Ronnie Wood on the Rolling Stones, drugs, tours and the future

As his famous radio series comes to television, the controversial guitarist tells all...

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It starts with gore (“They cut my foot open there and filled the bone with bits of my knee and my hip”), touches on confession (“I became a little bit ashamed of myself”), and ends with a shout (“This doesn’t sound like a Radio Times interview!”).

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In between, a conversation with Ronnie Wood takes in kidnapping, “penguin powder”, the redemptive powers of music and art, Strictly Come Dancing and – on the orders of his ever watchful manager – strictly no questions about the Rolling Stones. But Gawd bless Rockin’ Ronnie the Renaissance Man: he can’t help speaking his mind and spilling the beans. When, after decades of booze and drug addiction, you’re finally high on life alone – and, at the age of 64, a new-born TV star – irrepressible enthusiasm is your middle name.

Surgery

“I’ve just had surgery on my ankle,” offers nicotine-voiced Wood by way of an opening gambit as he hobbles around a cigarette-stinky suite at London’s Dorchester hotel. He stretches his adolescent boy’s frame onto a sofa, and describes the transplanting of bone from one bit of his body into the other, the better to heal a severely injured foot.

He may be the Rolling Stones’ answer to Ban Ki-moon, as the time-served peacemaker between Mick Jagger’s fire and Keith Richards’ brimstone, but who, I wonder, did he kick? “Nah,” he cackles, “it was from a car accident about 20-odd years ago. A cracked bone that turned hollow inside. With all the walking on it, for years, [the hole] got bigger and bigger.”

He starts physio this week. “But all the stitches have healed up – this big scar,” he says, showing a skinny knee, “and this shark bite,” he grins, revealing a meat-free tummy with an impressive serration above his hip. “It’s amazing what they can do now, and how well they do it.”

You might say the same for Ronnie Wood. Nearly 50 years since he joined his first band, the Birds, and 37 years after being hired by the Stones, the doughty sideman finds himself a bona fide media star. For two years he has fronted Absolute Radio’s Ronnie Wood show, a programme in which he plays his favourite records and interviews his favourite musicians in the recording studio, and it’s effortlessly brilliant broadcasting.

The knowledge, passion and anecdotal back-catalogue of the legend who played guitar with the Faces and Jeff Beck before he even got to the Stones makes for an entertaining and informative show that, last year, won Wood the Sony Radio Personality of the Year award.

Television

Now Sky Arts has turned it into a TV show. It’s the same unadorned drill all round, just with cameras that Wood professes not to see (“There could be three or four or five, I don’t know ’cause they’re all on the outskirts in the dark”) and no make-up (“I forgot! I did ten interviews for TV and forgot to put make-up on. I thought, nah, take me as I am!”). Crow-haired, hollow-cheeked Wood had a great face for radio, and he has an even better one for telly. The man’s a natural.

Of his new run of guests, he thought Bobby Gillespie was great once he warmed up, “Cause he was a bit nervous when he first come on. Lovely guy”. Much to the delight of the Primal Scream frontman – no stranger himself to tripping the light narcotic – Wood tells him about the time in the 70s when an American record producer brought over with him some “penguin powder”. The effects were mind-blowing, and nose-melting.

He enthuses, too, about “the gay abandon” of Toots Hibbert of the Maytals, and appreciated the chance to jam with the reggae icon. “That’s what I love: the interchange with other guitarists or vocalists, just get them singing and playing. You find out a lot of people play guitar that I didn’t know play guitar. Vic Reeves for instance.”

Cameras

Is it true Damien Hirst is on the series, too? “Yeah, but no cameras. Him and Rod Stewart – no cameras. And both of them halfway through the show said, ‘Ere Ron, you should be filming this!’ I went, ‘I’m gonna strangle you in a minute – you’re the one who said I couldn’t!’”

Was this Hirst paying Wood back for the time the artist “kidnapped” the errant muso? The story emerged last year that Wood, in the grip of his addictions, was on the receiving end of an “intervention” staged by Hirst, who himself had had experience of partying a little too hard. “Yeah!” beams Wood. “I get on great with Damien. It was pure care for someone and affection – he was trying to really help his buddy. And he hates waste, like me – I hate to see somebody wasting. He said to me, ‘Do you want some help?’ And I went, ‘Pleeeease.’”

Hirst travelled to Ireland, where Wood was living at the time, like a shot. “He smuggled me out in a bread van, got me to the private plane, flew me straight over to London, and I went straight into Life Works in Woking.”

Radio success

After years of ill-fated attempts at rehab, he was determined to go straight. “’Cause it wasn’t working any more,” he shrugs. “The drink wasn’t working, the dope wasn’t working. I wasn’t getting high, I was getting p***ed off and, rarrraggh,” he snarls. “And I was getting annoyed at myself. I thought, I’m not this person.”

A creative purple patch ensued. The radio show became a must-listen and the paintings, well regarded in the art world, reached a new peak – a major retrospective ran in London last year, and Wood’s work has sold for as much as £1 million. The veil, he nods, lifted when he cleaned up.

“Yeah, I had freedom – I left home as well. I need that new freedom. I got my own house in Holland Park [in west London], and I’m rocking – it’s music and art and…” And new girlfriends. Since splitting in 2008 from Jo, his wife of 24 years, Wood has dated Ekaterina Ivanova and Ana Paula Araújo. His current girlfriend is Nicola Sargent, his third 20-something in a row. At 25 she’s five years younger than TV presenter Fearne Cotton, girlfriend of Wood’s son Jesse.

I ask him: was leaving home a consequence of the clear vision of sobriety? “Yeah. I realised I wasn’t making any decisions. Even my own kids were like, ‘We can’t ask Dad, he’s too out of it.’ It was like, ‘Wow’. I became a little bit ashamed of myself, in that I’m not like that. I am capable of making my own decisions and taking care of my own life. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I have no regrets. I’m really enjoying the new aspect on life that I have; the new focus.

“Everyone understands – my ex-wife does, the kids. They’ve all come back around. It’s lovely.”

Talk of Jo is the only time in our interview when Wood is anything less than effusive. I ask if he watched her on Strictly Come Dancing in 2009. He grins, nods and finally says a simple “yeah”. When I enquire as to whether she ever danced like that with him, his only reply is an uproarious laugh. Would he ever do a reality show? He says no, despite repeated requests. Not least because he’s always been mindful of the three-line whip that comes with his day-job.

“Keith’s always [low, heavy voice], ‘The Stones don’t do telly!’ And it’s a bit like that – none of us really do it.” But The Ronnie Wood Show is different, “because it’s an extension of what I do. I am holding the hand of the international language, the thing that makes the world go round: music.”

Touring hopes

Speaking of which, Wood freely offers up the information that in December, just before he appeared with old pal Paul McCartney at London’s O2 Arena, he and the rest of the Rolling Stones – who haven’t toured in five years – hooked up for a jam in the studio. “It was great, keeping our chops together, that’s what we love.”

I’m about to ask if this summit was perhaps part of the preparations for the much-rumoured concerts to mark this year’s 50th anniversary of the band’s formation. But his manager shouts, “Guys, we can’t get too Stonesy on this because it’s not what we’re here to talk about.”

“Well, we only touched on it,” mutters Wood in the manner of a chastened schoolboy. Later on in the interview, we try again. So, I quietly ask, are there concert plans to mark the anniversary? “Well, they’re still in the talking mode,” Wood says carefully. “And I don’t know, each week brings a new development. Basically, get the boys feeling comfortable with each other, ’cause we’re all ready to go individually. It’s just a matter of tying up loose ends and coming together as a unit. We’re all happy – we were happy before Christmas. It’s getting better each time.”

I suggest that, as the Stones have long mastered the stadium rock gig, it would be great to see them doing multiple-night stands in cities – ten nights in New York, ten in London… “Be lovely, wouldn’t it?” Wood grins. “That’s what we’re on the verge of. I dunno what the hell is gonna happen yet but we all feel we owe it to ourselves and to the people to do something.”

But before all that, there’s the matter of April’s induction into America’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of the Faces, Wood’s pre-Stones band. Wood confirms that Faces frontman Rod Stewart will join them to perform at the event.

Rock’n’roll

It seems there may be more Faces projects in the pipeline. “Yeah. With Rod – he’s coming out of the Songbook mode,” says Wood of Stewart’s big-selling series of soft-centred covers albums. “And getting where he should be! I want the street-cred back. We want a bit of rock ’n’ roll. That’s what we do.” That’s what Ronnie Wood does, always has done, always will do.

But before we go, one more thing. Is he happy all round? How’s his love life? “Yeah, it’s great!” comes that fag-fuelled cackle once more.

“Do you fancy being a dad again?” I ask the father-of-four, but his manager gets in first with that shout of, “This doesn’t sound like a Radio Times interview!” Undaunted, Wood gets up and wobbles. “I’ve got my hopes on some really lovely girl,” he says with a wink.

The Ronnie Wood Show is on Fridays at 11:00pm on Sky Arts and Saturdays at 10:00pm on Absolute Radio

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This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 21 February 2012