Heavy Load: Ronnie Wood

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A week prior to immersing himself in rehearsals for the North American leg of the Rolling Stones’ apparently endless tour of the planet of which they are still the greatest rock’n’roll band, Ronnie Wood is as effusive as ever. Tigger-eyed and corvine, five-years-sober Ron sucks away at a gasper as he considers cybernetics, survival and ultimate satisfaction.

Do you believe in God?

I believe in a higher power. You’ve got to believe in something bigger and better than you. I believe in Rod… I do have a faith in something, a God of my own understanding. I suppose. For me, the power in the music and art is a spiritual seam that runs through them, and that keeps me going I suppose.

What were you like at school?

At school, I was pretty diligent, I used to think that I used to try. I used to get out of most lessons because of the music and the art. I’d be up a ladder painting a mural and they’d all be going to science, biology, I never did any of those lessons. Never did metalwork. I did woodwork about ten times. I never did science, but they wouldn’t let me get out of maths. It used to frighten me. I used to break out in shingles because of the fear of exams. Remember being at school dreading exam time? I didn’t mind history, I had all the answers written up my sleeve, but I still failed grade nine. I really thought I had it in the bag. I got geography, English literature and language and all that, and art obviously. I was able to take the A-level a year ahead of time.

Were you a bad lad, though, a class clown, or did you just keep your head down and do your time?

I think I had a good sense of humour. I was always there for the girls. There were always girls there, either in your class or in higher grades that you always had to impress.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned at art school?

Never to pull away my mate’s chair when he went to sit down, because my teacher, Mr Baker, gave me such a whack around the head that I saw stars. I soon gave up goofing around in the art lesson, but at Ealing Art College, the teacher would come in and we’d have lessons like cybernetics, action painting and stuff. And cybernetics, I never really knew or understood what it meant. The teacher would come in the room with a fag and go: “Well, you can either do this or not, but I’m off.” So he’d give us a project to get on with, and I remember me and Adrian Purkiss would say: “I think we’ll stay and do this.” Everyone else would clear off and we would actually do something and submit it, and it would be acceptable. He’d be like: “Oh wow, thanks for trying, and you did actually do a good job on the project.” So I was quite good at it.

When did you first start smoking?

When I was fourteen.

What was the catalyst?

When I was twelve my dad gave me a shot of whisky and a cigar at Christmas, thinking that it would put me off both. And I loved both of them. And it kind of backfired on him.

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

People think I dye my hair, some of them. No, there’s no other misconceptions.

Who cuts your hair?

Me.

You’ve always cut your hair? I used to ask Mac [Ian McLagan, late Faces keyboardist] the same question and he said all The Faces used to cut their own hair.

Well I used to let Scottish Alan cut it for a few years – and this was quite a few years back. He was the only one who understood what I wanted, and he used to go: “Ah, you’ve been chopping at it again. Come here, I’ll sort it out for you.” But ever since then it’s like an ongoing sculpture, my hair. It changes every day. And my nails, I have to cut them once a week. They always grow fast and so does my hair.

Mac used to say that to get it aloft: rub the crown with a towel and… there it is. It’s alive.

Mac? Well, we each had our different ways of doing it. I used to use anything. I remember using butter and coffee, but lime or lemon juice mainly in The Faces days.

What was the lowest point of your career?

I think when I lived at Henley-on-Thames. I was in the Jeff Beck Group, and they decided to get a new bass player and a new drummer. Peter Grant, the slave-driving manager who ended up managing the New Yardbirds – Led Zeppelin – got this bass player in called Junior Wood, funnily enough. He played in gloves and he was a really good-looking guy. So they decided to replace me with him and Mickey Waller with another drummer for an American tour. But I remember I had a house up on Fawley Green in Henley-on-Thames, and Mickey Waller rang me up and said: “You know we’re fired, don’t you?” And I said: “No, what’s going on?” And he said: “They’ve got replacements for you and me and they’re off to America.” And I said: “No, you’re kidding.” So that was quite a low point. But I thought I’d give it a couple of weeks, they’re sure to come back, and I’ll negotiate my own terms. So I did. And then, sure enough, in two weeks they’d failed. They played a couple of gigs and it all went wrong. And they said: “Will you please come back to the band?” And I said: “Yes, but I want two thousand quid a week.” I was like, let’s go for it. And that was in 1969, 1970.

When were you at your happiest?

Now.

Everything in the garden is rosy?

Yeah.

**What’s the most shameless example of you using your fame to your advantage? **

No, I’ve not, really. Unlike Keith Moon, who used to go into restaurants and say: “I’m Keith Moon of The Who!” He was fantastic about showing off and using his name: “Do you know who you’re speaking to, dear boy?” Trouble is, you go:“Do you know who I am?” And they go: “I don’t give a shit, mate. I’ve got no room.” It has worked a few times, though. When I got married for the second time, everything was closed on my stag night, and I opened up The Ritz Hotel at 2am, and they gave us the whole foyer for my entire stag night party, including Peter Cook, Jeff Beck and Uncle Fred. There was such a random selection of guys. And Carole King… But when everything else was closed they let me have The Ritz, and that was great.

What is the secret of your success? Mac called you “a great hang”.

Yeah, I probably am ‘a great hang’. But the secret of my success is probably durability and adaptability, being able to fit in with any genre of music, being able to converse in everything from Mozart to Marley.

You’re musically multilingual.

My music speaks for me, and so does my art.

Has Mac’s passing put the block on any future Faces plans?

No… Well, apart from Rod Stewart’s management, who are very protective of him. Rod is very game, and me and Kenney [Jones], obviously, and I said why don’t we just get our old mate Stevie Winwood. I think that would be marvellous – test the water for a gig or two. But right now I’ve got much bigger fish to fry, going off next week to start rehearsing for the North American leg of the tour with the Stones.

Is dealing with an ex-bandmate like Rod a bit like dealing with an ex-wife?

Yes, with lawyers and stuff, yeah. I remember one example, there was a Faces book – Genesis once again, who’ve done my diary – they did a wonderful photographic memory lane thing which Mac, Kenney and I signed. Rod Stewart’s lawyers, it really was like a divorce… “Rod is not signing this.” And Rod was saying: “Just give them to me, and I’ll sign them.” We went for dinner when he came to London, and he said: “Yeah, get them to me, I’d love to do it.” But they wouldn’t allow it.

Whenever I see the two of you together, whether on the Unplugged thing, the Alan Yentob interview for the BBC, you both seem immediately comfortable in each other’s company, laughing together, the magic’s still there, you’re having fun as soon as you walk into the room. So it seems odd to hear, through the legalese of management, that you’re not willing to work together.

If only they weren’t there to put the spanner in the works, it would be quite a simple thing just to do what we do.

Have you never lost faith in the institution of marriage?

No. The first two I was forced into anyway because of in-laws and, “Isn’t it about time?” This time, to Sally, I’ve done it of my own accord, and I believe even stronger in the institution.

**Rock stardom is one of the few careers where you don’t look forward to retiring to an allotment, a cap and a cardigan. Have you ever pined for the quiet life? **

Yeah, I’ve got a new house now in Berkhamstead where I’m just going to spend my time. I’m not going to do any more work, Sherry [Daly, Wood’s manager]. I’m doing no more work for anybody, I am retiring with a cloth cap on my feet and slippers on my head.

What in your life are you most proud of?

Being a survivor who actually looks forward to living in the now. I look forward to every day, and knowing what I want to do, and just feel happy about it.

What will be written on your tombstone?

I’ll see you in five.

My last drink was nine years ago now.

Well done!

How about you?

Five… And don’t we look better?

In the intervening years I’ve often thought, especially in the early years, will there ever be a day, maybe when I’m an old, old man, that I’ll be able to allow myself the luxury of a drink again, but recently, I’ve increasingly thought: no, no need. Have you come to the same conclusion?

Yeah, I’ve come to the point where I’ve been there and done it so much… I drank for England for fifty years. Some people had some mead the other day, and they said: “Ooh, made from honey, why don’t you smell it?” It was like Hannibal Lecter’s Chateau d’Yquem, that’s what it smelt like, a dessert wine, rich, sweet and I just remembered the headaches, boom-boom-boom, all the consequences of… “Have one? Forget about it, I’ll have the case.”

After a certain amount of time sober I’d look back on drinking and think: “What was that all about?” Do you ever look back and think: “What a ludicrous thing to do for such a long time, and spending so much time, and setting aside time.” And for what?

I quite often used to think: “I can’t do that until I’ve had this.” I had to have a drink and then I could face anything, I thought. That was the whole thing. I couldn’t do anything without a drink, or a blow, at one point.

I think back to all the money I’ve wasted and all the time I wasted.

Well, Keith [Richards] has a great quote for me, he said: “Ronnie, all those years, you’ve given up drinking and you’re exactly the same sober as you were drinking, what a waste of twenty million quid.”

The Stones seem to be showing no sign of tiring, this seems to be an ongoing, long-going tour. I remember seeing you at The O2 at the start, and that seems like years ago now, and here you are about to embark upon yet another leg.

It seems to be getting more enjoyable all the time. Especially rehearsals where everything is revealed. There’s no feeling of: “Oh, this is going to be boring.” If it was, we wouldn’t do it. It’s always: “Oh no, I’ve never seen this song in this perspective before.” There’s always new ways to do old songs as it were.

Ronnie Wood’s signed limited-edition book, How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary, is available from RonnieWoodBook.com.

Classic Rock 211: News & Regulars