Out From Under Stones
Making solo albums is nothing new for Ronnie Wood.
But, after 24 years of high-profile guitar-playing gigs, the past 18 of them with the Rolling Stones, the English rocker feels he at last has the makings of a serious solo career.
The recently released "Slide on This" is Wood's fifth solo album, but his first since 1981. Wood says it is the first album he regards as a "contender" to establish him as a creative and commercial force apart from the Stones. To that end, Wood, who still lists the Stones as his top priority, is on his first extended tour with a band of which he is the obvious leader. (In 1979, Wood was the main force in putting together a touring group called the New Barbarians, but he shared the spotlight with his senior guitar partner in the Stones, Keith Richards.)
"Only now do I feel comfortable fronting my own band," Wood said from Austin, Tex., a stop on the tour that brings him to the Rhythm Cafe tonight. "I think I've got enough confidence, and I've done my apprenticeship.
"It's not often you meet a 45-year-old apprentice," he added with a deep, husky laugh.
From 1974, the year he joined the Stones, until 1981, Wood knocked out solo records with some regularity, employing all-star supporting casts that included fellow Stones Richards, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, as well as Mick Taylor, the guitarist whose resignation from the Stones opened up a slot Wood had long coveted.
Those albums "were kind of a romp on the side," said Wood, whose trademarks are a skinny build, craggy face, haystack hairdo, omnipresent cigarette teetering from thin lips, and a loose, raunchy guitar style. "I never took them seriously. I never intended them to be contenders. They were just kind of exercises, a chance to show off."
The key to "Slide on This" (the title is lifted from an off-color lyric on the album but refers as well to Wood's fondness for playing slide guitar) has been Wood's partnership with Bernard Fowler, who was a backup singer on the Stones' 1989-90 tour.
Wood said that during the '80s he had fallen into the habit of leaving songs half-finished. The partnership with Fowler helped him fill in the blanks.
"We hammered out songs that had been on the verge for years," Wood said. Not being able to complete songs "is why it took me so long to make another solo album."
Wood, whose singing on the album is ragged but surprisingly effective, shares songwriting and production credits with Fowler, who also provides some double-teaming help on lead vocals. Also on hand are some big name guests, including U2 guitarist The Edge, Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott and Charlie Watts. Several songs sound like chips off the old Stones style-riff-rockers with cranking, greasy variants on the guitar gospel according to Chuck Berry. But there are also traces of cooler R & B, a Celtic-bluegrass fiddle tune, and songs that show a more reflective side.
"Always Wanted More" sounds as if the fiddle player from Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" sessions had been drafted by The Band.
"The fiddle player (Oleg Ponamarev) is a classically trained (Russian) fiddler we found on the streets of Dublin. He'd never played rock 'n' roll or blues," said Wood, who has homes in Ireland and London's Richmond district, where Mick Jagger is one of his neighbors.
The song gets into some deep territory for Wood, who has long had the image of a carefree, British equivalent of the Southern good ol' boy sidekick. The song started as a regular lament of a love gone sour, Wood said, until "we decided to make it a little more dramatic" by having the protagonist contemplate murder, then suicide. The similarly somber "Fear for Your Future" sounds like the sort of pop-blues Eric Clapton deals in. It could be about a relationship destroyed by drugs, or a statement of concern for the fate of a younger generation inheriting a poisoned planet.
Wood's album is part of a 1992 wave of solo-Stones records: Charlie Watts issued a jazz album on Continuum Records, the same independent label to which Wood is signed; Keith Richards recently released "Main Offender," the second solo album of his career, and Mick Jagger has one in the works. Wood says the Stones plan to reconvene in March to begin work on a new group album, but he is already looking forward to making another record with Fowler the next time a gap in the Stones' schedule allows it.
"I think we've started something now. As soon as I get a space (away) from the Stones, I'll make another album, with some gusto instead of the dribs and drabs" that characterized his extracurricular songwriting efforts during the '80s. In his touring band, Wood is accompanied by Fowler, organ player Ian McLagan (an old crony from the Faces), pianist Chuck Leavell, the former Allman Brothers Band member who has been a frequent Stones sideman, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, best known for his work with Bonnie Raitt, and two lesser-known players, drummer Wayne Sheehy and bassist Shaun Solomon. Before he could make "Slide on This," Wood nearly joined Brian Jones and "sixth Stone" Ian Stewart in the Rolling Stones wing of the rock 'n' roll hereafter.
"I was a car sandwich in the fast lane of the M4 Motorway," Wood said, cheerfully recalling the November, 1990, accident that left him with both legs broken at the ankle. Driving with his family, Wood had gotten into a car accident, then stepped out to direct traffic around the wreck when "I saw these headlights coming at 80 m.p.h. I just leaped over the hood, and it hit my ankles. I was very lucky it wasn't my time to go."
Wood says he recovered quickly, and his stage mobility hasn't been impaired. Instead, the weakest bone in his body seems to be a rib that he says tends to get damaged every time he tours.
"It's like a tour omen: I crack a rib, and it's always the same rib. This time somebody hugged me at a (pre-tour) rehearsal in New York," a rather large person who was wearing a metal-edged backstage pass that wedged the wrong way against Wood's fragile rib. Wood said he's had the problem "since I fell over a bathtub during a Faces party in the early '70s."
Wood may be the ideal rock sidekick: an apparently imperturbable fellow who served as a go-between when Jagger and Richards were on the outs around the time of the Stones' 1986 album, "Dirty Work," when it appeared the band might break up. Wood calls it "that whole aggravation time." He even describes his acoustic performance with Bob Dylan and Keith Richards at Live Aid as "a fond memory," even though it was a musically chaotic affair that presented the watching world with the sight of a guitar-less Wood floundering about in search of a new instrument after passing his to Dylan, who had broken a string.
"We had such amazing rehearsals in my brownstone in New York-me, Keith and Bob," Wood recalled. "As we were going up the stairs (to perform), Bob started suggesting all these other songs. Even though it was a bit dodgy, it's a fond memory, because life is full of risk and things you can't predict. I certainly wouldn't have predicted (that the set would come off sounding so haphazard). The way we rehearsed it we were so slick and ready to go-as much as you can be with Bob."
In finding well-placed gigs, Wood has come close to disproving that musical adage "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Trained by a couple of older brothers who had bands in the formative days of the English rock scene, Wood paid early dues in a group called the Birds. When the Yardbirds broke up, Wood phoned Jeff Beck and suggested they start a new band. With Wood on bass and the then little-known Rod Stewart signed on as singer, the Jeff Beck Group recorded the brilliant "Truth" album in 1968 and a good follow-up record, "Beck-Ola," in 1969.
When the Beck gig was growing wearisome, an opening conveniently cropped up in the Small Faces, one of Wood's favorite bands. With the late Steve Marriott having left the band to form Humble Pie, Wood and Stewart took over his functions as guitarist and singer, and the Small Faces became the Faces. With Stewart, Wood co-wrote the Faces' signature hit, "Stay With Me," as well as two of the finest songs of Stewart's solo career, "Gasoline Alley" and "Every Picture Tells a Story."
In 1969, Wood says, the band he really wanted to join, the Rolling Stones, was considering him for the guitar slot opened when Brian Jones left the band shortly before his death. But Wood says he didn't know that at the time. According to Wood, Ian Stewart, the Stones' right-hand man and sometimes piano player, phoned the Faces' rehearsal hall and got the band's bassist, Ronnie Lane. As Wood's story goes, Stewart asked Lane whether Wood would be interested in playing with the Stones. "Ronnie told him, `Ronnie's quite happy where he is, thanks,' and put the phone down." One wonders, though, how determined the Stones were to hire Wood if they settled for talking to an intermediary.
In any case, Mick Taylor got the job. But by 1974 Taylor had been burned out by life in the Stones, and Wood took his place. Conveniently, Rod Stewart was abandoning the Faces at the same time, which gave Wood a good excuse to switch bands without coming off as the heavy.
"I really owed all my loyalties up to then to the Faces. I'd never have said `I'm out.' I just wanted a nice, peaceful way out, and Rod gave me it when he quit," effectively breaking up the band. Wood's 18 years in the Stones give him more seniority than Brian Jones and Mick Taylor combined. However, it can't be said that he has helped create more Stones music than his predecessors. Middle age, and the common '80s and '90s music-biz practice of spacing out albums parsimoniously and extending tours ad infinitum to milk maximum profits from each superstar release, have kept the Stones' output to seven albums of new material during Wood's tenure. The Stones released 14 albums of all-new material in the 12 years before he arrived.
But Wood isn't griping about having missed out on one of the Stones' greatest and most tumultuous periods, the 1969-72 stretch that included the albums "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street," as well as the infamous Altamont concert documented in the film, "Gimme Shelter."
"I think everything is fate," Wood said. "If I had joined the Stones at that time, I'd probably be a total junkie." Ronnie Wood and Immaculate Fools play tonight at 8 at Rhythm Cafe, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $28.50. (714) 556-2233.