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He’s jammed with Bob Dylan, partied with Keith Moon, sued The Byrds, traded spiky tops with Rod Stewart, had close encounters with Presleys Reg and Elvis and played "name that key" with John Lee Hooker, but arguably the best moment in his life was when he was named small breeder of the year. RON WOOD, the man who would be the queen mum of rock 'n' roll, tells a mean tale. Words: STUART CLARK. Pictures ROGER WOOLMAN
Stuart Clark, 06 Dec 2001
I’ve talked to Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman on the phone before but this is the first time I’ve actually shared oxygen with a Rolling Stone. And a very expensive bottle of red wine.
There was much tabloid excitement in June 2000 when, after four decades of celebrity larging it, Ronnie Wood checked into The Priory.
“He’s gone in for a couple of weeks to sort himself out”, a friend told The Sun, who were so concerned that they offered daily updates on his progress. The Murdochian scoops included the news that doctors had ordered the 54-year-old to remove the mock-up pub from his Kildare mansion.
“Ronnie called to cancel deliveries,” a Guinness source told them. “He wanted the old kegs picked up and the beer taps removed.”
There was also a reminder for readers that this wasn’t the first-time he’d fallen victim to rock ‘n’ roll excess, Wood having undergone septum replacement surgery in 1975 after one line of cocaine too many.
All of which makes today’s freeflowing vino a little worrying.
“I don’t drink vodka anymore but I still like my Guinness and a glass of wine,” he says when I point out it’s not Ballygowan we’re quaffing. “You can’t totally shut off. Keep it to a gentle rain – nobody likes a drought or a flood!”
Back on the booze or not, Wood looks disgustingly fit for somebody who joined his first band, The Birds, in 1963 and went on to raise hell with The Jeff Beck Group, The Faces (small and regular size) and the Stones who’ve been the beneficiaries of his services since 1975 (“I’m still the fucking new boy, though.”)
The archetypal “musician’s musician”, he’s also traded licks – and God knows what else – with such heavyweights as Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley and Bob Dylan who’s one of the guests on Wood’s new solo album, Not For Beginners.
The debt was repaid in August when he joined The Big Zim on stage in Kilkenny, a gig which many Bob-watchers rate as the best he’s ever played here. Dylan seemed to agree, with regular nods and grins – some of them positively shit-eating – in Wood’s direction.
Stuart Clark: Going back to Live Aid in the ’70s, Dylan’s mood always seems to improve when you’re around. Why’s that?
Ronnie Wood: (Cackles) ‘Cause I always give him some of my wine! I was waiting to see him in Kilkenny when Marianne Faithful walked out of his dressing-room, winked at me and said, ”I’ve just had a conference with the master!” The next thing I heard was this loud whistle and Bob shouting down the corridor, “Hey Woody, what are we drinking?” The last time I met him he wasn’t drinking or smoking or anything but as he pointed out – after his fourth fag and fifth glass of wine – “That was the other Bob!” Then he goes, “Help me with the set-list.” Three hours before he’s due on and he’s no idea what he’s going to start or finish with. “What do you want me to play on?” I say, to which he replies, “Everything. There’s an acoustic set that’s going to surprise even the band, but otherwise I want you out there all the time.” We go on and every five minutes he’s telling the crowd to “Give it up for Ronnie Wood!” Somebody threw up a black Stetson hat, which he put on my head and went, “Hey Woody, are you goin’ to join my band?” I said, “What do you mean, Bob, I’m in your fucking band.” He was in marvelous form that day.
As happy go lucky as Dylan was in Kilkenny, there are other times when you can almost see the storm clouds gathering round his head.
Sure. Part of the reason we get on is that we’re both Geminis, but he’s a far more reclusive and unpredictable one than me. To give you an idea, when he came round to do his bit on my album, he refused to sing. I’m like “What about these lyrics, Bob?” and he goes “You ain’t gettin’ no words out of me!”
There are days – like in Kilkenny – when he’ll talk the hind leg off you, and others when the duffel coat gets put on and that’s your lot. I’ve known him a long time now but I still can’t pre-guess his mood.
On a scale of one to ten, how sphincter-relaxing was playing with him in Giants Stadium?
(Laughs) Off the bloody scale, mate! Before Live Aid, we spent a couple of days in my New York house rehearsing everything in his back catalogue. I tell you, myself, Keith (Richards) and Ian (McLagan) have never worked so fucking hard in our lives. What does he do as we’re walking on? Suggest we start with the one bloody song we haven’t learned! “Does that mean we shouldn’t do it?” he says, and I go, “Yeah, it does mean that!” Anyway, we’re up there beginning to relax when pliiiinnngg!, Bob breaks a string. Not having a roadie that day, I had to give him my guitar and use a cheapo replacement which somebody handed me from backstage and which was completely out of tune. I ended up using one string with a slide on it.
With Dylan lining up alongside DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore of the original Elvis Presley band, ‘Interfere’ must be one of the most star-studded instrumentals of all time.
The only pity is that they weren’t in the studio at the same time. I cut about four different versions of the song, which were then segued into what you hear on Not For Beginners. The first thing DJ and Scotty did when they arrived at my gaff was stand on the lawn and say, “Hey Woody, if we’d known we were going to live this long we’d have taken better care of ourselves!” The stories they came out with about Elvis were fabulous. I didn’t realise Scotty was his manager until the Colonel came along and said, “You ain’t no more, boy, and you’ll get no money either.” Another thing they told me was that, being a trucker, Elvis insisted on driving them to their early gigs himself. Trouble is, he had fuck all sense of direction and they kept arriving at places two or three hours late. Then there was DJ’s line about it being “really great when Elvis finally did leave the building, ‘cause it gave us a chance to talk to some of those chicks out there.” Innocent bygone age my arse – these guys invented pussy hunting.
Given all the songs you love, how did you decide on ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ and ‘Leaving Here’ as the two covers?
The first came about as a result of me going into my local wine store and them having The Best Of The Byrds on the CD player. I immediately go into ‘60s flashback mode and say to the guy behind the counter, “Can I borrow that?” He doesn’t have a clue who I am but goes, “Yeah, as long as you bring it back tomorrow!” Which I did after driving back to my gaff faster than Michael fucking Schumacher and recording it in a couple of takes.
It was very coincidental, ‘cause with my first band being The B-i-r-d-s, our manager decided to drum up some publicity by suing The B-y-r-d-s as soon as they landed at Heathrow Airport. Them being in the charts at the time with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, the Melody Maker ran a huge story about them stealing our name. The postscript to that is a few years ago I met Jim McGuinn and said, “You had a bit of bother when you first came to England, didn’t you?” He looked at me for a while and then shouted “You bastard!”
Do you remember where you heard ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ for the first time, or is the ‘60s a glorious blur?
No, unlike David Bowie I can recall all of the decades I’ve lived through. The B-i-r-d-s’ manager had us doing seven gigs a week, so after we’d driven back from Sheffield or wherever, we’d go round to his flat in Edith Grove and smoke huge amounts of dope. One particularly stoned night I heard ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ and thought, “Fucking ‘ell, why isn’t this a hit?” The answer being that it was God knows how far ahead of its time.
By another coincidence, The B-i-r-d-s used to have Carling Music as our publishers, and one of the Motown imports they gave us to listen to was Eddie Holland’s ‘Leaving Here’. We did a version of it, which got to number 49 on the chart and nabbed us a bottom-of-the-bill spot at the NME Pop Poll Winners’ Concert. Which, by the way, remains one of the best nights of my life. In addition to sharing a dressing-room with Mr. Number One, Cliff Richard, we got to see and hang out with The Beatles, the Stones and Diana Ross who was the most exotic creature I’d ever seen.
Coincidence number three is that ‘Leaving Here’ was eventually taken into the UK top 5 by your SPV/Steamhammer labelmates, Mötorhead.
I’d forgotten that until the other day when a Dutch journalist I was talking to mentioned it. I haven’t seen Lemmy for a while but he’s a good lad.
And one of the most over the top people I’ve ever met. Having partied with some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most notorious filthounds, who do you reckon is the most out there?
Keith Moon, no contest. He was a total midget nutcase – made of steel, he thought – and incapable of saying “no” to anything or anyone. I used to say to him, “Keith, you’re meant to take one of those pills, not the whole bottle!” We were in the Speakeasy one night when he went “Try this, dear boy”, and handed me my first Mandrax. I was a bit “er, I’m not sure about this” at first, but then I got pissed and gobbled it down. The effect in those days was (clicks fingers), so by the time I got into my Jaguar XK150 with Keith, his driver Kellogg’s, my manager and ex-wife, I was off my tits. I went straight over Hyde Park Corner rather than round it, straight over the next roundabout wherever that fucking was and down a mews where I wedged my car. The others were going “No, you can’t” and trying to grab the wheel, but there was no stopping me. I’d get up to those sort of hi-jinx once a month, but Keith was like it every single day. How he managed to survive the ‘60s, I’ll never know.
When did you first see the Stones?
In a marquee at the Richmond Jazz & Blues Festival. I’d just come out of Cyril Davies – this blues pioneer who my brother, Art, used to play with – and saw this other tent rocking. I watched them do their set and then encore with ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, which was the cue for the crowd to go completely nuts. As they sung along and jumped on each other’s shoulders, I thought, “That looks like a good job!” As I was leaving, I smashed my leg on an iron tent peg but was so pumped up with adrenaline that I didn’t feel a thing. The next time I met ‘em was on the eve of Hyde Park. Mick and Charlie (Watts) said “See you” as they left, and I went, “Yeah, sooner than you think!”
The rock ‘n’ roll Gods must have been smiling on me, ‘cause I was sitting between Mick Jagger and Mick Taylor when he said he was leaving the Stones. Mick immediately asked me if I’d like to take his place, but at that time I really didn’t want to break The Faces up. We left it that if they ever got desperate he’d give me a call, which happened a year later. I went for the audition in Munich, only to find that Eric Clapton, Harvey Mandell, Steve Marriott, Wayne Perkins, Jeff Beck and all these other marvelous guitarists were there as well. I had an inkling that I had the gig when, after telling ‘em how this song of mine went, Charlie went “Bloody hell, he’s bossing us around already!” We’d already done ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ together in my studio in Richmond, so there was a bit of previous.
Did you and Mick sit down and play each other your new solo albums?
Mick let me hear a few songs while he was making it, but it was Jerry (Hall) who played me the finished product. Well, “Only tracks 3, 5 and 7, which are about me, Woody!” She cops a lot of flak, but Jerry’s alright.
Did you wince when you heard that She’s The Boss only sold 1,000 copies during its first week of release?
I heard a track on the radio today, which sounded alright. The difference between him and me is that I don’t expect my record to get into the charts. I’d love it if at the seventh time of asking I had a hit, but really, it’s about me, my family and mates having a laugh in the studio. Jesse, my boy, and Leah, my daughter, are both brilliant on it and along with the old lags like Bob, DJ and Scotty, you’ve got Kelly Jones who, to me, is the Rod Stewart of his generation.
As for the live gig I’m doing in Vicar St. on December 8th, Slash is coming over from California to play guitar and Jay Kay and Andrea Corr are both going to sing a few. Jools Holland wanted to do it as well, but he’s too much of a busy bee.
Is it true that Mick Jagger spent a goodly part of the Bridges To Babylon tour trying to bed a Corr?
Jim? Nah, Mick never touched him!
What about the other members of the group?
You’d have to ask him or them that, says Ronnie Wood refusing to answer the question!
Spoilsport! I imagine that with 2002 being the Stones’ 40th anniversary, there’ll be some live shows.
There will be, although at the moment I honestly don’t know when and where. Whether it’s feasible or not I don’t know, but Ireland is definitely on our “want to play” list. Especially as we weren’t able to come here last time round.
What about the rumours you’ve been working again with Rod Stewart?
All true, mate. I’ve just cut a track with him called ‘You Strum And I’ll Sing’, which is going to be on the album we’re doing in January. We’ve got new stuff, old Faces remixes like ‘Miss July’s Farm’ and ‘Plinth’ and one or two surprises that you’re going to have to wait to find out about. That’s what Rod needs – to cut down on the ballads and kick out the good shit again.
Who had the spiky barnet first?
The first time we met was in a Wardour Street pub called The Intrepid Fox. He’d just made a song called ‘Good Morning Little Schoolboy’, had a black eye and said, “‘Allo face, we’ve got the same hair!” His was a bit more bouffant-y, but, yeah, it was a dead heat.
Tough question I know, but if you had to pick a favourite period of your career, what would it be?
There was a fun-packed working year – ‘75 or ‘76 – when I did two Faces tours, a Stones tour and another Faces tour. I was the most seen player in America, but probably the most unnoticed. Which, in many ways, is how I like it. Get in there, do the damage and then go on the piss afterwards without being hassled.
Who, out of all the thousands of famous people you’ve met, has left you completely gobsmacked?
Back in the ‘70s – when he was still World Champion – I bumped into Muhammed Ali at Loews’ Midtown Hotel in New York. I remember saying to him, “My Dad is going to be so proud that I shook the man’s hand”, which he was, to the point of inviting all the neighbours round so I could tell ‘em the story. I was at a boxing do a couple of months ago, got into an elevator and there was Ali standing next to Prince Nas who looked like a tiny little flea in comparison. He doesn’t talk a lot these days, but what he did do was poke me in the chest and through his eyes say, “I remember you, you mischievous oik!” It obviously stirred some memories, ‘cause I’ve had lots of communication since with Ail’s management and have done a big oil painting of him, which he loves and we’re both going to sign as a limited edition.
Talking of your Dad, Archie, am I right in thinking that he’s the one who got you interested in the Sport of Kings?
Yeah, when he was growing up, he used to hang out with Prince Monolulu and had a 24-piece harmonica band that toured the racetracks of England. Funnily enough, most of his mates would’ve been Gypos and Paddies. My mum had a freak attack every time they came round and demolished the booze cabinet, but he loved ‘em.
Have you crossed fetlocks with that other keen connoisseur of the turf, The Queen?
Yeah, I was right in the thick of things at Royal Ascot when all the noise stopped and these two midgets – The Queen and The Queen Mum – walked out in front of me. The respect they get is fabulous.
What’s the bigger deal to you now – a gold disc or winning the 1998 Small Breeder of the Year?
While I never have and never will take my musical success for granted, winning Small Breeder of the Year was a very special moment. I’ve only got a small stable here with 8, 10, 12 horses but out of them I’ve had a couple of stars. I’ve been doing great this year as well, although only when I’m not there to see ‘em! The last time I went to a meeting, my one refused to start!
You know Richard Hannon, the trainer? Used to be The Troggs drummer! Which reminds me of the time myself and Bob Dylan were on a film set in Bristol. I was auditioning for a role in some terrible movie Bob was making – God love him, he’s not an actor! – when someone shouted out in this broad West country accent, “Fuck me, it smokes and it walks!” I look round and who’s standing there but Reg Presley – or Reg Paaaaarsley as we used to call him. Bob takes me to one side and says, “Who is that weird little guy?” I explain about ‘Wild Thing’ and the argument tape, which he hadn’t heard, and he was like, “Okay, but keep him away from me!” Reg could be telling you his house has just burned down, and you’d be pissing yourself ‘cause of the accent.
The British media only seem to think you’re here for tax exile purposes, but I get the impression that your bond with Ireland is far stronger than that.
It’s my escape – something you’d understand if you visited my house in London! I’ve got cleaning ladies, secretaries, gardeners, the kids, the kids’ boyfriends and girlfriends, builders, plumbers… it’s absolutely nuts. What I love about Ireland is the quietness, the peace, the being able to go out on the town without having a camera stuck in your face. I get on really well with your mob, but sometimes you just want to be Ronnie Wood, regular bloke rather than Ronnie Wood, rock star.
Are there any bands you look at now and think, “Jeez, that could’ve been me in my younger years?”
I’ve got a lot of respect for U2 ‘cause they’re keeping the old flag flying and trying to get some history behind them by not arguing amongst themselves. I remember being at a Kinks gig once when the curtains came back and there were Ray and Dave Davies whacking each other with their guitars, and the drums everywhere. The biggest source of conflict when I was in The Birds and The Faces was our girlfriends. Somebody would be rude to your girl and, ‘cause she was bending your ear over it, you’d have a pop back. Believe me, every group had their Yoko Ono – and still do, I’m sure. Whether or not Travis and the Stereophonics, who I both like, can handle that shit and develop over a period of time remains to be seen.
One of the occupational hazards of getting older is that your friends start dying.
Yeah, Keith Moon, John Lee Hooker, Steve Marriott, Kim Gardener out of The Birds… there’s been a lot of them. I’m just hoping that poor old George (Harrison) manages to hang in there a bit longer. I saw his ex-wife, Patti, last week and he doesn’t sound too clever at the moment. We sent him a message and I put, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany” on it, ‘cause he used to be a big fan of The Producers.
At least John Lee went out in a blaze of glory surrounded by all his “honeys”.
Yeah, the last time I met the dirty old sod, he had these two beauties with him. Eighty-whatever-he-was and the chicks still adored him.
When did you meet him first?
Many, many years ago with Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and his amazing gang of nutcases. The last time he played with the Stones, he did two shows in a row. The first left us all nervous wrecks ‘cause it was in a weird key, so the next night I was put on John Lee duty. As we’re going on stage, I go “Give us a clue, mate”, and he growls, “Eeeeeeeeeeeee.” The rest of the lads are like, “Thank fuck!”
Do you still hope to be playing the devil’s music as an octogenarian?
Fuck octogenarian, I’m going to be the Queen Mum of rock ‘n’ roll. 100-years-old and still backing winners.
Ronnie Wood gives his Not For Beginners (SPV/Steamhammer) album a live airing at Vicar St. on December 8th.