The Big Bang
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As rock royalty, Ronnie Wood has done it all – and his artwork has kept I'm grounded. Chris Cottingham accompanies him to Barcelona's galleries, and bears how he stopped the worlds biggest band from splitting up

When Ronnie Wood has a day off, he likes to go to art galleries. today, the Rolling Stones' guitarist is in Barcelona. He's already been to the Gaudi house. Now he's in the Picasso Museum. He pauses in front of the painting called La Ofrena, leans forward, bending at the waist with his hands clasped behind his back like prince Charles, and peers intently. After a few seconds, he declares: "this is my favorite." The director of the museum nods in agreement explaining that the picture is a crucial junture on Picasso's journey to abstract art. "I spotted a good one," says Wood with a grin.

  Ronnie Wood in the Big Issue
 

No one else at the Picasso Museum is remotely interested in La Ofrena, or, indeed, any of the other 3,500 sketches and paintings. The most popular exhibit is Wood himself. Tomorrow, The Rolling Stones play the Olympic Stadium and Barcelona has gone Stone-crazy. Wood is required to go everywhere accompanied by tow toughs. To underline how tough, one of them wears a Die Hard 4.0 baseball cap. When a member of the public points a camera at his charge - and they often do - he looks at them growling with his eyes. It works.

There's no missing Wood. There aren't many 60-year-olds who look good in a white vest top, Converse trainers and skinny jeans held up - yes, held up = with a Native American Indian belt, but he does. His face has the lived-in look of an old leather jacket - where he an antique table he would be described as having a 'good patina'. Meanwhile, a full head of tussled black hair lends him a crow like quality. H smokes a string of Marlboro Lights and talks in a husky voice with occasional hints of his working class London background. Rock royalty usually impose some regal distance on their subjects, but not Wood. He is surprisingly tactile. If he wants to show you something, like one of the erotic studies Picasso painted as a teenager, he'll grab your arm and guide you with a gentle hand between the shoulder blades.

 

In the museum's coffee shop he orders a double espresso. Wood is himself a noted artist, whose paintings regularly sell for six figures. He talks confidently and at length about the exhibition before the conversation turns to tomorrow night's performance. "I think the band is really rocking, really excelling at the moment," he says.

the Stones are coming to the end of their Bigger Bang tour, which began in August of 2005 to coincide with the release of their most recent Album Bigger Bang. While the record is all but incidental to the band's career, the tour is a thing of superlatives. It is the highest grossing ever,

  Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones in Studio

taking nearly 250 million pounds. It is one of the longest ever, with nearly 150 stadium dates over two years. Perhaps most impressive of all, in February of 2006 they played Copacabana Beach in Rio De Janeiro. The event attracted over a million people and the band had to have a bridge built from their hotel direct to the stage.

"I remember peering through the balustrades at our hotel watching the place fill up," says Wood. "It was like an out-of-body experience. I couldn't take it all in. I still can't now. It's just something that comes on The Discovery Channel every now and then."

He pauses for a moment, reflecting. Then he stubs out his cigarette, finishes his coffee and heads in Barcelona, the nearest beach to the city centre. He's going to "hand out backstage passes" he says with a cheeky wink.

Ronnie Wood was the first member of his family to be born on dry land. As far back as he's been able to trace, his ancestors have been "on the barges", "navigators" or helmsmen". during the second world war, his father hauled timber between London and Manchester, hence his nickname "Timber"; later on Ronnie was known as "Young Timber"

The Wood family settled at Number 8 Whitethorn Avenue, Yiewsley, next door to Heathrow airport. Ronnie's older brothers Art and Ted both went to the nearby Ealing Art College. In the back of their council house, they set up a music room which became the centre of a local music scene. "We used to get all the beatniks and all the college students over," remembers Wood, who was eight years old and in shorts at the time. "There were wood blocks everywhere, trombones, kazoos, banjos, drum kits, guitars, saxophones, all kinds of instruments." It was one of his brother's friends , Lawrence Sheaf, Who taught him to play guitar. The first song he learnt was Guitar Shuffle by Mississippi Bluesman big Bill Broonzy.

Wood followed in his brother's footsteps and enrolled at Ealing art College. Fellow students included The Who's Pete Townsend, future bandmate Keith Richards and the Kink's front-man Ray Davies, but Wood maintained his distance because "they were all older than me". Wood's first band was the Thunderbirds in 1964, later shortened to The Birds (no 'y'). He toured briefly with cult '60s psychedelic band The Creation before, together with his friend Rod Stewart, he joined the joined the influential blues-rock outfit The Jeff Beck Group in 1967. Despite tow critically acclaimed albums, Truth (1968) and Beck-Ola (1969) plus incendiary and rapturously received live performances, internal rivalry caused The Jeff Beck Group to split just before they were due to play Woodstock in 1969. "Even then I regretted missing out on Woodstock," He says.

Wood and Stewart joined another respected band. The Small Faces. Renamed simply The Faces in the early '70s their drug- and - booze - fueled tours were the rock'n'roll lifestyle writ large. When Wood says "I think we were the second highest concert draw of the '70s after the Stones," it owes more to nostalgia than fact, but nonetheless The Faces were much loved.

The first time Wood saw the Rolling Stones live was at the Richmond Jazz Festival in 1664. Keith Richards became one of Wood's closest friends and at one point The Faces shared a rehearsal space with The Stones in Bermondsey, south London. In 1974, Wood was at the same party where Stones guitarist Mick Taylor told Mick Jagger that he was leaving the band. Jagger asked Wood to join the band there and then, but Wood declined out of loyalty to The Faces. Shortly after, in 1975, rod Stewart changed Wood's mind by leaving The Faces to pursue a solo career.

Becoming a Rolling Stone was a dream come true for Wood, but it was far from easy. He was required to take a back seat to the Jagger and Richards songwriting partnership. "I thought my playing will out," he says. "I'll get what's coming to me, but I might have to wait." A very long time, as it turns out. It's only recently, 30 years after he joined the band, that he fells his musical input is carrying some "weight'.

Meanwhile, his relationship with Richards is tempestuous. "he blows hot and colovesld all the time with his moods. One minute he hates you, the next minute he wants to kill you. But basically we're still..." - Wood links tow fingers and pulls hard = "...like that." (This isn't just a figure of speech. On stage, Richards and Wood indulge in what Richards calls "the ancient art of weaving", their respective guitar parts interlocking to form a seamless whole."

Wood's name appears as co-writer on only a handful of Stones songs, possibly not a surprise when you consider that one of the reasons his predecessor quit was over songwriting credits. However, starting with his 1974 solo debut, I've Got My Own Album To Do, he has released a string of solo albums, as well as collaboration with Richards on the one-off side project The New Barbarians.

Although Wood played a subordinate role in the Stones back then. It turned out to be a crucial one. Jagger and Richards had always argued, but by the '80s it had developed into a right that threatened to destroy the band. By 1986's Dirty Work album, Jagger and Richards weren't talking at all. Even though Wood "didn't think my option counted for much and it wasn't asked for much either" he brokered the peace. "I rang one of them up and said, 'I've got the other one on the line. Are you ready to talk?" he remembers. "They'd go, 'He doesn't want to talk to me.' And I'd go, 'yes, he does. Ring him right now t this number. And then ring me back in 15 minutes when you've spoken.' Then it's like, 'Yeah, he doesn't hate me. It was all the press.' There were quite a few misunderstandings like that. A little bit more pressure would have been the straw that broke the camel's back. I took that pressure off."

These days, Wood blames himself for "years of taking a back seat". "You get back what you put in," he explains. "I thought I was putting a lot more in, but now I see things more focussed, I realize because I remember everything nowadays," That's an oblique reference to his not inconsiderable appetite for drugs and alcohol.

Later that evening at another museum, this time devoted to maritime history, Ronnie Wood is joined by the cites ex-pat community for a private viewing of his latest exhibition.

Even he would admit he ain't no Picasso. However some works, particularly his studies of The Rolling Stones, have a raw, earthy appeal. Brian swell, one of the country's leading art critics, has described Wood as "an accomplished and respectable painter". And there have been times when painting has paid the rent. Beggars Banquet, a group portrait of the rolling Stones named after their 1968 album of the same name, sold for over $1 Million.

Even he would admit he ain't no Picasso. However some works, particularly his studies of The Rolling Stones, have a raw, earthy appeal. Brian swell, one of the country's leading art critics, has described Wood as "an accomplished and respectable painter". And there have been times when painting has paid the rent. Beggars Banquet, a group portrait of the rolling Stones named after their 1968 album of the same name, sold for over $1 Million.

But after three years of touring what Wood wants to do most of all is head to his house in Kildare, Ireland, for some "intense painting". "I want to get out into that coutryside," he syas. "I'll start around my manor maybe shoot west towards Galway. See what the landscape reveals."

It seems that it was the art that gave him the confidence to cleim a bigger role for himself in the band. "The art is something that's totally mine," he says. "I like the team effort, but I like to be able to say, Now this is what I want to do. It made me realise hat there comes a time to face up to the fact that you're not getting any younger and you have to assert yourself."

In turn, it's reinvigorated his interes in the day job. "The Rolling Stones is an institution," he says. "we've got to keep it going. Al my idils like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters practically died on stage. That's what we'll do, rock 'til we drop."

 
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Ronnie Wood Age 13
 
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