November 12, 2004

Before you thought he was sexy, Rod actually rocked

Every Picture Tells a Story is the greatest rock album ever recorded by a prostitute. Rod Stewart is not a rock star. He never was. Rod Stewart is a gigolo. Yet everything that passed Rod's tongue from 1966 to 1972 turned to soul, rock 'n' roll songs in particular.

For six years Rod was the greatest singer in all of rock. He didn't have much competition. The lifespan of the rock singer lasted from 1956 until Elvis' death, and the King of Rock proliferated during the time when rock songwriting reached its peak. Bob Dylan's voice can't put you in the mood, but his lyrics might. Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, etc. made those lyrics palatable so that you might be potent. Nowadays, if you want to hear singing like that, you should be listening to R. Kelly.

Rod Stewart began the transition from rock singer/interpreter/voice to rock performer/frontman/image. Robert Plant is a greater rock star than Rod could ever be, but he is not a singer. Robert Plant signifies rock 'n' roll. Rod Stewart sang it, and now he tries to sing standards.

Rod started the '70s with a '60s hangover worthy of any of that era's giants. In the Jeff Beck Band, he and Beck laid the groundwork for heavy metal, for phallic rock 'n' roll. What do you get when you mix the sweat and swagger of a bluesman with the blood of a gifted guitarist? Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin, of course. But the Jeff Beck Group did it first. In 1969, Rod and his new group, the Faces, began a worthy attempt to outskank the Stones, and for over six years they did an admirable job.

Rod had a lot to live up to in his solo work, and live he did. Only 16 seconds pass on EPTS's titular first track before Rod and his backing outfit resurrect the jumpsuited corpse of the rock 'n' roll singer from its casket lined with prescription meds. His voice—equal parts cocaine mellifluence and brandy-soaked bravado—has any and all detractors howling along by the end of the track. You can hear him and the band punching into thin air, not five seconds going by without a surprise. A yelp here, a guitar solo there, and then comes the back-up singers. This song, Dark Side of the Moon, and the Stones similar output in the period should have every rocker this side of Radiohead wondering why we don't hear more gospel singers backing up guitar bands.

Rod wrote only three tunes on the album, but they're probably the best of his career: the title track, "Maggie May," and "Mandolin Wind." "Maggie May" is a song so fine that every time I hear it I marvel at how it never ages. It seems overplayed, but that's only because you can't ignore it. The remainder of the album finds Rod interpreting and defining tunes from across the rock, folk, and country canons. He even takes a shot at the Temptations on "(I Know) I'm Losing You," and succeeds in at least matching Motown with his panty-shattering vocal chops.

Most readers probably know the latter-day work of Rod Stewart. His career moves since the early '70s amount to a series of cash grabs worthy only of Mick Jagger himself. But in 1971 the myth of authenticity still ruled rock, and Rod apparently still believed it. His vocal talent is so immense that he can't help but sound lazy on any tune he tackles, but it makes a record like EPTS no less real than anything that happened in Sun Studios, Abbey Road, or Motown.

God and the Devil both had a hand in crafting the larynx of Rod, and one should not despair his latter-day fall from grace. It was inevitable. Integral to the enjoyment of EPTS is the listener's ability to believe that Rod Stewart is the holy slut that he presents from beginning to end of this, his masterpiece. Don't let his later flirtations with disco, soft rock covers of Tom Waits, and supermodels throw you off the scent of his early-'70s work.

In fact, let the fake-tanned, airbrushed Rod pictured on his latest album drag you kicking and screaming to the closing track of EPTS, a cover of Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe." Could a song of such devastating beauty be just another dose of the Rod Stewart snake oil? If so, it reminds me of the ephemerality of all love and longing. If not, it's Rod's fitting final flirt with the spirit of an age that he came out of with at least as many scars as any other rock 'n' roller. A spirit in which no gigolo worth his salt could ever really believe for very long.