' says Wood. 'There's a basic rule which runs through all kinds of music, kind of an unwritten rule.' There is a long pause. 'I don't know what it is. But I've got it.'
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