Rod Stewart received a lifetime achievement award from songwriters’ group ASCAP (The American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers) during their annual Hollywood gala dinner in Hollywood in April 2011. It didn’t escape my notice that Rod hasn’t been much of a songwriter in recent decades, as he freely admitted when I interviewed him at the venue just before things got underway.
I did this with a camera crew hovering behind my shoulder. I was trying to be a good company man by sharing my interviews with my friendly counterparts at Reuters Television. But the writing was on the wall, and I was fired just over two months later.
Perhaps worse, Rod bucked tradition by not performing at the dinner. I’ve been privileged to see some great performers in intimate settings at ASCAP events, including Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, the Eurythmics, Tom Waits, Janelle Monáe and Elvis Costello. Even Carly Simon overcame her notorious fears of flying and performing, to play “You’re So Vain” for the folks in 2012. But Rod was happy to rest his vocal cords while some guy from Glee covered “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” And, by the way, it is “Da Ya …” If anyone writes “Do You …” you instantly know they are idiots.
FOR BETTER OR WORSE, FEW PEOPLE DESCRIBE YOU AS A SINGER/SONGWRITER. THEY’RE MORE LIKELY TO CONSIDER YOU AN INTERPRETER OF SONGS OR SIMPLY A POP STAR. DO YOU THINK THE ASCAP AWARD
Hopefully, because I agree with you. I never saw myself a songwriter either. Then I look back on the catalog and there’s been some big songs in there. But it was always a struggle for me, writing songs, almost like being at school. I’d be locked in a room. “Don’t make any noise, Daddy’s writing a song.” But this is lovely to get recognized and maybe it’ll give me a push up the bum to start writing again.
I REALIZE THAT THE SONGS YOU WROTE ARE LIKE YOUR BABIES AND NONE IS MORE SPECIAL THAN THE OTHER. BUT IS THERE A SONG THAT MAYBE RIGHT NOW CATCHES YOUR FANCY. PERHAPS YOU THOUGHT ABOUT IT WHEN YOU WOKE UP?
No, I didn’t think about that this morning, I couldn’t wait to get up and work on my model railway! That’s why I’m not a songwriter! If I was to say one song I was really proud of it would be “The Killing of Georgie” because it dealt with a very difficult subject [homophobia] in 1976, which is a long time ago.
WHAT IS THE SONGWRITING PROCESS? ARE YOU LOCKED UP IN A ROOM AND FORCED TO WRITE OUT LYRICS ON A PIECE OF PAPER?
It usually goes the other way round. The guitar player will start strumming and I’ll go (makes babbling sound) and words will appear. It’s very unorthodox. I don’t know if everybody writes like this. I never sit down with a pad and try and write something before I go in the studio. Invariably the song’s finished and I’ll put the bits and pieces in the jigsaw.
YOU HAVEN’T WRITTEN A SONG SINCE “WHEN WE WERE THE NEW BOYS” (1998)-
-I think that’s a great song. I love that song.
AND YOUR LAST HIT SONG WAS-
– “Forever Young” [1988, for which Bob Dylan received a writing credit]. But maybe this will push me in the direction to start writing again.
WHEN YOU DO GET INSPIRED, DO YOU HAVE A NOTEBOOK TO WRITE STUFF DOWN?
If I was in that mode, yeah. I usually keep a little tape machine by the side of my bed. But usually the titles come first. Good title, and you think, that’s the hook.
TO WHAT EXTENT IS YOUR SONGWRITING SUCCESS DEPENDENT ON RONNIE WOOD AND MARTIN QUITTENTON?
Martin and I only wrote two [hit] songs together [“Maggie May,” “You Wear It Well”]. Woody and I wrote a lot of album tracks [Every Picture Tells a Story, Gasoline Alley]. There’s never been one person that I write with or have written with over the last 35 years. I could write with you. It’s pretty easy if you play a few chords on the guitar. [I totally missed this comment at the time. I absolutely would have followed up with an offer.]
WHAT’S MARTIN DOING NOW?
Dunno. Don’t know what’s happened to him. [UPDATE: Martin died in 2015. According to a Daily Mail report a few months after the interview, Martin had a mental breakdown and lived quietly with his wife on an island off Wales.]
YOU’RE AN HEIR OF SORTS TO SAM COOKE. WHAT SONG OF HIS DO YOU WISH YOU’D WRITTEN — APART FROM “A CHANGE IS GONNA COME”?
“You Send Me.”
YOU NEVER COVERED ANY OF HIS GOSPEL STUFF FROM THE SOUL STIRRERS. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU’D BE INTERESTED IN?
I always find when I do a Sam Cooke song, I’m a poor imitation of him. I just hear myself trying to sound like Sam Cooke. It’s a waste of time. I’ll never do a Sam Cooke song again. There’s honesty for you!
YOU’VE COVERED A LOT OF BOB DYLAN TUNES (“GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY,” “JUST LIKE A WOMAN”). HAS HE EVER PHONED OR WRITTEN TO SAY, THANKS A LOT?
Nah, it don’t work like that in the business! I wish it did. It would be lovely.
YOU’VE NEVER MET HIM?
A couple of times. I can’t say that we’re close friends.
I WAS SURPRISED TO READ THAT YOU’D NEVER MET TOM WAITS
No, I haven’t met Tom either [sic]. It’s ridiculous. I’ve recorded, like, five of his songs [including “Downtown Train”]. Maybe he’ll be here tonight? [No, he wasn’t.]
THE ROYAL WEDDING TONIGHT. ARE YOU STAYING UP AND WATCHING THE WHOLE THING?
No, no. If the baby’s up and Penny’s in the mood we might turn it on. I just hope it doesn’t rain. I’m a romantic. I’m a royalist. I just wish the royal family could be streamlined a little. There’s a lot of hangers-on, as we call them in England!
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock anthology Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2011, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING