Rod Stewart: Snap! Goes the spandex

Janet Maslin / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 18, 2012 at 04:00AM

‘ROD The Autobiography’ by Rod Stewart (Crown/ Archetype, $27)

Rod Stewart has spent four decades being a rock star, three being a parent, and enough time at both to have a book’s worth of rollicking stories to tell. In a season full of books by or about aging rockers, his memoir turns out to be the most fun.

Perhaps that’s hard to believe. Stewart, 67, used to be the kind of guy who never met a hotel room he couldn’t savage, whose idea of a plane flight was not complete without mustard on the walls of the first-class cabin and whose favorite stories are about models, be they the four-wheeled or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit-wearing kind.

In these pages he asks, and answers, some uncommonly character-revealing questions, including, “What would it be like if I wrapped myself entirely in cling film?” The answer: “You will look like a packet of uncooked chicken breast, but it will feel quite cozy.”

Earning a reputation

Stewart’s antics have earned him a richly deserved Jack the Lad reputation. But that doesn’t mean they’re rich enough to support a good book. It’s his storytelling style, which mixes wild boastfulness with barely credible self-deprecation, that proves so winning, if only because he is so willing to embarrass himself.

In unquotably colorful language he promised the press he had met his ultimate match in Rachel Hunter, the model he had first seen in an ad for “body-sculpting” when she was, he says, 20 years old to his 45. Wrong again. Hunter was not the last tall, doe-eyed blond model he would marry.

Stewart seems to have done some collaborating with Giles Smith, the British journalist whose credits include a book called “Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel.” Whatever: The connection has worked well, and the book’s voice sounds entirely like Stewart’s. His familiar sense of humor kicks in immediately, as he describes early experiences like working for a wallpaper company and (this explains a lot) living above a candy store.

“You learn a lot about yourself doing physical work,” he says about the former. “And what I learned about myself was that I didn’t like doing physical work.” His most demanding labor from that point on has involved use of a hair dryer.

Though he went through a brief phase as a leftist reader of The Daily Worker, Stewart quickly evolved into a rooster-headed dandy. “Oi! Get off me bouff” was a common Cockney cry about protecting that bouffant do, and it didn’t take long for him to start working as a singer. “It’s often said that a band is like a family,” he writes, “and that may well be true, depending on how often your family is tired and drunk.” When he worked for a sour-sounding Jeff Beck in the latter’s eponymous group, Beck rebutted the suggestion that he was too good a guitarist to play with such a campy singer, telling an interviewer: “He’s not camp. Campish, maybe.”

Fashion sense

Turns out that was a bit of an understatement. Stewart developed a taste for spandex, earned the nickname Phyllis (to Elton John’s Sharon, and this book tells highly amusing tales about their friendship) and learned to wear so much makeup that “I looked a complete tart.” As for the performing style that grew out of this flash, Stewart says, “Carrying 200 pounds of velvet and satin around a stage for 90 minutes — that’s man’s work, let me tell you.” As for the music itself, which “Rod” often reminds its readers to repurchase and revisit: “Set lists were for wimps. Wimps and professionals.”

Stewart’s sales figures — and the cars, real estate and beautiful women that came with them — do not go unmentioned here. For instance he has become an art collector, specializing in “Pre-Raphs,” and counts his paintings when he wants to fall asleep.

Yet there is sadness too: “You can be with one of the most beautiful women in the world and still be unhappy,” he says about Britt Ekland, while being sure to mention that she was a Bond girl. Of another painful moment he says: “At this point I was technically two-timing a Playboy model with another Playboy model.” Boo hoo?

Stewart laments his “terrible problem with finality” — that is, his propensity for getting caught by tabloids two-timing his last conquest with his next. He seems to have watched more than his share of women pack up and leave, since this is his preferred method of separation. He is now, he says, living happily ever after in his fairy-tale marriage to the model and photographer Penny Lancaster. And in a book where every picture indeed tells a story he can be seen surrounded by the uncommonly good-looking children and grandchildren that his roving eye has brought him. He has a son old enough to tell him that a pale blue Lamborghini is “so ‘Miami Vice.’”

The music

“Rod” isn’t often about music, but it includes occasional revealing remarks about his most famous records. The inspiration for the song “Maggie May” (“the loss of my virginity in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it encounter with an older woman” in 1961) is duly noted. So is his echo of Jeff Beck’s words when he writes about “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” as “a pink toilet seat hung around my neck for the rest of my life.” So is the way he takes pride of the echoes of his Scottish heritage in “Rhythm of My Heart,” and so is the fact that another anthemic song, “Sailing,” had to be recorded when its singer was uncharacteristically sober.

Debauchery notwithstanding, he has been skittish around any substance that might hurt his voice. And his brush with thyroid cancer in 2000, which could have changed the voice and cost him his hairdo, was a doubly frightening brush with mortality.

Stewart concludes by saying that he lost his ability to write songs; that he had recently regained it; and that you really ought to buy his new album when it comes out next year. Given the caliber of the pitchmanship on display throughout this book, maybe you will.