IT'S SUMMER 1971, and I am with my father at Brands Hatch, the noisy shrine to Formula One motor racing. In the parking lot, two lanes of cars are heading for the exit when their procession is halted by a couple of tough-looking bouncers. They stand before the lead Toyota, extending their hands like traffic policemen, then wave a spectacular yellow Lamborghini Miura through the gates. The queue re-starts. We drive out. And exactly 100 yards up the road, we encounter the canary-hued Italian passion-wagon again, parked on the grass verge. Standing beside it, drinking champagne, oblivious to our staring eyes, is a skinny oik with a large nose, a shiny yellow satin suit and a blonde-goddess girlfriend. Rod Stewart and Dee Harrington have decided that, rather than sit in a traffic jam, they'll while away half an hour with vintage Krug and a little light posing.
One's first reaction was, I'm afraid: who does this flash git think he is? One's second was: if someone like him can get the money, the car, the girl and the plonk, can I have some too? Many of us looked at Rod Stewart that summer, the summer Every Picture Tells A Story was released, and thought, with a mix of jealousy and snobbery, how did he do that? The answer, of course, was right in their ears - the voice, that husky mid-Atlantic rasp that sounds so vulnerable in its lower depths, and so stadium-swayingly confident in its upper reaches - as its owner's biggest hit, "Maggie May", sounded from every window that summer and became the first British single to head the pop charts simultaneously in the UK and America.
Stewart is self-conscious about his voice. It's a matter of amazement to him that, because of the convergence of two muscles in a V-shape at the back of his throat, millions of records, billions of dollars, umpteen tours, hotels, cars, drugs and girlfriends have cascaded his way for 27 years in a ceaseless lava-flow of success. He modelled his singing, he says, on his hero Sam Cooke, who used to sing half a tone higher than his natural register. (Indeed, Stewart always seemed to be singing upwards, straining up to the microphone, when not waving the stand around like a delinquent majorette). Sometimes he overdid it and his throat would bleed after a concert; now he takes it easier. British audiences will have a chance to check out its current form when Rod the ex-Mod, former Spandex King, model train fanatic, Tartan Army camp-follower, chronic Party Animal and allegedly retired satyr, plays five dates at Earl's Court starting this Wednesday.
Though this will be his first proper concert on these shores for three years, he has been around a lot lately. His album, When We Were the New Boys, came out in late spring and was loudly applauded, with its opportunistic cover versions of songs by Oasis and Primal Scream, and the spectacle of Rod cosying up to the Irish girl-popsters, The Corrs. He appeared on prime-time TV in May for An Audience With Rod Stewart, a kind of testimonial dinner and Act of Worship combined. The audience were a glowing squad of Olympian friends from the worlds in which he is most involved: sport (David Seaman, Des Lynam, Ruud Gullit); music (Ronnie Wood, Mick Hucknall); laddish comedy (Martin Clunes, Vic Reeves); and gorgeous blondes (Baby Spice, who sang a duet with Rod and whose grandfather he is old enough to be).
It was interesting to see that, despite the show's Q&A format, Rod nervously body-swerved questions from the audience, saying he preferred to sing. The seducer of every blonde model in the world, with the possible exception of the Dulux sheepdog, he seemed uncomfortable with ordinary chat, as if it might reveal some shortcomings in the charm department. And it did. The actress Caroline Quentin said she'd had her first big kiss while dancing to "Maggie May" - had Rod kissed the real-life Maggie? Stewart replied: "I gave 'er a damn good shagging, actually, but it wasn't a good innings for me so I'd better not go on about it. Very messy, if I remember rightly."
Jesus, we thought, what a boorish lout. The writer Craig Brown devoted his parodic Private Eye "Diary" slot to lampooning Stewart's callow braggadocio. It was a revealing moment. For years, Stewart's myriad fans have struck a private deal - to go along with his increasingly tiresome playboy-shagger image for the sake of the music. For middle-class rock audiences, he was a bit of a joke: a Cockney swell with the face of an Irish charlady, a pompadoured urchin in scrotum-bisecting leopardskin britches. The music was still pretty damn good, though. It reminded you that, for the first half of the Seventies, he was British rock's favourite Jack the Lad, whether as a solo carouser (on "An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down", "Gasoline Alley", "Every Picture" and "Never a Dull Moment"), or as vocalist with the stormingly rocking, in-yer-face Faces ("Long Player", "A Nod's as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse"). He sang with a blissed-out gaiety, fuelled by equal parts of drink, drugs and groupies, and the nation, by and large, sang along. When he left The Faces in 1975, and brought out Atlantic Crossing the same year - its cover artwork depicting him as an ocean-bestriding colossus, easily conquering Britain and America - it seemed an act of insane hubris.
You could understand it ("Sailing" was another No 1 hit that summer) but not forgive him. It was the start of Rod Stewart: The Tosspot Years. He became, to many disaffected former fans, a cocktail roustabout; a conceited, jet-setting crumpet-chaser, who got off with an annoyingly large number of attractive women and inserted cocaine suppositories up his rear end; and a disco twit in spangly trews singing "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" wearing a visor. Back home, Kenny Everett took the micky on television, impersonating Stewart in gradually inflating tights that lifted him up to the ceiling. Occasional songs from his hectic love life (such as "You're In My Heart", written to placate Britt Ekland after they split up) reminded us that he was still around.
Stewart became fantastically uncool. Women thought him a saurian throwback to pre-Sixties chauvinism. Chaps found him too old-hat, and his incorrigible blondes-and-Beverly-Hills schtick too adolescent.
What they saw as a persona, however, was just Stewart being himself. Born in north London, the youngest of five children born to a football- loving Scot who ran a newsagent's shop in the Archway Road, he has always, in a sense, remained a big kid, aged around 14. He loves pubs, loves showing off his sexual conquests ("I really like shagging the wife", is a constant refrain in recent interviews), loves fast Italian cars (he owns a Bentley and a Ferrari; the song "Every Picture Tells a Story" contains the immortal line, "She was tall, thin and tarty/ And she drove a Maserati"), and adores football. He is Glasgow Celtic's biggest fan and flies himself to Scotland games - no matter how foredoomed the outcome - all over the world. His biggest extravagances are childish ones: he has had a full-size, FA Cup Final-quality football pitch built in the garden of his fancy manor house in Epping Forest. And in the attic of his house in Los Angeles, he has lovingly built a model railway, based on New York Central Station in the Forties, an epic structure complete with a 100 feet of track, Forties locomotives, bridges, lots of tiny passengers in period hats and coats, streets with perfect-scale skyscrapers and tiny advertisement hoardings... He loves it. "It's a hobby I don't usually admit to. It's wonderful. The world could blow up and, up there [in the attic], I couldn't give a fuck." The train set and his Essex footie pitch give him more pleasure than anything, he says, except retiring for the night with Mrs Stewart.
Fourteen was the age at which his father bought him a guitar (instead of, significantly, the railway station he wanted for his birthday), and he made his first moves towards the rock'n'roll world. He first sang in public at Ban the Bomb marches. Remarkably, this headlong consumerist was once a committed Daily Worker-reading teenage Communist. "I was a real little Red when I was 19," he says. "I was yer actual beatnik, mate. Your actual Jack Kerouac. Barnet right down to here. Ban the bomb. You name it, we ban it. Anti-apartheid. Save cats. Save dogs. Shag in tents. Aldermaston Marches. What a life. What a life."
It was in a tent at the Beaulieu Jazz festival that he lost his virginity to the 35-year-old Maggie May, and thus the floodgates were opened on a wave of satyriasis that took in Joanna Lumley, Britt Ekland, Kelly Emberg, Alana Hamilton and many others.
Musical success wasn't immediate; he once had to supplement his income by digging graves. He played harmonica for Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions in 1963, then linked up with Long John Baldry and Julie Driscoll to form the blues-y Steampacket. Then he joined the Jeff Beck Group, met Ronnie Wood, his natural foil, co-jester and soul brother, and the two rat- haired, thirst-maddened desperadoes left to form The Faces and ascend to the blue empyrean of rock stardom.
Since 1990, when he married Rachel Hunter, a former model from New Zealand, Stewart has re-created himself as he's refined his musical taste to take in, say, cover versions of Tom Waits literate and sensitive laments. Now he plays the faithful husband, decent citizen, solid burgher and proud father (he's had six children so far, two by Rachel, called Renee and Liam) with slightly effortful determination. "I've been tamed," is how he puts it. "I've put my last banana in the fruit bowl." His $20m Beverly Hills mansion houses a collection of Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces to rival Lord Lloyd-Webber's. He flies his family from LA to Palm Beach in chartered jets. He does weight-training and has become rather sniffy, if that's the word, about substance abuse: "I'm not a big drug user. I'm a social drug user like millions of people in this country ... I drink a bottle of wine in the evening and that's about it. I don't smoke. I've never smoked marijuana in my life." He's sold all his future royalties to a Wall Street firm for a cool $15m. He will be 55 next month. What a life, as he would say.
And here he comes again, at Earl's Court next week, hurling the microphone stand in the air and trusting everything to the two V-shaped ganglia at the back of his throat, the inimitable Stewart voicebox. "There's a lot of Scottish blood in me telling me I'm no good and I'll be found out and it'll be taken away from me," he once confessed. "I am insecure, but you won't ever hear me being humble about the voice 'cos I know it's brilliant. I really do."
Origins: Born 10 January 1945, Archway, north London. Youngest of five children, father a newsagent
Career beginnings: started, in 1963, by touring Europe with the folk artist Wizz Jones, then played harmonica for Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions
Significant meeting: Encountering Ronnie Wood in the Jeff Beck Group, 1965
Going solo: Signed with Polygram, 1971
Low point: `Camouflage' album, 1984
Comeback album: `Unplugged and Seated', 1996
Most recent album: `When We Were the New Boys', 1998
Critics say: `Our Rod was the lad before laddism was invented... uncomplicated, politically incorrect, Rod the Rake, as he progressed form Archway to Malibu'
He says: `It's bloody good fun being Rod Stewart - well, 90 per cent of the time'
Concert dates: 9-13 and 16 December - Earls Court, London
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