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The Two Ronnie’s
Ronnie Wood leads a double life: Rolling Stone and surprisingly successful painter, Born of Romany stock, how has this impish devil combined the roles of family man and hard-living rocker? Sophie Leris meets the friendly face of the band
Photographs by Jeroen Hofman/Hazazah.NL
In order to reach the entrance of the smartly converted warehouse, I have to squeeze through a crowd of remarkably tall, blond people standing quietly outside. They’re so solemn that it takes me a while to realize they are fans. We are in Amsterdam and this gentle mob is here to catch a
  Ronnie Wood in the Evening Standard

glimpse of Ronnie Wood, currently on tour with the Rolling Stones, but also opening his touring exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints. I find Ronnie inside, bouncing about like a manic gnat, his twig-thin legs encased in tight black denim, explaining that once the space is filled with the vertiginous Amsterdam art crowd, you won’t see anything on the walls below shoulder height. ‘you gotta put the best piece up there; it’s the only thing we’ll be able to see tonight,’ he orders the curator.

Ronnie Wood is known as one of the hardest living Stones, the man who once had a 12,000 pound a week cocaine habit and instead of a fridge of chilled Guinness in every hotel room, but he also has a reputation as the warmest and most open of the band and, sure enough, welcomes me like an old friend, simultaneously delivering a kiss, a wind and a squeeze, and proceeding to whiz me around the exhibition.

His work displays a great variety of subject matter and materials – paintings, screen prints, drawings and woodcuts of landscapes, animals, his band mates and, most impressive, line drawings of his family and friends: john Belushi, Jack Nicholson, Kate Moss, Several studies of the Stones drummer Charlie Watts, lots of Ronnie’s Wife Jo and, in particular, a beautifully executed brush drawing of Jo leaning over to kiss their daughter Leah. I tell him as much and he nods. ‘Yeah, the critics are constantly surprised,’ he says, his accent a Dudley Moore transatlantic cockney. ‘My originals are going for a bomb now but what’s best is getting respect for my art and not just because I’m in the band. Even Brian Sewell more or less said, “I didn’t want to like him, but he can paint.”’

Art and music have always been Ronnie Wood’s two great passions. He was brought up in a council house in Yiewsley, Middlesex, the third son of the tow barge-living Romany gypsies, Arthur and Elizabeth, and the first of their family to be born on dry land. ‘My mother did crochet, my dad played the piano and sang; he was like an old music hall character,’ he says. Ronnie’s tow older brothers set up a band in the back room of the house, and Ronnie’s first live performance was playing the washboard for them; and when he was about ten they went to Ealing College of Art. ‘They’d come back from college with these nude drawings that they’d done in life classes. I thought to myself, “ that looks like a good job!”’

So it was inevitable that Ronnie would follow them to art college, enrolling in 1963, and also setting up his own band, The Thunderbirds, while he was there. Then in 1964, he went to see the Rolling Stones live and thought to himself, ‘I want to be in that band.’ But before he could realize his ambition, he met up with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart and in 1967 the Jeff Back Group was formed. When the band broke up in 1969 he and Rod formed The Faces. Ronnie played rhythm guitar for them until a party in 1974 at which he found himself sitting between Mick Jagger and the Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, who was in the process of telling Jagger he was leaving the band. ‘Mick asked me to join  

the Stones right there.’ Ronnie didn’t’ want to abandon his Faces friends, but within six months Rod Stewart was embarking on solo projects, so Ronnie followed suit and did a successful audition for the rock group he’d idolized for a decade.

Thirty years of heavy touring, drinking and drug-talking ensued, and Wood became famous as an impish alcoholic, staying up with drinking partners’ john Hurt and snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan on all-night vodka, red wine and Guinness binges. At a restaurant he once got under the table and nibbled at the other diners’ ankles, and he took so much cocaine that his septum fell out and had to be replaced with a plastic one.

Today however, he is sober, having emerged from an intensive six-day, drying-out stint at the Priory in Roehampton in June. ‘Seeing life focused and enjoying what I have is a brand-new buzz. Today is the first day of the rest of my life and all that,’ he smiles, scoring his craggy face with even more lines, and lights his third cigarette in half an hour. There have been numerous rehab visits since he first got clean in 2001. There have been just as many lapses since, most recently at his 59th birthday party in Annabel’s in June.

‘The AA stuff rubs off a bit,’ he says. ‘But once you put down the books and stop thinking you have to follow it to the letter, you realize it’s down to the individual. Something clicks and hopefully you’re able to say, “just for today, I choose not to have a drink.”’

Nonetheless, he is still hazily nostalgic about his drinking days, and his drinking partners. ‘I used to drink with Peter Cook and the lovely Monty Python, Graham Chapman,’ he says, leaning forward. ‘I loved Peter, I really miss him. I think of him almost every day when something funny happens. The last thing Peter said to me was, “I’ve done my bit for the Chinese.”’ Ronnie tips back in his chair and roars with laughter. ‘He meant that Chinese bird he married, Jan or Line was it?

Ronnie is the first to credit his own wife, Jo, with the fact that, unlike Cook, he is still with us. ‘She is so supportive of me; she’s taken me on and stayed for the long haul,’ he says. ‘And yet she still does her own thing. She’s creating her perfumes and has JoWood Organics,’ he adds with evident pride.

Ronnie met Jo Howard, a model at a party in 1976. At the time he was sill married to Krissy, also a model, whom he’d met in 1964, and who’d been at the centre of the decadent Sixties rock circus, dating George Harrison, John Lennon and Jimmy Page (all while married to Ronnie). She was pregnant by Ronnie when he met Jo, and a year after their son Jesse was born they divorced, in 1978, with Jo being cited in the divorce. Tragically Krissy died of a suspected Valium overdose in June 2005.

During the 21 years of their marriage, Jo, now 51 has been a steadfast support to her husband, the first to break the Stones ‘no wives on tour’ rule, traveling with him wherever he goes, cooking him organic food on a two-ring Primus stove to this day. ‘Except, the other day the stove fell out of the plane, out of the hold, and kind of buckled over,’ he says, looking serious. ‘It was a blessing in disguise, really, because some of the hotel rooms are really poky and the smell’s quite strong – organic bacon and eggs wafting down the corridor.’

When not on tour the family live in a sprawling mansion in Kingston upon Thames, minutes from Mick Jagger’s home, with Jo’s son from her first marriage, Jamie 31, and their other children, Leah, 27, a musician and model who is now going to art school, and Tyrone, 22. Jesse, 29, lives in the West Country with his wife Tilly and their son Arthur, now four, and baby daughter Lola.

‘Jamie came to my rescue,’ Explains Ronnie.’ ‘I’m not very good with my finances, and there have been a lot of bad deals in the past, but now I’m sober I can see things clearer and Jamie helped the family stay afloat.’

It seems strange that a Stone should be concerned with keeping afloat financially, but because Ronnie did not join the band until 1974 he does not have his assets managed by the formidable Dutch-based holding company Promogroup, which has ensured that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts have only paid 1.6 percent tax on their 242 million pound earnings of the past 20 year. Instead, in the Eighties, when the band weren’t touring, Ronnie nearly went bankrupt and lost his Los Angeles home, and in 2000 he lost 15 Million pounds through bad investments.

He’d started painting again in the Eighties – brash, energetic oils of the band in action. By 2001 he was earning 100,000 a year from art; now his work is netting him increasingly gobsmacking amounts of money. He sells originals for up to $1 million, and shows in America have netted up to $7 million. ‘I am one of the biggest print sellers in the United Stages,’ he says incredulously. ‘I only found about the other day, it’s unbelievable. There are all these guys in America, Japan and Europe collecting my work – some of them bid against each other to get a particular print, number 98 or whatever. Sounds mad, doesn’t it? I didn’t realize till Jamie told me.’ Tommy Hilfiger is one of Ronnie’s most prolific collectors, Andrew Lloyd Webber has bought his work and Jamie Oliver commissioned a naked portrait of his wife Jools.

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