ROD Stewart reveals what fans can look forward to when he plays Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday.
“They can expect to hear everything they want to,” says the rock ’n’ roll icon. “I always say that if Otis Redding or Sam Cooke was alive, I’d like to hear the songs that made them famous. I’m going to give them what they want.” One track he is certain to perform on May 25 is ‘Grace’. Stewart first heard the old Republican ballad bellowed from the terraces at Parkhead, by supporters of his beloved Glasgow Celtic.
The song is about Grace Gifford, widow of 1916 rebel Joseph Plunkett. Stewart was so taken with their tragic story — they tied the knot shortly before Plunkett was marched before a firing squad — that he covered ‘Grace’ on his Blood Red Roses album last year.
“I heard it at the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen,” he says. “I looked into it and it stayed with me. This morning, I went to Kilmainham Gaol and to the chapel [where Clifford and Plunkett married].” Stewart pauses. Extremely jaunty until now, he suddenly has a lump in his throat. “The conditions… the inhumanity. Man’s cruelty, it never ceases to amaze me. And I went to Grace Gifford’s grave and the site where [the 1916 leaders] were all buried. It’s been a wonderful day, actually.” Stewart fans have embraced the tune. Not everyone has been so enthusiastic. “The BBC said it’s a rebel song. Well, so what? It’s a gorgeous love song; a tragic love song. The most tragic ever written.”
Aged 74, married to model Penny Lancaster, with whom he has two young sons, Stewart has mellowed since his 1970s pomp, when he scorched the charts with hits such as ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’? But his hair still traces that familiar cockatoo outline. And he represses a cackle recalling his days as a hard-living outlaw. “We used to smash our hotel rooms up,” he says. “We’d do all sorts of things. We were musicians and so they treated us as second-class citizens. This was our way of getting own own back. We’d throw TVs out the window, leave furniture out by the pool.
“On one occasion, in America, they sent us an $8,000 bill. Well, that was obviously a lot of money. So, after that, we would book our rooms as Fleetwood Mac. They weren’t very famous back then, either.”
Stewart’s 2012’s autobiography, Rod, is a hair-raising read. It’s a riot of partying, girls, and jet-set dalliances. However, it also makes clear just how hard a worker Stewart was. He would go out on the road for months at a time, travelling from flea-pit hotel to flea-pit hotel.
“I was $2m in debt to the taxman. It was the Harold Wilson government in Britain. Taxes were so high, we all had to get out. Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, The Bee Gees… And I had to work so hard. We didn’t have private planes in those days. It was a bus or you’d fly commercially. I never fell out of love with music, but it was physically very demanding.” ‘Grace’ may be a stand-out from Blood Red Roses. But elsewhere on the record, Stewart bares his soul unflinchingly, with songs about old friends now gone (‘Cold Old London’) and his fears for his children out in the world (‘Didn’t I’). The past several years have been a bit of a songwriting renaissance for the old warhorse, who took a break from composing his own material in the early 2000s, when a record label executive told him nobody wanted new Rod Stewart tunes.
“I dropped it,” he says with a sigh. “I didn’t feel I was much cop at it. It felt too much like homework. Then, I fell in love with it again. Since that moment, I’ve recorded three albums of all original material and thoroughly enjoyed the procedure. I used to not like it. They’d have to lock me in a room with a bottle of wine.” Stewart’s other great passion is soccer. He grew up in London, the son of a Glasgow Celtic-worshipping family from Scotland. In Rod, he debunks the myth that he had a professional contract with Brentford FC.
His love for the game has never waned. In the 1970s, during his tax exile years, he and his family once flew from California to Dublin to watch televised coverage of a Scotland World Cup qualifier (because of his tax status, Stewart could not return to the UK itself). He now lives in a mansion outside London, with its own astro-turf pitch. The other week, his friend, former Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, called around. His two young boys (in all, he has eight children by five women) were thrilled. “Gordon brought his shorts and his boots and we went out to the astroturf,” says Stewart, who played a competitive match every week until dodgy knees forced him to “retire” in his late 60s. “They boys were delighted. I mean, they’ll listen to me when I coach them. But Gordon Strachan… it was like a voice from heaven.”
Rod Stewart plays Páirc Uí Chaoimh, this Saturday, May 25, SSE Belfast, December 2, and 3Arena, Dublin, December 4.