I met Ronnie Wood in the suite of a super luxury hotel in Florida Keys in October 2002. The night before, The Rolling Stones had electrocuted the American Airlines Miami Heat basketball stadium with a stripped down set that featured six songs from one of their greatest albums, Exile On Main Street. To say they were good would be an understatement. I’ve been watching very good bands for a long time and I really just felt like no one could match them. Ronnie had recently given up drinking and we settled down overlooking the Atlantic with a cup of tea. I was interested to find out exactly how he had survived over 25 years in The Rolling Stones.
Your family were musicians weren’t they?
Yeah, my dad had a 24-piece harmonica band and toured the racetracks of England. He used to bash away at a hand piano. He was a good showman, was really funny and would tell jokes and sing. My brother Ted, he’s eight years older than me, is still a jazz musician and a commercial artist, and my brother Art is still into R&B, blues and he’s an artist as well.
Did they teach you to play guitar?
Art gave me some of my tips when I was about seven. And a guitar player called Lawrence Sheaf, I heard he was in India pursuing some religious cult, but he used to play just like Big Bill Broonzy and he turned me on first. Jim Willis, a banjo player in their first skiffle group, he gave me some chords.
Did it just come naturally?
Was it given that you’d be a musician like your dad and your brothers?
Yeah, I always thought I would be… and an artist. When I was growing up I always wanted to be in The Stones, as well.
What was it like for you growing up in the Fifties, before you became a musician?
It was house parties and art school.
You were out on the streets in the Fifties and Sixties, right?
We used to be frightened to go out a lot because there used to be a lot of teddy boys gangs, down the Two Sisters Café, and people used to come in through the window all the time. There was a guy called Lord Rat and his gang. If you bumped into them on the street it was terrible, so you didn’t go out much at night. Mind you, we used to walk to Uxbridge, to Burton’s, every Friday and Saturday night, about a ten-mile walk there and back. We used to go and see The Searchers and Brian Poole And The Tremeloes and terrible bands like that, but it was just an excuse to get to meet the girls, really. I’d go up to The Cromwellian, Blazes. I was in there once when Otis Redding was playing, and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. He got thrown out ‘cos his hat was on fire and he set the ceiling of the club on fire.
Was it all music for you…did you play football or anything like that?
My brothers used to support West Brom and I still have a soft spot for them.
Were they big then?
West Bromwich Albion, very big in the Fifties. It’s a bit like my boys now supporting Arsenal and Chelsea, but Arsenal were always pretty big. And I remember talking to Dennis Compton and he used to play cricket for England and won the cup with Arsenal.
There’s a quote that says really creative people don’t ever lose their childhood sense of fun…
Oh yeah. Along with the music, I was in to Jacques Tati – Monsieur Hulot – Marx Brothers, Monty Python. All those are timeless comedy, aren’t they? Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
Did you know guys like Sellers and Cook?
Peter Cook was a very close friend. I used to hang out with him all the time. Dudley I saw once in a while.
There was a guy called Lord Rat and his gang. If you bumped into them on the street it was terrible, so you didn’t go out much at night.
Did you ever play music with them?
Dudley was more of a jazzer. No, we would just hang out and have a drink together. But Peter used to come over on my birthday and at Christmas nearly every year. Failing everything else, we used to go to a few football matches together with Jimmy White and Rod Stewart. But getting back to the early days, another place was Speakeasy. I used to hang out there after gigs with Hendrix and Cream. We’d all come back from gigs and Hendrix would come back and say, “Oh man, I shouldn’t sing, I’ve got such a terrible voice. The gig was fine, I played good, but my voice is terrible.” So I’m like, “No man, don’t worry about your voice, mate. It’s great. You’re alright.” He was like, “But I’ve got no voice, like, compared to the singers who are around.” So I’d say, “Don’t worry about it, your guitar playing makes up for it.”
Did your crowd feel like you were special?
I used to make sure I was in the right place at the right time. I knew I had something special, but I didn’t know what it was. I used to bluff my way in all the time. I went to the Crawdaddy in Richmond and Keith Relf of The Yardbirds was ill one night, and they said:” Anyone in the audience play harmonica?” And all my friends said, “He does.” They pushed me up on stage. So I did my first gig with them and Eric and all the boys called me back after the gig. “Go and get that guy who looks like Cleopatra.” ‘Cos I had my hair like that…
Was that the start of it?
Well, it was a good feather in my cap, kind of thing. They like the way I played harmonica and then they reckoned I used to hang out with the guitarists and that I had my first girlfriend off Eric.
Whilst he was going out with her?
I kind of got her off him. She ended up as my first wife (Krissie), who is Jesse’s mum. And he’s a musician as well, Jesse, and Tyrone is in the throes and my youngest boy doesn’t know what he wants to do yet. And Leah, she sings great. And Jamie’s got a business head and is doing very well working for me.
Having jacked the drink in after so long, how do you feel?
I had a good day today. I still have to take it day by day and feel like falling off the wagon a lot. There’s a lot of people on this tour that are in rehab and I get a lot of strength from them and they say, “How you doing today? I’m having a great one or a bad one or fell off the wagon at the weekend.” If I have slipped then it’s been one or two drinks, I really haven’t been on a binge.
I’m taking the music seriously, moving and grooving and not breaking out in an alcohol sweat. I come off as dry as I am now, after working hard.
Have you noticed a lot of things are quite different since you quit?
Yeah, I remember things, which is amazing. Well, it’s a start. I remember last night really clearly and remember all the songs, all the actual playing, which I never used to. I used to put my head down and just bluff it. Just get the right key and go from there. Now I don’t feel so exhausted, but I don’t feel like clowning around so much. I’m taking the music seriously, moving and grooving and not breaking out in an alcohol sweat. I come off as dry as I am now, after working hard. I’m not going to get high. I’ve done it a few times and just found it more annoying now, and feel on edge if I have a blow. Before, I’d even it out with a drink and just cruise into another state and people were like, “The state of you last night,” I’d be like, “What do you mean? I was great!” I thought I was great. But looking back on some of the things I did, it’s much better knowing what you’re doing and knowing what you’re saying because I used to talk myself into terrible holes and when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Speaking out of turn and saying the wrong things and changing the subject, so I don’t miss that. I really like my new focus on life.
Do you ever look back and think, ‘Fucking hell, what was I wearing?’
Yeah, but I have very few regrets. My kids still wear my leather stuff and I say, “Give me my pants back.” They say, “They don’t fit you anymore, they look ridiculous on you now, dad.” I don’t think I look ridiculous in them, but I suppose in the end I do.
What was the weirdest thing you ever saw backstage?
When we were doing The Last Waltz, Muddy Waters saying to ‘Pine Top’ Perkins, the piano player: “I think we’d better go and say hello to that man over there. Apparently he’s famous.” And it was Bob Dylan. Neil Diamond came off stage after he’d done his songs and said to Bob, “You better go some to follow me on.” And Bob said, “What do you want me to do, go on stage and fall asleep?”
What did Neil say?
He didn’t get it! We’ve had some unusual people backstage like Pete Sampras and people like that. Addicted to the strings. Also Pat Cash and McEnroe. They love to play guitar.
When I was watching you last night I was thinking you all look in good nick. Do you realise how good you still are?
Yeah, I think we’re better now than ever. It’s like a club atmosphere in big places.
When you come off, how long does it take you to go to sleep now?
Still about six or seven in the morning. I’ve always been a night owl.
What happened last night after the gig?
I came back here with [saxophonist] Bobby Keys, and watched a video of The Funk Brothers, James Jameson and all that, who were the musicians behind Motown. Really informative and interesting and my kids would love it, the people who made “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, “Going To A Go Go”, “My Guy”. All the Jackie Wilson stuff.
The kids would say something like, “Dad, you can’t keep doing that to yourself all the time. We want you to live a long time.” But I used to just brush it off.
Do you still think you’ve got a lot to learn as a musician?
Still learning, luckily every day, otherwise it would be boring if you thought you had it down. We’ve got certain bits down, but I still love the adventure of learning.
You’ve had a great time for a long time, haven’t you?
Yeah, I’ve been very lucky and been in some great party bands.
What are your best memories of The Faces?
Too many to say… it was mad, madness all the time, total full-tilt all the time.
How do you think you’ve survived that? Has it ever been hard work?
It was hard travelling in the early days, going to Redruth in Cornwall for a tenner to split between the band. We used to write in lipstick on the side of the van so it would look like we were popular and it started a craze.
Do you get that anymore?
No, but we get loads of bras and knickers on the little stage, which is funny.
What are you going to do with them?
Well, Keith collects ‘em. I’m sure the roadies have got a special cess-tank for them. It’s always encouraging, even though it’s disgusting!
Was it a benefit being married for a long time? Do you think that and having a family has stopped you from going off the rails?
Yeah, I s’pose that kept my sanity… I could’ve gone off the rails a lot more. A lot of the time I used to ignore that I had a family and just carry on and then eventually the kids would say something like, “Dad, you can’t keep doing that to yourself all the time. We want you to live a long time.” But I used to just brush it off. It was really sweet of them and even though I cleaned up for me, I did it because of prompting from my kids.
Did that two weeks in the Priory help?
It was the month in Cottonwood [Arizona] that did it. The Priory did help me a bit, but I was so set in my ways I didn’t even realise. I thought I could have a glass of wine which turned out to be a bottle of wine, which turned into two bottles and three bottles, and then two bottles of vodka and I thought I was handling it. I still miss the odd tot, though. But I had such a good innings of doing it and I’ve still got my health. What totally blows my mind is that I’m still alive, after all the stuff I’ve consumed and done over the years…
Do you work out or anything like that?
Yeah, I just had a run along the beach, and I always check my lungs. Even though I smoke, they’re still all right. That’s one thing I fucking hate, the fact that I still smoke.
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