published: 23 /
In Raging Pages, her monthly book column, Lisa Torem finds that Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood’s latest book, an updated diary of his 1965 gigs, is an inspirational read which documents his drive for excellence and natural flair for story telling.
Ronnie Wood’s older brothers, Art and Ted, were early inspirations. They frequently brought friends home from Ealing Art College to play music — they introduced their younger brother to current trends in pop and rock and also served as role models in the world of commercial art. But equally as important, they were wise enough to save Ronnie’s diary of 1965, which the rock guitarist for The Birds, Jeff Beck, Faces and the Rolling Stones discovered in the attic after their mum died.
The book is entitled 'Ronnie Wood: How Can It Be? A Rock and Roll Diary' and is named after his original tune of the same name. In his own words: “I thought, ‘How can it be that I kept a diary?’ and that’s why we used my song title for the name of this book.”
To contemporise the handwritten passages that document times, dates and reactions, and to provide additional context, Wood inserts current details about his preferences for gear—he fell in love with the Stratocaster! - as well as positive and luke-warm audience reactions—and in many cases, fist fights. Even the musicians engaged at times in “piggy-back fighting”. As a young musician he and his mates felt amused and flattered by the attention female fans lavished on them. They called them the “screamos” and used their shrieks as a reliable litmus test for many performances. But Wood had a way of keeping it all in perspective. When his Auntie Mary confuses his repertoire with that of another British band, he casually shrugs it off.
“I always had a keen sense of fashion”, he admits. Wood enjoyed a certain degree of convention. He wasn’t above designing or sewing up his own fashion creations and would enlist top-notch tailors, like those at Pennington’s, to finish up what he started. And although he had no problem pitching in, lugging equipment or setting up the stage before he could afford to farm out these tasks, he despaired when managers expected the musicians to do these tasks in front of their audiences. Wood wanted to surprise his audiences and setting up shop before their eyes destroyed that delicate veil of mystery that he held sacred. But whether front of stage or back, Wood noticed the world around him and developed strong tastes: “I was influenced by the orange tab collar shirts that the Stones all wore.”
The 100 Club opened Wood’s eyes to the likes of Wilson Pickett, Tom Jones and the Squires. At another gig the reaction of the crowd was “riotous”: Wood describes it as “The best reception so far in the group's career”. He sounds giddy when mentioning that he met Donovan Leitch at St. Alban’s Market Hall.
To his credit he absorbed the advice of his peers, with passion. Bassists John Entwistle, Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham shared their skill sets and he was grateful. But his managers were often hindrances: “Robert Stigwood gave us some horrible songs to cover.”
His diary was written in 1965 when he was seventeen and with his first band, The Birds. He interspersed the commentary with some fantastic sketches of blues artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and had a delightful knack for illustrating the keen physicality his colleagues demonstrated. The black and white archival band shots also move the story along and create a definite sense of time and space.
Wood gossips here and there, too. He discusses how the Pretty Things’ drummer, Viv Prince, and The Who’s Keith Moon tried to outdo each other: “They were in competition with each other to see who could be the most wrecked.”
He sided with Dylan when he went electric, citing the feat as “a natural progression” and admits that, as a struggling musician, he made some self-serving choices. Robin Scrimshaw, Wood explains, was a pretty bad harmonica player, but the band hung out with him because he offered them rehearsal space in his garage.
He namechecks icons like Chuck Berry—whom he claims cared less about the songwriting and more about the money—and his wistfulness about seeing Jimi Hendrix holding hands with a young woman shortly before his death is haunting. He becomes blissfully enamoured with soul and jazz and finds that Mose Allison’s version of ‘Parchman’s Farm’ was truly a one-off. After he performs a full set of Yardbirds’ material, they seek him out: “Send in that guy who looks like Cleopatra! We want to talk to him”.
Wood comes across as terribly ambitious yet always eager to improve. He struggles with what his future might hold as he enjoys art and music equally and, perhaps, in his youth, didn’t have the confidence to feel he could hold on to both. Yet he sounds so grounded when he states, “It’s great to have the luxury of being able to do both”.
The calendar listings tend to be a bit excessive, and yet, as an American. I found that an agenda which included Boxing Day or Orangeman’s Day aligned me more closely to the British culture. It was fun to explore the interiors of clubs like the Cromwellian and to imagine Wood sketching fans and colleagues alike.
The book is also enhanced with a foreword by Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts, but the most compelling quality is really that this book is 'old school' and I mean that in a truly favourable way. To be more precise, if you remember a circular disc that went round and round a clunky machine anchored by a spindle, you’ll get what I mean.
“A record was such a valuable commodity. It meant so much more in 1965 than it does now.” That’s Woody, frank and straight-to-the-point, suggesting to us that words like 'classic' and 'vintage' are pretty cool labels that even a life in rock ‘n’ roll can’t eradicate.
Raging Pages says that whilst you should still read Ronnie Wood’s official biography, this is a great follow-up.