Top positive review
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Highly entertaining, whether you're a fan or not
on November 21, 2012
Way back in the 1970's, I saw Rod Stewart acting like a petulant prima donna on a British TV program, and for a long time thereafter had him pegged as an immature twit, albeit one with a great voice. As someone who went to university in London in the mid-70's and saw just about every rock band that was worth seeing - plus a fair number who weren't - I was never a great Rod Stewart fan. I liked some of his songs - I would have absolutely killed to see the Faces play "Stay With Me" in concert - and appreciated his unique voice, but I never jumped wholeheartedly onto the Stewart bandwagon.
All of which somehow makes this autobiography all the more of a delightful surprise. It's lightly written, funny and informative. It's also charmingly self-deprecating; here is the voice of a former Bad Boy of Rock and Roll, all grown up and now looking back with the balance and wisdom of his later years.
The book is full of good behind-the-scenes stories that tell of bands, songs and relationships. We learn of Stewart's humble origins, his unsteady progress as a singer and harmonica player (he notes wryly that he was playing the latter badly for a year before someone pointed out that you could actually play the instrument by sucking as well as blowing into it), and the ups and downs of various bands and albums before fame and commercial success finally sunk their hooks into him for good. This happened in part because of his classic song Maggie May, which Stewart almost discarded from the Every Picture Tells A Story album because he didn't think much of it:
"When the Beatles finished `Please Please Me', George Martin allegedly clicked on the talkback and said, `Congratulations, boys, you've just recorded your first number one.' What would I have said had I spoken to the studio after finishing Maggie May? Probably, `Well, that's sort of OK, I suppose. Drink, anyone?'"
Originally released as the B side of a single, Maggie May was played widely by radio DJs in the States, and then in Britain, and this finally catapulted both the song and the album to number 1 at the same time in both countries (a feat which, Stewart notes, not even Elvis or the Beatles had managed).
Stewart avoids the temptation to use his autobiography to settle scores, and usually describes conflicts tactfully, despite telling us that, "as everyone in the business of rock'n'roll knows, the rule is as follows: in bands, there's always one c**t who no one gets on with." (Amazon won't allow the c word to be printed, even though it's a quote from the book). That he was a horrible and terminally unfaithful partner to his various wives and girlfriends he openly admits. The caricatured life of a star - literally sex, drugs and rock and roll - was too good to pass up, and Stewart indulged unceasingly and head first. At one point he confesses to spending a week in a prime hotel suite in the south of France, literally flying in one girl after another (his manager would drop off one girl at the airport and then head over to Arrivals to pick up the next to arrive).
And on the positive side, we get some great stories about his closest friends in the business; the tales of his long relationship with Elton John, including their constant practical jokes and one-upmanship, are particularly amusing. Not to mention the so-called Sex Police: members of the band who tried their best to stop any other band member from having sex with whatever groupie he'd brought back to the hotel after a concert. In one case, this involved removing every last piece of furniture from a musician's hotel suite and replacing it with live chickens. The afflicted band member duly returned and, acting as if nothing was amiss, proceeded to enjoy his girl anyway... as Stewart notes, the important thing was not to give your friends the satisfaction of seeing you inconvenienced or annoyed.
Along the way, we get amusing digressions on various topics ranging from his love of cars to Rod Stewart impersonators to the staggering amount of work involved in creating his hairdo... all of this related in a tone that makes it clear he never takes himself too seriously.
Viewed superficially, Stewart could be written off - as some have done - as a pretty boy with a good voice. But that does him a disservice: it's very clear from this book that a genuine love of great music was there from the beginning, and he has both appreciated and embraced genres that ranged widely from folk to blues to hard-core rock. Indeed, reading this book made me go back and listen to a "Best of" album (I highly recommend The Definitive Rod Stewart, a two-CD set that includes most of his best songs); in doing so, I recognized many of these influences, sometimes woven together to give a richer whole. Above it all, of course, is that famous raspy voice which, at its best, reflects Stewart's emotional investment in the lyrics (listen to his heartfelt rendering of Tom Waits' wonderful song Tom Traubert's Blues).
But overall, you don't have to love the guy to enjoy this book; it's a very entertaining romp through his career, and along the way it provides a highly readable history of the musical era in which he became famous.
And Rod Stewart - at least in his maturity - turns out to be a nice guy after all.