Ronnie Wood: Portrait of a solo Stone

Ron Wood, Self Portrait, 2010. Intaglio with chine collé. Edition of 60, AP 10, PP 5. Khadi handmade paper laid onto Somerset Textured 300 gsm. Plate: 12.5 x 9 inches. Published by The Butler Institute of American Art..

By David A. Geracioti

You might think upon hearing the opening track of his new solo album, “I Feel Like Playing,” that indeed, Ronnie Wood — the Rolling Stones guitarist, the one who blew up his 20-plus year marriage on an alcohol-fueled bender — was going to cop to his sins, perhaps sing the blues in the woeful style of the American bluesmen who inspired him.

After all, Wood, although having been in some of the most respected bands in the history of rock (the Jeff Beck Group, Faces, and since 1975, the Stones) has had a tough life, occasionally battling financial problems and drug and alcohol addictions. He details all of this in his 2007 autobiography, “Ronnie” (St. Martin’s Press).

“Ronnie” is a most entertaining read, in which Ron Wood tells tales of his past foibles in a matter-of-fact, even humorous, way. In a memorable chapter, Wood describes how in 1979 he got hooked on freebasing cocaine. Bobby Keys, the longtime Stones sax player, came to his house in Mandeville Canyon, Calif., and said to him, “Hey man, I have made the greatest discovery. It’s this thing called freebase,” Ronnie wrote. “He showed me how to make it up and that was it for me for the next five years.”

That’s for sure. Even Keith Richards was annoyed by his drug use. You know you have a drug problem when Richards tells you you have a drug problem, Ronnie says. (Richards, Wood wrote, called freebasing cocaine “a waste of time.”) But Wood managed to straighten himself out and made repeated trips to rehab. He focused on painting (he is an accomplished painter) when not touring with the Stones or doing the odd bit of solo work. (His last solo record of original work, “Not for Beginners,” was issued in 2001.) But, alas, he slipped back into bad old habits. “Mick was growing more and more concerned about my drinking and the coke I was doing,” Wood writes. “And although I didn’t know it at the time, I came close to being left out of the Forty Licks tour (a worldwide tour during 2002 to 2003).”

It was back to rehab. He made it through Forty Licks sober, “and I stayed that way for a few years.” Everything seemed fine. But, alas, sometime in 2008, or so, Wood fell off the wagon in a big way and, for whatever reason, into the arms of a then-teenage Russian émigré waitress, Ekaterina Ivanova, according to newspaper accounts. Naturally his wife of 20-plus years, Jo, wasn’t pleased and divorced him in 2009. After splitting with the young Russian (and being arrested for allegedly throttling her in a London Street), Wood has been seen out on the town, according to The Sun, a London-based tabloid, squiring women half his age. Wood checked himself back into rehab in January of this year—for the eighth time. He has emerged and says he has been sober since.

So, when you queue up the first song on his new record, which has reached number 164 in the U.K. charts, you wonder what kind of music you’re going to hear. The title of the first song is appropriately titled, “Why You Wanna Go and Do A Thing Like That For.”

When you first hear that song, with its lone, clean Fender Stratocaster opening, a bluesy riff, it’s as if the guitar were in the same room with you, elegant in its simplicity. Slash, of Guns N’ Roses fame, comes in simply, quietly, and Wood’s own overdubbed pedal steel guitar joins, all an understated accompaniment. At this point, one wonders if Wood is embarking on his own “Blood On The Tracks,” Dylan’s famous 1975 confessional about love gone wrong.

The song opens, “Hear that old coyote howling at the moon, feeling feelings he don’t understand . . . holy hunger he can turn into a tune, and chase away the darkness if he can. . . . I said why you wanna go and do a thing like that for, just when everything was going so well.”

Why indeed. But the record, released on September 28, is as capricious—even good natured—as its name implies, “I Feel Like Playing.” It’s that simple. “Blood On The Tracks” it’s not. It’s a classic rock ‘n roll record, probably his best since “I’ve Got My Own Album To Do” (1974) and “Now Look” (1975).

Wood, who told me he is “clean and serene,” hardly seems like the person depicted in lurid tabloid accounts over the last couple of years. Wood has always been known as a generous, fun-loving guy, and you come to understand that in his book by his sense of humor and his tone of voice. On the phone he is funny, open and down-to-earth. (Or, as he told me, “I keep my feet firmly planted two feet off the ground.”) He actually seemed pleased to be talking to me—and he was on quite a promotional grind, a stop in Youngstown, Ohio to promote his art exhibit at the Butler Museum of American Art, with many other media interviews and a night on the Jimmy Fallon show. Many rock stars are famous for their disdain of such promotion and enjoy being downright rude.

Wood is an extremely talented musician; he can play anything with strings on it (such as the very complicated pedal steel guitar and the lap steel); come to think of it, he seems to be able to play anything he puts his mind to. He plays a mean harp, taught himself to play the drums and the saxophone, which he picked up, “learnt the scales and started to get the feel of it.” He even played it on a song or two on his solo album, “1234” (1981). And he also played tenor sax on Jagger/Richards song, “I Think I’m Going Mad,” with the Stones brass section, for instance.

Famous for not being able to save a dime (although one report puts his present net worth in the tens of millions of English pounds), Wood seems back on track. His exhibit at the Butler Museum (open through November 21, 2010) is being well received. And it appears that his friends have not deserted him, as some of the tabloids implied when he was on his boozing binge.

Indeed, his bandmates on his new record are all old friends and the lineup reads like a Murderers’ Row of musicians, including Slash, accomplished session drummer Jim Keltner, Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player Flea, his old Faces bandmate, the keyboardist Ian McLagan, Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler and old pal soul singer Bobby Womack. Some lyrical contributions were made by Kris Kristofferson and Eddie Vedder.

He plans to reunite Faces for a short tour in January 2011, perhaps enticing Rod Stewart to join the band. And in December, Wood says the Stones will gather to have their “summit” to decide if they will tour in 2011.

Here are some excerpts from a recent phone conversation with Ronnie Wood.

Does the opening track . . .
RONNIE WOOD:
“Why You Wanna Go and Do A Thing Like That For”

Yes, that one. I was wondering if that had anything to do with what I was reading the tabloids. That song is light-hearted even. I was expecting a more moody album.
RW:
No, [the album] really is a very spontaneous musical adventure. And everybody – they kind of kid me about, ‘Oh, can you get any more stars on your album?’ But it was really like a neighborhood thing. Slash was in the studio next door, and Flea was in town, and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) passing through. But it was all a good vibe of, “Hey man, how you doing?” I’m going, “Yeah, I’ve got this song.” Or they might say, “I’ve got a song for you.” And it was just purely a great vibe.

So old friends showed up and the album just sort of started itself.
RW:
We did “Spoonful” [a Willie Dixon blues standard] and it broke the ice. And before I knew it, I was writing songs to phrases. You know, like a phrase, like “Why You Want To Go And Do A Thing Like That For?” Because I’d left home.

So that song was related to all that stuff I was reading about, about your home life.
RW:
Yeah, Bernard Fowler, he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a song about the story of your life.’ At the moment, you know, ‘I gotta go. I’ve gotta see.’ [The gospel-style song, “I Gotta See.”] And things like that. I said, ‘okay.’ I’ll put some music to your words. And I put music to phrases.

What do you mean you put music to phrases?
RW:
Well, I was walking around saying, “What You Wanna Go And Do A Thing Like That For?” Well, [another song is titled from a phrase] “I Don’t Think So.” Before you do it, I just write the music that was crying out to be used with those words.

So is the process of making an album spontaneous? Or do you come into the studio with the music fully mapped out?
RW:
It’s spontaneous. Kris Kristoferson – because when I said to him, when will you write me a couple verses for “Why You Wanna Go And Do A Thing Like That For?”And he was laughing, he was saying, ‘Well, Ronnie, what’s the hurry?’ I said, ‘I’m making an album. And I’m gonna cut the song right now.’ And he said, ‘Do you mean you haven’t got all the words?’ I said, ‘I’ve got the choruses.’ He said [Wood drops into a deep southern drawl imitation of Kristofferson], ‘Well, I can’t have the words today, Ronnie, but I’ll have them for you tomorrow.’ And he was laughing.

So the album is surprisingly light-hearted, I thought.
RW:
It’s a call of freedom, the album. And it’s very – escaping through music. It’s a very good vibe album, I think.

I think so. Like I said, I was expecting something more dour, because of all the stuff I was reading, and your personal hardship and all that.
RW:
Yeah, but I am in a really good place. And I’m happy to be clean and serene.

So, do you listen to vinyl or do prefer MP3s?
RW:
I’m a big iPod fan and I have a lot of music on my iPhone, for easy access. And the quality is there. But there’s an interesting vinyl set coming out with “I Feel Like Playing,” with signed prints in there, and it’s a very lovely collection that is going to be limited edition.

You’re pressing this in vinyl, but you don’t have a big vinyl collection?
RW:
Lots of it is left in the wake of my present situation [divorce from Jo]. So it’s all on ice. I’m sure one day I’ll get it all back together again. But I have a jukebox with some great old singles in it. Some 45s. I do have in storage some great vinyl.

So on your iPhone and your iPod, what music do you have on it? What kind of music do you listen to when you’re just bopping down the street by yourself?
RW:
Oh, anything from Mozart to Marley, with Ray Charles in between. I’ve got a – it’s a very reggae, soul, blues – you know, anything from Tina Turner to Regina Spektor.

But there’s no Kid Cudi or Hip Hop on there or whatever, right?
RW:
No, you know, that’s already there. That’s already – everybody takes a leaf out of everyone’s book. And there’s nothing there saying that hasn’t been said before.

I wish the younger kids would listen to the blues more.
RW:
I know, it kind of makes me feel a bit left out, really. I think, are these kids really going to listen to my stuff? And then I go, ‘Yes, they will. And they’ll get something out of it.’

I understand you have a radio show. Can we stream it online?
RW:
Yeah, you can. It’s ronniewoodradio.com. You can pick any show. But what you’ll find is it’s very educational, and it’s reachable for the kids to kind of compare modern day. I often juxtapose Muddy Waters against a modern day thing, and the kids will get a deeper understanding of the way music has developed over the years. And I really find that exciting.

In the book, “Ronnie,” you talk about your brothers Art and Ted who really got you into music. And I guess Ted is the one who passed away recently, right?
RW:
Art was the most recent, Ted before. Yeah, but the thing is, it’s such a—it’s a heart wrenching thing, because I’ve lost my mom and my dad and my two brothers. You know, I’m an orphan. And I don’t have anyone to show off to anymore, you know, like with my family. I come back from America with a trophy or another tour under my belt. I’d always go and see my mom, and she was a big part of my life. And it was such a – you know, I’ve gone to pieces since she died. But I’m doing things that would make her proud now.

Where did you learn to play the pedal steel?
RW:
I took pedal steel lessons from Buddy Emmons. He used to make these records, you know, ‘You mash pedal two and three,’ and it’s really funny. And I had a message from him once, and it said, ‘Ronnie, between you and me, don’t tell anyone, but I only use the first three pedals as well.’

And it was supposed to be so complicated.
RW:
Yeah, it is like driving a helicopter. Fantastic.

What I also like about your style of playing versus what’s going on now is you don’t mind holding a note. You’ll have a whole note, for example, even your leads.
RW:
That’s right. I mean, there’s a lot left unsaid. There’s a lot in what you don’t play. Leave those necessary little gaps. A space, some air.

How did you get into slide guitar? Duane Allman? He’s one, and Dickey Betts, perhaps, they were the only guys I ever heard of who could make a regular tuned guitar sound good with a slide.
RW:
Well, you’ve got another one now, that’s me. Duane was the first one to turn me on to slide playing.

Oh, is that right?
RW:
Yeah, he never gave me any lessons, but I’d just immediately cottoned on to the way he played, and I understood.

So how did you guys — you, Mick and Keith — start listening to the Mississippi Delta blues? How is that these kids from London were listening to American blues?
RW:
Oh yeah. I was, and—unknown to me—Mick and Keith were listening to early Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy. That’s where I started, with Broonzy. All the great American early blues players, Josh White and Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. So many fantastic things that came out of the south in America.

Yeah, but then you Englishmen took it and made it into rock and roll.
RW:
Yeah, and sold it back to you. We loved it so much. Even Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley. You know, it was fantastic stuff just – I grew up living on that. So did Keith.

So you were tapped young then. You had the calling to be a musician.
RW:
Oh yeah. I knew I wanted to be in the Stones when I was still at school [around 1964]. And I knew I would be. And I wanted to play with Jeff Beck, which I did. I wanted to be in the Faces, which I did. I wanted to play with Rod Stewart, which I did. So I’m a lucky man.

So how have your tastes in music changed? You’re playing still sounds very much like “I’ve Got My Own Record To Do,” which I’ve been listening to since I was 12, when it came out.
RW:
I’m glad you said that, because I think this is the best album I’ve made since that: “I’ve Got My Own Album To Do.”

I would agree. And it could – some of these tracks could be on there.
RW:
Exactly, exactly. And one regret I have is not bumping into Keith while I was making it, because he was so busy doing his pirate role down in the Caribbean. And we just didn’t happen to run across each other during the two-month period that passed while I was making the album. But the thing is, I made the album very impromptu, but I didn’t plan it. I just planned a few songs and stuff that I had on the back burner. But when it actually came to do it, I wouldn’t have done it unless [billionaire] Steve Bing said, ‘Hey, I’ve got the studio booked for you, come on up.’

Yeah, it’s a shame that Keith wasn’t there, because there’s nothing better than you and Keith harmonizing.
RW:
It’s lovely.

I’m not kidding. I was just reading the Seattle Post just now, while I was waiting for your phone call. The person reviewing your album, said it was really good, but also said the poor guy can’t sing. I mean, I’m like, you’ve gotta be kidding me.
RW:
You have two cats howling on a hot tin roof. I’ll ask Keith next time. When I make an album again, I’m going to definitely invite him along, because I miss those days.

Again, my big surprise was how good-natured the album is, it is so playful and not dark. I was expecting something dark.
RW:
No. There are some dark little things, you know, ‘I’ve got the devil in a bag next to me’ kind of thing [a lyric in “I Gotta See”]. That was all there, but there’s a kind of freedom on there as well. I’m an optimist, and I wanted to keep it very positive. I could have very easily done a dark album. The song “100%” – when I was doing rehab, you know, ‘I’m behind you 100%,’ and ‘If I stray one day, that’s okay, baby, I’m behind you.’ There’s a lot said on the album. There’s a lot of innuendo and suggestion.


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