By Buddy Blue
Rod Stewart may well be the most stunning example of wasted talent the pop music world has ever witnessed. Nearly four decades into his career, the blustery, rooster-topped, raspy-throated vocalist has descended from wide recognition as one of the planet's greatest and most unique voices to a living Portrait Of Dorian Gray. Alas, we must indict not only the singer of the songs but the human race's collective capacity of appraisal as well when considering that the more horrific the music Stewart secretes, the more units he inevitably moves.
'Twas not always thus. Stewart, it could be argued, was the vocal template for heavy blues-rock (as well as metal, by extension) during his pioneering stint with the very exquisite Jeff Beck Group in the late '60s. As frontman with the Faces, he helped create some of the most timeless, meaty British rock & roll ever set to wax. On his early solo albums, Stewart served as a yearning, one-man bridge between blues, country, soul, rock and pop. This is what first brought him to mainstream fame, and that fame is what drove Stewart's muse deep into the nether regions of bad taste and wretched excess, never to return home.
The subsequent years spent as a strutting disco boy were a shame and an embarrassment; Stewart himself has acknowledged as much. During the '80s and '90s, he alternated twixt half-baked pandering to the new wave market and recording MOR corporo-pop worthy of Michael Bolton. Stewart's current incarnation as an extraordinarily ghastly crooner of standards has earned him widespread damnation from jazz and pop critics and musical peers alike. It's been a long, hard fall, borne in equal measures of ego, greed, and simple artistic vacuity.
"The All Music Guide," the web's most commonly consulted musical reference work, opens its entry on the erstwhile Rod The Mod with the following sentence: "Stewart may have began his career as a respected singer, yet that respect eroded as he got older, as he became more concerned with stardom than music."
Jazz singer/guitarist John Pizzarrelli weighed in on Stewie The Crooner when I interviewed him a couple years ago: "Legitimate musicians go out and make great records of these songs, and then a guy like that comes along and does it in a real half-assed way, and since he's who he is, he gets all this publicity. Meanwhile, [he's] horrible, and now people think that's what we do."
Even Ian McLagen, longtime Stewart keyboardist, couldn't find much positive to say of his former associate's recent work when we spoke last month: "Rod is a great lead vocalist, even though I don't like the stuff he's doing now. But what does he care what I think? He's making more money now than he ever has."
Therein lies the answer to "wha'appen." Stewart has been laughing all the way to the bank right in our collective face since, oh, back around the bicentennial.
Issues of music aside, Stewart's very image is steeped in a brand of preening, misguided arrogance rare even within the domain of the elderly British rock star; a species certainly unrenowned for its capacity for dignity. The goony-bird hairdo still adorning Stewart's dome is truly unbecoming on anyone, ever, at any time (are you listening, Ryan Adams?), but particularly atop the crown of someone whose youth was already fading around the time MTV was born.
And why is it that this man insists on being serially photographed sans shirt and proper trousers in the company of sinewy strumpets young enough to be his granddaughter? Yes, Stewart is in relatively good shape for a man of his advanced years, but when the annual toll reaches 60, the question of whether to clothe oneself before the lens becomes a matter of simple decency.
Yet, as I alluded to earlier, there was a time when Stewart was, without question, a great and singular artist. Among rock & roll's finest singers, composers, interpreters and frontmen, his vocal style was a curious combo platter of Sam Cooke on the one hand, Bob Dylan on the other, strained through the swaggering attitude and power of Mick Jagger. He could wring earnest emotion from material of any genre endeavored, from the loudest throb-rock to the tenderest folk ballad. He spawned a cottage industry
of imitators of both sexes (and varying merit), among them Kim Carnes, Bonnie Tyler, Bryan Adams and Chris Robinson (not to mention one-hit wonders the Stories, whose 1973 Stewart-sound-alike "Brother Louie" remains a wound time can never heal).
Less celebrated was Stewart's expertise as bandleader - the magnitude of his early work is abetted considerably by the crews he assembled, which included McLagen, Keith Emerson, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Kenny Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, David Lindley, Andy Pyle and Maggie Bell.
All this, however, remains but a distant memory. Take a hard gander at increasingly degrading photos of the man throughout his career; to quote one of Stewart's own lyrics, "every picture tells a story, don't it?"
Stewart's current tour - he lands tomorrow night at Coors Amphitheater - is a career-spanning production billed as "From Maggie May to the Great American Songbook." Allow me to relate hopes for a sharp inclination towards the former, as despite thirty years worth of unfortunate choices in direction, material, production and personal conduct, Stewart's voice actually remains all it once was and more. And, because of that, we shall close as we began:
Rod Stewart may well be the most stunning example of wasted talent the pop music world has ever witnessed.
Sidebar 1 ESSENTIAL STEWART
Jeff Beck, "Truth" (Epic) 1968 Herein lie the bone-chilling natal screams of heavy metal. Stewart, brilliant guitarist Beck, bassist Ron Wood and drummer Mickey Waller's 1968 debut was as dark, intense, innovative, thunderous and more than anything laid down by contemporaries Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the time. Without this crew's lead there certainly would have been no Led Zeppelin, who came along a year later as a more bombastic/less musical imitation of this great but largely forgotten group. The follow-up, "Beck-Ola," is slightly less inspired but highly recommended nonetheless.
Rod Stewart, "Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings" (Mercury/Universal) 2002 Any self-respecting rock fan owes it to themselves to collect all of Stewart's early solo albums (except the curiously weak "Smiler"), and this 3-disc set has 'em all in one nicely packaged, expertly re-mastered parcel, including '69's "The Rod Stewart Album," '70's "Gasoline Alley," '71's "Every Picture Tells A Story" and '72's "Never A Dull Moment" - five-star masterpieces all - plus a sampling of bonus sides. The hits and highlights are too numerous to catalog here; suffice it to say you already know and love half of these songs and will equally cherish the rest once you drink of their myriad pleasures.
Faces, "Five Guys Walk Into A Bar..." (Rhino) 2004 This recently-released boxed set comprises 67 tracks, 47 of them rare sides, 31 of those previously unissued; such essential tuneage as "Stay With Me," Cindy Incidentally," "Borstal Boys," "Jealous Guy" and "You Can Make Me Dance" are included. Mssrs. Stewart, Wood, Jones and Lane were a locomotive engine of Stones-patterned rock & roll but far less self-serious and erratic than Mick and Keef, far more good-timey and booze-marinated instead. That Stewart quit this fold to unleash god-awful ego-rock upon us remains perhaps his most unpardonable sin of all.
Sidebar 2 WRETCHED RODDY
Rod Stewart, "Blondes Have More Fun" (Warner Brothers) 1978 If there's ever been a song more unrepentantly stupid, narcissistic, tawdry and annoying than "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" - which neatly summed up everything that went wrong during an entire decade in the span of five unendurable minutes - I'm hard-pressed to come up with it. The rest of this album, all whinnying synths, lobotomizing beats and cocaine-induced odes the magnificence of one's own erections, is very nearly as excruciating.
Rod Stewart, "Tonight I'm Yours" (Warner Brothers) 1981 Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt, Paul McCartney, Queen, David Bowie, even Alice Cooper.....seemingly every aging rocker felt compelled to release their new wave album in the early '80s; each of their efforts is frequently cited as their nadir of their respective careers; and of course, our Roderick was already king of the cash-in, so his skinny tie moment in the sun didn't exactly come as a surprise. Lightweight as this
effort remains, the Old Turk actually recorded worse albums than this in the grand scheme of things, but for sheer cynicism you have to rank it right next to "Blondes."
Rod Stewart, "It Had To Be You...The Great American Songbook," "As Time Goes By...The Great American Songbook, Vol. 2," "Stardust...The Great American Songbook, Vol. 3" (J-Records) 2002, 2003, 2004 Interchangeable as they are appalling, Roddy's triad of standards albums mark his re-birth as a commercial powerhouse just as they signal his continuing and staggering refusal to exist as an artist as opposed to a cash cow. What's most amazing about these releases is how someone remaining in such technically spectacular voice can sound so insincere, uncomfortable, out of their element and downright feeble.
BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue
Yes, yes, of course I read your emails, I take due note of your grievances and I'm the first to admit I can be a very unpleasant fellow when composing indictments of subject matter I find objectionable. However, just because I ripped the rockabilly scene a new one a couple weeks ago doesn't mean I'm immune to the music's enduring, oily allure when it's being properly plied -- an increasingly rare occurrence, but one which makes it all the more sweet when it actually happens. To that end, I'm here this week to celebrate local 'billy singer/guitarist Rip Carson, who plays Tio Leo's Lounge in Bay Park tonight. I've seen him gig at the La Mesa car show a couple times and was struck by how seamlessly Carson and crew blended into the petroleum-product-obsessed milieu, as if there weren't another band anywhere more fitting to play a grease-'n'-gears gala than Rip's wild bunch. Rockabilly, you see, emerged screaming from the womb as a perfect music unto itself, and latter-day efforts to jumble it up with foreign agents such as punk, metal and swing inevitably come off like a deep-fried donut upon which some idjit has spread a shmeer of mustard - bleech! It doesn't hurt my regard for Carson one bit that he lists R&B legends Sam Cooke and Arthur Alexander among his heroes on his website, either, or that their sway is apparent in his vocal style. Carson, bless him, plays a very trad, very ferocious brand of rockabilly; straight up, no mixer, no ice, no nonsense, with sneering attitude to spare. He looks like a hoodlum from straight outta '55, like he might rob a gas station in Santee some night but would do it with a switchblade rather than something so modern and mundane as a gat. My further guess is that the guy rarely changes his socks and has scary Appalachian kinfolk named Amos and Lillybelle -- and I'd have it no other way, cuz baby, that is rock & roll!
Speaking of which, I've always been fascinated by the rock & roll loony bin and its many beguiling denizens, from Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Hasil Adkins and Esquerita to Arthurs Lee and Brown to G.G. Allin and El Duce. The work of tormented cult figure Roky Erickson, however, somehow managed to elude me though the years, aside from some of his early records with pioneering garage-rockers, 13th Floor Elevators, a group credited in some quarters as being the inventors of psychedelic music (I'd argue that point, but let's not go there today). Anyway, much to my delight, a new two-disc Erickson anthology magically appeared on my desk last week, and now I'm duly remorseful for the years of great music I've missed out on. "I Have Always Been Here Before" (Shout Factory) comes as a revelation -- Erickson, it turns out, is no mere one-trick psycho or 'burned-out '60s curio; he's a well-gifted, well-rounded and sadly overlooked artist; a major-league talent with several decades worth of superb work under his belt who slipped through the cracks of history, probably due to the very insanity which has dogged him for decades rather than because he wasn't capable of appealing to anyone beyond his small but devoted posse of faithful. To my surprise and delight, Erickson sings folk-rock with exceptional tenderness and sincerity, kicks out straight-ahead rockers with the force of a prime Stones, and, of course, his hackle- raising howls emerge from the depths of unimaginable mental angst when he's so moved. This'un's definitely a prime candidate for re-release event of the year; check it out.