Rod Stewart, CBE, is tired, as befits a 68-year-old troubadour with what he calls a frog in his throat, and hypochondriac, who has travelled by private plane after a concert in Sheffield in the early hours, unable to sleep because he had a late dinner and was still overwhelmed by the audience.
“It was a lovefest for me. Driving to the venue I saw all the fans outside pubs and that’s when I get the vibe, ‘I’m lucky’. The British audience is the best in the world.”
We’re ushered to a private booth in London’s Dorchester Hotel bar by a distinguished-looking man of impeccable suiting and manners – “just like Anthony Eden,” whispers Rod admiringly. “I hate the way men dress today – at the theatre it’s all anoraks and shorts. You go to dinner and see beautifully dressed women with men like tramps wearing trainers, jeans and T-shirts. If I was a woman I’d say, ‘Are you taking me out looking like that, toerag?’ You can even get into most restaurants without wearing trousers. I used to love dressing for dinner.”
Today he’s in a light-brown suede jacket, sky-blue shirt, orange and red unknotted tie [“I do it up after six in the evening”] and black trousers. His hair cockatooed as ever – “the Queen and I have one thing in common – the same hairstyle for 45 years”.
He drinks fruit juice and talks softly, explaining huskily, “I’m doing five concerts a week, so I’m supposed to rest my voice. I’d love you to make this interview up without me saying anything.”
Indeed, in the early days many of the stories about him were fabricated – he was never a grave-digger, and didn’t have an apprenticeship with Brentford Football Club.
“My managers at the time told me to embellish. It was part of the game.” Still is in the PR world.
His surprise bestselling autobiography, Rod, written with the help of a journalist, Giles Smith, is an excellent romp through the excesses of rock ’n’ roll in a bygone era.
After the Jimmy Savile revelations what then seemed like larky sexual dalliances have returned to haunt many. He squirms when he recalls showing Polaroids of naked young conquests. “We were so idolised we didn’t have to force ourselves on anyone, which wasn’t in our nature anyway. The Faces [including Ronnie Wood, who later joined the Rolling Stones] were so into each other we didn’t care about groupies. Woody and I used to share a room and put a wall of furniture between the beds. We had so much fun giggling we couldn’t perform anyway. I don’t have one regret about that time.”
He adds he’s lucky he never really over-indulged. Well, not too much. Instead of sniffing cocaine, he used it “the French way”. It was, he says, “to save my vocal cords”.
There was an occasion, he claims, when Mick Jagger suggested a liaison between him and Dee Harrington, Stewart’s then girlfriend, and Jagger’s wife Bianca. It didn’t happen. “I’ve only done that sort of thing once in my life, with a couple of oriental girls, and it’s not my thing. I’m a romantic and like a one-on-one situation, candlelight and foreplay, all the old-fashioned things.”
Hmmm. His cavalier attitude has been well documented and his relationships, including with Joanna Lumley [“Would you like to come and spend the weekend with me in Spain on my boat?” was the chat-up line], are too numerous to repeat. Three marriages and eight children. He’s now happily ensconced with his third wife, Penny Lancaster. It must be real love. He lets her park his Ferrari. “She’s so much better at it than me. I don’t mind if that sounds wimpy.”
Surprisingly, he still has depressions. “My black dog days, as Churchill said. Penny understands and calls it my ‘period’ because it happens about once a month. She stands in front of me, dances, and then I’m out of it.”
Parts of the book about his childhood brought tears to his eyes, and still do, he says. “I didn’t realise what a close-knit family we were at the time.” His father, Robert, was 42 and a plumber when Stewart was born. His mother, Elsie, was 39, and he was their fifth child – “the ‘mistake’ but never treated like it.” Maybe he wishes he’d provided his own children with a more stable life? “Good question. I do wonder sometimes... no, I’m not going down that path. I can’t think of an answer I’d like to see in print.”
A BBC Imagine film about his career, Can’t Stop Me Now, shows how he has reinvented himself over the years – from Mod with the Faces to solo disco artist, crooner of American standards, often thinking what he’s doing is a mistake.
“It took a lot of guts to record The Great American Songbook. I felt a rock ’n’ roll traitor and if it went pear-shaped I’d never get another chance. But it sold 28 million in five editions.” He also wasn’t sure of Maggie May, about losing his virginity to an older woman at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1961.
“It wasn’t even supposed to be on the album. People said I went astray with Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? and they’re absolutely right. I jumped on a bandwagon, but everyone loves it. It’s my novelty song. I try to give the audience what they want, and sod the critics.”
He hasn’t allowed Imagine... to film the railroad at the top of his house. “Don’t call it a railway, or a train set, which is even worse. There are very few places in my life that I like to keep private: that’s one of them, and another is soccer on Sunday morning. We sneak to the location and the team has never given me away. Every three years Model Railroader magazine puts me on their cover, which is better than Rolling Stone.
“There’s such snobbery in music, something I feel passionately about. One of my daughters and a nanny are music snobs. I’d better not say that because they’re so young, but I wonder which rock they’ve been living under, although all the kids love seeing their dad on stage.” He’s sneered at for being too commercial. “Of course I do it for the money. I’m paid well, but the secret is I enjoy it, and I’m proud to keep my head above water with the youngsters.
“I’d like to return with the Faces. Ronnie and I talk about it, and when the Stones finish – Mick Jagger is several years older than me – we’ll have a window of opportunity if we’re not on zimmers. Keep the faith. I’ve always looked on myself as one of a band and never sought a solo career. Mick’s a fine blues singer, but technically not as good as me. He’s made the best of what he’s got, but I don’t think he could do standards and he may not want to. There’s never been much rivalry between any of our generation – well, maybe me and Elton but that’s friendly.”
They refer to each other as Phyllis and Sharon and in spite of his lothario reputation, some look askance at his camp attitude. “You can never be too camp, especially if you’re straight,” he says. “I was one of the boys but when I went to Hollywood [in 1975] and dated movie stars the knives were out, and I was stabbed in the back.”
Perhaps that’s why he’s not been knighted like so many other rock stars of his generation? “Well, Mick doesn’t pay taxes here, and Tom [Jones] lives in America. If my time comes, it will. And if it doesn’t, I’m not bothered. Are you kidding? I never expected a CBE.” Maybe he should do something like The Voice? “Over my dead body. I haven’t the time and I’m sure they wouldn’t ask me. I’m not really into television.”
He makes much of being a north London boy, but is also fanatical about Scotland, even calling his LA home Celtic House. “That’s because of my Edinburgh-born dad, I suppose. There may be three or four pints of Scottish blood in me, tartan pride. It’s always been a spiritual home, but as I don’t live there I shouldn’t comment on Scottish independence. If it’s good for the Scots I’m happy. I hope it’s not a lot of kids thinking ‘Braveheart’. I’d hate to see the union broken after all these years.” He lowers his voice, whispers, “And I don’t think it will happen.”
Recently he released his first original album for 20 years, Time, an evocative and nostalgic look at his life, “inspired one Sunday lunchtime when [longtime collaborator] Jimmy Cregan came round with his guitar and made me open up. We wrote a song called Brighton Beach [about an affair with Susannah Boffey, mother of the daughter, Sarah, he had at 18, and who was put up for adoption], and went from there. I might do a dance album next just to piss everyone off. Writing is more enjoyable now than in the old days when there was shagging and drinking. I’m not a natural songwriter.”
He talks with great affection about all his children, delighted he’s now reconciled with Sarah. “They’re doing well and have gone through their wild phases. They say, ‘Dad, you did it’, and you have to face up to that. All I can offer is a wee bit of advice. I tell my sons, ‘Manners will open doors’.” He has a granddaughter, Delilah, by his daughter Kimberly and Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro. “He’s great and has been generous financially.”
So, Rod, what makes a good husband? “Listen more than I used to, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t argue after you’ve had a glass of wine – wait until morning. I’ve been wonderfully lucky. I’m pretty paranoid about my health. [Especially since a four-hour operation on his thyroid gland in May 2000 successfully removed a cancer threat – not something he likes discussing because he’s always asked about it, and there is nothing more to say.] I have at least three blood tests a year and just had my metals done – mercury was a little high so I cut back on fish. I’m no more frightened of death than anyone. I don’t want it too early because I enjoy this life I’m living.”
He gets up, gives me a hug and says he must get some sleep. “We did very well for a couple of tired old farts,” he adds by way of goodbye.
See Imagine... tonight, 10:35pm, BBC1
You can buy Rod: The Autobiography from RT Bookshop for just £6.49