The ultimate survivor, Wood, 73 now the father of young twins, talks about near-death escapes, sobriety, and his twin loves: painting and music. He credits the hand of Gabriel for getting him through the hard stuff.
The darker parts of Ronnie Wood’s life read like a long list of things you shouldn’t do. In Hollywood he freebased cocaine; he was rescued off the coast of Rio de Janeiro from a burning boat ahead of a Stones concert on Copacabana beach; in the Caribbean he was almost implicated in a serious cocaine bust, and on more than one occasion he’s had to jump out of the way of Keith Richards firing his handgun.
Many of his friends, including Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and Amy Winehouse, were killed by drugs and drink. His mate John Lennon was murdered, and longtime pals David Bowie and George Harrison died from cancer. And yet, despite a life of extreme rock’n’roll excess, Wood has just turned 73 years old. He’s still going strong, and is now a father of young twins.
Today we’re talking via Zoom (he’s in the vulnerable age group) and, sitting in his rural Hertfordshire painting studio, he looks remarkably well. He still has his trademark inky-black woodpecker hair, and is wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Addicted” along with a slimline silver necklace. He’s extremely upbeat but, having known him a little for a few years now, he’s been like this every time we’ve met.
Q: The first question that has to be asked, and it’s a question he must have asked himself: Ronnie, how are you still alive?
RW: Ha, ha, ha. Well, I got clean! My life’s better now.
Q: Were you ready to clean up?
RW: Yes I was. I don’t have any bitterness or anger. I’m wiser now; I had a great time and I still do, but in a different way. This is my morning face, my morning energy. [Only a man who has spent a lifetime of nights playing live music to millions would think that 3 pm is morning.]
After many years of hard living, this decade has seen him sober up and, in 2012, marry theatre producer Sally Humphreys, whom he first met when he was hanging an exhibition at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where she was working backstage. Their twins Gracie and Alice have just turned four. He enjoyed the Stones’ two-year-long No Filter world tour, which ended last year, and released new music with them. He continues to develop his work as a painter.
The late Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard, described Wood as “an accomplished and respectable painter.” Lucian Freud, Sir Peter Blake and art historian Edward Lucie-Smith have all praised him. Tommy Hilfiger collects his work.
Most of this is covered in a recent Sky Arts documentary, Somebody Up There Likes Me, from movie director Mike Figgis.
Q: In the doc, you admit to being puzzled by your age – as you have felt 29 for the last 40 years. Life flashes past you when you’re having a good time…
RW: I’ve had a very, very good time. [He laughs.] When I told the girls they wouldn’t be three ever again they just… [He tightens his fists into his eyes and pretends to bawl.]
He has spent lockdown with Sally and the twins, going for walks close to their home, and posting video messages on his Instagram account in support of fellow recovering addicts and anyone suffering with mental health issues. The couple celebrated the twins’ birthday with two giant cakes from Costco and a private visit to the grounds of his home, Ashridge House, with the girls dressed in their Frozen costumes. He has also been doing a lot of painting, including an exclusive work auctioned in aid of health care workers, which sold for £17,000 at Bonhams.
Wood has been painting ever since he won a prize on a BBC television show as a child. After school he followed his older brothers, Ted and Art, to Ealing Art College, and initially considered a career in theatre set design, before being seduced into the pop music scene of early ’60s London.
For years he has managed to sneak away from the hectic schedule of Rolling Stones tours to enjoy the world’s greatest galleries, from the Hermitage in St Petersburg to the Prado in Madrid, sometimes after hours.
In his cottage studio he is surrounded by paintings of ballerinas, brightly decorated Rolling Stones set lists (some of them published in a book in 2018) and paintings of his two most famous gangs, the Stones, whom he joined in 1975, and the Faces from 1969.
Q: How does painting fit into your life?
RW: The studio is a mile from my house, so I get exercise walking here and back. Sometimes Sally can tell I’m itching to paint and just tells me to get down here. I’ve got two workers’ cottages and I’ve built this extension on the back of one for painting. I also paint in Barcelona and Ireland [where he owns second homes].
Q: You are ebullient about having beaten lung cancer three years ago. You have put it down to the protective hand of the angel Gabriel (known for the gift of problem-solving and prophecy). You quit smoking before the twins were born. But have you had to change your diet?
A: No! Not at all. [He’s a man who loves to celebrate getting away with things, it’s the thriving child in him.]
He has nine grandchildren and six children of his own from three marriages, his eldest Jesse, 43, with model Krissy Findlay, was named after the outlaw Jesse James. He had adopted Jamie, the son of second wife Jo Karslake, before the couple had Leah, now 41, and Tyrone, 36, and now he has Gracie and Alice.
Q: Do you see anything of yourself in the twins?
A: There’s a bit of the wildness and the chaos with the girls. They both like to paint. When I decided to do these set lists before we go on stage, I didn’t want to bring oil paint or pastels because it would be too much messing about. So I have felt-tip pens and the girls love to pick them up and draw. Gracie in particular really likes to create. She’s got a very musical ear, too. She’s got a lot of my genes. Like her dad, she’s drawn to and tempted by the things you shouldn’t do.
Q: Do the older kids see the twins?
RW: Well, with the lockdown they can’t, but when they do see each other they all love it and get on.
Q: In a world where drugs and drink were often seen as being as creative as they were destructive, and your overt using in and around your home, how did you set boundaries as a father for the older children? Were you ever concerned it might encourage them to dabble?
A: Well, yes, but I had to talk with my boy Ty and admit that I had lied a lot about my using and behaviour, and he said, “Dad, I don’t want to hear this.” I’d rather just be honest and if they do go and experiment I hope they’d get to a point where they said, “OK, that’s that, I don’t want to do that anymore.’’
Q: Is there anything, looking back, that you regret doing?
RW: I know there were times when I could have been a bit more careful. There were close calls and I suppose if I’d been using my brain properly they wouldn’t have been so close. There were times over the years when Jimmy White [the snooker player] and I were up all night partying in London when I had to go straight into being Dad at breakfast.
Yet he has managed to scrape through a lifetime of high-speed overindulgence in alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and swerved jail on a couple of occasions. You can only assume he simply hasn’t had time to die. But it has always been this way.
Growing up in the 1950s in Yiewsley, Middlesex, “near the park Heath Row that the airport was named after,” there were so many instruments and post-pub singalongs led by his dad Archie and brothers that, 70 years later, he accidentally refers to the backroom of their council house as “backstage” before correcting himself. Just as today, his family was his world. His parents were the last generation of water gypsies to be born on barges, working and meeting around the Paddington Basin area.
Q: Despite loving music, your father only saw you play a handful of times. Once in 1982 from the side of the stage at Wembley Stadium in his mid-70s.
RW: He was dancing in his wheelchair, singing along, partying with Michael Caine. He was having the time of his life.
Q: What did he say to you afterwards?
RW: I love you, Kid. He used to call me “Kid” a lot. That was a big thing for him to say because although we were a physically close family we weren’t really open like that. He was proud of me. He’d call me “Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones.”
Q: Have you ever asked the other Stones for parenting advice?
A: If I asked Mick, his answers might be of another world. Say we were discussing allowances for my kids. It wouldn’t be like asking Joe Blow down the road who might say: “Oh yeah, give ’em a fiver.” The answer might be, “I’m not the person to answer this.” It’s a bit like pulling teeth with us giving each other advice.
Wood’s talent was his passport, his personality his visa. His life encompasses the whole of the post-war music scene, from playing in the Jeff Beck Group, the Faces and The Stones to working with Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Fats Domino and all the former Beatles. His contemporaries litter his conversation: Clapton, Harrison, Townshend, Moon.
He even performed at George Bush Senior’s inauguration gala as a guest of long-time hero Bo Diddley. But before he joined The Stones, the Faces were the great party band. Wood co-wrote many of their hits, and early solo singles for Rod Stewart, too. In many ways the Faces encapsulated Wood’s outlook on life. A good time, all the time.
Q: Is there anyone you missed?
RW: Elvis, one time he was ill in hospital, in Memphis I think, and they wouldn’t let me in to see him. Turns out Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were in there with him. If I’d known that I’d have gone, “I’m Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones.”
You can sense the fondness the remaining Stones founders, Jagger, Richards and Charlie Watts, have for “the new guy.”
Q: Did they give you an ultimatum that helped you finally clean up?
RW: Mick asked me if I wanted to help myself, and was there anything he could do to help. I appreciated that. They’ve been very caring around me.
Despite having a life full of crazy anecdotes about Hollywood parties, famous friends, clubs, snooker, and rock’n’roll record-setting, he genuinely seems to have steered himself into a better place. How could that possibly be? Well, he has admitted the consequences of his past behaviour to himself and those close to him, and decided to move forward. And in past interviews he’s discussed how the 12 Step program of AA helped him to finally achieve long-term sobriety.
Q: How have you adjusted to sobriety?
RW: There was a time when everyone I was around was doing drugs and drink. It was everywhere. It’s not like that now. I focus on my recovery books. I speak to other ex addicts. I’m happy how I am and glad I’m around for my family now.
Q: In the Mike Figgis documentary, your wife, Sally, 30-odd years your junior, explains how they make sure your recovery is always at the forefront. I can’t imagine you taking that sort of guidance 25 years ago. Do you think you have found the right person at the right time?
A: Yes. [He smiles, nods his head.]
And then we’re back to the paintings and another tour of his studio. His interpretations of Picasso and El Greco featuring The Stones – “Here’s the triptych here, in pencil, then inks, and then oils” – are for sale now, he says, for prices ranging between a hundred and thousands of pounds.
Q: Do you get something from working on your own as a painter that you don’t get in the band?
RW: Yeah… No lip! No one telling me what to do.
[[And there’s his smile, and he’s laughing again.]]
You might also enjoy a brief summary of Ronnie’s life by our editor David Holt.
Author: James Brown is a reporter with The Telegraph in London, UK.