Unplugged and Outspoken A new album, a new wife, a new lease on life for longtime star Rod Stewart

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Old-fashioned music."

Rod Stewart is sitting on a couch in a posh New York hotel suite, talking about a cassette tape that sits on the coffee table in front of him. It's titled "East Memphis" -- "Why it's called 'East Memphis,' I don't know," he says -- and consists of classic Southern soul songs, singles by Otis Redding, Al Green, Sam and Dave. In other words, precisely the sort of tape you'd expect to find in his possession.

Except that it's not there for him. It's there for his wife, 23-year-old model Rachel Hunter.

"She's done a lot of catching up on this music," he says, gesturing toward the tape. "Stax/Volt stuff, things that she was not aware of. No Motown -- most of the Motown stuff you wouldn't have been able to escape."

Still, even if it is new to her, it hardly seems fair to call it old-fashioned music.

"Well, compared to rap music, I suppose it is," counters Stewart. "My kids don't like it."

His kids. He has four, you know; two by his second wife, Alana Hamilton, one by former paramour Kelly Emberg, and one by Hunter. And though it's far easier to think of him in rock-star terms -- the blond hair, the rakish figure, the young-and-gorgeous wife -- the 48-year-old Stewart not only has kids but occasionally finds himself grousing, dad-like, about their taste in music.

"It is odd," he admits. "It doesn't unsettle me at all, but it's strange. Because there are so many things about rap music that I don't like, and I can remember my dad saying the same things about Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry.

"Some of it's good stuff, though," he adds diplomatically. "Some of it's wonderful.

"But the majority of it is crap."

Stewart laughs, with the assurance and enthusiasm of one who really doesn't care whether young people listen to rap or not. Nor should he. Because frankly, there has never been a better time to be Rod Stewart.

More success

It isn't the new wife, with whom he seems deliriously in love. His career is also going swimmingly, thanks. "I've had more success in the last five years than I'd done in the last 15," he says. "More hit records, more record sales, more tickets sold at concerts."

Then there's his current project. Stewart recently taped an edition of "MTV Unplugged," which, as has become the norm, is being spun off into an album, "Unplugged . . . and Seated." (It arrives in record stores Tuesday.) Already, the first single -- a warm rendition of "Have I Told You Lately" that he, in the show, dedicates to the missis -- is an out-of-the-box smash, and there seems every reason to expect similar success with the album and subsequent tour.

Just how much success is another matter entirely, however, and Stewart seems eager to ward off the inevitable comparisons to Eric Clapton's Grammy-winning, multi-platinum "Unplugged" album.

"I just don't want everybody thinking that, because Eric sold 7 million, that I've got to sell 7 million," he says, sounding like a man uninterested in living up to record company sales hype. "Everyone's rushing about, thinking, 'We're going to do huge business.'

"But my album's totally different from Eric's. His album is a very relaxez-vous type album, isn't it? Almost a record you'd have on with your dinner or something. Mine has a bit of edge to it."

Besides, adds Stewart, Clapton had two hit singles from his "Unplugged" album. "That's what did it. Two fluke singles, really."

Flukes?

"I think that one song about heaven was actually written about his father, and has been in the vaults for quite a while," he says, referring to "Tears in Heaven," which won Song of the Year at the last Grammy ceremony. "So I heard. And who would have thought 'Layla' would have been a hit another time round? I wouldn't have dreamt -- even when I heard it, I never dreamt it was going to be a huge hit like that.

A body of work

"I don't know if people bought that because of the two singles, or whether they bought it because it's a good body of work," he adds. "Hopefully they bought it because it's a good body of work."

Hopefully, indeed, because that's part of the draw with Stewart's "Unplugged" session. Although a couple of the songs are of relatively recent vintage, most of the material dates back to when he was making a name for himself both as a solo artist and as a frontman for the Faces. "Maggie May," "Reason to Believe," "Stay With Me," "Every Picture Tells a Story" -- these are titles that will instantly transport any aging boomer to the glory days of the early '70s.

Moreover, Stewart's "Unplugged" renditions are astonishingly faithful to the originals. "Believe you me, we tried to rearrange them," he laughs. "It just wouldn't go anywhere. The nearest we got to rearranging was me singing a different melody on 'Hot Legs,' and doing a slow verse in 'Maggie May.' Otherwise, it just didn't want to go. Because they were all written and recorded in that unplugged manner anyway, back in the '70s.

"The way we made albums then was so unbridled. Today, you've got to go in and make three singles. They say, 'Well, you've got two singles, and we'd like another one. Can you go back and record some more stuff?' It didn't used to be like that. You made a body of work, as an album, and it stood up. If there was a single on there, it was an accident."

Single accidents

" 'Maggie May' was an accident," he adds. "It wasn't meant to go on the album. A mate of mine at the time, who I thought had good ears, he said, 'Well, I don't think it's got much of a melody, and it's a bit long, you know?'

"I said, 'Well, I only recorded 10 tracks for this album, and we've got 10 of 'em on there. There's nothing left over, so it'll have to stay. I've run out of budget.' I only had, like, $100,000 to make the whole album.

"And then, of course, it was a B-side. 'Reason to Believe' was the A-side."

Those were the days. At that point, Stewart seemed at the top of his game, blessed with both critical acclaim and commercial prosperity. And then, inexplicably, he lost it, drifting from the likes of "Maggie May" and "Mandolin Wind" to "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and its ilk. As critic Greil Marcus wrote later, "Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely."

It's a line Stewart not only knows, but quotes -- and agrees with. "When I read that, I felt, 'Geez, he's absolutely right.' 'Cause I was making some horrible records," he admits.

"I'd bastardized my art. I always knew what not to do. If I can't listen to my own records, that's not what I should be doing, you know? Yet I made records like 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' and 'Love Touch,' nothing more than just horrible pop songs.

"I drifted. I can pinpoint my period to late '78 all the way through to about '83. I think I was probably trying to find myself a wife or something. It was like a phase I was going through -- a midlife crisis or something. I wasn't in love with what I was doing, like I am now."

Peaks and valleys

Like he is now. If, as Stewart says, "You have to look at your career as being valleys and peaks," right now would obviously be one of his peaks. And it would hardly be exaggerating to credit the current Mrs. Stewart for much of the singer's happiness.

"I went out shopping for her this morning, can you believe that?" he says, smiling. "Because she had to go to work. I had to go out and buy a pair of shoes for her, and get her hat exchanged.

"I wouldn't have done that 10 years ago, I tell you. No way, mate."

Nor is he even slightly jealous of her career, or the fame that's hers alone. In her native New Zealand, she's practically a national icon, but that's all right with him.

"When I go to New Zealand with her, I feel like Prince Charles," he says, laughing. "I sort of walk two steps behind her. You'll see me in the background, carrying the suitcases . . .

"I love it. I love her fame, for her. She's completely unfazed by all the success she's had. Doesn't mean anything to her. She never throws tantrums, never demands anything, doesn't scream at room service.

"And I love her."

Who could ask for a better reason to believe than that?

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