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Ron Wood: now and then

Ron Wood rediscovered a diary that detailed the beginning of his music career and turned it into a unique hardcover book, wonderfully capturing the British Invasion music movement of the mid-1960s.
Ron Wood with illustrations from his diary-converted-to-book, “How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary. Photo provided by Genesis Publications.

Ron Wood with illustrations from his diary-converted-to-book, “How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary. Photo provided by Genesis Publications.

By Patrick Prince

The publication of Ron Wood’s 1965 diary showcases a colorful first-hand account of the English music scene and tour circuit during the height of the British Invasion. “How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary,” published by Genesis Publications, details the beginning of Wood’s music career and reports the intricate goings-on of his band at the time, The Birds. It is a one-of-a-kind time capsule through the eyes of a 17-year-old Wood, with personal photographs, facsimiles of memorabilia and original illustrations within the replicated, handwritten lines and jottings of the original journal of more than 12,000 words. The antiqued leather hardcover book is also limited to 1,965 copies, protected by cloth-bound slipcase and contains an exclusive 7-inch record (a self-portrait picture disc), which includes versions of one of the first songs Wood had ever written, “How Can It Be.”

Ron Wood was fortunate enough to grow up around two older brothers, both aspiring jazz musicians, and he closely learned the joys of musical camaraderie, which quickly prepared him for a burgeoning London music scene that had peers such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon sharing creative ideas and music business tips.

The Birds were ultimately sidelined by the popularity of the American band known as The Byrds, but Wood went on forge an even stronger career with Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and, later, The Rolling Stones (which he claims he predicted eventually joining).

Ron Wood spoke to Goldmine to discuss his feelings behind “How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary” and the experience of reliving such a part of his own personal and professional history.

GOLDMINE: How did you come to rediscover this wonderful journal of yours?

Ron Wood: Well, my dear old mom kept it, and my brothers, who are no longer with us, they were kind enough to say, “Look what we found!” Before they died they were happy to say, “You were a little 17-year-old, and (here’s) a glimpse of you 50 years ago.” I can’t believe it ... 50 years ago! I suppose it’s a little bit of preparation for the British Invasion ... a little bit of what was going through the air and working the circuit, up and down England, every day of the week nearly.

GM: I wish every musician kept a journal like this, because people like me who didn’t grow up during the British Invasion get a wonderful peek inside history. Hearing the stories straight from the source, instead of journalists.

RW: (laughs) Yeah, they’re funny, little jottings, really, from a 17-year-old and it’s just interesting to get my comments on what I really thought of how the music was improving and what a bunch of cretins there were in the audience some of the time — you know, a bunch of wallflowers, and it took lots of warming them up, and it gradually working, and then going back and building up a little bit up more of a substantial audience. You know, it was just crazy, really. I was quite conscientious in my youth (laughs). I kept a 1966 diary, too, but that was a tiny little one. That was quite informative as well. I’m not quite sure if I kept a ‘64 but it all came flooding back when I started to flip through (the 1965 journal). It took me back and it only seemed like a few weeks ago. Not 50 years ago ... amazing! (laughs).

The limited-edition hardcover book, “How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary,” which contains many extras.

The limited-edition hardcover book, “How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary,” which contains many extras.

GM: And the first instrument you played were the drums, right?

RW: Yeah. And I still have a kit with me wherever I go. I love to beat it out on the drums.

GM: Did you just feel like a natural on the drums? Never thought of you playing the drums at first.

RW: My brother Ted, he was a drummer in a jazz band, and when everyone was at work and I’d have a day off school or something, I would get the drum kit out from underneath the stairs, set it up and make a helluva racket, playing along to records and stuff. Then the neighbors would say to my parents, “While you were out there was this terrible noise coming from your house. What was that racket?” And my mom and dad would ask me “What was it?” And I’d say “I don’t know. I don’t know what it could’ve been.” (laughs) Because I had the drums packed away by then. But they didn’t mind, really.

GM: And the first instrument you played onstage was a washboard in your brother’s skiffle group?

RW: That’s right. He had a little skiffle group. We used to have backroom jams with all of my brothers, who were 8 years or 10 years older than me. I was mixing with a school crowd, the artists and the musicians, which was perfect for me because that’s what I still do today. I still paint and I still play. And when I was in short pants I used to probably be the annoying little boy in the room in everyone’s way and take up what they were doing. And they used to say, “OK, little Ronnie, you can join in. You play washboard.” And we played this song called “Momma Don’t Allow No Music Playin’ Round Here” and then you’d get a break in it ... (sings) “I don’t care what Momma don’t allow. I’ll play that music any oh how. Momma don’t allow no music played in here ...” and they’d go “take it away” and you’d have a solo where you go around to all the different instruments. There were kazoos and washboards, banjos, guitars, trumpets, trombones, drums ... you know, everything, and we’d be rocking it out in the back room.

GM: That’s a great story. In the foreword (of the book), Charlie Watts says that you are still given to behave like a 17-year-old. And not many people keep that enthusiasm of a teenager their entire lives. That’s a huge compliment from Charlie.

RW: Yeah, I think so. You gotta keep that bit of youth in you when you get older and, yeah, it’s an important thing, I think. Keep that looseness about you, a sense of humor. It’s quite a heavy world out there. You go to keep it bright and positive in attitude, I think.

GM: Do you find that your peers still have that same youthful enthusiasm?

RW: Yeah, I think that’s why we get on so well; especially in rehearsals and things where we get a chance to hang loose and experiment and exchange stories and get to know another side of each other, you know.

GM: Reading the dairy shows you were also close to Keith Moon. The producer Bob Ezrin told Goldmine that Keith Moon could have done well as a member of Monty Python. Would you agree with that?

RW: Oh yeah, he was an incredible loose cannon. He was prone to living his wildest dreams. Yeah, he could. Like Monty Python, he would dress up as women or Hitler or a Cardinal or something — anything crazy — that’s Moonie. He would only imagine he was driving a staff car in Germany or something. And he would actually buy the staff car and the outfit and he’d give the salute and drive through the streets.

GM: And he did have a big heart, no?

RW: Yeah, he did. He was an incredible gentleman to my mother. He was an incredibly polite young man. She’d believe any of his stories about him. (laughs) He was very polite (to her) in his smoking jacket and serving her brandy. He’d be like Noël Coward (English playwright, director and entertainer) with the whole cigarette holder, the silver tray with brandy and cognac. He was incredible. (laughs) And the next thing, you’d turn your back and he climbed out the window and down the drainpipe and he’d be gone. (laughs)

More exclusive photos are included in the print version of this cover feature. To order a digital download of the issue, click here.

More exclusive photos are included in the print version of this cover feature. To order a digital download of the issue, click here.

GM: Let’s talk a little bit about The Birds. At the time you said that the band was receiving equal billing with bands like The Who in 1965.

RW: We were sort of contemporaries. And we used to look up to them because it was all about having a hit record then and they had “I Can’t Explain.” So they used to tease us. They used to go “We’re No. 1!” and we used to go “You bastards!” We’d try getting up there on the ladder because it was all about being in the charts then. And if The Birds got in the charts in like the Top 50 or something it was like an amazing celebration. I think we got in the Top 30 once — maybe even higher — but nowhere near a No. 1 spot. And we always looked up to the Stones as well. We used to look at how much the Stones were going out and how much the Stones were getting. They were getting like 200 pounds a weekend and we were getting 75. And we used to think, “Well, we’re getting there. We’re getting up with the big boys.” It was a good learning curve.

GM: At times you must wonder what could have been if only the Los Angeles band — The Byrds — never existed or never toured England.

RW: Oh yeah, our manager, he was a real bright spot, Leo (de Clerck) ... he sued them when they came to Britain (in 1965). He handed them a writ when they got off the plane, for stealing our name. And that was the only time we hit the front page of the Melody Maker. It was a publicity stunt, you know. I met Jim (Roger) McGuinn a few years ago and I reminded him of that, when they first came. And he said, “Yeah, there was this lawsuit that someone slapped on us as soon as we arrived.” And then there was a long silence, and he went “Hang on a minute. That was you!” And I went, “Yeah!” And he grabbed me by the throat. It was really funny. (laughs) He had a good sense of humor about it.

GM: And then you changed the name of the band to The Birds Birds.

RW: Yeah, that was (music executive and manager) Robert Stigwood’s brainwave. It was crazy back in those days. He was handling Cream ... all the managers back then — Robert Stigwood, Kit Lambert, who managed The Who, and Brian Epstein with The Beatles — it was a close-knit team. All the managers, they were all gay and had a friendly rivalry, and we’d all meet at the record company Christmas parties together. They were really special days, because it was all like one big family, and the managers even, too. These bunch of eccentrics would be flirting, really, this talent around, bantering and just trying their luck. Some would make it and some were just around the edges, or on the verge. And I was rubbing shoulders at the time, when the diary was written, with the ones who were successful and, you know, I knew I was the youngest and my time would come. I had a feeling of ambition in the back of my head all the time, always trying to improve.

GM: I don’t know if there will ever be a music movement quite like that again — that kind of excitement.

RW: Yeah, it was definitely in the air. Everyone was trying to help each other and trying to get better and a little bit thanks to the American music scene, all of our influences. All the blues and rock ‘n’ roll from the Elvises and the Chuck Berrys and the Howlin’ Wolfs and the Jimmy Reeds, you know, all of them hailing from America. We took all the precious recordings we could find and we would pay tribute in our own way to it. And then we’d sell it to the Americans. And that was what it was — it was like “Wow!” — a new music.

GM: You used the words “learning curve” before, as you were constantly sharing ideas with your peers back then — jamming with them, coming over to meet — which is pretty exciting.

RW: I mean, around that time another drummer Mitch Mitchell had just joined the Jimi Hendrix Experience and he used to come over to my little house and meet my mom and he’d be telling my parents, “Yeah, I’m with this new outfit called the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It seems to be going quite well.” You know (laughs), they were wishing him luck! We’d all get together after gigs and all meet down at the clubs, the speakeasies and watering holes and then tell how the gigs went that night.

GM: You said that many of the musicians who are now icons would come to your shows and watch you perform. You called it “nerve-racking” in your diary.

RW: Yeah. Just a few years after the diary, I remember playing in New York for the first time with the Faces after Steve Marriott had left and when we had got Rod (Stewart) in the band. We played a very samll club in New York and in the audience watching was Hendrix, Alvin Lee and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. They were all just saying like “OK, let’s see what this lot has got to offer.” And I was playing with this guitar intro, just acapella. It was quite a long intro and I was thinking “Oh sh*t, I can’t mess this up.” But the great thing was it made you pull your socks up and get in there, get in the deep end.

GM: Recently Goldmine interviewed Rod Argent (Zombies) and Jim McCarty (Yardbirds) and they both made comments that in the mid-’60s no one really expected rock ‘n’ roll to last. And some of them had moved on to other forms of music. To hear that now is shocking. How did you feel back then about that?

RW: Well, I always knew it would last. I mean, what were they thinking?! Obviously it was gonna last to me. I didn’t want to go off and make any nouveau variations on it, no. The simpler and the more earthy it is, that’s what lasts in time. That’s what will last over a millennium.

GM: What was interesting to hear is how you mentioned that the volume always needed to be controlled at gigs back then.

RW: If you’d get out of control, if you got too loud, in those days the promoter would unplug the main switch, so you had to be careful. It was like, “OK, in my opinion, you are making a racket now, so I will unplug you.” That was really funny. But it wasn’t so funny when you were onstage though. (laughs)

GM: Fights were common at shows, too. There were really a lot of fights?

RW: Yes, there were. We sort of had to sense the trouble coming and do a swerve. But luckily we were OK. The Birds got away with a lot of it. And the Jeff Beck Group got away with getting out of the place.

GM: One last thing I wanted to ask you about is your artwork. I always loved your artwork, and one of my favorite pieces in the diary is called “Wallpapering With Dad!” To me, it shows the closeness you had with your family. Your parents were always very supportive of your creativity, weren’t they?

RW: Yeah, they were. My dad used to say, “You wanna look like that, son, go right ahead.” You know, because he didn’t understand the long hair and that whole bit, but he was never against it.

GM: And that’s really important because a lot of parents weren’t like that, I assume, back then.

RW: Yeah, that’s right. They had a lot of understanding, because I think my elder brothers, they broke the ice a bit with the high school crowd and the eccentrics that came around. So they were used to it.

GM: So what’s the next diary entry for Ron Wood?

RW: I don’t know. Maybe we’ll see what happens in the 1966 one.