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December 6, 2004

If You Go Down To Ron Wood's Today...

Interview -- After decades of booze and drugs, Ronnie Wood is stone-cold sober.

posted by Ian Roberts

(Woody at The Royal Albert Hall - 13th October)

Ronnie Wood is in a state of intoxication in the main bar of London's Theatre
Royal, Drury Lane. It's not alcoholic intoxication — he's been off the booze for
months. But as he shuffles around the posh red carpet in his furry Ugg boots,
mobile phone clamped to his ear, it becomes clear that the 57-year-old "baby" of
the Rolling Stones is having an exciting day. "You won't believe the
he enthuses into the phone. "We've attacked them with 15 huge
pieces today. 'Beggars' looks fabulous, and The Ballet looks larger than
He pauses to listen to the person at the other end. "Exactly,
he continues, "and who do I have to thank? You, babe. It's the most
wonderful experience. People are coming up the stairs and they're already

It's true. Theatre-goers arriving for the performance of the Mel Brooks
musical The Producers are pausing to study the grand framed canvases that have
suddenly appeared on the walls inside the building. A few of them are lingering
for so long in front of the one entitled Beggars Banquet, they are in danger of
missing curtain-up. The stars of this particular art work —named after their
album of 1968 — are the Rolling Stones themselves, including a sybaritic Keith
Richards eating a bunch of grapes. These can only be Ronnie Wood originals.

"Lovely to speak to you, darlin'," says Wood, and ends the call. Afterwards he
is full of praise for his patrons Madeleine and Andrew, who have given him the
artistic run of the theatre; it is now "the home of his paintings", Madeleine
has told him. To Madeleine and Andrew, of course, this lovely old theatre is
just a small part of a breathtaking theatrical property portfolio. They are Lord
and Lady Lloyd-Webber.

Many people who stand at this bar during the interval will be hooked on a fun
new game. Hanging against a plush red curtain on the back wall is a Wood
triptych showing a crowd of famous diners at the Ivy, the fashionable London
restaurant. Some of these people are very famous and very recognisable — look,
there's Melvyn Bragg, and here's Cilla — but others have the potential to
trigger long debates. Is that really Kate Moss? What's Salman Rushdie doing out
and about? Wood rattles off a list of the assembled celebrities, which is much
too fast to follow but helps me locate Naomi Campbell, who is leaning over to
have her glass refilled, and Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall: "Look, Jerry's halfway
standing up, saying, 'Who are you talking to now, Mick?'"

The triptych is a Lloyd-Webber commission, and Wood received clear instructions
about which Ivy regulars should appear; however, he has been allowed some
artistic licence. So a pale-eyed Afghan refugee girl, from a much-reproduced
1983 National Geographic photograph, lurks amid the celebs. "She's never been to
the Ivy."
And who is that standing near the middle in the red dress? "Oh, I drew
this big bum,"
explains Wood, "and I didn't know who it belonged to. I decided
it was J.Lo, so there she is."

Wood says he was at the Ivy only the other day, "and it was just like sitting in
my painting. A lot of these people were there".
He takes me out of the bar and
on a whistle-stop tour of his other pictures. He has used sexual discrimination:
by the ladies' toilets he has hung pictures of his wife of 20 years, Jo, and his
daughter, Leah, and outside the men's loos is a painting of his sons, Jesse,
Tyrone and Jamie. "And these are my parents," he says, indicating a work
depicting barges in Paddington Basin. "Because I come from the canal barges."
Suddenly it all fits into place: this wiry man with his deep-brown gypsy eyes,
wild dark hair and charming smile, this archetypal rock'n'roll outlaw, is
descended from a long line of Romany boat people.

"I was one of the first to be born on dry land," Wood elaborates three days
later, when the restless Stone can be pinned down for a proper interview at his
house in Kingston upon Thames. "All of my family, right back to the 1700s — as
far as I've traced them so far — have been on the barges, as navigators or
helmsmen or whatever."
His father, Arthur, was born on a barge called the
Antelope; his mother, Elizabeth, on the Orient. They worked for a contractor
called Sabey & Co, hauling timber and other products up and down the canals
between London, Manchester and Stratford-upon-Avon. "During the war my dad never
had to go through his national service, because he was transporting the raw
materials to build the tanks and artillery."
Though the Wood family had settled
on terra firma by the time Ronnie was born (on June 1,1947, in Hillingdon,
Middlesex), his father stayed in touch with the barge people. "When I was very
young, he'd take me fishing on the canals and we'd go and see his pals on the
boats. I remember lunches down in the cabin, with condensed milk. I remember the
beautiful, murky smell down there, and the engines going, just travelling along
the canals."

Both of his brothers went to art school, and they set up a hip 1950s musical
scene in the back room of the family's council house in Yiewsley, Middlesex. "I
was still in grey flannel shorts, and I'd see all these wonderful-looking women
and all these guys with sunglasses and drainpipe trousers."
All kinds of
instruments would be played there — from comb-and-paper to banjo and trombone.
"When there was no one at home, I'd get in and bash away at the drums, try a bit
of trombone and banjo and guitar."
But the guitar-hero-to-be would play none of
these instruments at his debut public performance in 1957. Ronnie played
washboard with his brother Ted's outfit, the Candy Bison skiffle group, in the
intermission between two Tommy Steele films at a local cinema.

As you'd expect, Wood, as famous now for his paintings as for his music, also
has early art memories. "I used to
join my mum when she made crinoline ladies on glass. She used to paint black
outlines and then fill them in with coloured papers and toffee papers, making up
collages. It was wonderful. She used to hand-tint black-and-white photographs,
as well, very subtly."

How different things might have turned out if Wood had decided to become a
professional crinoline-lady collagist rather than a guitarist. But brother Art
turned little Ronald on to American blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin'
Wolf, and there was a certain pop band Ronnie would run home from school to
watch on the family's black-and-white TV. Like him, they were Londoners; and
like him, they loved Muddy Waters — so much so that they had named themselves
after a song the bluesman had performed. They were the Rolling Stones. "I always
used to say to my mum, 'I'm gonna be in that band,'"
remembers Wood. Did she
believe you? "Yes, she did — and my dad did. He said, 'You want to look like
that, son, go right ahead.'"

If it wasn't for all the drink and drugs he has consumed in his life, and all
the wild and decadent sights he has seen in his 30 years with the world's
greatest surviving rock band, Ronnie Wood could be the hero of a classic Walt
Disney cartoon. He wished upon a star, clung to his dream, and in the end it
happened: he was asked to join the Rolling Stones. "Yeah," he says, "I'm a prime
example of 'Your dream can come true if you stick with it hard enough.'

"It was the same with my art work and Adrian Hill's Sketch Club,"
he says,
another boyhood art memory surfacing. Sketch Club was an after-school BBC TV
show in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which would judge and show pictures
painted and crayoned by its young viewers. "I used to try every week, and then I
got one shown on TV — 'Ronnie Wood from Yiewsley'. Then I got more and more on
the TV, and finally I won the prize one year, and I met the man himself — I went
to an exhibition with Adrian Hill in High Wycombe."
He still sounds flushed with
pride. His winning picture was of a cinema audience recoiling from a horror
film; he wishes he still had it.

In 1963, Wood followed both his brothers into Ealing art college — then, like
many similar institutions, a breeding ground for pop groups. Later, in his early
twenties, drafted into a band called the Creation in 1968, Wood found himself
combining art and music in a very literal way. One of the band's stage
favourites — a No 36 single two years before — was Painter Man, which required
him to play guitar with a violin bow and manipulate a paintbrush as well. "I
can't believe that I actually did that,"
he says now, "but I did and I enjoyed
In 1969 he was in at the inception of the band that became the Faces,
joining Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, Kenney Jones and, of course, Rod Stewart —
with whom he had previously been in the Jeff Beck Group — for six years of
rollicking rock'n'roll and laddish behaviour. "We were getting so ripped every
night. We were just about recovering in order to go back on stage again and get
ripped again — just travelling and partying all of the time."

The strange thing about Wood and the Stones, the quirk that sets you wondering
about destiny, prophecy and portents, is that many years before he joined in
1975, a lot of people — even famous musos — thought he was already in the band.
Wood says he entered London's Speakeasy club in the 1960s and was greeted by
Muddy Waters crying, "Hey, it's the Rolling Stones!" and giving him a big hug.
Waters wasn't all that brilliant with names — "He used to call Mick 'Micky
laughs Wood — but there was also a certain resemblance between Wood
and the Stones guitarist Keith Richards. "Chuck Berry too, he used to think I
was Keith, and I'd say, 'Look, I'm that other bloke.'"

Wood was lucky to find himself in exactly the right place at the right time —
almost. In late 1974, he was at the same party where the guitarist Mick Taylor
told Mick Jagger he was leaving the Stones. Jagger asked Wood there and then,
but he declined: "I'm not going to split the Faces up," he said loyally.
However, "Woody", as he was affectionately known, was a shoo-in for the job —
his raunchy, blues-based guitar style, as well as his characterful English face,
fitted perfectly — and after he heard Rod Stewart was quitting the Faces to go
solo, he was off on the adventure of his life.

As the fan who joined the band, Wood believes one of his roles is to remind the
Stones of their overlooked back catalogue of songs. "Often at rehearsals I get
them to play Come On, which was their first single. They go, 'We don't wanna
play that.' But I say, 'You're playin' it,' and it's great to hear it again. I
say, 'You've got to listen to me — I'm your No 1 fan.'"
He has also carved a
niche as the great diplomat in a volatile, hair-trigger band that has had as
many internal conflicts as hit records. When Richards and their former bassist
Bill Wyman were refusing to talk to each other on the band's 1978 American tour,
it was Wood who brought Wyman to Richards's room to clear the air. "Woody's come
along and pulled both sides together,"
Wyman said later. "He's the reason for
the band getting closer... He's fabulous."
When Jagger and Richards have had
their petulant standoffs, as in the uphill years of the 1980s, Wood has
reconciled them. "When they've come within that much of killing each other [he
holds his thumb and forefinger a few millimetres apart] or never being together
again, I've got them back on the phone together — on a few occasions. I just
have such an admiration for the band, I wouldn't let it fall apart."

Not that he is a saint in a band of sinners. In his youth he was drawn to
precisely the wrong kind of people, going on superhuman benders with Peter Cook,
Graham Chapman and Keith Moon and sharing a flat in London's Holland Park with
the frequently spaced-out Jimi Hendrix. By 1984, according to the Stones
biographer Stephen Davis, Wood's cocaine habit was costing "$5,000 a day" to
feed. He has been on and off the wagon more often than Calamity Jane; he has had
two drying-out spells in the Priory (in 2000, and again this year) and another
in Cottonwood de Tucson, a super-strict recovery centre in Arizona (in 2002).

He recently confessed that he "can't be left unsupervised", so it seems that Jo,
the glamorous blonde muse he married in 1985, is perfect for him — an efficient
home-maker who swears by organic food and takes her own little portable cooker
on Stones tours. His new regimen involves alcoholic abstinence. The night before
his Theatre Royal art-hanging, he was at the Hackney Empire to accept a UK Music
Hall of Fame award for the Stones, "And there was a big champagne reception and
a party afterwards, which I avoided. I just did my job — accepted the award —
and came home. But in the old days, I would've been there from 6 o'clock in the
evening to 3 o'clock in the morning.

I can't do that any more."
Couldn't he still have partied and had soft drinks?
"For someone like me, it doesn't work like that. So I stay away from wet places,
as we call them. It's quite a nightmare, really, but I'm doing the best I can."

A trainer calls on Tuesday for some t'ai chi, and on Thursday for a spot of
"boxercise" — or "kick-boozing", as he calls it. "I find that really helpful for
the noodle,"
he says, pointing at his head. "It gets your natural endorphins
going and you feel all psyched up — whereas I used to do that through coke."
only addiction he can't seem to shake is tobacco — despite having been warned of
the real danger of emphysema.

His love of stimulants used to affect his art as well as his music. "In the old
days, I never dreamed of painting unless I was out of my brain. But these days
I'm enjoying painting with a more focused view."
The Beggars Banquet piece, he
reveals, emerged from a long drunken stupor over Christmas 1988 and into the New
Year of 1989, when he and his family lived in Wimbledon. "It was a couple of
weeks' work. There was always a party going on, and I'd paint during the party.
I'd had a few, you know. And I look at it now and think, 'How did I do that?'"

He loves painting the views from the Irish farm he bought 15 years ago in Co
Kildare, and the horses he keeps in a horseshoe-shaped block of stables there
(and he is immensely proud of winning a small-breeder-of-the-year award in 199 .
But his most famous subjects are, of course, the Stones. He must have painted
Mick or Keith or Charlie as often as he has played Jumpin' Jack Flash or Honky
Tonk Women. Do they like his art? "Yeah, they love it. But they never used to.
They used to say, 'You're doing it all wrong. Stick to playing guitar.' It was
like when I took up saxophone: they were going, 'Oh, forget about it!' I ended
up playing on five or six songs in the brass section, with all the grown-up
brass-section boys. And it's like what I did with the pedal steel guitar: it's a
hard instrument to master; it's like driving a helicopter. But I did it, I
accepted the challenge, and I play it on country-and-western albums now."

I have heard that the Stones' drummer, Charlie Watts, is an artist too,
obsessively drawing every hotel room he stays in. "Yeah, every bed he's ever
slept in; every meal he ate. He's been doing that for many years. It's quite an
inspiration for me, because he's so minimalistic and so simplistic. He says,
'You've overworked that one — you should've kept it how it was when you had the
first line.' Which is good advice."

Today, Wood has been back at Drury Lane to install one of his sculptures, a
bronze of "an Indian struggling in the murky waters with a horse". He wants to
do more sculpture, and has collected a stack of driftwood and miscellaneous junk
— such as old mobile phones — with the idea of incorporating them in
experimental pieces. Is he going to create something like the work of Marcel
Duchamp, who installed an ordinary, factory-made urinal in a gallery and called
it art? "Yeah, but I wouldn't just leave it as a urinal. I'd build some more
shit around it!"
he guffaws.

A natural musical collaborator — even his "solo" albums brim with hired talent,
from Mick Jagger to Bob Dylan — Wood is now trying to list all the famous
musicians he has played with during his life. This is because he is planning to
depict them all in a single painting. Their names are scribbled all over a white
board, about 4ft by 5ft, propped in the new "art house" he is fitting out beside
his home. Among the luminaries are "D Bowie", "Prince", "Bob Marley", "Lonnie
Donegan", "Cheryl Crow" (sic) and all of the Beatles. Near the bottom he has
scrawled the title — "My World" — and underneath that: "People I have played
Is he worried about missing anybody out of this magnum opus? "Yeah, I
wake up in the middle of the night and go, 'Oh yeah! Toots & the Maytals!'"

Art isn't just a pop hobby for Wood, like Celine Dion's golf or Ozzy Osbourne's
quad-biking: it's a second career. His paintings have fetched tens of thousands
of pounds, topping up his reported fortune of £55m. Britain's snootiest art
critic, Brian Sewell, has called him "an accomplished and respected wildlife
painter". Of course, not everybody likes the Wood oeuvre: one newspaper critic
has called it "feeble figurative work", and when Lord Lloyd-Webber wanted the
Ivy picture in an exhibition of his collection last year, the Royal Academy
banished it to the cafe. "A few people have said, 'How dare this musician try to
paint and get away with it?'"
says Wood. "But I have just one answer: hard luck,
mate, I can paint. I believe that my painting's good."

The addictions, then, are probably not compensation for a lack of self-esteem.
But he sounds a little less secure when he is asked how history will remember
Ronnie Wood, Rolling Stone and jobbing artist. "The man who played and painted
for millions,"
he says, "and no one noticed him." There is a pause after this
self-epitaph; then Wood explodes into a fit of cackling, and reaches for his

The exhibition The Art of Ronnie Wood is at the Gallery in Cork Street, London
W1, from December 15th to 18th.
Click here

(Tony Barrell - Sunday Times. 5th Dec 2004)

© 2019 SMILER Magazine

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