Monday, December 8, 2014

In Defense Of: Rod Stewart

This In Defense Of was contributed by Carter Logan, a Brooklyn-based drummer who thinks he's got something to say to you.

It's honey-coated sandpaper. Gravel in a glass of brandy. A sweetly battered instrument, improperly used for maximum effect. It's as though his vocal chords were distilled and aged in charred oak barrels, then finished off with a carton of smokes. The result is a caramelized sting that cuts to a lyrical heart. Rod Stewart's voice is Sam Cooke run through British overdrive.

I found it accidentally. I was probably about thirteen, living in a boring town in Florida, and I had just asked for and received a cheap turntable for Christmas. On December 26, I convinced my parents to drive me over to the only record store I knew in town — a dirty little shop in a strip mall called Daddy Kool. While my mom semi-patiently waited in the car, I spent hours in that store picking out stuff that — if I was lucky — would get the nod from the punk guys behind the counter.

Around this time my interest in pop punk was bleeding through the lines into garage, psychobilly, cow punk, lo-fi blues, and pretty much anything loud, fast, and "primitive". So these first vinyl purchases were stuff like Rocket From The Crypt, The Humpers, and New Bomb Turks...and then, for some reason I can't quite explain, Rod Stewart.

I found the Every Picture Tells A Story LP on the butt-strewn floor of Daddy Kool for a dollar. I took a chance. I'm not really sure why I bought it, but to venture a guess? He covered an Elvis song and a Dylan song, and Ronnie Wood played on it. Regardless, it got "the nod" from the guy behind the counter, who added, "Those first few solo records aren't bad." That was the most anyone in that store ever said to me, so I figured I was onto something.

Now, like most people I already knew Rod Stewart — or so I thought. Of course I'd heard this, and I knew he was this guy, and I knew Rod, Bryan Adams, and Sting were "All for Love".

So yeah, Rod had quite a number of huge hits...on the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary chart. But Every Picture was nothing like this. Those grooves had grooves.

Good musicians celebrate themselves, but great ones elevate those around them. Neil Young was like that with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, whose best material came under his tenure. Leaving his own records AND The Flying Burrito Brothers aside, there is no doubt that the Gram Parsons effect on The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, and Emmylou Harris was immeasurable. And Joe Walsh at least tried to show the Eagles the "Rocky Mountain Way" (even though they couldn't get that high). And so it was with Rod Stewart when he joined The Jeff Beck Group and then Small Faces.

Stewart had started out as "Rod the Mod" in a series of R&B and blue-eyed-soul reviews, but by 1967 he was recruited by a Jeff Beck fresh out of The Yardbirds. Beck and Stewart shared a passion for Northern Soul, as did Ronnie Wood, who was stolen from Creation to play bass. The first two records by The Jeff Beck Group (Truth and Beck-Ola) are built around a molten core of Beck, Stewart, and Wood. They laid out a concrete slab of heavy blues to be built on for years to come. Just listen to their version of "Let Me Love You".

And by the second record the group was slaying at a level somewhere between Cream and Zeppelin in weight, with a singer who could sit in the cut and belt it with an unrivaled and restrained heart.

After giving Jeff Beck the gift of the best records he would ever make, Stewart and Wood moved on to a new project — a mediocre mod group recently abandoned by their front man. Nothing "small" about them anymore, Faces became a ripping boogie rock outfit under the duo's intoxication. They laid waste to originals and covers alike in their booze-fueled romp.

Equally impressive, though, is that Stewart (with the help of Wood) turned out a series of solo records while he was also in Faces. The two projects are interwoven, but the solo records tend to be on the more rootsy, R&B, country roll side: more nuanced, and simply better in many ways. That record I bought in Florida — totally by chance — is probably the best of them.

Now, if you've ever been in a bar, you've heard "Maggie May" so I don't need to cover that. The rest is a delicate balance of traditional songs and more contemporary covers with a couple of originals thrown in for good measure. It's a heartfelt, familiar and honest-sounding record. Stewart doesn't reach too far with his voice, and it sounds at the same time intimately folky and rocking. The balance is fragile, but I think Stewart stays just this side of maudlin and lets the boogie develop into a sway. We know it wouldn't stay that way.

By 1975, Maggie May was a #1 hit, Faces were shitfaced and jealous, and Stewart began the job of flogging the formula until it wouldn't work any more. Wood split to join The Rolling Stones, and without his mate around Stewart made for America following a line of models and cocaine that only more #1 hits could fuel. This resulted in some more decent boogie tracks here and there but nothing much like that golden period from '66 to '75. After all, a guy who doesn't really write or play much is only as good as his taste and the taste of those he's playing with. Don't get me wrong — he had huge hits — but without Wood, some of the magic was gone. The excessive bullshit reached its peak a few years later with "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy". However, I can't in full conscience finish this piece without defending that song in some way.

The story goes like this: after hearing the Stones' "Miss You", Stewart turned to his drummer, Carmine Appice, to come up with a groove like it. They grabbed a melody from Stewart's addled memory, which happened to actually belong to Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor. Whatever Stewart tries to claim about "the narrator in the song," it's an egotistical overindulgence worthy of a stomach pump. But this was '78, so — of course — it spent four weeks at the top of the charts, and the video played hourly on MTV. Jor filed suit against Stewart (who claimed he hadn't intentionally taken the line), and they both amicably agreed to donate the royalties to UNICEF.

So, beside Rod's decade-long streak of greatness, even his worst song (and biggest hit) BENEFITS POOR CHILDREN. In perpetuity.

Defense rests.

— Carter Logan

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