Ronnie Wood has been called ‘the ultimate sideman’, yet his gift as a guitar player, especially on slide guitar or the notoriously difficult lap-steel guitar, place him well above the status of a mere sideman.
Ronnie Wood played his first ever concert with the Rolling Stones on his twenty-eighth birthday in Baton Rouge Louisiana; it was 1975 and he had been brought in to replace Mick Taylor who had recently quit the band. Ronnie was already a veteran, having played first with The Birds (not to be confused with Roger McGuinn’s band, The Byrds), before joining Jeff Beck’s band, where he played bass, and later the Faces with Rod Stewart.
Ronnie Wood was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex, England, in 1947, into a musical and artistic family – his father Arthur was an amateur musician and ten-year-old Ronnie played his first gig as a member of his father’s Original London Skiffle Group at the Regal cinema in Uxbridge. His two older brothers Arthur and Ted went to art school and Art was also an accomplished musician. At sixteen years old, before pursuing his musical career, Ronnie went to Ealing College of Art in west London.
His parents, he has said, were the first generation in his family to live on land as previous generation made barges their homes. His dad played piano and harmonica, busked and entertained in the music halls. “At my first wedding, Keith [Richards] told me, ‘Your dad’s got more talent in his little finger then you’ll ever have’ and I went, ‘That’s a compliment, even though you’re trying to put me down, Keith, because you love my dad.’ Archie. Good old Archie…”
Having first seen the Rolling Stones play live the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in 1964, Ronnie decided that it was a band he would like to join, but never thought he would. It was ten years later that Ronnie first played on a Rolling Stones studio album – he inspired and plays guitar on the title track of It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll. Two years later he made his first official appearance on an album, although for years Keith insisted he was not really a Rolling Stone – it was on Black and Blue and he’s been ever-present for the past thirty-seven years.
For the first 17 years of his Stones life he was just a hired hand. Did it make him insecure? “I just looked at it like I was doing my apprenticeship, even though I might have been 50 years old. I was learning, but I was teaching as well: how to let go and enjoy life.” He also performed another valuable function – as a glue in the combustible relationship between Jagger and Richards. “During the Dirty Work days, that was a really bad time, I got them through that. I’d be like, ‘You stay near the phone, I’m going to get him on the phone and I’ll ring you back.'”
Does it feel different now he’s a fully fledged member of the band? “That’s right, now they listen to me before they make a decision. In the old days, me and Sherry used to say, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth, if it’s all right with everyone else’, but now it’s not like that.”
Among Ronnie’s numerous other credits are appearances on Keith Richards’s solo albums, he toured with Keith Richards as, The New Barbarians in the late 1970s and 1980s. He’s appeared on Rod Stewart’s solo albums, including Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells A Story, David Bowie’s Pin Ups album, one of Bill Wyman’s solo albums, he’s played with U2, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin and a huge list of the great musicians of rock and blues, including the infamous appearance at Live Aid with Bob Dylan. Ronnie has released over a dozen of his own solo albums, including 1974’s I’ve Got My Own Album To Do, 1979’s Gimme Some Neck, and 2010’s I Feel Like Playing.
If there’s one thing more surprising than Rolling Stone Keith Richards surviving into his 60s, it’s that his bandmate Ronnie Wood has done so, too. After all, this is a man so debauched, so obliterated by drink and drugs, and such an all-round pain in the arse that Richards put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. And that was before things got really bad. Seven years ago the Stones guitarist walked out on his wife Jo, who appeared to be the one stabilising influence in his life, and moved in with a teenage girl, and the drink, the drugs, the mood swings all got worse. Many feared the worst.
In a way, he says, he had to completely lose it before recovering his sanity. Many people expected him to run back to Jo and beg forgiveness. Did he? “No, I didn’t. A lot of people were going, ‘You’ve fucked up, you’ve made the worst move of your life’, but I was thinking, ‘There’s something here I’ve got to discover, and that something is me.’ And that was very exciting because I’m much crazier and much more creative when I’m sober.”
He admits there’s been plenty of pain. His relationship with his children broke down; they were furious with him when he walked out. “I’ve had my differences with them,” he admits with rare understatement. But they’ve forgiven him now? “Yeah. I used to worry, ‘I’ve lost my family.’ They hated my for a while, but they’re very resilient. The oldest is 36, the youngest is 28. So they’re all grown and they’ve seen me come through and now they say, ‘OK Dad, we love you, we’re on your side.'”
He was 14 when he started drinking heavily – brandy and whisky. In the 70s he drank himself silly because, despite his apparent insouciance, he says he felt insecure in the Faces. At the end of the 70s he started to freebase cocaine – an early form of crack. And, as he says in his autobiography, that was him done for the next five years. It was during this period that Richards threatened to blow his brains out. “When he thinks you’re out of control, you think, Christ, there must be something wrong.”
In 1985, he married his second wife, Jo, and though she was a moderating influence, he still drank. Until 2003, he claimed he had never played a gig sober. In 2008, he left Jo for Russian model Ekaterina Ivanova. The collapse of his marriage could not have been more public or dramatic. Two days after his daughter Leah’s wedding, he ran away with Ekaterina, or Katia as she’s also known. His four children were devastated. The 18 months that followed made the previous 50 seem positively abstemious. In December 2009, he was arrested after witnesses alleged he had tried to throttle Katia during a drunken row in the street. Although she didn’t press charges, that was the end of their relationship. A few weeks later, he was in rehab for the eighth and, he hopes, final time.
While he credits his ox-like constitution to his Gypsy background, drink was partly responsible for prematurely seeing off his two brothers. “Lots of the family lived to a ripe old age, but my brothers went in their 60s. My brother Ted was my age when he went and I don’t feel like going. But Ted had given up the will to be ambitious. I’d say, ‘Come on, Ted’…” He trails off.
Wood has famously lost tens of millions of pounds over the years – on wine and women, being a useless businessman and just not caring. Now he’s convinced those days are over. “Looking at the bills on tour when I was using, I’d have the top wines – I should have been a sommelier because I’m a wine expert and I go from the gutter to the throne in my taste in alcohol.” What’s the most he’d spend on a bottle? “A thousand pounds… it didn’t matter.” Has he ever tried to work out how much he’s spent on drink and drugs? “No, I haven’t, because it’s bottomless and it’s pointless to go, ‘Agh.’ It would make me laugh, actually. What, £20m?”
Ron does a weekly radio show for Absolute Classic Rock. Among other things, he reminisces about the 60s when great guitarists were 10 a penny. Who was the best – Page, Clapton, Beck, Hendrix? “Jimi [Hendrix] cos he broke all the rules and was such a natural. But Eric was my mainstay because I was a big fan of him with the Yardbirds and I used to share the same girlfriend with him. I got my first wife Krissy from him. We’d always rib each other, ‘Oi, take your hands off my bird.'” Didn’t they also both have a relationship with Pattie Boyd? “Yeah. Amazing, the camaraderie. And the girls. There was another girl in Los Angeles called Cathy. I thought she was my girlfriend but I found out after she was seeing just about every other guitar player on the circuit.”
His face is a map of dissolution – cheeks like quarries, deep grooves running from nose to mouth – but he has the same black hair (now flecked with tiny bits of silver) in the same feather cut he’s always had. At times his energy, enthusiasm and boyish figure make him seem more like a teenager. Today he’s wearing skinny girl’s jeans (28-inch waist), a leopard-skin top, dinky little waistcoat and black cashmere coat. Ronnie Wood is 67 years old.
What about those concave cheeks – are they natural or drug-induced? “I got them from sebaceous cysts while using heroin.” Amazing the poisons I used to put in my body. I used to love it.” His lean figure is, he says, from “drugs, drink, malnutrition. In the States we went past a store in the old days and it said ‘discount food’ and me and my mate both went, ‘Yeah, discount food all together.'”
How come his teeth are so white? “I had them done a few years ago; they trimmed the actual teeth down a bit and put these veneers on top.” By rights they should be nicotine-stained and smack-ravaged? He grins. “Yeah, I said I want the veneer to be white and they said, ‘Oh, it’s not Ronnie Wood to have bloody Hollywood teeth. So we got a built-in stain.”
Since he got clean, Wood has enjoyed a sustained creative splurge – painting (he once sold a work for $1m, and says he could make more from his art now than the Stones), a new album and the radio show. Wood is particularly pleased with the solo album, I Feel Like Playing. Over the decades he has released seven albums and written many songs (notably with Rod Stewart on the singer’s massive 1972 album Never A Dull Moment, and the title track to the Faces album Ooh La La!). Even so, until now, he has been regarded as a wannabe – the Stones rarely record his songs, and he has said the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership feels like a bit of a closed shop. But the recent album is a real breakthrough – his voice is more mature and controlled, and there are a few really great songs. Why You Wanna Go And Do A Thing Like That, co-written with Kris Kristofferson, has the makings of a classic. “Even Rod came down to some of the sessions in LA and said, ‘Ron, you are now crowned a proper vocalist.’ He said, ‘I can’t believe your improvement.’ And Bobby Womack said, ‘Ronnie, you’re choosing the keys for your songs, you’re experimenting’ – cos I used to be like a bull in a china shop, I’ve got an idea and I’m going to sing it: waaaahhhhh!”
Ronnie’s paintings of musicians and the Rolling Stones in particular command high prices and yet his art is not restricted to just musical subjects. He paints animals as well as portraits of other well-known figures including the large painting of London’s ‘movers and shakers’ that adorns the wall of the capital’s Ivy restaurant. Among those who own original Ronnie Wood artworks are former US President Bill Clinton, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jack Nicholson.
Recently Ronnie said, “I want to live as long as possible. And play and paint better. You never know what you want, but you’re always reaching further and further.” So it seems likely that his best may still be to come.