In his recent documentary, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Ronnie Wood says he’s like Yogi Berra who once said, “If there’s a fork in the road, take it!” That’s the Ron Wood I know. All in, all the time. Go-for-it full speed ahead and with a devil-may-care attitude. Indeed, in the film he admits, “That’s my whole life, including my love life. I know it’s dangerous but I’m going.”
That game plan worked for him for a long time. For over 50 years, in fact, as he drank and drugged himself nonstop throughout his entire rock star career. Famed Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts says, “It’s amazing that he kept it together for so long. He never really lost it.” Of course, until he finally did, just a few years ago and then had a life’s reckoning and got himself sober. No easy task when your whole life has been lived drinking and drugging.
Wood says he was able to survive and accomplish his goals by “steering his way through it,” backing off when he needed to, so as not to be too out of it when recording, touring, or working on his art. Most fans are aware that “Woody,” as his mates call him, is very talented at drawing and painting. He attended Ealing Art College in London and might have pursued art as a career, but found when he went for job interviews, the places he wanted to work were mostly a “closed shop,” and it was extremely hard to break into what was a close-knit click ‘ish community. It’s a shame in a way, as he’s got a real gift for line drawing and brushwork. Throughout the film we see a lot of Wood’s artwork and him in the process of creating it. When he paints a line, it’s reminiscent of Picasso. With only one or two brushstrokes he’s able to emote incredible emotion and beauty.
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are also interviewed in the film and as far as Wood’s propensity for drugs and alcohol, Keith says Ronnie is “tough as nails” and reminds him of himself — possessing a great immune system. Indeed, when I worked with Woody and Keith during The New Barbarians tour, a band put together by Wood to play live dates supporting his 1979 solo album, Gimme Some Neck, I saw that he idolized Keith (who hasn’t?), and not only did he pattern himself after Keith’s musicality but also after Keith’s drug-a-cality. When it came to drugs and alcohol, Ron Wood went toe to toe with Keith Richards or even sometimes beyond. And when you go beyond Keith Richards in the drugs and alcohol department that’s really saying something.
Any of us who were on that tour found ourselves living the DuPont slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry.” I’ve never seen so much cocaine in my whole life, besides everything else taken on that tour (which was quite an assortment of different substances). When we traveled on the private jet, roadies were at the back of the plane like miners, pulling out giant rocks of coke and grinding them down to a fine powder in professional green laboratory grinders. Add to that some great marijuana, some powerful downers, and wash it all down with Rebel Yell, 100% alcohol only legal in the south, and you get a picture of what it was like. I hardly slept for seven days and nights, and at the end of a week on the road I told the guys, “I give. I thought I was some really hip record guy able to hang with the toughest of them all, but I am not in your league, or even in your ballpark — I gotta go home!”
Woody laughed, “Come on Rap, one more gig, one more gig!”
“No buddy, no more gigs, no more gigs, I really need some sleep.”
I left the tour and they went right along partying. I am not judging here, especially because no matter their lifestyle that band played GREAT every night. I know Keith admits to “being ‘especially bad’ on that tour,” and he has ebbed and flowed throughout his career in the substance abuse department. Not so with Ron Wood.
And that’s one of the revelations of this documentary. There’s not a lot of there, there. It’s as if Ronnie Wood has lived in a euphoric stupor for fifty years and all-of-a-sudden has woken up to tell this story of his life. The trouble is, either he doesn’t remember much of it, or he doesn’t want to face it. So, what we get from director Mike Figgis, are a few memories of Wood’s early years with the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces (with some nice interview footage from Rod Stewart), and how eventually he came to join The Rolling Stones. But there is so much missing in between then and now, you feel like you haven’t really watched a documentary at all.
I was disappointed that Figgis just let the cameras roll (his loose game plan to make the film) but really didn’t press Wood to talk about some of the hard stuff. He didn’t seem to know much about Wood’s life. Whatever Ronnie told him, he was satisfied with that and just moved on. So, what we get is pretty light fare.
I learned much more from reading Ron Wood’s autobiography than from this film, which I had high hopes for, hoping it would flesh out more of Wood’s life in detail. Horribly absent from this documentary is any mention of his former wife Jo, who I knew for years, or any mention of their children.
Jo has revealed over the years how Wood ruined their thirty-five-year-old marriage, and Jamie, his oldest son, talks about being caught up in drugs himself at an early age due to the constant party lifestyle that went on in the house. At one time Ronnie purportedly spent so much money on drugs he once had to borrow from the rest of the band to pay his children’s school fees, then blew more on a Rolex watch. Jamie says other parents wouldn’t let their kids come over and play after school due to all the open drugging and drinking that was going on in the house. There is a story about how once Woody came home with a new too-young girlfriend, introduced her to Jo and the kids as she slumped in a chair in the kitchen very out of it herself. Asking to use the stove to light a cigarette she accidentally caught her hair on fire, which Jo had to put out with a damp rag. I don’t even think the girl knew she’d done it.
I found the above stories from the London Mirror but I am not surprised as Woody reveals a lot (actually too much) of similar sordid details in his book. One that shook me the most was when he admits to asking the kids not to eat white meringue cookies anymore because he was mistakenly picking up crumbs from the carpet thinking they were particles of cocaine freebase that he and Jo were hooked on for years. It’s funny for a second, when you think about Wood trying to smoke meringue cookie crumbs in a pipe, but horribly scary when you realize this is the life his kids were living with him. Poor Jamie admits to being hooked on cocaine and heroin by the time he was twenty.
Asked in the film whether any of his wild lifestyle ever caused him any pain or discomfort, Wood says “No, only a lot of pleasure.” And Figgis lets it go at that, again, doesn’t press him, doesn’t bring up any of the tough stuff to see how Wood will react or reconcile it. Wood goes on to say that he doesn’t regret anything he’s done but he doesn’t recommend it.
I – and so many others – love Ronnie Wood because he’s such a fun guy to hang out with. He has no false airs about himself and treats everyone as an equal. He is quite refreshing in that way, as usually rock superstars have trouble getting out from under their own egos. I’ve been to parties where he’ll bring out a new Fender Strat toss it in my lap and say, “Hey Rap, Fender just sent this to me, let me know what you think.” And it’s not an act, he genuinely wants to know my opinion.
And for all his faults or troubles over the years I’m not trying to vilify him—he’s just too nice a person to do so. It’s just that he seems so self-absorbed; if he doesn’t regret anything he’s done concerning himself fine, but what about Jo and the kids? How do you not regret messing that up? Even David Gilmour will tell you he messed up his first family being a rock star, and was extra careful making sure he was there for his new wife and family to ensure a better outcome the second time around.
Most of the rock world knows that Ron Wood has led two lives – the first, with its good times but also with its share of troubles, and the second, when he wakes up, has to deal with cancer in his lungs, gets sober, and starts a brand new life with a brand new wife and fathers beautiful twin daughters. He’s not the first rock star to do that, as many have before (Billy Joel, Bill Wyman, and David Gilmour included). It’s difficult to keep a relationship and family when you spend so much time away from home.
I’m just not sure if you’re making a proper documentary how you can leave so much of one’s life out. Even if you want to avoid some of the more painful parts, to not even mention Jo or his other children is a disservice to them. He used to brag about his son Tyrone to me, but in this film nary a mention.
Is the film worth seeing? Yes. In fact, I learned a few new things from watching it. As a musician, it’s fun to hear about the “weaving” of the two guitars that both Keith and Woody always refer to. How each plays off one another and how the spaces in one guitarist’s phrasings leaves room for the other. Also, how both of them often have to watch Charlie’s foot hitting the bass drum to make sure they are in time when the sound on a big stage can be muffled or confusing. One of the biggest reveals comes after the film is over. There is a special post-credits clip of Woody, Figgis and I think one of the producers, talking about the film. It’s obviously been shot more recently, during the time of COVID 19, as they mention it and all of them have been filmed in separate locations.
Figgis talks about how he asked Wood more than once how it feels to play in front of a quarter-million people. But the only thing he gets out of it is Woody reaffirming with Keith, that they often have to keep their eyes on Charlie Watts to make sure they are in time if the crowd noise makes the sound too confusing to properly hear themselves. Wood doesn’t seem to understand the question until he finally offers, “Well I’ve been doing that (playing in front of lots of people) since I was seventeen, so it’s nothing new to me.” I was stunned for a moment. Wouldn’t it blow your mind to play in front of so many people and so often? Then I realized that the audience to him, is just part of what he does for a living—they’ve always been there and he’s so used to it, that part is everyday-normal to him. It’s the obvious other half of what makes a performance work.
There was also a very sweet moment in the film where it is revealed that Mick Jagger never gave up on Wood and was a big help during his recovery. That tells you something special about Jagger who one could argue has been very self-absorbed himself over the years.
As I watched the film, I kept chuckling, flashing back to that New Barbarians tour. Once we were flying to Denver and I noticed we were an hour late. I pointed that out to Woody wondering how we would make up the time. Most audiences accept that rock and roll time is usually a bit behind normal time, but a whole hour is a bit much.
“It’s Ok,” he assured me, “they wait.”
“They wait??!” I was incensed. “Hey, that used to be me!! Sometimes I waited for you guys (The Rolling Stones) for fucking ever. I always thought you were backstage getting high. The truth is, you probably weren’t even there yet! And what about this immediately leaving the arena after your last song caper?” Most people don’t know, but The Stones are usually whisked off stage right after their last planned encore, throw on terrycloth robes, dive into limousines, and are rushed out of the arena while the audience is still standing there clapping. That way they avoid fighting hordes of autograph seeking fans who insist on waiting for them forever at backstage entrances.
I have seen so many Rolling Stones shows and have stood there clapping like crazy along with the rest of the audience, sometimes for 15 minutes or more, thinking the band would return if we just clapped a little louder. On tour with The New Barbarians, I learned the secret of the super-fast exit, and also, the rule. If you are traveling with the band, you get into your assigned limo during their last song (usually “Jumping Jack Flash”) and wait for one of them to hop into the car before the doors are quickly closed, and away you go. If you’re not seated in that car waiting, they will leave you behind. In fact, I was traveling in Keith’s car that night in Denver along with a prominent Rolling Stone Magazine photographer who thought she might be an exception. Keith jumped in and off we went. She was just outside the car banging on the windows as we drove right by her. “Shouldn’t we stop and let her in?” I asked Keith.
“She knows the rules,” he said with a bit of a scowl. We left her there and she didn’t make it to the private airport on time to get on the plane. Had to find her own flight back to Dallas, which was base camp, the next morning. PS. She didn’t complain, she knew she’d fucked up.
So, on the jet flying back to Dallas, I was very animated sort of yelling at the guys, “I have stood and clapped and clapped for you guys to come back for soooooooo many shows! Now, I find out that you weren’t even there listening!! Fuck you guys!” They laughed like crazy.
I wish this documentary covered so many more things. And I’m not just talking about Wood’s former life. I would have loved to know about his unique rhythm style—it is responsible for so many of the rock songs we love. How did he come to find it—who were his influences? In the film Wood talks about the guitar as his instrument of choice with which to express himself (he is also known for his base playing in the Jeff Beck Group, and can also blow a pretty mean harp). But there is no mention about some of the beautiful guitars that he owns, and why he chooses those particular styles. And what about all those drawings and paintings? Has he had successful gallery shows? It would have been great to see some of his finest pieces.
At any rate, it is worth watching and it is worth paying to see it. You can find Ron Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me at ronniewoodmovie.com or on his website ronniewood.com.
I have many fond memories of hanging out with Ron Wood, and Keith Richards as well. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe I got to work so closely with them. Since I was 17 years old The Rolling Stones have been my all-time favorite band and their music has lived deep inside my soul–I always wanted to be in that gang. At 71 years old, nothing much has changed. The thought of rock being solely a young man’s game has fallen by the wayside. Funny enough we’re all still rocking.
More Backstage Access:
Bill Wyman The Quiet One – An Extraordinary Film With A Remarkable Perspective
Watch the movie.
And rock on,
© Paul Rappaport 2020