2000 Light Years From Home
In Chicago 14,000 Stones fans gather outside the International Amphitheatre, which resembles an obese Roundhouse.
Perusing the horde from the back of a cab, I conclude that spotting a Stones fan is a cinch. They always look younger than they really are and they’re more fashion-conscious − not a flare in the world − than the average Who/Zep/Deep Purple partisan. They also can’t tell the bottom from the top.
Yet there’s a subliminal sixties approach to their fanaticism, their rational exuberance, their walk. If they’d been born twenty years earlier, Liberace would’ve been the diamond-studded object of their indestructible affection.
But it’s not the Stones these predominantly hirsute resurrectionists have come to see. Well, not all of them. No, it’s none other than Ronnie Wood, that desultory epitome of the hackneyed phrase, ‘good-time rock’, who’s about to brighten this domed Chicago night with a song in his heart.
Oh, and there’s Keith Richards. A mite less lugubrious than Mr Wood but that’s just his way. And, of course, there are a few other good-time Joes in the shape of ex-Small Faces/Faces Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones, Weather Report’s Stanley Clarke, saxophonist Bobby Keys and Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste.
This disparate combo answer to the name of the New Barbarians, a title apparently suggested to Ronnie by Neil Young when it looked likely that the man with the bollock-squeezing vocals might join the band as well.
They were hastily assembled to promote a solo Wood album, Gimme Some Neck, on a hastily put together US tour neatly slotting into a Stones time warp of sunbathing, divorce suits and writing.
The crowd at the Amphitheatre, where The Beatles played and where Elvis first wore his gold lame suit, is plagued with ‘Willy’ rumours. ‘Will Jagger play?’; ‘Will Stewart show?’; ‘Willy?’
‘Who needs guests?’ yells Ronnie, at the outset of the show, to dispel all the rumours, and piss off the crowd
Woody nips around in blue jeans and musketeer shirt like a soccer sub who’s just been asked to warm up for an FA Cup Final appearance. He sings, predictably, the whole of Gimme Some Neck – the morbid infection of ‘Buried Alive’, ‘FUG Her’, ‘Lost And Lonely’, the unadulterated optimism of ‘Worry No More’ and ‘Don’t Worry’, a suitable inscription for Woody’s gravestone. Big cheers.
More cheers for Keith Richards’s two contributions –’Apartment Number Nine’ and ‘Let’s Go Steady’. Biggest cheers for ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. Chicago becomes their kind of town. I even see a guy dancing with his wife.
A few hours later I follow the mesmerising scent of music and marijuana through a Milwaukee wood in the dark to a large timber building set in the grounds of the Playboy Country Club. The music, folded into the immobile shadows on the window, is vaguely familiar. I wander up and peer through the glass. The New Barbarians are huddled around an elaborate hi-fi, listening to a tape of their Chicago show like gaunt-faced pathologists slicing up a fresh cadaver.
The post-mortem is complete. All’s well in Wood’s wood.
‘The deciding factor to actually make the album came during the Some Girls sessions with the Stones in Paris,’ says Ronnie.
He sits cross-legged on a huge red leather sofa in a room off the main lounge where the others are gathered. Blonde London model girlfriend Jo Howard serves the drinks, JD on ice. They’ve been living together − that’s Ron and Jo, not Ron and Jack − in California since Ronnie and his wife Chrissie split and have a ten-month-old daughter, Leah.
‘In between takes, Charlie, Bill and me mucked around with some of my songs and Bill turned round and said, "Do you realize how quickly you could go through these?" And he was right. I laid down all the tracks in just ten days. And so my first solo album in four years was recorded.
‘The album and tour have certainly given me a new lease of life. Getting such a bunch of guys together like that was absolutely amazing. Despite all the different managers and record companies involved the project proved to be no trouble at all. Not one single trauma. And what was so flattering was the way they all insisted on playing my songs alone. When the tour started in Toronto, I tended to let the weight fall on their shoulders because I knew they could handle it better than me. But now I understand how to approach the whole thing. It ain’t as crazy as I originally thought.’
Ronnie’s career with the Stones started back in 1976 after the demise of the Faces. His face popped up on the cover of the Black and Blue album, which confirmed he was already a member. Many argue that he hauled them out of an artistic quagmire and gave them the shot in the arm they desperately needed.
‘I’ve always felt well at home in the Stones. After all, they always were my favourite band … always. I’ve been able to do my own thing in the band. Mick and Keith will always listen to a song I’ve written which I think might be suitable for the band.
‘So many people think the Stones’ approach to everything is simple and direct. What they don’t realise is in that simplicity there are so many subtleties that you’ve got to be on top all the time otherwise you’re bound to get caught. It’s not that I’ve helped to liven the Stones up – it’s that they’ve helped to liven me up. There’s such a tremendous democratic framework within the band. Everyone is encouraged to do what they want.’
How did they react to him doing a solo album?
‘They were great,’ he says, a fag in his mouth, a glass of bourbon in his hand, a one-way ticket to cloud nine in the back pocket of his jeans. ‘It’s really funny. Every time Mick sees me with a fag in my mouth he rushes up and grabs it, saying I’ll ruin my voice if I don’t stop smoking. He also says I should cut down on the ol’ Jack Daniel’s … but what can a poor boy do?
‘Besides, Mick would love to do a solo album himself – he’s definitely got it in him – and he’s also got more than enough material. And Keith is getting closer and closer to doing just that. He’s written some incredible stuff recently.’
How is Ronnie coping with being a front man for a change?
‘Now that took some working out. See, when you’ve been playing with people like Mick and Rod for years you tend to let them take the limelight. Hell, they’re naturals so they’re gonna take it anyway. But now I’m gradually coming to terms with it myself. I now know all the things they go through – and it’s real hard.’
Aha, an ego is born.
‘Nah, I’m no egotist. I’ve lived with too many to be one. I guess that’s why I like to show off a lot on stage – I know it don’t mean anything. I could have done solo tours years ago but by now my force would’ve been spent and I’d just be existing. I’ve done it in the right way. All I’ve ever wanted to do is give value for money -- giving just me is self-indulgent. That’s why it’s great to be surrounded by guys who are incredible talents in their own right. It takes you down a peg or two and you’ve got to come back smiling. I think the tour affected everyone like that. Keith was giving things that people could never imagine. And I broke my balls to get it right.’
Why does he think he’s been dubbed rock’s Mr Nice Guy?
‘Dunno. Maybe it’s ’cos I don’t bullshit unless it’s absolutely necessary. A lot of people I play with happen to be really famous and it can sound very flash when you talk about them. But it’s just the same as anyone talking about their mates. It’s perfectly natural. Like the other night Bob Dylan popped around my house for tea. It was on the eve of the US tour and he was checking up on me. He wasn’t sure whether I’d go through with it.
‘I love living on the West Coast. I like to stick my roots down wherever I am. My family lived in the same house for over twenty years, and when we moved it was just a hundred and fifty yards down the road.’
He attended Ealing Art College and is an accomplished artist − he did all the artwork on his album, which includes a brilliant self-portrait. Why didn’t he bring the album out much earlier, when it had been knocking around for such a long time?
I didn’t want it to surface until it felt right. I could never have done all this eighteen months ago. It takes a certain approach – it helps if you’re a little crazy – and right now I can enjoy it. I believe that’s the key to lasting in this business. The Stones’ longevity is down to that – approaching the right thing in the right way at the right time. That, plus the way they live. It’s always been five guys and five women who are very close at all times.’
‘They’ve learned to search out what’s gonna be the next fashion and ride with it – very often they set the fashion themselves. And they’ve also got the ability to suss out anyone who’s gonna try and put the spoke in.
‘Would you like to meet Keith?’ he suddenly asks.
What the fuck do you think? ‘Er, yes, that would be nice.’
‘Keith’s a bit nervous about hanging with journalists after that bust in Toronto. But I don’t think we’ll have any problem with you.’
I guess I’m just that kind of guy. I follow Ron through to the lounge where Keith Richards, Ian McLagan, Kenney Jones, Stanley Clarke, Bobby Keys and Ziggy Modeliste are seated on chairs or the shag-pile carpet drinking Jack Daniel’s, laughing, being rock stars, smoking cigars.
The smell of dope is intoxicating and that night I snort the best coke this side of Colombia. The Jack Daniel’s is premium and the grass is, well, sublime. I kinda pity people like Keith Richards. Nights such as these are customary for rock gods, like watching Coronation Street. For me, it’s like watching Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
When the sun rises it’s time to go…
Next: Malcolm McLaren
Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013
Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives