When it’s too hot to fuck, there’s always Scrabble.
Several times this summer Alicia and I have either played host to or dropped in on my parents for an evening of cold drinks, blowing fans, music and Scrabble. We usually play as a foursome in English, but sometimes we play using a French version I picked up in Quebec a couple of years ago. Because Dad’s still learning French, we give him triple points when he comes up with any word that would satisfy the scholars of l’Académie française.
On this particular night, the ladies decided to play a Spanish version that Alicia has had forever, and Dad volunteered to serve as bartender, waiter and DJ. It was my turn; Dad had just changed records and took the empty seat next to me to take in the action. While my left brain concentrated on the tiles, I was only vaguely aware that the music on the stereo had stimulated my second chakra, resulting in involuntary behavior that irritated the shit out of my mother.
“Stop tapping and . . . wiggling, or whatever you’re doing down there.”
“Sorry.” I narrowed my eyes in a vain attempt to power up the left brain, but after about thirty seconds, I couldn’t help myself when my favorite belt-out line in the song arrived.
“She claimed that it just ain’t natural!” I sang at the top of my lungs.
My mother narrowed her eyes and sternly admonished me: “Are we here to play or to watch you try out for the chorus line?”
“Okay, okay—Dad, find something that doesn’t make me horny.”
“Tough assignment, since everything seems to make you horny.”
“Then here’s your chance to throw a little Dylan on the turntable. Nothing dries me up quite like Bob Dylan.”
Dad slipped into the living room, and soon the sounds of Blood on the Tracks wafted through the air. Returning to his seat, he said, “I’ve never understood why you haven’t reviewed that album.”
“Dad, we’ve been through it a zillion times—you got your Dylan review, now—”
“I’m not talking about Dylan. I’m talking about Every Picture.”
I looked at him like he was crazy. “I already did that. Right after Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. Look it up.”
He left the room to access the computer and came back a few minutes later. “Not there.”
“Let me see that.” I got up and traipsed over to the little anteroom where they keep the computer, performed a dozen search variations and came up empty. No Rod Stewart. No Maggie May. No Every Picture Tells a Story. I logged into my dashboard and scanned through the seventy or so drafts I have on file . . . and damn, there it was. I saw that the file was last edited on September 1, 2013, and when I opened it I found a half-finished review that began with a detailed history of how the Small Faces imploded, split into Faces and Humble Pie, and when the dust had settled, Rod Stewart was in prime position to turn himself into a household name.
I traveled back in my head to September 2013 to figure out what had happened. In the four months before September 1, I’d relocated to a different continent, lived in two different residences, changed jobs twice, enrolled in a Master’s program and wrote an average of three reviews a week. I wrote at such a frantic pace because I wasn’t getting nearly enough action, as Alicia wouldn’t join me in Paris until mid-September. It’s no mystery why Rod Stewart dropped off my radar.
When I realized my oversight, I felt really bad about it, a reaction that people in my generation would find puzzling. Millennials generally dismiss Rod Stewart because they know him as a modern lounge singer who plays to the withering libidos of middle-aged women in the same vein as Tom Jones, Barry White and Barry Manilow (I thought Manilow coming out of the closet was one of the funniest fucking things I’ve heard in my life). I’ve never understood the attraction, but some women have told me that Rod Stewart excites the maternal instinct because he looks like a guy who could use some old-fashioned home cooking to put some meat on his very prominent bones. Others have mentioned the prominence of another very large bone when he wears form-fitting lamé pants. I have no maternal instincts and think dick size is seriously overrated, so if I were to run into Rod Stewart and he asked me, “Da ya think I’m sexy?” I’d say, “No, not in the least. Sorry.”
Not wanting to dent his star-studded ego, I would add, “But I think you were one of the best lead singers of your generation,” which is why I feel bad about neglecting him. In a 10-year period beginning with his work on Jeff Beck’s Truth to the allegedly sexy or satiric Blondes Have More Fun, Rod Stewart was on top of his game. His sandpapery voice and sense of command over his material made it virtually impossible for people not to take notice. In his best material, you really do get the sense that he loves nothing more than singing blues-tinged rock ‘n’ roll.
Every Picture Tells a Story is considered his masterpiece by Baby Boomer critics everywhere, a fact that says more about that generation’s gift for hyperbole than the quality of the album. I would call it an album with high points and low points, which is pretty much what I’d say about any record. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the perfect album. I took a quick look at my Desert Island Disks and there are no albums on that list without at least one less-than-satisfying song. Every Picture Tells a Story is a pretty good album, one you can listen to without an overwhelming urge to pick up the needle and move to the next track. At its worst, it’s passable; at its best, it kicks ass.
Few songs kick ass as well as “Every Picture Tells a Story,” the embodiment of heavy musical foreplay combined with one of the best narrative stories in rock history. The critics generally consider this Rod Stewart’s finest moment, and while that’s a good topic for trivial debate while you’re waiting out a delayed flight, I’m definitely of the opinion that this is one of Ron Wood’s finest moments. “Goddamn, who’s playing that acoustic?” Ron Wood. “Fuck, who is that fabulous bass player?” Ron Wood. “And who’s laying out those hot electric guitar licks?” Ron Wood. “By the way, who wrote this song?” Rod Stewart and . . . Ron Wood. I think Wood’s co-writing contributions were fundamental to the song’s success, because when you’re dealing with a set of loosely structured non-standard verses and a cascade of constantly changing rhythms and dynamics, it’s not about hitting the right notes at the right time, but about feel—and Ronnie knew how the song was supposed to feel.
Following Wood’s lead rather than the other way around, Micky Waller caught the feel on the drums, enthusiastically embracing the verse pattern that oscillates between stutter-stop half-time bass-snare patterns and a few seconds of straight-out drive. The varied rhythmic structure supports the storyline beautifully, with the stutter-stop segment often used to support the set-up lines and the drive segments employed to deliver the impact lines:
(stutter) Spent time feelin’ inferior (drive) standing in front of my mirror
(stutter) Combed my hair in a thousand ways, (drive) but I came out lookin’ just the same
(stutter) Down along the left bank, minding my own, (drive) was knocked down by a human stampede
(stutter) Got arrested for inciting a peaceful riot, (drive) when all I wanted was a cup of tea
And if Rod needs to expand the verse to make a few more points (as in, “I was accused . . . I moved on”), the band just extends the drive segment a few more bars to fit them in. The refusal to tie the story to a strict metrical pattern makes the narrative sound more natural, as if you’re sharing pints in a pub with Rod as he tells you about his travels.
The intensity of the pattern eases a bit when Rod hooks up with Shanghai Lil and delivers the unfortunate line, “I fell in love with a slit-eyed lady.” While I think the line is probably true to the character of a young man with limited cross-cultural experience and competence, it still makes me cringe, like reading the N-word in Huckleberry Finn. In the following verse, where the tempo slows and the percussion is reduced to an occasional half-hearted cymbal hit while Ron Wood’s acoustic guitar takes over, Rod’s self-reflective vocal is gorgeously supported beautifully by Maggie Bell’s high harmonies . . . but the harmonies vanish when he delivers yet another unfortunate line, “The women I’ve known I wouldn’t let tie my shoe” (ugh). The true meaning of that apparently misogynistic utterance comes through in the subsequent line, “They wouldn’t give you the time of day.” This tells us that the kid hasn’t learned to handle rejection, so he disses women in general. Whether or not he truly hates women is uncertain (obviously he’s hot for Shanghai Lil), but for a young man to blame his lack-of-nookie problem on “all women” is a pretty standard character trait of that demographic (Google the word “incel” to learn more). Denise Sullivan of AllMusic wasn’t far off when she described the song as “a racist, sexist slice of vintage rock & roll about a rover with a woman in every port who eventually finds his way home,” but it’s also a true-to-life character sketch of a confused, ignorant young man during that period in history.
We leave the lyrical flaws behind as we experience one of the strongest finishes of all time, heralded by a smooth acceleration in tempo and the reappearance of the stutter-drive pattern. This is where the narrator gives us the moral of the story, where Rod Stewart completely takes over and delivers a performance that sends chills up and down my spine:
And if they had the words I could tell to you
To help you on your way down the road
I couldn’t quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats
‘Cause it’s all been said before
Make the best out of the bad, just laugh it off—hah!
You didn’t have to come here anyway
That “hah!” is a knockout moment, but the oft-neglected following line fills me with sheer delight. Hey! You made your choices. Stop whining! You didn’t have to come here anyway, asshole! The energy poured into the driving fade is off-the-charts, a superb ending to brilliant rhythmic composition. What holds it all together is Rod Stewart’s vocal, and if you ever want to demonstrate to someone what it sounds like when a vocalist has complete command of the material, slip “Every Picture Tells a Story” on the turntable and let Rod Stewart take it from there.
“Seems Like a Long Time” had been buried on the Brewer & Shipley album that gave us the novelty song, “One Toke Over the Line.” Their version qualifies as “moderately pleasant,” but this Ted Anderson song deserved a more soulful treatment, and Rod Stewart delivers. Though the song has no religious leanings, Rod turns it into more of a gospel experience with the assistance of “Madeline Bell and Friends,” who offer up supporting “vocal abrasives.” The lyrics are a bit skimpy, focused primarily on the quirk in human perception that causes us to feel that bad times drag on forever while good times seem to come and go in a flash. The first two verses are generic (long nights, hard times); the final verse deals specifically with war, and though the word “Vietnam” is missing from the text, the timing and context make that connection rather obvious. Rod Stewart demonstrates his capacity to handle the slow stuff as well as the rough stuff, and both Ron Wood (guitar) and Pete Sears (piano) are excellent in their supporting roles. The extended vocal play in the middle of the piece does seem to go on a bit too long, but it does serve to isolate the anti-war verse, giving it more prominence in the composition.
Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” comes next, and Rod gives this classic a spirited treatment characterized by a killer acoustic slide intro from Ron Wood and a honky-tonk feel enhanced by Pete Sears on the 88’s. Rod does a more-than-credible job on the vocal—and his enthusiasm for the song is obvious—but I still prefer the more varied tones and dynamics of Elvis Presley’s version. The acoustic slide serves as a superb baseline for a truncated version of “Amazing Grace,” where Rod handles his brief vocal role with moving sincerity. He again applies his empathetic ability to Dylan’s somewhat obscure “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a piece with a strong country feel enhanced by electric slide, acoustic guitar and fiddle. It’s a nice performance but really, they should have placed this song deeper in the track order to avoid having two “long time” songs in close proximity. When I set up the album on my iPod in preparation for another long transatlantic flight, I changed the song’s placement by flip-flopping it with “Mandolin Wind” and found myself delighted with the result.
Following a perfectly lovely thirty-two-second bit of baroque guitar from Martin Quittenton entitled “Henry,” we encounter a brief moment of silence before we hear the 12-string-dominated intro to “Maggie May.” If there was ever a universal song in terms of crossover appeal, this is it—and it feels like I’ve heard this song everywhere, in all kinds of unexpected places, throughout my life. I’ve heard it while waiting for the novocaine to kick in at a dental appointment; while waiting for a table in a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky; playing out of a boom box in Abidjan; and in the rotation on hard rock, classic rock, pop and pseudo easy listening stations back in the days when I lived in the States and rented cars equipped with Sirius on pleasure trips. I think there are many reasons why “Maggie May” made the leap from B-side status (Rod’s cover of “Reason to Believe” was the A-side) to become one of the most enduring songs of all time:
- It’s a great story filled with vivid images (“The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age,” “All you did was wreck my bed and in the morning kick me in the head.”).
- Like many a great film, it’s steeped in the ambivalence of the lead character, creating dramatic tension.
- It’s a true story, based on Rod’s first time in the sheets, and the feelings expressed in the song have the sound of truth from experience.
- The narrator is an average bloke and he relates his story in everyday language without trying to aim for poetry. He relates, we can relate.
- Rod Stewart, unlike most rock singers, articulates clearly enough to enable the listener to hear every word of the story. If Mick Jagger had done “Maggie May,” we’d be wondering what the hell he was singing about.
- The song deals with an older woman having sex with a young stud, and according to both my father and my mother, this became quite the thing in the early 70’s when women started to appreciate the reproductive freedom made possible by The Pill. Apparently, the “rules” prior to liberation were that men were supposed to choose women their age or younger and that it was a taboo for women to go after younger men. “Maggie May” helped make the practice socially acceptable, much to the delight of millions of middle-aged women whose hubbies preferred to putter around on the golf course rather than use their putters to make the little woman happy.
- The stunning appearance of Ray Jackson’s mandolin after the story has been told is a remarkably effective emotional synthesis. Compared to an acoustic guitar, the mandolin is a fairly limited instrument because of the absence of bass overtones. On the other hand, too much compensating bass from a bass guitar can overwhelm the thinner tones of the instrument. Ron Wood supplies just the right amount of bottom by toning down his instrument and playing the minimum number of notes to give the mandolin more prominence. The effect is magical and evocative, a sweet sound tinged with melancholy that reflects the young man’s transitional emotional state.
I know people all over the world may have hit the point where the overexposure of “Maggie May” makes it difficult to appreciate the song anymore, but trust me—it’s still a remarkable piece of work.
I was quite surprised to read the overwhelming praise heaped upon “Mandolin Wind” by respected industry music critics. John Mendelsohn said it was “nearly as good” as “Maggie May,” while Stephen Erlewine described it as “unbearably poignant.” Well, at least he got the “unbearable” right, so we’ll give him half credit. In truth, it’s a rather pedestrian faux-western song that strains one’s credibility. What qualifications did London-born Rod Stewart possess to write about waiting out a cold and bitter winter on the Great American Plains? I’ll bet the closest he ever came to that experience was waiting out a non-functioning radiator in an English country inn. And of course, the little woman is a fucking hero for obediently spreading her legs to warm the cockles of her dumb ass hubby who got them both stuck in the middle of nowhere with buffalo dropping like flies a few feet from their doorstep. And what the hell is a “mandolin wind,” anyway? How does it blow? What sounds does it make? If you’re going to try to tell me that it’s the sound of a mandolin wafting over the wind, I’m going to return your assertion with a look of utter disdain and ask you how the fuck could they have heard a mandolin drift through their windows in the middle of a howling blizzard! “A beautiful, touching folk-rock tale of love during a brutal winter on the American frontier” my ass. Compared to the you-are-there feelings evoked by “Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May,” “Mandolin Wind” sounds like something a little boy who spent too much time watching reruns of Bonanza would have come up with. All I can say about “Mandolin Wind” is “it must be a guy thing,” but I will admit that the tune itself is rather catchy.
Shifting gears but not mood, if I could go back in time equipped with unlimited power to establish reasonable boundaries to song selection, I would have permanently banned British rockers from ever covering songs by The Temptations. Rod’s cover of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” can be added to the wall of shame that includes The Stones’ cover of “My Girl,” and Rod’s “contribution” is made even worse by the era fetish with pointless drum solos. I’ll give him credit for a vocal that expresses deep admiration for the original, but I would have advised him to keep his admiration to himself and wait about twenty-five years for a karaoke club to open up down the street.
Our journey ends with Rod’s cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” another song that earned Rod’s deepest admiration. Like many of the folk artists of the day, Tim Hardin was more songwriter than singer, but his performance on the original is heartfelt, touching and backed by a perfectly lovely arrangement with piano and strings. Rod Stewart’s interpretation is also heartfelt, revealing his profound respect for the song and songwriter. He also successfully expresses the vulnerability of a man betrayed but held in place by an overwhelming desire for the woman who betrayed him. The weakness in the Stewart version is in the arrangement, particularly in the melodramatic use of the organ. Lose that ridiculous instrument and it’s a dead heat; as it is, it falls short of improving on the original.
As I asserted earlier, there are no perfect albums. One of the great errors I’ve noticed in music criticism is the “halo effect,” a bias that occurs when a critic falls passionately in love with one or two songs and therefore everything else on the album must be the greatest music ever conceived. I think that’s why the reviews for Every Picture Tells a Story are so over-the-top, which is both unfortunate and dehumanizing. Human beings aren’t perfect, so how on earth can we expect perfect albums? It’s more accurate to say that the majority of the songs on Every Picture Tells a Story are winners, and two of those songs qualify as truly great rock ‘n’ roll compositions.
In my book, that qualifies as a noteworthy achievement.