This afternoon, as I continued my ritual of long, meandering post-lunch walks, I was surprised to discover my intense and immediate desire to hear some Rod Stewart.
Rod Stewart is, to be sure, not everybody's cup of tea. In fact, he walks the thin line of being almost, but not quite, embarrassing to be a fan of. Whatever you think about Rod Stewart today (with his unending series of truly awful "Songbook" cds), or during his self-parodying work in the 80's, it cannot be denied that during the 70's Rod Stewart put out a number of unimpeachably excellent songs. What makes them so good?
- His voice: It's impossible not to love the scraggly, 3 AM hoarseness in his voice. He always sounds like he's been in the studio drinking for 72 straight hours and doing take after take after take. And damned if it doesn't make everything he sings sound incredibly heartfelt, personal, and earnest.
- The world weary vocals: I've decided that world-weary vocals work during every phase of your life-Where you're young, they let you pretend that you've actually been through enough to acquire some hardscrabble wisdom; where you're an adult, you've going through the actual world-wearying process, and its nice to hear a voice that sounds like its been through it and survived; and, of course, when you're older, you can just listen and laugh in reminiscence. Either way, it always strikes the right cord, and people like Rod Stewart and Tom Waits have a true genius for getting that message across.
- The sound: Especially in the 70's, Rod Stewart's music (both by himself and with The Faces) had a clean, classic rock n' roll sound. Lots of strong guitar, pounding drums, and shouted vocals. Hard to believe, but there was a time when you could have a big rock n' roll sound without it being thought of as ironic (The Darkness), terrible (most of the "stadium rock" bands these days ) or some sort of good, but unoriginal, sound (The Strokes, The White Stripes, etc.). Rod Stewart was at his best at the absolute best time to be Rod Stewart (if that makes any sense).
- The songs: His best songs (Maggie May, Handbags and Gladrags, Stay With Me, Reason to Believe) have everything you could want in a song. All the elements noted above, perfectly aligned with great, usually very melancholy lyrics. With the possible exception of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, is there a more exquisitely sad song than Maggie May? It has all the elements you could want in a song: thwarted love, the inevitability of aging, and the need for an escape. With a song like this, Stewart's unique talent really comes through. Who else could sing this great verse and make it sound so heartbreaking and believable?
Or steal my daddy's cue and make a living out of playing pool
Or find myself a rock and roll band, that needs a helpin' hand
Oh Maggie, I wish Id never seen your face
So, there you have it, some ammunition the next time someone makes fun of silly ol' Rod "Hot Legs" Stewart.