Graded on a Curve:
Rod Stewart,
Never a Dull Moment

Celebrating Rod Stewart on his 77th birthday.Ed.

Rod Stewart remains my greatest lost hero, who went from a likable rogue with a knack for writing great and frequently self-deprecating songs to the cheesy lothario of “Hot Legs” and “Tonight’s the Night.”

And while pinning down when he jumped the shark from jovial rascal to queasy-making lecher (my pick: the lines from “Tonight’s the Night” that go, “You’d be a fool to stop this time/Spread your wings and let me come inside”) can be difficult, in my humble opinion his final great moment was 1972’s Never a Dull Moment, which was not nearly as great as 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story, but still highlighted Stewart as an irrepressible rake rather than a sleazy ladies’ man.

Sure, both 1974’s Smiler and 1975’s Atlantic Crossing have their moments, and even 1976’s A Night on the Town includes the great “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” But Never a Dull Moment is the last Stewart LP to include more good tracks than mediocre ones, and features some undeniable classics in “Lost Paraguayos,” “Mama You Been on My Mind,” and the wonderful “You Wear It Well.”

Indeed, Never a Dull Moment lives up to its title, although I have to admit I’ve never been a huge fan of the blues standard “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which Etta James turned into a hit in 1968. On the other hand, his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away” rocks and rolls thanks to the cranked-up guitar of Ron Wood (the Faces featured on Rod’s first four “solo” records; odd how their ultimate disappearance coincided with his downfall) and the powerful drum thump of Micky Waller, who’d played with Stewart back in the days of The Steampacket.

The LP features more covers than originals, never a good sign, but all of the Stewart originals (which he co-wrote either with Wood or classical guitarist Martin Quittenton of blues-rock band Steamhammer (not to be confused with The Steampacket) are stellar. Opener “True Blue, ” on which Faces’ stalwarts Wood, keyboardist Ian McLagan, and bassist/vocalist Ronnie Lane keep things punchy, features Stewart in familiar mode; down on his luck, but still high-spirited, and trying to find his way back home. “I just don’t know what to do,” he sings, just before Wood cranks up both the volume and the tempo and the band goes into boogie mode, complete with the sound of a racecar and McLagan really laying it out on organ. Fantastic tune.

But not quite as good as “Lost Paraguayos,” a perky tune on which Stewart, who is shacked up with an underage girl in some cold and rainy part of the world, decides to “get me some South American sun,” and spends the song patiently explaining to his jailbait lover why she can’t come along (“Down at the border you need to be older/And you sure don’t look like my daughter”) after which he laughs wickedly while telling her he’d never tell her a lie. (Right.) At which point some great horns come barreling in, and we’re back in the boogie, and Rod is firing off some of his trademark “Woo’s!”

Stewart’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mama You Been on My Mind” is just plain lovely, and Rod the Mod demonstrates (hardly for the first time) his knack as an interpreter of other people’s material. A sweet steel guitar comes in, and this one is more country honk than Faces’ usual brand of boogie rock, which follows in the form of “Italian Girls,” the most raucous song on the LP. This is a Faces song in all but name, and includes some wild keyboard work by McLagan, as well as Wood’s usual mean, mean guitar.

The song segues into a quiet coda at the end, complete with mandolin by Lindisfarne’s Lindsay Raymond Jackson and piano by McLagan, as well as some sweet violin by Dick Powell. It’s a beautiful ending to one hard-rocking number, and exemplifies in one song what Stewart and the Faces did best usually in two—namely, mingle knockdown ravers with ballads that’ll break your heart.

I’ve always been ambivalent about Stewart’s take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” and if I like it it’s only because Wood’s guitar is big and loud and raw, and helps to allay the song’s sticky sweetness. Faces’ drummer Kenney Jones’ heavy hand on the drums also gives the song some needed heft, while Neemoi “Speedy” Aquaye’s congas don’t hurt either.

“Interludings” is a 40-second acoustic guitar throwaway, of the sort I hate on albums, but fortunately it leads straight into “You Wear It Well,” which features a great acoustic guitar and organ opening while highlighting all of Stewart’s strengths: his self-deprecating humor, his skill at playing the mirthful miscreant, and his knack for mixing heartbreak with a dedication to keep going, despite the obstacles. “Madam Onassis got nothing on you” he tells his former love over a great violin, and then adds the kicker—“I ain’t forgettin’ you were once mine/But I blew it without even tryin’,” which he follows with his trademark humility: “So when the sun goes low/And you’re home all alone/Think of me and try not to laugh,” lines that sum up Stewart at his devil-may-care best.

“I’d Rather Go Blind” may not thrill me, but Stewart does a more than adequate job of interpreting it, and it has the added advantage of sounding like a classic Faces tune. So far as I can tell all of the boys are playing on the tune, including the great Ronnie Lane, who would ultimately quit the Faces, unhappy at the way they’d been demoted from equal status to Stewart’s de facto backing band. And McLagan’s organ is a wonder to behold.

Meanwhile, closer “Twistin’ the Night Away” is a punchy and characteristically loose take on the Sam Cooke classic, and features one cock walk of a guitar solo by Wood as well as some fantastic drum smash by Micky Waller. I especially love the way it picks up speed toward the end, and concludes with some great drum pummel and lots of twisting guitar licks by Wood.

It’s heartrending really, listening to this album and knowing what was to come. Stewart, the guy who gave us the immortal Every Picture Tells a Story, sold himself cheap and turned himself into a tawdry commodity and sex object (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”), and for what? Filthy lucre. Somebody once told me an ex-wife said Stewart was so cheap he hated to give his piss away for free, but that could just be urban legend.

Still, the bottom line stands, and as Stewart aged his lovable rogue persona just became sleazy; there’s a fine line between your randy imp and a dirty old man, and Stewart crossed that line and never looked back. Too bad for him. Too bad for all of us. Because in his prime, nobody played the perpetual reprobate with even half the panache as he did.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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