Rod Stewart in Belfast: 'I couldn't be more deeply happy than I am ... Penny is a great woman'
Ahead of a concert in Belfast later this year, Rod Stewart talks to Barry Egan about not being tight with money, ageing and how life with wife Penny has made him happier than ever
Beneath his gravity-defying hairdo, Rod Stewart certainly wears his 74 years well, entering his hotel suite in skin-tight pinstripe trousers, silk scarf, dapper jacket and leopard-skin brothel-creeper shoes. He strides across the room like the ageless titan of blue-eyed soul that he is. Having sold over 100 million records, he has earned the right to strut. There is a football against the wall and I can't resist kicking it to Rod, who in turn kicks it back. Rod (who named his LA mansion Celtic House after his beloved Celtic Football Club) says he has a muscle injury in his knee - or he would have kicked the ball back harder.
For the millions of people across the world who have thrilled to the incomparable rush of Rod's raspy voice at its best - on timeless classics like The Killing Of Georgie, The First Cut Is The Deepest, Maggie May, Mandolin Wind and indeed, among many more, You Wear It Well - it's the two muscles in his throat that matter the most.
When did Rod first realise that those two muscles reverberating together made a special sound? "Probably when I was 16. I was in a skiffle group at school. All the guys were making solid guitars. We had seven guitars and no one bothered to tune them up. Seven guitars all going waaaaaah! It takes a worried man to sing a worried song!
"But I realised when I left school and I became a beatnik and I started playing guitar on Brighton Beach - I wrote a song about it," he says, meaning the first-love tale Brighton Beach on the 2013 album Time: 'I sang to you the songs of Lamb and Jack/You were Greta Garbo and I was Cadillac.'
"People would stand," adds Rod, "and listen and gather around and say: 'Play that, play this one.' So I thought I must be doing something right. I didn't give it that much attention, though. I never dreamt I'd make it as a singer."
What did Rod think he'd end up doing?
"I don't know," says Rod, who grew up at 507 Archway Road in Highgate, north London, the youngest of five children.
Did his dad say, "Get a trade?"
"My dad actually got me into a trade. He got me a job as a silkscreen printer at a place called Shand Kydd, an Irish family who are wallpaper makers in Kentish Town."
Could Rod do plumbing like his dad, Bob - born in Edinburgh, a Hibernian supporter, and a plumber who plied his trade in north London?
"Nah. I never took to the plumbing." Nor grave-measuring, another job he tried his hand at. What Rod did take to, and with no small aplomb, was being a rock star...
"I tried to be a footballer, first," Rod laughs. "I wasn't good enough. Not by a long chalk. And along came music, which saved me. I was never worried, like, 'I want to get married, I've got no money.' I was so set on singing."
Did Rod know he could always literally sing for his supper?
"I didn't realise it at the time. I had no idea it would be what it is now," he says of his global super-stardom, "but I deeply felt that I could make a living. How big a living, I don't know. But when you feel that commitment and that burning in your chest, that helps."
The difference between you, and kids who go into music now, is that you wanted to sing great songs but kids now just want to be famous, I say.
"That's true. I've always said that all of us that came through the Sixties, whether it's Elton or Bowie, God bless him, or The Stones, the last thing on our mind - and I think I speak for everybody - was becoming wealthy or becoming famous. I just wanted to get up and sing."
Who did Rod want to be?
"I wanted to sound like Sam Cooke. I kept trying and I think that's how I ended up with such an individual voice," he says, adding that "to be still doing what I'm doing, still thoroughly enjoying it, is great. I'm fit and the voice is good. The new show that we are bringing over, we will be doing a lot of songs that we haven't done before, like Losing You, Angel, Every Picture Tells A Story; all from that album which everybody loves to hear," he says, meaning his third solo, 1971's Every Picture Tells A Story.
"I am hugely looking forward to doing the big show, it's going to be a great night," says Rod, who is at the SSE in Belfast this December and has been playing here since the Seventies.
For someone so famous, the one-time grave-measurer has a healthy sense of humour, often at his own expense, as I found out when I run a few funny tales by him...
Is it true that when he and his old mucker from the Faces, Ronnie Wood, and a gang of friends walked into a bar once upon a time, Rod bent down to tie his shoelaces so the rest of them would reach the bar before him, thus meaning he would not have to buy a round of drinks?
"That is always exaggerated. I make a joke of it. I am not a tight guy. Or I would go to the front and say: 'Anyone want a drink?' And then step back!" he laughs.
What about Rod allegedly saying once: "I don't mind buying a round, but I don't like buying two?"
He laughs again. "That's a wind-up! I'm a very generous person! That used to be my wind-up because I had a Scottish father! People automatically think Scots are tight, so I took on that image of tightness."
Looking back on his life in the InterContinental hotel in Dublin where we are chatting, I ask Rod if it is true that he once said: "You can be with the most beautiful woman in the world and still be unhappy?"
"That's true," Rod says now. "That's absolutely true." What informed that statement? "There was a point before I met Rachel [Hunter], my second wife, where I was down in Cannes. I had a wonderful hotel suite. I had one of my best mates, who had come from Aberdeen, Ricky. We were down there to cut a TV commercial with Tina Turner. I had the whole of the top floor of the hotel. I was flying women in. My assistant at the time would go out and pick 'em up and another one would be dropped off.
"I thought: 'This is really shallow. Are you really happy?' Nine times out of 10, guys would go: 'This is f****** great!'"
I say to Rod that it has echoes of George Best in 1974: having won a fortune in a casino, and with a former Miss World beside him in bed in a hotel suite with a bottle of Champagne in a bucket and a heap of cash on the drawer, he orders some room service. The waiter, upon arrival, in a suite with the naked ex-Miss World, the pile of dosh and the bubbly upside down in the bucket turns to the Manchester United legend and says...
"Tell me, George, where did it all go wrong?" says a roaring-with-laughter Rod, taking up the tale of Georgie's debauchery in London.
"But it was shallow," Rod says, meaning his debauched time in the penthouse suite in the south of France.
Rod lived what many young men considered the dream life in the Seventies. Many young men of that era would have happily dealt with the shallowness of it all and done ditto had they had the same opportunities.
"That's what I always said," says Rod now. "Most blokes would have done it. But I was creeping up in age, and I really wanted to settle down. Then I met Rachel and we were married for eight years. Then I was married to Penny.
"I couldn't be more deeply happy than I am now. If I wasn't, I would tell you!" he says. "I really would. Penny is a great woman. She was supposed to come to Ireland with me. But we've had a bit of a family incident, so she couldn't come," Rod says of the English model, photographer and TV star who he met in 1999 and married in the summer of 2007 in La Cervara, a cloistered medieval monastery in Portofino. They have two kids, Aiden and Alastair.
Before that, Rod was married to Alana Hamilton from 1979 to 1984; they have a son, Sean, and a daughter, Kimberly. He was with supermodel Kelly Emberg until 1990 (they have a daughter, Ruby).
He married another model in Rachel Hunter, with whom he has two children, Renee and Liam. Rachel unceremoniously left him in 1999. (Rod also has a daughter, Sarah, born 1963, from a relationship Rod had in the early Sixties with Susannah Boffey.)
I ask Rod what he has learned about life in his 74 years. "Ah! What an almighty question!" he laughs. "That happiness is the be-all and end-all. The second to that is good health. I know they are cliches but they are really important, good health and happiness. And money can go a little way to giving you both, but it can't buy you either," says Stewart.
Does Rod regret how he ended relationships? He seemed to run from confrontation with women. Where did that come from?
"It was the way it was done then. It was, 'Ah, it's finished, move on to the next one.' And that is one thing I do regret in my life. I have said it over and over again, and hopefully, youngsters will pick it up now and not be as brutal as I was," he says with self-lacerating honesty.
Are there maybe things that people think about him that are untrue? "That I'm tight! Which I'm not! What would you say?" he asks me directly.
Maybe some people don't realise what a great singer you are, which has been perhaps obscured by - "Some of the razzmatazz?" Rod interrupts.
It would be worse if there was razzmatazz and no songs, Rod.
"No substance. Yeah, I do think the songwriting gets overlooked. I am very proud of the songs I have written."
It says something about Rod Stewart that when asked what songs of his he is most proud of, he says without hesitation, The Killing Of Georgie from 1976. The remarkable song tells the story of a gay man who was knifed to death in New York City. Rod told Mojo magazine in 1995 that The Killing Of Georgie was "a true story about a gay friend of the Faces. He was especially close to me and Mac (Ian McLagan, keyboards).
"That song still resonates today," Rod says now, "and I still get the wonderful pleasure of people coming up to me and saying: 'That song saved my life, because I was closeted. I didn't know what to do. I felt this way. That song opened a door.'"
In 2013, Rod said in an interview about being "trapped down all sorts of unhelpful mental alleys". What were the alleys?
"I think I got really lazy. I took a bit of a bashing from a well-known producer who said, 'Your songwriting is not very good any more,' or something along those lines, when I presented Young Turks to him, which went on to become a top-10 single in America." Did Rod send him the gold record? "F*** off!" he laughs (presumably the sentiment he expressed to the cloth-eared record exec). "But I think I became a little lazy. I didn't have any faith in my songwriting. I couldn't be bothered."
What about Rod's attitude to the media in the late Seventies when he was getting a lot of criticism? In 1979, after the Blondes Have More Fun album - which included such feminist anthems as Ain't Love a Bitch, Dirty Weekend, Attractive Female Wanted, and Da Ya Think I'm Sexy? - The New York Times noted, a tad hysterically, albeit more about his taste in clobber: "Mr Stewart comes close to defining the word vulgarity. He dresses in a manner that can only be called silly, tarting himself up in androgynous glitter. He remains a lesser artist than the real greats of rock."
Rod is gracious enough to say: "You know, the criticism, you've got to accept it. You can't ... I watched the Freddie Mercury movie the other night with my kids for the second time. There was one point I didn't actually think was in it. When the song Bohemian Rhapsody came out in 1975, it was terribly criticised by all the music papers. And yet, what a masterpiece. I thought it was a masterpiece when it came out."
How does Rod keep his voice muscles healthy? "It's okay when I'm not on tour. I can do what I want. I can drink. I don't smoke. I don't drink that much, but I can enjoy a brandy now and then. When I'm on tour, it's silence. I warm up for about an hour before a show. Then I warm down for about half an hour and then it is more-or-less silence."
How does that compare to Rod touring at the zenith of his Seventies and Eighties excess where he stayed out all night having fun? "That was a whole different issue. It's like a young athlete. You can go out to do it and play! But as you get older, you've got to protect it more.
"My voice used to be really high. I was really out there. I can't sing that high any more. There's about seven songs where we have to change the key a little lower. It's like everything else, the vocal chords are not as flexible. There is still great passion in them. It's an age thing."
Does he ever get tired of playing, say, The First Cut Is The Deepest?
"Nah. Nah. I never do. Sometimes I get a little tired of Da Ya Think I'm Sexy? - that's the only one. But the audience don't get tired of it, and that's the most important thing. The audience. It always has been the most important and always will be." I say that I couldn't imagine him ever giving this up. "I will one day. Nothing goes on forever."
But you will never stop singing, I say. "No, no, no. But there will come a time when I am not going to do the shows I do now. Not that they take up a lot of energy - I am really fit - and I enjoy the shows. The minute I stop enjoying them, or people don't buy tickets to come and see them, or I feel that's coming, I won't wait until that moment. Then, I'll change. I'd like to go out and do the American Songbook, in smaller theatres, and just enjoy it."
What would Rod's life be like without football? "It's a scary thought! I often pose this question to the audiences: 'What would we have done without football?' Especially me! I've played it. I've watched it. I've read about it. I've even written about it. And I still love it as much as I did when I was younger."
Did Penny wash your dirty gear?
"Er, no! She would never do that. That was left to somebody else. But she used to come and watch us play. She'd say, 'God, some of those blokes don't half smell after a Saturday night and then they sweat on a Sunday so she decided not to watch any more."
Rod Stewart plays the SSE Arena in Belfast on December 2. For tickets, www.ticketmaster.ie