It’s 109 degrees in Las Vegas as Rod Stewart lands at McCarran Airport in a private jet, three hours before his show at Caesars Palace. After taking off from an airfield near his home in Beverly Hills, Stewart spent the 45-minute flight nibbling tea sandwiches, inhaling steam from a humidifier to preserve his voice and fidgeting in the strangely overheated cabin.
“Can we get off this hot plane?” he says to the flight attendant. “We were flying at 30,000 feet, where it must be freezing cold. Why is the plane so hot?” His irritation grows when he learns the limo driver who’s supposed to take him to the casino is lost. Stewart, dressed in a blue gingham suit, walks into the cockpit to ask about the heat, but the pilot barely gets three words in before Stewart’s 28-year-old daughter, Ruby, pulls her dad down the stairs. Stewart immediately forgets the inconvenience, changing the subject, as he so often does, to soccer. What seems like the early stages of a meltdown turns out to be just a brief detour from Stewart’s usual happy-go-lucky demeanour — the easy charm of a natural-born crowd-pleaser for whom life has been very good for a very long time.
In the five decades since he was discovered playing harmonica in a train station outside London, he has racked up 31 Top 40 hits, released 29 solo albums, fronted two of the best bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, dated a parade of leggy blond models, fathered eight kids (with five women), and earned, according to low estimates, $235 million. Tonight’s show at Caesars Palace will pull in roughly $450,000, and it’s the 111th one he’s done in the past three years.
Stewart’s voice was recently back in the Hot 100 for the first time in more than a decade, thanks to A$AP Rocky’s “Everyday,” which generously sampled “In a Broken Dream,” an obscure 1968 song Stewart sang with the Australian rock band Python Lee Jackson. In July, Stewart and Rocky sang “Everyday” with CBS late-night host James Corden in a hilarious Carpool Karaoke sketch that’s been viewed on YouTube over 8 million times. Rod hasn’t seen it and is surprised to hear it was so popular. “I don’t like looking at myself,” he says. “That’s refreshing to hear, though.”
More significantly, Stewart recently started writing songs again for the first time in two decades. “I’ve always tortured myself and thought, ‘You’re a pretend songwriter. You’re a performer,'” he says. But working on his 2012 memoir, Rod: The Autobiography, unlocked something in his brain, and soon, he had enough new songs to fill out both 2013’s Time (which generated rave reviews and became his first Number One LP in England since 1976’s A Night on the Town) and his stellar upcoming album, Another Country, out October 23rd.
His old gift came back partly out of necessity. “I’d done the Great American Songbook albums,” he says. “I’d done a soul album. I’d done a rock [covers] album. I backed myself into an alley because there’s not much left to do except write.” He recorded Another Country in the library of his estate. “It just cost $130,000,” he says proudly. “In the old days, that was a week in the studio.”
Like some of his classic early solo work, Another Country has a Gaelic flavour, heavy on violin and mandolin. Some songs, like “Batman Superman Spider-Man,” were inspired by his young sons, nine-year-old Alastair and four-year-old Aiden, his two children with Penny Lancaster, a former model and Stewart’s wife of eight years. “I’d put Aiden to bed, and he’d say, ‘Give me a make-up story,'” says Stewart. “I’d say, ‘What do you want it to be about?’ He’d go, ‘Batman Superman Spider-Man.'” New single “Please” ranks up there with his all-time great tunes, and it’s a powerful showcase for his undiminished pipes.
The limo finally arrives and whisks Stewart to Caesars Palace. Unlike other stars with Vegas residencies — Mariah Carey or Britney Spears, say — Stewart likes to change his set list for every show. Tonight, he’s bringing back his 1991 hit “The Motown Song.” He sits on a stool and watches his band play it straight through, offering detailed notes to nearly every member. He’d normally retreat to his dressing room (where he often leaves goofy notes on the ceiling for his old friend Elton, who uses the same theater) until showtime, but a Brazilian TV crew is in town to interview Stewart about his upcoming Rock in Rio performance, where he’ll celebrate the 30th anniversary of his historic performance at the festival in front of 85,000 fans.
The producers assure Stewart the interviewer is a pro that recently spoke to Keith Richards, but it’s soon clear that her command of English is lacking. She doesn’t seem to get that his repeated pledge to “take me trousers off” at Rock in Rio is a joke. The next 10 minutes are a train wreck of awkward questions and flippant answers. At one point, Stewart keels over and pretends to croak.
Everyone in Stewart’s orbit seems concerned, but once again he rebounds in seconds and begins happily signing a bunch of soccer balls he plans to kick into the audience during “Stay With Me.” He’s been doing this for years and refuses to stop, even though he has been sued more than once by fans who have claimed they were smacked in the head.
There isn’t an empty seat in the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace when a giant red curtain with the words “Some Guys Have All the Luck” emblazoned across it rises exactly at 7:30 p.m. Rod sprints onto the stage and kicks off the hits revue with 1984’s “Infatuation.” It’s impossible to cram all his famous songs into an hour and 45 minutes, but he does manage to get to “You’re in My Heart (the Final Acclaim),” “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” “Have I Told You Lately,” “Forever Young” and “Gasoline Alley.” The crowd sings along to every single word.
Up until about 15 years ago, Las Vegas was where old performers went to die. But Celine Dion proved you can make more money there than touring — largely since it doesn’t involve paying a road crew and lugging a stage around the globe — and soon enough, everyone from Britney Spears to Guns N’ Roses and Garth Brooks began booking residencies. “The stigma of Vegas is totally gone,” says Arnold Stiefel, Stewart’s longtime manager. “Playing Vegas is now for superstars who can do it right. It’s cool, hip and doesn’t diminish you a little. It’s like how Bradley Cooper can do a Netflix show now.”
Midway through the show, Ruby Stewart and Nashville songwriter Alyssa Bonagura, who sing together in the Sisterhood, take over the stage to sing their heartfelt tune “One Light,” which spotlights the “Solar Puff” lightbulb that brings light to people in Third World countries who lack electricity. Afterwards, Ruby sticks around to duet with her father on “Forever Young.” “She’s got more pitch in her voice than I had when I was her age,” Rod says. “She can sing like Janis Joplin. I keep telling her, ‘You really have a gift!'”
Credit: Denise Truscello
Rod’s show wraps up with a euphoric rendition of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” where he projects a giant image of his 1977 Rolling Stone cover on the screen and the quote, “I don’t want to be singing ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ at age 50 and be a parody of myself.” An old line like that would embarrass most of his peers, but Rod happily owns it. “You have to be able to laugh at yourself,” he says. “You just have to.”
The disco standard is the single biggest hit of his entire career, but he paid a big price for its success, partially due to his label’s decision to promote it with giant billboards all over America that showed Rod in leopard-print spandex pants lying seductively on a bed under the line “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” “Every guy who loved him was turned off in a big way,” says Stiefel. “They thought he had gone Hollywood.”
Stewart chuckles when talking about the backlash today, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the critical lashing he’s taken at various points in his career — particularly during his disco period. He’s even able to recite a devastating paragraph from Rolling Stone‘s 1980 Illustrated History of Rock & Roll nearly verbatim: “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody — and sells more records than ever.”
It is true that during his career, he has dabbled with everything from blues to folk to arena rock, disco, New Wave, adult contemporary and American standards, but didn’t critical favorite David Bowie bounce around just as much? “David has always been the darling of rock critics and I haven’t,” he says. “They look at him as an intellectual writer and me, just the opposite. To them, it’s always black and white.”
After the show, Stewart makes his way across the casino floor to a post-show party at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill, where he eats shepherd’s pie, drinks wine and chats with a bunch of buddies who played with him on his over-50 soccer team. After an hour, Stewart heads back to the airport so he can get back home and prep for an upcoming trip to Maui with Lancaster, two nannies and seven of his eight kids. Stewart met Lancaster in 1999, after ex-wife Rachel Hunter walked out on Stewart, leaving him devastated. Not long after, Stewart became a father twice more. “Having kids at my age was the last thing on my mind,” he says. “But when you get married, women generally want babies. We’re madly in love. Life is good.”
The only child not headed to Hawaii is Sarah Streeter, whom Rod and his then-girlfriend, Susannah Boffey, gave up for adoption in 1963 when they were teenagers. Stewart and Streeter didn’t reconnect until the 1980s, and it was touch-and-go for quite a while. “She was a real punk with a lot of swastikas on her arm and needles in her ear,” Rod says. “We didn’t see eye-to-eye, but now she’s grown up and we get along great. It was difficult for a while, because if you don’t change their nappies and help them at home, you don’t feel like you’ve been a dad. But now, she finally calls me dad and I call her my daughter.”
As the plane approaches its touchdown in Los Angeles, Rod begins whistling the 1973 Faces classic “Ooh La La.” His next gig is a charity reunion show with the Faces in England, and he’s getting mentally prepared. The surviving members reformed for Stewart’s 70th birthday earlier this year, but they haven’t played in public in over two decades, at least with Rod. In 2011, they began gigging around Europe with Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall on lead vocals. Ron Wood blamed Rod’s absence on Stiefel. “He makes everything about money,” he said earlier this year. “We just want to get together and play for the people.”
“Did I actually hear someone from the Rolling Stones tell me something is all about money?” roars Stiefel when he’s read the quote. “That’s the funniest line I’ve ever heard! They wrote great songs together and did great things. But they were a bar band that was really drunk all the time, as was the audience. It was a party. That’s what was fabulous about them.”
“Having kids at my age was the last thing on my mind”
A few days later, Stiefel calls back to clarify his thoughts. “The last 12 years of my life have been involved with trying to get the Faces together to do stuff,” he says. “Ron sometimes speaks before he thinks what he wants to say. The main problem hasn’t been money. It’s been schedules. Ronnie plays in a little band that sometimes tour a lot. In the next 18 months, I’d love to see them play some shows.”
The reunion set in Surrey, England featured a large backing band, but with Wood and Stewart playing front and center and Kenny Jones on drums, it still sounded like the Faces. It was a cancer benefit, but that didn’t stop the guitarist from having a cigarette dangling from his lips the entire night. This is the first time they’ve played together since Wood quit drinking, and Stewart teased him throughout the night. “Ronnie, you want a drink,” he said. “Oh, now wait, you don’t do that anymore. How about some tea?”
There are no future plans for the Faces, but Rod says he’d love to finally take them back on the road in the near future. He also hopes to cut a long-awaited reunion album with Jeff Beck. Their original partnership lasted a scant two years between 1967 and 1969, but during that time they inarguably paved the way for Led Zeppelin and many other hard-rock bands of the 1970s. (If you have any doubt, check out their take on “You Shook Me” from 1968). “No hard feelings about that,” says Rod. “But, without any doubt, Zeppelin based themselves on us. Jimmy Page and Peter Grant saw us back when we were playing clubs.”
The Jeff Beck Group broke up weeks before they were supposed to play Woodstock and are largely unknown to young rock fans these days, but back when Zeppelin kicked off their career the similarities were noticed by many critics. “The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago,” Rolling Stone‘s John Mendelsohn wrote in his notorious review of Led Zeppelins’s 1969 debut.
Beck and Stewart started work on a reunion album a few years ago, but things quickly went south. “To play with him is so wonderful, and I think he feels it about me,” Stewart says. “He went away and made a load of demos. I went away and made a load of demos. That’s as far as it got. He didn’t like mine. I didn’t like his.”
At this point, he picks up a tape recorder, puts the microphone one inch from his mouth, and speaks directly to Jeff Beck: “I didn’t get one original riff, Jeff. Just give me a riff, and I’ll write lyrics around it. Jeff, let’s give it one more try, me old mate. Ronnie [Wood] will play bass! If we had a lot of sense, we could do a Jeff Beck and the Faces tour, since it’s all the same guys. I’d be in both bands. Jeff won’t do it, but put it to him.”
Stiefel fully supports the idea of a reunion between Beck and Stewart. “I think that Jeff Beck is the greatest guitar hero that ever lived,” he says. “It’s difficult and they have their own history, but it would be very exciting if that happened. I just love the idea, though. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to see Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck and Ron Wood back together?”
Stewart would certainly have time for such an ambitious (though unlikely) tour now that he’s retired from competitive soccer. He stuck it out until 2013, when he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee. “I miss it desperately,” he says. “For 13 years, I had doctors telling me I had to stop immediately. I did it until it became absolute misery.” Stiefel has a very different take on the situation. “I saw my Jack Russell Terrier’s bowl getting empty of kibble every time he put on those fucking cleats,” he says. “It freaked me out. I worried about his teeth getting kicked in. But it thrilled him and he lived for the Sunday games.”
Rod never worried about getting injured in soccer. It’s losing his voice that keeps him up at night. He lost it for many months in 2000 following surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his thyroid gland. For a while, it seemed like it might never return, and he started to seriously imagine starting a new life as a landscape gardener until a cantor helped him learn to sing again. “I treat my voice like it’s the crown jewels,” he says. “It isn’t not working, I ain’t happy. If I lost it forever, it would be a huge void in my life. Being up on that stage is highly addictive. There’s no drug like it in the world.”
Chatting on the phone from L.A. one recent morning, he recaps his just-finished workout: a 30-minute uphill bike ride followed by dozens of grueling laps in his pool, during which he swam underwater to help control his breathing onstage, a trick he learned from Frank Sinatra. “I thought afterward, I’d just have a nice little sit in the sun,” he says. “Then Alastair came down with his Celtic soccer ball and said, ‘Come on, Dad. Let’s go in the pitch!’ I said, ‘Oh, fuck, OK. Go and get me cleats, son. I’ll be right there.'”
From issue #769 (December, 2015), available now.