Ronnie Wood: Like a Rolling Stone
I first met Ronnie Wood at a gallery preview of his paintings in the late ’80s.
He was still definitely the “new guy” in the Rolling Stones, even if he had cemented his place as indispensable during the Dirty Work sessions as the man who could bring détente to the then-warring Glimmer Twins, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Wood was funny and warm, and made no secret that, while he enjoyed painting, he needed the money to offset the financial hit he’d taken as one of the dormant Stones.
“I do love painting,” he told me then, as I admired a painting of Keith Richards hanging in the New York City basement gallery space. “But I need it, too. Mentally and financially!”
He then laughed that good-natured laugh he’s known for, slapped me on the back and moved on to one of the other guests.
When I ran into Richards, not long after my encounter with Wood, and asked if the Stones would ever get on the road, the man who had just released an album full of blistering attacks on Mick Jagger looked at the ground for what seemed like an eternity and then answered the question by not answering the question.
“I love playing with Ronnie,” he said, with that long drawl of his. “He’s the glue that holds it all together.”
Soon the Stones were back on the road, first with the Steel Wheels juggernaut in 1989, and then a succession of ever-bigger tours.
I caught a few, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I saw Ronnie Wood again, at a party for the launch of Faces 1969-1975, the deluxe, Genesis Publications book chronicling his days in the legendary band with Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones. He was in fine form, newly sober and full of life, and no longer the “new guy” in the Stones.
“Yeah, well they’ve given that up now finally,” he told me with a smile when we caught up again, recently, just after Wood had celebrated both his 68th birthday and 40 years in the Stones. “These days there’s a new camaraderie now with the unarguable 40 years. It’s very, ‘Oh well, I suppose he really is one of us after all.’”
Wood has another book with Genesis out – How Can It Be?: A Rock & Roll Diary – based on a diary from his early days as a traveling musician in the 1960s UK R&B band The Birds – and I caught up with him recently, chatting with Wood about everything from his early inspirations, all the way up though the Rolling Stones’ current summer tour.
“You’ve been to the Wick?” Wood asks, excitedly, at the outset, when I tell him I’d visited his former home.
His exploits, especially with Richards, in the 1970s at the house in the London suburb of Richmond, are legendary, and the place is now owned by fellow rock royalty Pete Townshend.
“That’s great. Wow. Yeah, my stamp is still there in the studio downstairs. That’s where I recorded I’ve Got My Own Album to Do. I visited Pete recently and he took me ‘round and showed me what he’d done. He’s still got the glass doors with [a sign reading] ‘Mind Your Head’ above them. We used to walk into that between the control room and the studio all the time! I did all of the paneling on the walls, the cork and the wood, and he’s kept all that. It’s bigger than I remember it, too.”
For his part, Townshend tells me that Wood often shows up on his doorstep, as if he’s still the owner, and expects that, if he ever sells it, he’ll do the same.
As for how his book came about, Wood’s manager was the inspiration.
“My manager said, ‘I’ve got something of yours that’s really precious,’” Wood explains. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ She showed me the diary – my brother had found it while cleaning, I gather – and she said that she thought it was fantastic and should be published.
“I had obviously no idea of doing that. But after I read it, and some of the memories came flooding back, I thought, ‘Actually, that’s not a bad idea! Just leave it as is, dig out some drawings and photos, and do a few more to spice it up a bit.’”
It’s a fascinating time capsule, with the seemingly mundane day-by-day events now taking on historic significance.
“We were rubbing shoulders with all the big boys,” Wood recalls. “The Who, the Stones. They kind of took us under their wing and gave us encouragement. And I kept this little personal record of whether the audiences were a bunch of cretins or went screaming mad.
“We’d get different receptions all over the country, but it was all about the gig at the end of the day and how much we were getting. I used to compare it to the Stones, when they were starting to make it. They’d maybe make 250 pounds at the weekend, and we were getting 75 quid. So I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re getting there! We’re getting there!’”
One of the constant conflicts within the Birds was about the volume on stage.
“Yeah, it’s hilarious,” Wood says, with a hearty laugh. “Especially trying to get through the BBC audition, which we failed. Anything louder than a string quartet just didn’t make it. The Who did okay, though. And they were much louder than us! But they also had “I Can’t Explain” or whatever it was at the time. They had a hit – the BBC couldn’t really turn them down. But if you didn’t have a chalk mark in the charts, and the Birds didn’t, then that wasn’t enough for the BBC.”
The Birds struggled to break out amongst the surge of U.K. bands playing an English brand of American R&B.
Even so, their reputation as a live act is legendary, and the few songs that have been included on various compilations are unique, raw glimpses into what was going on in England at the time beyond the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who and Small Faces, in which Wood later cut his teeth and became ever more enamored by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
His next stop was the Jeff Beck Group, which the titular guitar virtuoso formed after leaving the Yardbirds.
“In the Beck Group, Jeff was heavily influenced by the Chicago blues and Vanilla Fudge, bands like that coming out of the woodwork,” Wood recalls. “So we would do a blend of all the influences, plus a little bit of Beach Boys, a little bit of the blues. We put all these things into a melting pot.
“I also learned an aspect during the Beck days of how to look anew at the six strings of the guitar, from playing the four strings of the bass,” Wood says, having been switched by management to bass for the Beck Group gig. “I took the bass to another level, in my opinion.
“I used to hang out with people like Larry Graham and John Entwisle. Great players. It was inspiring and competitive, ” he recalls. “And it was the funk years, too. Players like Stanley Clarke have told me that I was a heavy influence on the way they played, unbeknownst to me. A lot of bass players I meet nowadays love those Truth/Beck-ola days. And I used to take a lot of cues from the drummers, like Aynsley Dunbar, Mickey Waller, as well.
“I learned a lot about the approach to the bass guitar from drummers. So the time I had away from the guitar while I was playing the bass was handy, because I came in knowing the kind of slide aspect and with a new vigor and enthusiasm when I went back on it with the Faces.”
Wood and Rod Stewart, who sang with the Jeff Beck Group, became brothers in arms during those days.
And almost immediately after leaving, they joined the then newly reformed Small Faces – Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan, who Steve Marriott had ditched to form Humble Pie – as the Faces. It was a match made in heaven.
“Those days were glorious,” Wood says, thinking back fondly on the early-’70s heyday as the only band that truly rivaled the Stones for the “greatest rock ‘n’ roll group” title during that era. “We were like brothers. We fought like brothers. We partied like brothers. Our shows were a wild mix of music and drinking, with the audience in on the action. Then they’d join us back at the hotel!”
In retrospect, his tenure with the Stones seems inevitable.
By the mid-70s Wood’s social circle revolved increasingly around the band, just as the Faces began to collapse under the weight of Stewart’s skyrocketing solo career. With the departure of Mick Taylor from the Stones, Wood was asked by Mick Jagger to pick up the torch.
“I always knew I was gonna end up in the Stones,” Wood says, matter of factly. “They were my mates, you know, but I remember being at the Hyde Park show in ‘69, and Mick and Charlie rolled up in this big car full of people. Mick came right up to me and said, ‘Hello Face,’ ‘cuz that’s what he called me then, as I was in the Faces. We talked for a while and then he went, ‘OK, we gotta go and play. See you soon’. I said, ‘Yeah, sooner than you think.’
“I was always certain I would end up in the Stones, and a few years later I did. Mind you, I was with them for ages – I did a 17-year apprenticeship – before they made me a full member! But I was looking for an adventure, and I definitely got that.”
These days, Wood says, the enormous Stones organization rolls along as soon as Jagger and Richards agree it’s time to hit the road.
“The organization behind the band is enormous,” says Wood. “All I do is slot in and play my part.”
“I used everything that came before the Stones as a stepping stone, though,” Wood says of his wild, but ever-busy, days before joining the band. “And I still do today. I’m still improving and still have ambition, which is a major driving force that still keeps me going. Every Stones gig is different and better and changing. It’s been the same throughout my career no matter what I’ve been playing.”
As for advice for young musicians, Wood simply says don’t give up.
“I think with experience, the more wisdom you accrue over the years, you get a feel and more of a confidence to go through with an idea and see it as it is going to come out,” he says, picking up on the earlier thread about his long apprenticeship.
“As a player, you’ll get more of an idea about how a song will last in the future, because when you first have a song, it’s going to go through a lot of changes before it falls into its proper structure that’s going to last for years. You get more of an insight into that.
“There’s no need to play all the time, that’s important, too,” Wood continues. “What you leave out is very important. Then, when you do interject and interplay with each other, it makes more dynamic sense. Also, it creates less cluttering. It just defines the whole song, whatever it may be, if you aren’t treading on each others’ toes too much.
“Bust mostly, I’d tell any young player not to give up,” Wood says, summing up. “And to keep experimenting and trying. Have faith that you too can achieve your dream. You can make it come true.”
On the Stones’ freshly completed Zip Code tour, Wood seems to be playing better than ever.
The band recently performed their 1971 classic Sticky Fingers in its entirety at a one-off show in Los Angeles, in addition to the newly-released deluxe edition of the album, which includes the remastered LP and live recordings from the ’71 tour. Seeing Wood perform today is a master class in sympathetic guitar playing, as he simultaneously serves the song and plays around, and to, the strengths of his longtime foil, Keith Richards.
“I think there’s a new clarity of approach, coming with my five years sobriety,” Wood explains. “That’s an amazing plus for me, because I can play anything without a drink or dope. It’s a wonderful feeling to still feel excited about a show, but I don’t have to reach for false stimulants to get me through. That’s a big plus.
“It’s hard to explain until one does it,” Wood says, “But there comes an even further depth of understanding of songs. It changes all the time, too. Just to keep up with it and keep grips with it and experiment. You still experiment. Amazing new things are coming out, but it’s out of a very focused place.”
As we wrap up, and Wood reflects his 40 years in the Stones, and the 50 years and counting of the Rolling Stones as one of the world’s biggest acts, he seems mystified that anyone cares about the band’s advancing years.
The blues legends that the teenage Wood admired so much, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Elmore James, played until they dropped, and Wood says he and the other Stones see no reason not to follow suit.
“We’re all so different,” Wood says, reflecting. “We lead such different lives. But there’s also this strong sense of camaraderie between us that really comes through in the music.
“We’ve been doing this a long time together and I think that’s helped up appreciate each other’s differences. I think it’s helped it work over the years, and get better, in my opinion. So why should we stop? I certainly hope we keep going. I think we still have a lot of music to make. “
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Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has interviewed and written intimate portraits of everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Clash to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles.
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