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Rod Stewart: The 16-year-old me wouldn’t believe I’m still doing this at 73

The 73-year-old singer and former Faces frontman talks the idea of being splashed all over tabloids, life in the Sixties, the breakup of his marriage and why he’d go back to the being in the Faces

I’d left school by the time I was 16. My dad got me a job in Kentish Town working as a screen printer, printing wallpapers. But I was a very unhappy screenprinter. Around the same time I lost my virginity, hence the song Maggie May, which is all about that. Yes, at 16 I was finding myself. I was quite shy with women, believe it or not – I still am. I think that was sort of a plus. I actually have a song about this on my new album called… fuck me, what’s it called again? It’s Just a Look in Her Eyes, that’s it.It’s about the kind of guys who just push themselves on to women.

And get the look in those women’s eyes wrong. Especially in the MeToo generation… and when there’s alcohol involved. When I was 16… it was a different age. But I’ve never pushed myself on a woman. I know it’s corny but I’ve always enjoyed the romance of the chase and the general romance of the whole thing.

It was when I was about 16 that I had trials for Brentford.I was trying to be a footballer, but that all went pear-shaped. If you’d asked me then what I wanted to be I’d probably have said footballer. But deep down I knew I wasn’t that good at it. I was keeping my dad happy – he was a big Hibs fan and he really wanted one of his sons to make it. I had the basic skill but I didn’t have the commitment. It wasn’t a burning desire. Not like music was.

At 16 I was finding myself. I was quite shy with women, believe it or not – I still am

We didn’t have much money, in fact we had no bloody money, but we were a tight clan. As we still are, the Stewarts. I had an extremely loving family. My dad wasn’t very demonstrative with his love but I always knew it was there. I was sort of brought up by my sister Mary, who turned 90 on Boxing Day this year, bless her. I think my mum was getting tired of children. As you know, I was a little bit of a mistake, I wasn’t meant to come along. I think my dad came home late one night and… you know. As my brothers said, I was the most expensive mistake ever.

I was a happy kid. I didn’t want for anything. Occasionally I’d get a new pair of football boots but mostly it was hand-me-downs from my brothers. We had one football that was beaten to shit because we played in the street with it. We were just like any kids, playing football in the street. I try to teach my sons now to play on my pitch here – in this house now I have a half-size pitch, AstroTurf, it’s beautiful. But they always want me to go out and play with them. Which I can most of the time but I tell them, listen when your dad was young I used to play outside the pub waiting for my mum and dad. My dad painted a tennis ball white so I could see it at night. And I used to just kick it about outside the pub waiting for them to come out.

It was around the age of 16 I first heard Sam Cooke, on a little transistor radio that I’d put against my ear when I travelled from Highgate to Kentish Town to go to work. Then I suddenly turned into a Jack Kerouac rambling beatnik, grew my hair long and started listening to all the great folk singers of the time. I think Woody Guthrie had just died, and Bob Dylan had just made his first album. That album was such a huge influence on me. America seemed like such a romantic, distant place and I remember listening to all the songs on that album and it painted this picture for me of the US, of New York.

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I didn’t know I was much of a singer. I had a teacher at school called Mr Wainwright – I can still remember his fucking name. He used to pick on me all the time, he made come out in front of the class and sing. I didn’t have a clue how to sing but he kept making me and in the end I used to make excuses to get out of his class. Then one year my dad bought me a guitar – he must have seen there was money in it. And that was it, it all took off. I always had this singing voice. There was a TV show made about me back in 1965 called Rod the Mod, and it shows me about the age of 18 singing at the Marquee, singing at all the old clubs there were, back in the day. And my voice was amazing, I must admit. I invited all my family round to watch it, about 40 or 50 people, and they all said my voice was amazing.

If you met the teenage Rod now,you’d probably think he was a cocky bastard, he likes himself too much. But that’s sort of attractive in a way. Then you’d think shit, he can sing. [We’re interrupted by his young son – Rod calls, ‘Come on you bhoys in green!’ and the response comes, ‘Glasgow is green and white!’] I’m going up to see Celtic play Rosenborg on September 20. Looking forward to that. The Celtic-Rangers match last weekend [Celtic beat their Old Firm rivals 1-0] – that was great. Do you know where I was? I’d just finished a gig in Seattle and I flew all the way to LA, straight to the Celtic Supporters’ Club at quarter to four in the morning – packed. They all buy a beer because they’re too fucking weak to order a coffee or a tea. I walked in and said, right, I’ll have a double Cosmopolitan please. Vodka. Knocked it back in one. I had a hangover for the rest of the day. Ha!

I love my cars but I never actually passed my driving test. When we were in The Jeff Beck Group we had a road manager called Pete Saunders, and he used to have to drop us off after gigs. Woody [Ronnie] lived near the airport, I lived in Highgate, Jeff lived in the south. The drive was killing him. He said, “Tell you what we’ll do, I’ll go and take your driving tests for you.” These were the days before you had to have your picture on them. So he did. I think he took Woody’s as well. So then we had driving licences and we could take ourselves about.

In 1961 the year Rod Stewart turns 16…
  • The Berlin Wall is constructed
  • The first edition of Private Eye is published
  • The Pill is made available on the NHS

The one thing that hasn’t changed since I was 16 is my love of the blues. The love of Muddy Waters. I did a show on Smooth FM and I told them, listen mate, I’m not gonna play The Carpenters, I’m not gonna play Donovan. I’m not even going to play Adele, though I think she’s brilliant. I’m here to pay homage to the guys I love, that got me started – Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke. I owe that culture a great deal. I laugh at my boys, especially my son Sean, he always wanted to dress up like he was a black guy – tonnes of jewellery, trousers hanging halfway down his arse. And I said, you’re the wrong colour mate! And he said, well dad you used to try and sound like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. That shut me right up.

The 16-year-old Rod wouldn’t believe I’m still doing this at 73. He would be totally surprised that I’m absolutely still enjoying it as much now as I did back then. And I mean that, it’s not bullshit. I really love it. The young Rod would be impressed that I still love football as much too, that I still teach my four boys everything I know about the game. He would be impressed that the passion still exists in a 73-year-old to get out on to the field and kick about with his boys. He would be envious. He’d think, I hope I end up exactly like that.

The idea of being splashed all over the tabloids for years – that wouldn’t bother the young Rod. He’d love the thought of all that attention. He was born to be a show-off. With a nose and haircut like that there was nothing he could have been but a rock star. I always say that to Ronnie Wood. What else could we have been? We weren’t going to work in Sainsbury’s, that’s for sure. There’s nothing wrong with working in Sainsbury’s by the way.

Those years from the end of the Sixties to the mid-Seventies, [six solo albums and three Faces albums] – they were hectic. The only thing I didn’t like was having to write lyrics. I remember Ronnie Lane and Ian McLagan locking me in a hotel room and they wouldn’t let me out till I’d written some lyrics. Ha! But the love of the music got me through. My favourite Faces song – Ooh La La. Though I didn’t sing on that, it was Ronnie Lane or Woody [it was Wood]. Those were good old days, great fun. I wouldn’t have missed those days for the world. Was it as good on the inside as it looked from the outside? It was better! [He laughs uproariously]. Being with the Faces was like Christmas Eve every night.

The break-up of my marriage [his ex-wife Rachel Hunter left him in 1999 after nine years together] – you don’t know how you’ll feel until it happens to you. You never have the right tools to handle it. Until that point in my life I thought I was Jack the Lad. Then she left me. I remember my old sister Mary saying, you know one day she won’t be with you. And I said, of course she will! But Rachel was only 21 when I married her. I was, I dunno, fortysomething. It knocked me. If I was giving advice to my younger self I’d say, look mate, there’s no way round it, there’s no way over it, there’s no way through it. Just remember what King Solomon said; all things pass. And they do pass, and in time you do get over it. And life goes on.

I stepped up the pace of work again with The [Great] American Songbook [Collection]. I did that as a labour of love, everyone knows that. It’s sold nearly 30 million copies now. Then I did another album, I can’t think what that was called. And then I did my autobiography and that opened up the floodgates. I just thought, Jesus Christ, my mum and dad have already passed. My brother and sister were telling me stories about the war, all my mates telling me stories, all the guys I’d been in bands with… and I thought, I’ve got so much to write about. And I started writing songs again. And I thoroughly enjoy it now.

I’ve never written a song and thought that it was a classic. Never, never. Maggie May wasn’t even supposed to go on the album. We had nine tracks and the record company came to me and said, “Look we can’t put an album out with just nine tracks, do you have anything else?” And I said, “Well I’ve got this one song, it doesn’t really have a title yet but I could give it one.” And if that song hadn’t been on the album I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. Well, maybe not.

If I could go back to one moment in my life it would probably be when I was in the Faces, I was driving an old Rolls-Royce, and I was heading into Swiss Cottage in London, and the BBC came on and told me Maggie May was Number One. I turned the car back round, went to my mum and dad’s council house in Highgate, walked through the door, and I told them. We all had a big hug, and we all cried. Then I said, “Well I gotta go now, I’m meeting some friends”, and off I went. That was probably the most joyous moment I’ve ever had. But trust me, I’ve had many, many others.

Rod Stewart’s 30th solo studio album, Blood Red Roses, is released on September 28; rod stewart.com

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