August 14, 2015

Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood’s - "How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary"


Ronnie Wood has fond memories of the Ealing Club, the tiny west London venue where he and many other aspiring young musicians cut their teeth in the 1960s. In 1965 the 17-year-old guitarist was playing there regularly with his rhythm and blues band, the Birds. On other nights it might be the Who, the Yardbirds or John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers pumping out songs in the dark, sweaty nightclub. 
“It used to have a leaky roof,” recalls the ­68-year-old Rolling Stone.

“They used to call it the moist hoist, because they would put this tarpaulin up but all the moisture would drip down. I remember seeing the Who there and playing there myself. You only needed 50 people or so to cram the place. The atmosphere was fantastic.”

Wood, as we all know, went on to bigger things, first with the Jeff Beck Group (as bass player), then the Faces and, most successfully of all, with the Rolling Stones, a band that launched itself into the London public eye and on to the world stage from that same Ealing Broadway club in 1962. Wood was a 14-year-old student at Evelyns Secondary Modern School in Yiewsley in west London then, with dreams of a career as an artist rather than as a musician.

Three years later Wood’s destiny took shape behind a guitar. He played professionally for the first time in the Birds, a Yiewsley band that worked most nights and travelled the length and breadth of the country in a beat-up old van, sleeping in cheap digs or on people’s floors in Glasgow and Manchester and Bristol, sharing stories of the road in motorway cafes with the other rock ’n’ roll hopefuls crisscrossing Britain with their gear in the back and ambition and mischief up front.

Although he was unsure about the direction in which it was taking him, the young Wood liked to keep track of his exciting new adventure. He kept a diary, jotting down gig times and venues, little critiques of the band’s performance and assessments of the audience, the parties, the girlfriends, the movies he saw and the other acts around London with whom they were competing — the Who, the Kinks and the Small Faces among them.


For decades Wood thought these diaries, which he kept from 1964 to 1966, had been lost. Then a couple of them (from 1965 and 1966) turned up in his mother’s house.

Now Wood is revisiting that 1965 diary by publishing a book, How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary, that brings the period to life with all of the diary entries, some of his illustrations from the time (and later), and photographs of the key players from what was a pivotal moment for rock music.

“I have to think of my dear old mum keeping them,” he says in a voice that has lost none of its London lustre, “and then when she passed away my brothers saying: ‘Look what we found.’ They were always proud of my pursuits, climbing the ladder. It was great to see that I had actually taken the time to write it down.”

Fifty years on, most musicians from that period would remember some highs and lows, but Wood’s knowledge of his 1965 is much greater than that. Ask him what he recalls from then and he is remarkably resourceful, precise and colourful, from the fee the Birds received for a gig in Salisbury to the reaction of the crowd at a pub in Surrey, to what bands he used to like watching on the British television show Top of the Pops (no prizes for guessing one of them).

For every gig, all the parties afterwards and even nights in front of the TV, Wood would jot down his version of events and his thoughts on them. It was a habit he grew out of long before he joined the Faces in 1969, but just as bassist Bill Wyman took on the role of Stones historian, Wood was the one keeping tabs on the Birds’ bid for stardom.

“It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s hard for me to believe it was 50 years ago. When I read some of the entries again it seemed like only a few months ago. It’s funny, though: that whole idea of striving and experimenting and taking risks, that still lasts to this day.”

How Can It Be? not only documents the rise of Wood’s first group from pub band to recording artists, but also features some of his early creations as an artist, with sketches, cartoons and other studies from his life as an apprentice rock star. It’s dotted also with rare photographs that help bring to life an era of British music that spawned London’s the Who, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and the Rolling Stones, all of whom went on to have global and enduring success, as well as others, the Birds included, whose flights were short-lived. It was an exciting time to be immersed in the new world of British rock. As a 17-year-old with ambitious and artistic streaks, Wood was in his element.

Some of the diary entries are succinct, such as on January 19:
“Went to Marquee — saw the Who. They were v good.”
Others are more informative, such as this assessment of a Birds performance in Walton-on-Thames on March 13:
“Went great. The atmosphere was really ­electric. The audience were really screaming and raving.”

Throughout the book there are references to friends the young musician made in those early days, ­including the Who’s demon drummer Keith Moon, a young fan called Lemmy who later fronted his own band, Motorhead, and Yardbirds and later Bluesbreakers guitarist Clapton, another young gun for whom Wood had great respect and ­admiration.

“There was another club, called The Crawdaddy, in Richmond (Surrey),” says Wood. “It was a great stronghold. I used to go and watch the Yardbirds there. That was a heavy influence on me because I always used to watch Clapton. I followed his rise. I always knew he had it in him. I thought his playing was the bee’s knees. That’s how you play the blues. I took a lot of tips out of his book, as much as I could at the time.”

This year Wood celebrates his 40th year with the Rolling Stones, the newbie in the world’s most successful and enduring rock ’n’ roll band, which has just completed a string of dates in the US. The guitarist is now having a few weeks off from his day job, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be idle. He has just moved house in London and likes to split his time between his new home there and others he has in Ireland and Barcelona, the last of which houses the studio where he likes to do most of his artwork. “I’m churning out a lot of work from there,” he says.

Wood has exhibited regularly during his Stones tenure and has another exhibition coming up in London next year. It’s a passion he has pursued in tandem with music-making. His formative years as a teenage musician coincided with his training at Ealing Art College in London.

“I always liked to draw things,” he says, “but the music was where the money was. You could survive. If you wanted to be an artist you would be on the breadline. At least I could go and earn a fiver with the band, and that was a lot of money back then. It was hard work, though, and it was a big learning curve for someone so young.”

The Birds were contenders for stardom but by 1967 had fallen apart, partly through internal squabbles but not helped by a failed legal bid by their manager to prevent American band the Byrds from using that name. The English Birds recorded several singles, a few of them written by Wood, including the B-side that gives his new book its title.

“That was the first song I ever recorded,” he says. “That was a learning curve, too, being in the studio. It was quite a thing to hear your own voice coming back to you, or your guitar. In those days it was like a big deal and you would be overcritical of yourself. You had to act as if it was successful. You had to have a projected confidence.”

Some of that was just for show, though. “I was a bit shy with the girls, I think. That was how you used to gauge everything. I was all showy and cocky, but underneath I was very shy.”

He says that although the band — which also featured singer Ali McKenzie, bassist Kim Gardner (later of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke), guitarist Tony Munroe and, at different times, drummers Bob Langham and Pete McDaniels — had a lot of potential, but wasn’t going to last.

“I knew in the back of my mind that it was a stepping stone,” Wood says. “It was my first band. There were lots of inner struggles within the band … the whole thing with the girlfriends and whatever. I just thought, ‘Get through this and concentrate on the music.’ ’’

And that is exactly what he did. After the Birds there was a brief stint in a band called the Creation, followed by his two albums and regular touring with the Jeff Beck Group and his six-year tenure alongside Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane et al in the Faces, a period on which he also looks back fondly. This week Stewart, Wood and drummer Kenney Jones announced they would be reuniting as the Faces for a performance in aid of prostate cancer at an event in Surrey called Rock ’n’ Horsepower on September 5.

Wood’s first love, however, is the Rolling Stones.


It’s an obsession that began long before he was in the band, back in the days when he was keeping tabs on how much money the Birds earned each night and how well they had gone down with the audience.

“I used to always gauge things by what the Stones were doing,” he says. “When they started having hit records, they were getting £250 for a gig on the weekend and we were getting about £75. It was like we were still getting there.”

The Stones were, he says, “the band I wanted to be in. It was only a few years later, in 69, when I first bumped into Mick (Jagger) and Charlie (Watts) on the outskirts of Hyde Park, when Brian Jones had died and Mick Taylor was playing guitar.

“They had wanted me to join then, although I didn’t know that at the time. They had asked Ronnie Lane about it and he’d said, ‘No, we’re getting the Faces together.’ “

Taylor is another guitarist who came through the John Mayall school of white British blues in the 60s and who also had an influence on Wood.

“I was learning so much from Mayall because all of his guitar players — Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor — that was a breeding ground for young guitarists and I liked to go and learn from these guys.”

More recently Taylor, who was replaced by Wood in 1975, has returned to the Stones fold as a guest on their world tour, including in Australia last year.

“He’s a lovely guy, Mick,” says Wood, “but he’s fraught with personal problems. He’s a hell of a handful in the real world. Once he has a guitar in his hand, he’s fine.”

Wood says that if How Can It Be? goes well he might be tempted to delve into his diary for 1966 and publish another book featuring further illustrations and reminiscences.

In the meantime he’s happily looking forward to more touring with the Stones later in the year, to more recording, to more painting and sketching — and to doing it sober. Wood, who struggled with alcohol for years, has been clean for five years.

Looking back, his proudest moment from the Birds era was getting a song on radio. “I suppose when you’re driving along in the gig wagon and you hear your song on the radio, that is very exciting,” he says.

And he’s happy that he has been able to channel his two passions into a long and prosperous career. “And I’m still hacking and chiselling away,” he says.

How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary by Ronnie Wood is published by Genesis Publications on September 15 in a limited edition (1965 copies worldwide) signed by the author. For more information go to $850. Distributed in Australia by Hedley Books Open general edition distributed by New South Books $65.

By Iain Sheddon

With many thanks to The Australian

Above: Ronnie and Rod Stewart - The Faces


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