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Ronnie Wood: It's sharp, honest rock 'n' roll. It's who I am

Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood talks about his new album, and how he's back on track after a turbulent couple of years.

Shaun Curry / AFP
Shaun Curry / AFP

"What with all that's happened in my life of late I think it's best to get my head down and throw myself into work."

When Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stones guitarist, says this it seems only polite to offer an encouraging nod. But about 10 minutes into an impassioned monologue about his plans - recording and touring with three rock bands, curating an international exhibition of his paintings, developing clothing and luggage lines, launching a radio DJ career and bashing out a couple of publishing projects - it strikes me that he might be taking this idea too far.

You might summarise his vision for the next 12 months as "Navigate post-divorce emotional tundra by focusing on world domination".

"I suppose if all these things do come off, then, yeah, I suppose I am going to be quite hard to avoid," he says. He smiles, opening up the facial creases that make him look like the world's

most charismatic scrunched-up paper bag.

For the past two years Ronnie Wood has been the highest-profile Rolling Stone - but for entirely non-musical reasons. In 2008, his marriage to Jo Wood, long considered to be one of the longest and most solid in music, ended. Wood ran off with a Russian, Ekaterina Ivanova, whom he had met at a London bar called Churchill's. He was 61. Ivanova was 19.

But more than the affair, it was the end of his marriage that astonished observers. Jo Wood was a devoted wife who cooked her husband's pre-show meals and appeared on the Rolling Stones' payroll as a wardrobe assistant. But it turns out it was this, and the fact that Wood's son Jamie was at one time his manager, that contributed to the split.

"I was bored with not being able to make decisions for myself. Other people were making decisions for me - including my kids," Wood said at the time.

He's been mostly tight-lipped about his divorce since, but - once you get past the line-up of "legends" helping him out, a list that includes Slash (formerly of Guns N' Roses), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Kris Kristofferson and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top - much of the inside story is now told on his new solo album, a collection that sports the jaunty double entendre title, I Feel Like Playing.

"Basically I left rehab and went on the run," says Wood. "I ended up in LA, and the title of the first track, Why You Wanna Go And Do A Thing Like That For, was the phrase running around my head the whole time. I had torn up my life and decided to start again. I had to change or die. People forget that my background is gypsy. I come from a travelling family and in the end I have that strong instinct to move on and roam and re-invent. I didn't plan anything. I just followed my heart and my instinct. All the material things I just cast aside. I just had to get myself together."

And so Wood, with the wreckage of a 23-year marriage and one torrid affair in his rear-view mirror, went a-wandering. But I Feel Like Playing isn't the rocker equivalent of Eat Pray Love with his combing LA for spiritual nourishment. The album quickly moves on to the sort of senior libido urges that we have got used to with Mick Jagger. Sweetness My Weakness and Thing About You are full of goatish vigour. On Lucky Man Wood's self-analysis boils down to this unforgettable couplet: "Constant need to reproduce/a halo turns into a noose".

"It's sharp, honest rock 'n' roll," he says. "It's who I am. I made the album the old way: very quickly trying to record a song a day. That's the way rock 'n' roll used to be. Recently I found a diary I kept when I was in a band called The Birds [no relation to the American group The Byrds] in 1965. We played gigs six nights a week. And finding that energy again I think I have produced my best solo album since the Seventies."

Today at his management offices in south London, Wood looks more rock 'n' roll than any 63-year-old man has a right to be. The crow-black mane has a few white flecks in it but looks pretty much unchanged from the early Seventies, when he first began confusing rock fans because he looked like a darker version of Rod Stewart. He has diamond ear studs, several charms and necklaces and a green and yellow checked shirt that on anyone else would look like an old picnic blanket. But on this sparrow-bodied urchin it looks the epitome of raffish style. Only the occasional wheezing and shallow breaths suggest his real age or the damage done by years of overindulgence.

A glass of the caffeine-full energy drink Red Bull has been laid on for him.

"Caffeine. That's my only vice now," he says, slugging it back. "I feel like I have a new lease of life and there is still so much I want to do."

Wood's first lease of life, back in the Sixties, would alone earn him a place in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. His story bisects that of several great bands and a golden age. At 17 he was a guitarist in the little known The Birds, but three years later he found success alongside Stewart in the Jeff Beck Group.

Wood intends to publish the recently unearthed day-to-day diary from 1965 when he was playing with The Birds. Wood and Stewart went on to join the Small Faces (renamed the Faces due to the fact that he and Stewart were not as "small" as departing member Steve Marriott).

Wood, Stewart, Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan were a laddish, chaotic and inspired outfit who released enduring hits such as Stay With Me and Cindy Incidentally. By the early Seventies with the Faces disintegrating and Stewart making a name as a powerful, bluesy vocalist, Wood joined the Stones when asked to replace the departing Mick Taylor. For the first 11 years of that job he famously was an employee paid on retainer, until Jagger finally offered him a proper contract.

But consider Wood's wider life during the late Sixties and early Seventies: he was a flatmate of Jimi Hendrix; wrote and performed with Eric Clapton, Jagger and Keith Richards; and followed or preceded Clapton and George Harrison in relationships with Pattie Boyd and Wood's first wife, Krissie Findlay.

This year the Faces re-formed (without Stewart) for a handful of shows. Simply Red's Mick Hucknall was recruited as singer and the concerts were reviewed favourably enough to consider a world tour in 2011. Wood is delighted, especially as his old mucker Stewart, who moaned about Wood leaving the Faces, has e-mailed him with approval.

"I had a lovely e-mail from him the other day," says Wood. "He's behind the whole thing. He thinks Mick [Hucknall] did him proud. He's probably reminded himself of just how chaotic we used to be as a band and thought, 'I'm well out of that'. To be honest I don't remember a lot about the early shows we did because we wouldn't get on stage until all the wine was gone. I'd like to get misty eyed and say, 'Oh, great days', but the truth is I can hardly remember."

On joining the Stones, Wood became half of a legendary guitar partnership with Richards. But despite life in what Wood describes in his autobiography as the Stones' "golden jail", his friendship with Richards has sometimes been fraught and borderline destructive. Richards could react malignly to Wood's drinking and drugging - pulling a knife on one occasion and a gun on another, according to Wood - but then when Wood wanted to clean up and go into rehab, Richards saw it as a sign of weakness.

"Back in the mad old days Keith hit me in the face with a bottle when I was out of order. I would behave badly and he would lose his temper; fair enough. But he didn't like it when I stopped drinking either. That's changed a bit now. He sees the benefits of me stopping. He's not stupid. I think we both know we got away with abusing our bodies for too long and we are lucky to be alive."

Richards' own autobiography, Life, hits bookstores this month.

For years art has been Wood's outlet for his angst, as important to him as his guitar. And last month he was recognised with an exhibition at the prestigious Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

"If I was in a desert island situation and asked to salvage one thing I could not tell you whether it would be the guitar or my paints," he says.

His disastrous affair with Ivanova ended last December. In January of this year he found a new love: the 31-year-old Brazilian model, artist and polo instructor Ana Araujo. Wood was playing at the 100 Club in central London with a friend from rehab. Araujo was there. They began chatting.

"She's only 31, but much more mature than the last one," he says. "I learn a lot from her. She's got a wise old head on her shoulders."

Wood's father, Archie, was what he terms a "water gypsy" who worked on the barges in west London. He says this explains why he still lives the gypsy life. But no traveller would recognise the luxe spots that make up Wood's nomadic lifestyle: he and his new girlfriend divide their time among a flat in London's Chelsea, his art gallery in Hoxton in east London, a farm in Kildare in Ireland and a rented castle in Claygate in the Surrey countryside. He notes that the latter was built by Lord Evelyn as a folly for his lover.

"And I've made it my love nest," he cackles.

In between career commitments Wood likes to watch episodes of the old US cop series Columbo, in which Peter Falk played a one-eyed detective in a dirty mac. Araujo, by contrast, hates Columbo and wants to put on funky music and dance.

"I hate dancing but she makes me get up and bop 'round the room," he says. "It's not good for an old man like me!"

There are other pitfalls to their country love nest. Last week they went for a walk in a Claygate park. There was a cricket match on.

"I went for a walk with Ana in the local park and the cricket team came over and asked me to join," he explains. "Now I'm getting notes through the door asking me if I fancy being the new batsman. I said, 'Sure, I'd love to' if I had the time."

Wood is going to find it hard to find time for everything. This autumn the Rolling Stones will hold their annual general meeting and decide on their plans for 2011. He will not respond to rumours that Jagger had been ready to sack him over his erratic behaviour in 2008, but says the singer has been "very strong, very supportive".

And then there is the continued Faces reunion and a world tour to promote his solo album to consider. Wood also plans to publish that 1965 diary and perhaps a novel as well. And Tommy Hilfiger wants to use Wood's abstract art designs for a line of shoes and luggage.

"Can I do all these things at the same time? Sure!" he says with a sly chuckle. "I am living in this pink mist which makes everything feel good. I know I won't fall down again. I am lucky to be alive. And what life there is left I just want to live it to the full."

Ronnie Wood's latest solo album, I Feel Like Playing, was released at the end of September.

 

The Wood file

BORN June 1, 1947, in Hillingdon, West London

SCHOOLING Martin's Church of England Secondary School, West Drayton

FAMILY Four children, ex-wife Jo Wood (first ex-wife died in 2005), infamous ex-girlfriend Ekaterina Ivanova

WORST JOB Butcher's delivery boy. "I was always late and so got given the worst bike. I kept falling off and getting gravel and grit in people's beef."

HERO BB King. "His playing and his voice exude rock 'n' roll and soul in equal measure."

BIGGEST REGRET "I gave up drinking so late. It's such a waste of life, money and time."