Striding across a smoke-filled stage, Ronnie Wood flung an arm around Rod Stewart as the two men shared an emotional hug.
It appeared a simple, friendly gesture but the embrace held a deeper meaning for both. Just moments earlier Rod had confessed he, like Ronnie, had endured a battle with cancer.
“I join Ronnie now who’s had lung cancer,” Rod told the crowd. Ronnie added: “Someone up there likes us.”
For the hundreds of people packed into Surrey’s Wentworth Golf club for a charity Faces reunion, 74-year-old Rod’s admission he’d had prostate cancer sparked headlines around the world.
Ronnie, 72, was diagnosed with cancer in May 2017 and went public three months later. The Stones legend got the all-clear after a five-hour operation.
Rod found out he had prostate cancer in February 2016 during a routine check-up and got the all-clear this year.
It was a comfort for them to talk about it openly. They were shocked when Faces drummer Kenney Jones and Rod’s long-term guitarist Jim Cregan also said they had had prostate cancer.
Rod had fretted shortly before the gig about going public about beating cancer. Ronnie says: “He was like, ‘Should I mention that I’ve had cancer?’ I said, ‘Rod, it’s personal, do whatever you want. If you want to tell them, tell them.’”
Ron’s friendship with Rod dates from 1969 when the Faces formed after the Small Faces split. Their hell-raising antics on tour cemented their relationship and, despite the band splitting in 1975, they’ve stayed pals.
Rod was Ronnie’s best man at his 2012 wedding to theatre producer Sally Humphreys. And Ron can sum up their long friendship: “Humour, and respect, for the same kind of musical tastes and similar lifestyles such as all the girls – we go right back to the council house, really. You can’t take that away.” Like Rod, Ron feels “blessed”.
He says: “I was so lucky to have my cancer removed from my left lung and for it not to be anywhere else in my body. I had a check-up the other day; got the all-clear again. You have to keep checking. I have a scan every six months but it’s worth it.”
Sitting in front of Ronnie in the presidential suite at a five-star London hotel, it’s clear his close brush with mortality has not slowed him down.
Up close, he is an infectious bundle of energy, his attention fizzing from one subject to the next. There’s no doubt that Ronnie is on a hot professional streak at present away from the Stones. Sipping a Coca-Cola, “my only vice these days”, Ronnie enthuses about his new album – live covers of musical hero Chuck Berry, where he is joined by singer Imelda May. He’s got the backing of the Stones for the project, which will also see him go on tour.
He says “Keith, Mick and Charlie told me to go out there and spread the word. They love that I did this live, and I’m keeping Chuck going.”
Then there is documentary Somebody Up There Likes Me, the first in-depth film biography of Ronnie’s life from acclaimed director Mike Figgis, in cinemas next month.
It traces Ronnie’s life from his raucous upbringing in Hillingdon, Middlesex, where dad Arthur drank so much he would fall asleep in neighbour’s gardens on the way home from the pub.
The guitarist and his two older brothers, Ted and Art, who affectionately called him Little Ronnie often woke to find “characters draped over the furniture” when Arthur did find his way back to their terraced home. Ronnie laughs: “Dad was hilarious, you’d never know whose garden he was going to wake up in next.
“But my poor mum, it worried her sick. He was never there. When he was, the little bits of love that did get through, it he was wonderfully encouraging.” Ronnie was moved to see footage of his dad, who died in 1989. His mum died a decade later. His brothers have also since passed away. He says: “When we moved out of our cute little council house, it literally had a massive crack down the side because of all the parties. It was mad but Mum and Dad were so lovely, and encouraging with my art, and my music. They were so proud of me.”
And they had every right to be as his career soon hit stratospheric levels when he replaced Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones, in 1975. Hailed as one of the greatest guitarists of all time – and with a £50million bank balance – Ronnie had it all. But life in the fast lane has not been without its troubles.
At his worst he was downing two bottles of vodka a day – prompting several spells in rehab and contributing to the breakdown of his 30-year marriage to wife Jo as he took up with an 18-year-old Russian waitress.
Then there was his addiction to freebase in the 80s – a highly addictive form of cocaine mixed with baking soda and water and inhaled through a pipe. It was a drug not even Keith Richards would consider taking.
Such was its hold over him, Ronnie even banned his kids from eating meringue in the house as he often confused the crumbs with rocks that he wanted to smoke. “Freebase took a long time to get off, it was really nasty,” Ronnie says.
“But looking back, I still wouldn’t change a thing; it was a learning curve that I had to go through. Because while you’re actually using it, you don’t see you’re in that dark place. Only when you look back, you go, ‘f***ing hell, that was terrible.’
“The human animal can survive a lot of stuff. You only realise that when you’re lucky enough to pull out of it and look back. That’s what my life is; it was survival. I’m lucky to be here.”
Now he is a man transformed, thanks largely to Sally, 41, and their twin girls Gracie and Alice, aged three. He’s quit fags, drink and prefers crime dramas on Netflix to wild nights. He says: “Sally was never bossy, and like, ‘You’ve got to stop’. She appreciated me both ways, but much more now I don’t smoke, drink and drug.
“It’s a daily process staying sober. I have my meditation books, and start the day with a plan. One day at a time is fine.” He is clearly smitten with his twins and says he’s very “hands-on” but is glad they are out of nappies.
And despite being an older dad, he is very much up to the task – and even hints that Sally may want more, although he seems a little undecided.
“Every day, every hour, now, is like, “Yes!” You’ve got live life to the full.”
- Ronnie Wood with his Wild Five’s Mad Lad – A Live Tribute To Chuck Berry is out on Friday, via BMG. The band will perform the album in London, Birmingham and Manchester this month. Somebody Up There Likes Me will be at UK cinemas next month. More info and tickets at ronniewoodmovie.com
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