Is Rod Stewart the true King of Rock n’ Roll?

AS A WISE man once said, every picture tells a story. Last week, under the headline ‘Who knew they were friends?’, Rod Stewart and David Beckham were photographed in a Los Angeles park enjoying a game of football with their sons.

While Becks wore big clumpy puke-green trainers that looked even more uncomfortable for not being laced up, Stewart chose Adidas Sambas, the classic footwear of Scotland’s Tartan Army circa the 1978 World Cup. One man looked like he knew he was going to be snapped, a view reinforced by the shot of his wife strolling across municipal grass in a flowing black dress. The other bloke was simply kitted out for a kickabout. One man is The Man All Men Want To Be; the other is The Man Who Thinks He’s The Man All Men Want To Be.

OK, maybe not quite, but Stewart, who publishes his memoirs on Thursday, is definitely The Rock Star All Men Want To Be. He always was, back in his glory days, and I don’t think that has changed, even though he’s 67 now and better-known for singing songs from pre-history that your granny loves. For, just as being David Beckham seems quite stressful, so does being Sir Paul McCartney or Sir Mick Jagger. There have always been rock stars more epoch-making than Stewart.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

For Macca, the job of dragging such an important and mighty oeuvre from Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert to Olympics opening ceremony looks to be defeating him. “A colossus, yes,” said the Daily Mail on the behalf of the nation this summer, “but it’s time to let it be.” Jagger makes himself less available for such frivolities, and doubtless he feels they would dilute the Stones’ essence were they ever to head out on the road again. The impression given is that he sits at home counting his money. Even if that’s entirely false, it can’t be much fun having Keith Richards reveal to the world in his autobiography that you have a “tiny todger”. Stewart gives the impression he has more fun than either of the rock knights.

Pete Townsend looks like he has fun smashing up guitars, at least when this was part of The Who’s stage act, but the damage done to his image by being placed on the sex offenders register for five years – following what he admits were his “insane” attempts to expose the spread of child porn on the internet – was greater than the harm to Stewart’s caused by any of the spandex singlets flaunted during the 1980s (yes, even the cerise pink one). Stewart also has more hair than Townsend, a key area of concern for men who want to be rock stars because if they’re still dreaming of this well into adulthood there’s a good chance they’ll be balding.

For the same reason, Stewart’s very good friend Sir Elton John – Rod calls Elt ‘Sharon’ and Elt knows him as ‘Phyllis’ – is not a serious rival to our man. True, it must be great singing Tiny Dancer every other night, but greater still, I’d say, would be getting paid to have Edinburgh Castle esplanade join in renditions of Maggie May, You Wear it Well, Handbags and Gladrags and, if we’re really lucky, In a Broken Dream – something Elt probably acknowledges when he describes his mate as the greatest singer in rock ’n’ roll.

Let’s stick with the hair for a bit. Dylan Jones did in his recent Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music, which from the title sounds like a serious study, but the author was moved to say of Stewart’s fantastic barnet that it’s “one of the reasons he’s still the man he is ... a defining badge of cool”. Chaps with a busy bathroom-mirror regime aimed at keeping everything together must wonder: does he employ an army of Lilliputians to each hoist up clumps, keeping it all artfully unkempt and magnificently high? Does he get it cut every day, like Princess Di did? Once a fortnight, Rod reveals. It’s washed every other day, and jooshed in magic oils. “Me and the Queen have one thing in common,” he quips, “same hairstyle for 40 years.” But he worries about losing it, revealing vulnerabilities that are important (more of them later).

A keen and quick wit is also important, and Stewart has always had one. He gives good quote, better than Macca and Jagger and Townsend (though Richards is pretty nifty), and better, too, than Eric Clapton and Sting (who Rod calls “String”). Bob Dylan is probably hilarious, but he never speaks. John Lennon definitely was, but he’s dead. Noel Gallagher, of the younger generation, is a funny guy but he would almost certainly agree that Stewart might be rock’s Groucho Marx. This is Stewart rationalising his legendary tight-fistedness: “I don’t mind buying one round of drinks but I’m bloody well not going to buy another.” When girlfriend Britt Ekland remarked that one of her films was on TV, he said: “Is it a talkie?” And here he is on his idol Sam Cooke: “Anything Sam did, I would do. Apart from getting shot in a hotel room by a hooker.”

With the humour comes a disinclination – no, a names-in-blood promise this would never happen, possibly post-gig with the Faces, just before the groupies burst in – to ever take himself seriously. A lot of his contemporaries mentioned here take themselves very seriously indeed (especially String). Stewart can’t do this – not when the one-time Rod the Mod has worn fishnet T-shirts, satin shorts, leopardskin, visors, Ekland’s knickers and, apparently, Olivia Newton-John’s flying suits – and wouldn’t bother trying.

He has never made a pretentious album in his life. There have been rotten albums, real stinkers, but no one knows this better than him. As well as admitting to his fashion crimes, he’ll name these records, almost all from his lost 1980s, and tell you why they were so bad (because he’d lost interest in music; he was in love with Kelly Emberg; at heart he’s a “lazy bugger”).

Everyone thinks, because of his great taste in other people’s songs, that he’s a muso – he’s not. In 2001 the muso’s magazine, Mojo, asked hopefully, “Are you someone who still buys, plays and gets obsessive about records?” “No,” he replied, “I never was like that anyway.” Clapton famously locked himself in a room for a year to finesse his guitar-playing. Fair play to him, but most men who fantasise about the rock lifestyle would think that too much like hard work. They would rather be able to “play” a microphone-stand like classic-era Stewart.

Ah, the Faces. In the early 1970s, Stewart led a double life. Crudely, at his wedding to Rachel Hunter, he told guests, “I’m as happy as a dog with two dicks.” Given that Hunter would later leave him, maybe he would transfer the quip to the delirious years of the twin careers: as a solo act (An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story, Never a Dull Moment – four cracking albums in a row) and as leader of the band that seemed to have the most football-kicking fun ever.

In the 1976 edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Paul Nelson dismissed the Faces as ersatz and sloppy Stones-alikes who “sounded best in tattoo parlours near bus stations”. To me that’s a hearty recommendation. I had the chance to see the Faces at Edinburgh’s Playhouse in their pomp but stupidly declined it, only to catch up with Stewart at Ibrox Stadium a few years later – by which point he had ditched Ronnie Wood and co, moved to America and gone disco. No one knows better than him that Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, as he remarked in 1995, was a “spanner in the works”. He has long since given up trying to explain that he wrote it in the third person, that he wasn’t expecting an answer to the question posited on that synth-driven riff (nicked, it was admitted, from Bobby Womack). Song and singer were much mocked but lots of wrong turnings in rock are down roads marked ‘Deep’ and ‘Meaningful’ – Stewart’s looked like a riot as usual.

Does Clapton have any hobbies? Does Sting, or Jagger? Stewart’s are well-known, rooted in the boyhood he has never really left. Football has acquired lots of celeby followers in recent years, but Stewart was a fan when it was determinedly working-class and hooligans stalked crumbling terraces. In his youth he was a promising centre-half with Brentford. Later he decided, as the London-born son of a master builder from Leith, to support the country of his father, becoming the Scottish national team’s cheerleader, jetting in for all those vital World Cup games when defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, and coming back for more like a true fan. A full-sized pitch in the grounds of his Epping mansion would bring him “more joy than all the Ferraris”. Real footballers have played there, but a friend tells me it has been far from a daft notion for a works team to drop a note through the door of the house proposing a “take-on” and for the challenge to be accepted.

Stewart’s other idea of rock-star downtime is possibly more seductive. He’s a model train enthusiast, which obviously endears him to blokes who love their sheds, even though Stewart’s lay-out is a bit special: based on the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads of the 1940s, it takes over the entire third floor of his home in Los Angeles.

When he’s on tour, an extra hotel room is booked for train fun. “I bring my tools, paint and wood and work on, say, a freight yard.” He once said that having his set featured in Model Railroader magazine would mean more to him than the cover of Rolling Stone (this eventually happened). And of course the choo-choos take him right back to when he was discovered by Long John Baldry on the platform at Twickenham station, playing harmonica with a hangover, not long after he stopped digging graves for a living.

For many, Stewart is defined by his ‘Scottishness’, his women and his voice. I’ve left them until last to show there’s more to him, but even in these areas of his story, coming soon to a bookshop near you, there are interesting subtexts. If there’s one thing real Scots hate more than the exile who has forgotten the lingo, it’s the tenuously connected Jocky-come-latelys who overdo the allegiance. Stewart, for all that he used to swathe himself in tartan, tries to explain, in very cockney tones, that he’s not pretending to be Scottish, rather that he’s proud of the heritage passed down by his dear old dad. He seems to understand the Scottish condition; that it’s not all about flag-waving. “There’s Scottish blood in me,” he says. “And sometimes it tells me I’m no good and I’ll be found out and everything’ll be taken away from me.”

Even if you don’t love Stewart, you probably love his voice. It sounds great atop a castle and at a Hogmanay house-party as well. The Stewart rasp has got swagger – like he’s going to beat his keepy-uppy record, like he’s going to whisk the three blondest blondes from the front row back to the penthouse suite – but also a frail, if not downright fatal, quality, like he knows he won’t be able to stop himself cocking up. He sings like he just got up, like he never went to bed, and it sounds effortless. Maybe in the early days it was, but after being diagosed with thyroid cancer in 2000 – requiring an operation where “they split you open from here to here, tear through the muscles that control the voicebox” – Stewart had to teach himself to sing all over again.

Finally, women. More specifically, blondes. His significant relationships with the flaxen-haired of the species have resulted in three marriages and eight children by five different women. There have been lots of insignificant ones as well, and his picaresque adventures have inspired many a song – “Tearing down the highway in the pouring rain/Escaping from my wedding day.” And then there was the one that went: “In the morning don’t say you love me/’Cause I’ll only kick you out of the door.” Sexist? Oh, quite possibly, but when he was Rod the Rake he also sang: “Now I’m not so young and I’m so afraid/To sleep alone for the rest of my days.” This was years before he had his heart broken by Rachel Hunter, an event predicted by his sister, whispering to his brother in the church pews.

Men, if they’re honest, like the songs about his defeats in love as much, if not more, than the ones about high-scoring wins – and their admiration for Stewart only increased when he talked candidly about his utter devastation at the end of his second marriage. Once he got over it, there was another wisecrack worthy of Groucho: “Instead of getting married again I’m going to find a woman I don’t like and just give her a house.” But Penny Lancaster, wife number three, has been on his arm the longest. She’s taller than him, and Stewart is happy for the height difference to show. He’s a happy, nappy-changing family man now and, re-working one of his old quotes, I suppose he must feel like a station-master with two express lines.

It has all worked out for him in the end, but one thing still puzzles me: how does he get the little peaked cap to sit on his stupendous thatch?

Rod: The Autobiography is published on Thursday by Century, £20