by Wayne Robins
Newsday; Long Island, N.Y.; May 23, 1993

THE PENINSULA Hotel's presidential suite is not your standard overnight business accommodation, even for Fifth Avenue. There are three bedrooms, a library, two living rooms, a dining room, two half-bathrooms and three full baths, one with a Jacuzzi big enough for a swim party. Its 2,500 square feet span the entire block from 55th to 56th Streets. Butler, valet, and housekeepers (who discretely use the suite's service entrance) are always at the ready. All this is yours for $3,000 a night.

Rod Stewart looks very much at home here.

He has, for the past 20 years, been both a rock star and celebrity whose adventures have been chronicled as much by People as by Rolling Stone. Stewart has had his moments when he has been thought of as the finest interpretive singer of the rock generation, as well as one of its most important songwriters. At other times, he's been dismissed as a playboy more interested in chasing blondes than in his considerable musical gifts, and berated as an underachieving buffoon.

"There was a time in the late 1970s, early '80s" a question to Stewart begins on a recent afternoon, and before the the sentence is completed, he is ready to cop a plea.

"It was a really bad period," he said. "Though I actually enjoyed it, I must admit I enjoyed it. It's a period of my life I regret a bit, because I was reading all my own press and believing it. I thought I really was sexy."

Of course, he is sexy, but he's a little more nonchalant about it. He speaks softly now. He wears a perfectly cut subdued suit, a white shirt with subtle pink embroidery: casual elegance personified. He wears eyeglasses that give an aura of maturity to a visage once renowned for its rakish leer. He is beyond all that, he says, but it has taken some work. He knows how easy it is for a reputation to sour.

He'd had it all - critical acclaim and popular adoration - when he moved to Calfornia in the mid-1970s and happily, haplessly, nearly threw it all away. His low point as an artist may have been the two albums whose sins were defined by their titles: "Blondes Have More Fun" (1978) and "Foolish Behavior" (1980).

"I got a lot of slagging off from rock critics, which I thought I fairly deserved," Stewart said. "I think Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone wrote: `Rod Stewart has got one of the finest instruments, rock and roll voices, of the 20th Century, and he's completely wasted it.' I read that and said, `God, he's so right.' "

It took some time for Stewart, now 48, to turn the corner and give his gift the focus it deserves. But his 1991-92 tour showed him ably blending the crowd-pleasing showman side of his personality with the artistic. And perhaps in a way of getting back to his roots, he is releasing an "Unplugged" album (the concert has been on MTV this month).

It's not precisely one of those solo acoustic "Unplugged" anti-extravaganzas. There are 11 musicians crowded on a tiny MTV soundstage. So while the arrangements are full, there's no room for Stewart to traipse around kicking soccer balls and shaking what many of his female fans consider the most desirable derriere in show business.

Unplugging is not exactly a novel idea at this point, but it could be as rejuvenating for Stewart as it was for Eric Clapton. Though the mood is casual, the emphasis is on conveying the emotional nuances of Stewart's songs.

It also draws heavily on material from what might be called Stewart's first golden era, that early 1970s period when he established his solo career with the majestic "Maggie May." At the same time he was touring and recording with the Faces, the endearingly sloppy road band on which his grainy, rasping voice was matched to perfect effect with the rambunctiousness of guitarist Ron Wood, bassist Ronnie Lane, keyboard player Ian MacLagan and drummer Kenney Jones.

On the "Unplugged" versions of "Stay With Me," "Every Picture Tells A Story," "Reason To Believe," and others, Stewart and Wood reunite for the first time since the Faces' mid-'70s demise.

"I knew if I was going to do those songs I had to get Woody involved somehow," Stewart said. "Not only did he play bass and guitar on those records, but his sheer presence brings out something in me."

Five years ago Wood told this newspaper that he had the answer to Stewart's erratic recordings at that time. The problem, Wood said, was that Rod "stopped writing songs with his old pal here."

Stewart laughs heartily. "I can't believe he said that!" Stewart said. "It might be true. Five years ago I was in a bit of a lull. He's one of those guys who you don't have to struggle to write songs with. He can strum anything, I can sing to it. It was the same way with Jeff {Beck}. He'd just plug in and play. They both inspire me."

Stewart and Wood's musical relationship preceded the Faces, when they were the singer and bass player, respectively, for the Jeff Beck Group, the groundbreaking English rock band led by the visionary yet volatile guitar player.

"It's only in hindsight that we realize how good we were, the Beck group, and what a landmark those first two albums were," Stewart said of "Truth" (1968) and "Beck-Ola," a year later. "Led Zeppelin based their whole band on the Jeff Beck Group. Jeff still hasn't forgiven Jimmy Page for it."

It was as a member of the Beck group that Stewart laid one of the cornerstones of his legend. When the band made its first New York appearance, at the Fillmore East, a stagefright-stricken Stewart performed virtually the entire set with his back to the audience. In that way, for certain, you could say he's changed.

"I'm still pretty shy with people that I don't know," Stewart said. "If I walk into a roomful of people, I'm not the most confident. But I am very confident when I go out in front of an audience and I have to sing my songs. There's a lot of anticipation, because you don't know what the outcome is gonna be, but that's really where I'm at my happiest, I would say. When I'm up there singing for people. When my voice is working, and it's working really well, it's the finest drug in the world."

But Stewart doesn't sing every song with the same zest and enthusiasm. He still cherishes "Maggie May," his 1971 single that was his commercial breakthrough. This bittersweet tale about a young man's romance with and parting from an older woman was never meant to be a hit: It was the B-side of the single "Reason To Believe" until a Cleveland disc jockey flipped the record over and the phones went wild. "I'd still be digging graves if it wasn't for him," Stewart said, referring to a job he once held during his working class London youth. Stewart said he's got a mental block about "Maggie May": when he sings it in concert, he always gets the words wrong.

"I haven't sung the correct set of lyrics since I recorded it," he said. "I do not know why. It's almost like you can sing any line, anywhere in the song and it works, because nothing really rhymes."

Stewart would like to be able to forget all the words to "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," his 1979 disco single, a No. 1 hit that sold millions but contributed mightily to his fall from critical esteem.

"It puts me to sleep singing it," Stewart said. "It's every rock critic's nightmare, but they {the audience} just love that song." Stewart won't be doing the song on the "Unplugged" tour, which comes to Jones Beach Sept. 22 and 23 (a city date is also likely). On his next tour, probably in 1994, Stewart said, he may have to return "Sexy" to his repertoire. But, he said, "I wouldn't be worried if I never sang that song again. "

It's not just the musical era represented by "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" that seems old hat to Stewart. It's the whole persona the song represented, the narcissistic skirt-chaser. "I was a bit obnoxious about it in those days. I reveled in it, thought I was God's gift to women." With a wink, he adds, "until they saw me in the morning, until they saw me in the nude, then they'd know it wasn't true."

After a host of highly publicized relationships with world-renowned beauties like Britt Ekland, Alana Hamilton (his first wife), and Kelly Emberg, with dozens of lesser-known lookers before, during, and after, Stewart has settled down with New Zealand-born Rachel Hunter. Despite the fact that there are some superficial similarities to past liaisons - she's blonde, a model, and much younger than he (she is 23), Stewart's convinced that this marriage will have a long run.

"I am still madly in love with her, and I will be the rest of my life," Stewart said. "It's difficult to sit here talking about my wife without sounding corny, but I do love her. It's hard to put it in a nutshell. I think because she's a New Zealander, and they're very close to the British, it's like we're soul brothers, not just husband and wife - it goes a lot deeper than that. Apart from her obvious attributes, she's extremely mature for twenty-three, and has a wonderful head on her shoulders. She's a tremendous mother. She's a lot of fun, but she does get tired quick. You'd think I was the one that goes to bed at ten o'clock, but she's the one. I wear her out completely."

Stewart and Hunter live in Los Angeles and have a year-old daughter. Stewart also has three other children: a son, 12, and daughter 13, from his marriage to Hamilton, and a 6-year-old daughter from his relationship with Emberg. "I don't see too much of the six-year-old, because she lives all the way down in Manhattan Beach {Calif.} with her mother, but I'm in touch with her," Stewart said. His son lives with him, however, and he drives both his budding adolescents to school when he's home.

"You never stop learning how to be a father," he said. "I'm far from a perfect father, if there is such a thing. You don't go to classes to be a father, do you? You can learn how to drive, or use a computer, but to be a father, it's just trial and error."

There is, not surprisingly, a generation gap in the Stewart house over music. "My son loves rap music. I think he wishes he was black. He dresses like a gang member," Stewart said. "Well, I remember what my dad used to say when I listened to blokes like Jimmy Reed or Lightnin' Hopkins, he'd say, `They all bloody sound the same!' I'd say, `No they don't, Dad, the chords might, but listen to the lyrics.' I finally started listening to rap music, and to me, it really does sound the same. So it's funny, it's all come around in a complete circle."

Stewart himself says he listens to everything from Sinatra to Guns N' Roses, but his daily diet is still rich in the American soul and blues music that first inspired him. On the table in front of him is a stack of tapes, virtually all '60s soul: Johnnie Taylor, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd. "I feel comfortable with it. I understand it," he said.

Although Stewart learned to sing by first copying masters, like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, his impact is heard in current music by rock bands like the Black Crowes, who have been accused of cloning the Faces, and the immensely popular Michael Bolton, whose fans believe he has a way with '60s soul songs.

"Fine voice," Stewart said of Bolton. "I just wish he'd hold back a little: It's all voice and no soul."

As for the Black Crowes, his praise was modest but sincere. "I think they put their records together very, very nicely. They work out their guitar parts very well, which is something we didn't used to do in the Faces, because I think they're very close to the Faces, and I'm sure they admit it."

With Wood recently in town recalling the good old Faces days, the group's songs revived on Stewart's "Unplugged" and their sound highly regarded, it's not surprising the singer sounds nostalgic about that band.

"We were boozers, that's what we were," Stewart said with the fondness of a man who remembers an era, but not too many particular nights. "We used to drink a hell of an amount basically because we had no confidence in ourselves. We just didn't think we were very good. We came at a time when the music was being taken very seriously. You had Jethro Tull and Genesis, everybody with their heads down, and we came out with our satin suits and bottles of wine and played loud rock and roll music. As individuals, I don't think we were very good musicians. But together we were great."

Obviously, others thought they were good enough musicians. After the Faces, Wood, of course, joined the Rolling Stones, while drummer Kenney Jones replaced the late Keith Moon in The Who.

Though Stewart and Wood have talked about a Faces reunion (Ian MacLagan would certainly come back on keyboards), it's not really possible without Ronnie Lane, who has been seriously ill with multiple sclerosis for many years. Lane is currently in a treatment center in Austin, Texas; Stewart and Wood have been paying the hospital bills. "Ron Wood and I may have been the two glamor boys up front, but Ronnie Lane was the heart of the Faces," Stewart said.

It's a testament to the durability of the Faces' unadorned, good-time rock and roll that Stewart strikes a sentimental note about what might have been. "Woody was always going to be a Rolling Stone, and I wanted to be on my own, but if Ronnie Lane had stayed, I bet we'd have all stayed together to this day. Our livers would have given out by now, we would have all been dead from it, but we would have stayed." It's easy to see why Stewart feels that way. After all the leggy blondes, fancy cars, and lavish homes, it's the music that keeps Rod real.


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