Graded on a Curve:
Rod Stewart,
Every Picture Tells
a Story

The Decline and Fall of Roderick David Stewart is one of rock’s great tragedies. Five years, tops, is how long it took for “Rod the Mod”—the lovable rogue with the rooster-cut and the great cackle whose unique talents as a singer and songwriter gave us the magnificent Every Picture Tells a Story—to transform himself into “Rod the Bod,” the sleazy, self-proclaimed sex symbol and trend-following hack who bequeathed us “Hot Legs” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

Since then Stewart has released a slew of desultory LPs (does anybody remember 1983’s Body Wishes or 1988’s appropriately titled Out of Order? If so, you have some explaining to do) and reinvented himself as an interpreter of popular song via his five “volumes” of The Great American Songbook. (Me, I prefer unpopular song. As Oscar Wilde once noted, “Everything popular is wrong.”) And I’m forced to ask: Am I the only one who wonders what happened? Because Stewart’s precipitous plummet from genius to sex goat is nothing less than a riddle wrapped in an enigma, or to be more accurate a mystery wrapped in the awful suit he’s wearing on the cover of Body Wishes, which makes him look like Don Johnson in flames.

Stewart’s singing career began in the early sixties, and he played in some half-dozen bands including The Steampacket (with Long John Baldry and Brian Auger) and The Jeff Beck Group before joining The Faces at about the same time he released his first solo LP, 1969’s The Rod Stewart Album. Rod was an ambitious lad, splitting his time between the Faces and his solo work and somehow managing to put out both a Faces album and a solo album nearly every year. Unlike the Faces’ rough-edged but smart good-times rock’n’roll, Stewart’s solo albums tended to cover the waterfront from rock, country, R&B, to folk.

Stewart’s first two LPs—for which he basically dragooned the Faces as a backup band—didn’t chart particularly well, although they included such excellent songs as “Handbags and Gladrags,” “Cut Across Shorty,” and “Gasoline Alley.” So come LP no. 3, Stewart tried a different approach, limiting the input of the Faces (excepting guitarist Ron Wood) to basically one tune—a cover of The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You”—in favor of a sound that accentuated the mandolin of Lindsay Raymond Jackson (of Lindisfarne infamy), the violin of Dick Powell, and the 6,000 different guitars of Ron Wood.

The result was 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story, an astonishing and timeless LP that soared to the top of both the US and UK charts. But what a motley assortment of tunes! Folk songs by Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan rubbed shoulders with the Faces’ hard-rocking Temptations cover and hoary Elvis chestnut “That’s All Right,” while standing off to the side trying not to attract attention was a folk-rocker by one Theodore Anderson, who nobody anywhere seems to know anything about, while standing front and center were three brilliant Stewart originals, “Maggie May,” the title track, and “Mandolin Wind.”

Of these, I may as well admit that I don’t much like is “That’s All Right.” Only that’s not exactly true. I actually love “That’s All Right,” with its sheer propulsion, great muffled drumming, excellent piano, and Wood’s wizardry on what is either a slide guitar or an old acoustic guitar. What I hate is the way it inexplicably segues into “Amazing Grace,” a song that doesn’t appear on the album credits and in my humble opinion shouldn’t appear on the LP either. I knew a woman named Grace once, and the only amazing thing about her was her ability to lie through her tooth.

Stewart’s take on Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” is lovely, and highlights Powell’s fine violin, features lots of nicely strummed guitar, and boasts some great pedal-steel guitar by Wood. There are no drums, but then again the song’s intricate guitar play and that violin are simply too pretty for drums, and this tune was built to soar, not to be kept earthbound by any boom boom boom. “Seems Like a Long Time” is another beautiful number, with its great piano opening, cool drumming, and very fine guitar solo by Wood. And then there are the great choruses—on which Stewart is joined by Maggie Bell, Mateus Rose, and Rod’s old mate Long John Baldry—which remind me, with their almost gospel feel, of some of the choruses on Exile on Main Street.

And the loveliness just increases with Stewart’s cover of Tim Hardin’s “(Find a) Reason to Believe.” It opens with some nice piano followed by an organ, and the interplay between the two is otherworldly. Then those muffled drums come in and the song picks up a little propulsion, and Powell plays a very sweet violin solo. And on the song goes, until it stops and starts again, and organ, piano, violin, drums, and bass commence to dance a lovely round while Stewart’s voice increases in volume, he lets out a little “woo!”—and the song fades out.

“(I Know) I’m Losing You” sounds like classic Faces, with the lads playing it loose and rough. Wood’s opening guitar is super-funky, ditto Ronnie Lane’s bass, and they’re soon joined by Ian McLagan’s piano. Then Stewart comes in singing, followed by Kenny Jones’ monstrous drumming, and the groove that follows is as hard as nails. Then the song stops and the boys commence humming. Until first Stewart, then the piano, and finally the rest of the band come back in, kicking it as hard ever. “Get out!” cries Stewart as the band breaks into one whale of an instrumental, which is followed by the one and only drum solo I’ve ever liked in my whole life. And then some more stuff happens, but who cares? I like a fucking drum solo!

Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” has an exquisite timbre, with Wood’s pedal steel guitar, Jackson’s mandolin, and an acoustic providing initial accompaniment to Stewart’s tale of a lover who chooses to stay and keep him warm through “the coldest winter in almost 14 years.” The intricate interplay between steel guitar, mandolin, and what is either a slide or resonator guitar is a delight, like a good solid kick to the balls is to a masochist, and you’ve gotta love it when that impish tambourine and Wood insinuate themselves into the middle of one hip mandolin solo. And it’s hard to beat the moment when Stewart follows the lines, “No mandolin wind/Couldn’t change a thing/Couldn’t change a thing/No, no” with a great “Woo hoo!” At which point the drums come crashing in and the song goes out in a great econo-jam over which Stewart repeats, “And I love ya/Yes indeed a love ya!”

Which leaves us with “Maggie May” and “Every Picture Tells a Story,” two similar yet very different coming of age songs that Stewart would never top. Both are rockers, but of different sorts; “Every Picture Tells a Story” is one long relentless groove, and in that sense closer to a Faces’ song, while “Maggie May” is prettier and more melodic, as befits a love song. And while the latter tune carries with it the whiff of sadness—the singer’s going to leave Maggie as it’s time to get on with his life—“Every Picture Tells a Story” is one raucous yawp of pure joy. What’s more, it’s a moral fable (“Make the best out of the bad/Just laugh it off/Ha!/You didn’t ask to come here anyway”) about coming to learn the only real lesson life has to teach, namely to not take life so damned seriously.

In both songs, boys become men, in “Maggie May” thanks to the sexual instruction provided by an older woman (“the lines in your face really show your age”), and in “Every Picture Tells a Story” gratis the misadventures of world travel. But “Every Picture Tells a Story” is the more unusual tune, running counter as it does to Stewart’s typically prole-eyed take on things. The Faces’ “Too Bad” (with its lines, “Well let me please explain/Cuz we’re not to blame/We just don’t have the right accent”) is typical of Stewart’s working class stance, and “Every Picture Tells a Story” is the only classic-era Stewart song I can think of whose singer doesn’t hail from the wrong side of the tracks.

Ah, but both songs have their joys—the great organ drone that runs through it like a vein of pure loveliness, the short but wonderful pair of guitar solos by Wood, and the sudden barrage of mandolins that come in just before Stewart’s final triumphant “Woo hoo hoo!” all help to make “Maggie May” a masterpiece. While the acoustic 12-string guitar with the sixth string tuned down to D, which opens the song and plays throughout; the fantastic drum bash; the great electric guitar riff Wood throws in here and there; the remarkable moment when Maggie Bell joins Stewart on vocals (“She claimed that it just ain’t natural!”); and its wonderful close, when Baldry and Bell join Stewart in repeating, “Every picture tells a story don’t it?” all make “Every Picture Tells a Story” a song that will continue to move human beings long after Stewart’s later work is consigned to the dung heap of rock history.

The difference between a great song like “Maggie May” and, say, “Tonight’s The Night” is that in the former Stewart portrays a relative innocent, while in the latter he plays (but is he really playing?) a lewd lounge lizard and virgin-deflowerer whose idea of a seductive come-on consists of, “Spread your wings/And let me come inside.” Eww. I’m no prude—in fact I count myself a proud member of the pervert fraternity—but that’s easily the most unsavory line this side of The Jefferson Starship’s “I had a taste of the real world/When I went down on you, girl.” Stewart—whose take on the song is undoubtedly sincere—comes across suspiciously like one of the cold-blooded Lotharios and sexual technicians Jarvis Cocker anatomizes in Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore.”

It is impossible to overstate the effect songs like “Maggie May” and “Every Picture Tells a Story” had on teens like yours truly back in the day. Not only did they capture the awkward transition to manhood; they promised that this passage would be filled with sex, wanderlust, and more sex. I wanted to be a likable rogue with an irresistible cackle and my very own Maggie May, just as I wanted to fall in love with a beautiful Asian woman on the Peking ferry. Of course I got nothing of the sort, so I took Stewart’s advice and made the best out of the bad and just laughed it off, then proceeded to take a shitload of drugs.

It will always remain inexplicable to me where genius goes. Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart—they all lost the thread, and didn’t even seem to know it. It was left to us, the innocent bystanders, to wonder what had become of what was best in them. In Stewart’s case, it was a genuine affability based on a rogue’s charm and that amused twinkle in his eye, as if he saw the joke in everything. Gone. And while unlike Maggie May I have no desire to wreck his bed I would like to kick Roderick David Stewart in the head, and by so doing perhaps knock some sense into him. Because let’s face it; somebody has to save the man from himself, before the Vatican don’t give no sanction.

[A sincere note of appreciation to Gary Sisto for his invaluable assistance in helping me to distinguish one stringed instrument from another; to me they all sound like banjos. M.L.]

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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