Wood: How I Keep Rolling
Ronnie Wood leans over and shows me his medallion, it reads: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." "That's helping me through this tour," he explains. As days go though, he probably wouldn't want to change this one too much.
We are on Ronnie's private balcony, high atop the luxurious Ritz Carlton Biscayne Bay, overlooking the Florida Keys which are, of course, as blue as anything very blue you'd care to mention, and sit brilliantly between the beach and the sky. The Stones are midway through their Forty Licks World Tour, which comes to London this summer.
Ronnie's looking relaxed and happy; a couple of soft drinks at his side, instead of the hard liquor he favoured for so long. Somewhere behind us in the huge penthouse suite, his wife of 18 years, Jo, is sorting out his clothes and tour stuff.
His two children, model Leah, 23, and guitarist Jessie, 25, are in London but will join the tour later. At the other side of the hotel, the Jaggers occupy the parallel family penthouse, and perched between them on the roof, like an eagle in his lair, is the brigand Keith Richards. Charlie Watts's whereabouts is neither known nor noted, he's quiet that way.
If you sit still long enough you can tell the Stones are around: Jagger children wander around with that look the very famous have, the corridors smell of Keith's incense, and the session musicians are splayed out beside the pool. Beneath us, in the gardens, a samba band are limbering up for the evening's entertainment; I wonder if they know they're playing to The Rolling Stones tonight?
"Yeah, you can bet they do," rumbles Ronnie, his voice low and gravelly from years of smoking. "We've been here a few days now. Keith's got his skull flag flying off his balcony. He was out there earlier. We were on the beach and we rang him and asked, 'Are you coming down?' He said, 'No, I don't think I'll make it, but can you bring us a bucket of sea water up?'
So we did. He was out on his balcony, but it's unusual to see him on the beach." What did he want the sea water for? "His nose."
Today has been a good day for the 55-year-old, primarily because his somewhat prodigious nose didn't take a battering last night. Ronnie did a Danniella Westbrook long before Daniella did (back in the early 1970s, his septum was replaced with a plastic version). But he's all right now. After last night's show, instead of heading out to party, he returned to his hotel room shortly after midnight, and then sat up until 6am with saxophonist Bobby Keys watching a documentary.
He rose, clear-headed, at lunchtime, bought himself the scarlet seersucker long-sleeved T-shirt and mustard colour pants he's now sporting, and then spent the afternoon on the beach, reading a book about a floating brothel that Keith gave him. Tonight he's planning a quiet dinner out with Charlie and their wives.
This is just the latest tour in the history of the greatest band on earth, but it's the first time Ronnie's had a crack at rock 'n' roll without the drugs and alcohol. He says he has to take each day one at a time: "I do feel like falling off the wagon a lot. But there's a lot of people on this tour that are in rehab, and I get a lot of strength from them. If I have slipped, then it's only been one or two drinks. I really haven't been on a binge."
Ronnie's lifestyle turnaround wasn't optional. For a start, he's seen too many of his friends buried, from Jimi Hendrix to Peter Cook. And then there was Mick's concern: "He was saying, 'I'm your mate. I want you to keep your health and I don't think you can do the next tour the way you're carrying on.' And I'm going, 'Well, I think you're dead right and I don't think I can either. I think it would be ridiculous.' Him just saying, 'Well, why don't you just help yourself ?' That's all I needed - a little support. You have to be ready to accept it and give it your best shot."
In fact, it's a miracle Ronnie's survived all those years of being a platinum rogue. "I think I've got this valve that stopped me from having a blackout," he laughs, before turning serious again.
"I suppose having my family helped me keep my sanity. I could've gone off the rails a lot more. They'd say, 'dad, you can't keep doing that to yourself all the time. We want you to live a long time.' But I used to just brush it off," he shrugs. "It was really sweet of them and even though I cleaned up for me, I did it because of prompting from my kids."
He says the turning point came, after he spent a month in Cottonwood, the rehab clinic in Arizona, last April. This came two years after he spent a week drying out in The Priory in London, in July 2000. "That did help a bit but I was so set in my ways. I thought I could have a glass of wine, which turned out to be a bottle of wine, which turned into two bottles and three bottles, and then two bottles of vodka, and I thought I was handling it. I still miss the odd tot, though. But I've had such a good innings of doing it and I've still got my health."
Slumped in his wicker chair, looking out over the ocean, something prompts a memory. "I went on holiday to the Virgin Islands with Keith a couple of years ago. We took our families, rented a boat and went round all the islands and Drake's Passage. We were drinking Navy Rum, and I was teaching all 16 of the crew how to drink it.
"I ended up with alcohol poisoning, which has only happened twice. I spent most of the holiday in bed, not even being able to look at a glass of water. I just ruined myself. I really don't miss things like that. Also the captain, we found out later, wasn't properly qualified and we nearly hit a reef because we were in big 30ft waves at one point, in a storm."
Some things never change for The Rolling Stones; the night before this interview they were showered with bras and Rizla papers with phone numbers on them. Unlike most rock concerts, the audience was very female, a fact that helps keep the band's egos in good shape. After a night out in Toronto, Ronnie was surprised how many beautiful women were still trailing him and Mick around the clubs. A pleasant detail he might not have been able to recall a few years ago.
"Well, yeah, I do remember things now, which is amazing. I remember last night really clearly - all the songs, all the actual playing, which I never used to. I used to put my head down and bluff it. Now I don't feel so exhausted, I don't feel like clowning around so much. I'm taking the music seriously, moving and grooving and not breaking out in an alcohol sweat. Looking back on some of the things I did, it's much better knowing what you're doing and knowing what you're saying because I used to talk myself into terrible holes."
One of the wilder legends yet to be committed to any Stones biography is the night Ronnie's friend, the Snooker champion Jimmy White, took his dead brother, Martin, out on the town. He died in 1996 aged 52 from cancer.
Is this a true story? "Yes, they took him out, got him all dressed up and had him back in the morgue by the morning. They gave him a big party." They found a load of beer cans at the morgue the next day.
"Jimmy said, 'It was
what he would have wanted. He did just go and die on
Although all of them are now grandfathers (and Ronnie is a stepgrandparent), they still look the part on stage. Unlike most young bands, they style themselves, and Ronnie's hair hasn't changed since he was first on stage - still black and sticking up all over the place like a porcupine that's been duffed up a bit.
Has he ever looked back and
thought, "Bloody hell, what was I wearing?"
The band members choose their own outfits. And if they don't like each other's choice in clothes? "They'd say, 'You look like an arsehole, take that off.' Especially Keith. I wind him up. I'll put something brown on. He thinks it's the vilest colour. But most of the time it's just jeans and a T-shirt and the odd coat."
This tour, their 17th, is to celebrate 40 years together. Do the rest of the band ever surprise him any more? "Well, Mick's got nicer, he's a much nicer bloke now. I think that's because he's got himself together, and Charlie has too. Charlie did it on his own, which I've always admired. Keith's the same, he's still very funny. That we're all such different personalities is maybe why we've lasted so long."
And lasted they have. When they roll into the UK later this summer both front-of-house tickets and backstage passes will be like gold dust. Both the concerts at Twickenham stadium on 23 and 24 August are sold out. The Stones are the band that most celebrities are happy to appear as fans of. They've always attracted their peers, the descendants and their forefathers; their fans include Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters
... Ronnie laughs: "We've had some unusual people backstage such as Pete Sampras. Also Pat Cash and McEnroe; they love to play guitar. I tried to teach them for a while and they eventually got their own bands together."
Ronnie's second love to his guitar is painting. He's looking forward to when the tour ends and he can really concentrate on his vast oil paintings and charcoal portraits. He has a studio in the family's house in County Kildare, Ireland. "I've got to do a lot more painting. I'm having exhibitions all over the place, got a big one in LA soon. I've got such a lot of work from over the years, my exhibitions are getting quite interesting now ... bits are turning up that I'd forgotten I did from the 1960s.
"I love art, I lose myself in it. I was at a gallery in Toronto and they took us down to the sealed chambers underneath. And there were Rembrandts, Picassos, Matisse, Rodin - lots of his sculptures - and Gaugin. Unbelievable!
"What totally blows my mind, though, is that I'm still alive. After all the stuff I've consumed and done over the years ... I just had a run along the beach and I always check my lungs. I hate the fact that I still smoke."
Nobody's perfect Ron.