By Louise Gannon For Event Magazine
When Ronnie Wood went for a routine health check three months ago his doctor made a shocking discovery. Here he reveals with raw honesty why he thought ‘it was time to say goodbye’ to his young family
In a plush basement suite of a west London hotel, Ronnie Wood is carefully studying a small rectangular package containing something he thought he would never see. It is a newly minted book – Ronnie Wood: Artist – containing hundreds of stunning images of paintings, sculptures, sketches and woodcuts he has made over the past 50 years.
Can of cola in hand (‘my last vice’), he is palpably emotional as he says, ‘Did I think I’d ever make it to see this? Hell no! Someone up there must like me. And luckily someone down here likes me too.’
In an exclusive interview with Event, the guitarist Ronnie Wood reveals for the first time how he battled cancer
The Rolling Stone is referring to his long love affair with alcohol, cocaine and heroin, which fuelled his reputation – alongside that of Keith Richards – as the greatest hell-raiser in the rock ’n’ roll firmament. But he is also referring to a moment three months ago when he was told he had cancer.
In an exclusive interview with Event, the guitarist reveals for the first time how a cancerous lesion was discovered in May during a routine medical check-up for the upcoming Rolling Stones tour, and how he had to go through a traumatic five-hour operation to remove part of his lung.
‘I’ve had a fight with a touch of lung cancer,’ he says with a nervous laugh that does little to disguise the still-evident shock in his eyes. ‘There was a week when everything hung in the balance and it could have been curtains – time to say goodbye. You never know what is going to happen.’
Wood – who quit smoking a week before his one-year-old twins, Gracie and Alice, were born – says, ‘I had this thought at the back of my mind after I gave up smoking a year ago: “How can I have got through 50 years of chain-smoking – and all the rest of my bad habits – without something going on in there?”
‘So I went along to see our good old doctor, Richard Dawood, because we [Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts] all have to be checked before we go on tour, and he asked me if I wanted him to go deeper and check my heart, lungs and blood. I said, “Go for it.”’
Wood stops his monologue dramatically for a moment, aware of the gravity of his predicament. ‘And then he came back with the news that I had this supernova burning away on my left lung. And, to be totally honest, I wasn’t surprised. I knew I hadn’t had a chest X-ray since I went into Cottonwood [a rehab clinic in Tucson, Arizona] in 2002. He asked me what I wanted to do and my answer was simple: “Just get it out of me.”
‘But then there was a week of tests. They needed to know if it had set up encampments and spread to my lymph nodes. If that had happened it would have been all over for me.
‘So there was this one week when I didn’t know what was happening. Sally [Humphreys, his wife of five years] was amazing. It’s only since we’ve got through it that she has been able to tell me how it was the worst seven days of her life.
‘I was prepared for bad news but I also had faith it would be OK. Apart from the doctors, we didn’t tell anyone because we didn’t want to put anyone else though the hell we were going through. But I made up my mind that if it had spread I wasn’t going to go through chemo, I wasn’t going to use that bayonet in my body.’
Was he concerned that the chemo wouldn’t work? ‘No. It’s more I wasn’t going to lose my hair. This hair wasn’t going anywhere. I said, “No way.” And I just kept the faith it would be all right. A week later they came back with the news that it hadn’t spread and I said, “Let’s get it out now.” Just before I closed my eyes for the operation I looked at the doctor and said, “Let battle commence.”
‘I’m OK now. But I’m going to have a check-up every three months. They caught it early. People have to get checked. Seriously have to get checked. I was bloody lucky but then I’ve always had a very strong guardian angel looking out for me. By rights I shouldn’t be here.’
Wood is a man who knows he has been given a bonus ball in life and is hanging on tight. At 70, the wreckage of his former life has miraculously transformed. He is married to the intelligent, beautiful actress and producer Sally, who at 39 is the mother of his two baby girls, born in May last year (he has three grown-up children from two previous marriages), and the woman credited with finally calming ‘Reckless Ronnie’.
Thanks largely to Sally’s influence, Wood has remained ‘clean’ for eight years. He no longer drinks, he doesn’t smoke (‘I’ve even kicked the ecigarettes – what’s the point?’), he doesn’t take drugs and spends his downtime cooking and playing ‘peekaboo’ with his babies.
‘I love having my girls with me as much as possible. I’m very hands-on. I’m a dab hand at changing nappies and burping.’
Wood now consumes TV and Netflix serials with the same gusto he once poured into snorting cocaine. His current tip is the Spanish crime drama I Know Who You Are on BBC Four, and the narcotics drama Ozark on Netflix.
‘Gripped,’ he says, waving his arms in the air. ‘Gripped, man.’ With his ‘rock geezer’ style (the jetblack barnet is as spiky as ever and the black skinny jeans as tight as they were five decades ago) and off-message patter (‘Mick’s always telling me off for saying stuff I shouldn’t’) Wood has always been gripping company.
One of the first in a long line of water gypsies to grow up on dry land in Hillingdon, Middlesex, Wood was the much adored youngest of three sons born to Mercy Leah Elizabeth and Archie, an amateur musician who hauled timber up and down the canals.
At 17, he was playing guitar in The Birds; three years later he was in the Jeff Beck Group, and by the age of 22 he was part of Faces with best mate Rod Stewart (who was best man at his wedding to Sally, along with Paul McCartney) before joining the biggest rock band in the world, The Rolling Stones, in 1974.
There have been various other side projects along the way, including collaborations with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. He recalls his most memorable collaboration with Dylan when he and Richards performed alongside him at Live Aid in 1985.
Not only did Dylan decide at the last moment to perform two songs they had never rehearsed (Ballad Of Hollis Brown and When The Ship Comes In), but his guitar broke in the middle of Blowin’ In The Wind.
‘It was crazy,’ he laughs. ‘I handed Bob my guitar so he could carry on and looked round thinking someone backstage may have a guitar, but there was absolutely no one backstage because we had literally just showed up on our own.
‘Eventually someone pushed out a guitar that had just one string on it – so I improvised and did a bit of string sliding and a bit of air guitar.’
In his book there are scores of images of the Stones, along with his mates Dylan, Stewart, Clapton, Slash and actors from Jack Nicholson to Robert De Niro, his good friend Kate Moss, as well as former flatmate Jimi Hendrix. Wood’s paintings can fetch up to £300,000, but how did he manage to produce so many paintings, sketches and sculptures with all that drinking and all the drugs that at one point were costing him about £4,000 a day?
He reveals that one painting, of a reimagined version of The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, was done during a non-stop series of drunken parties over the Christmas of 1988.
‘And I look at it now and think, “How did I do that?” ‘Maybe for a time the drugs helped,’ he says, cheekily suggesting that his party lifestyle may have played a part in his creativity.
‘You don’t get much sleep so you do a few lines, do a painting. Have another line, do another painting. Drink and drugs actually accelerate the output. For me, painting and drawing is like breathing. I’d have a studio and have ten paintings on the go, running between each of them – wild.
‘Keith would laugh at me. He never took my art seriously in the early days. He’d tell me they were all rubbish. Mick would always be really supportive – he’s got a few of my paintings – and Rod would look over my shoulder if I was drawing him and say: “You got my wrong side, Ron.”
‘Back in the day it was insane with parties and staying up days on the trot and all those excesses that everyone knows about. And all that is there in those pictures of guys like Jack. ‘Dylan does his own paintings. I walked into his dressing room one day and he was doing a sketch. He gave it to me with the words “To be continued” written on it. So I did one back for him with the same words written on it. A pair of paintings.’
There’s been a price to pay for his chaotic creativity, though: ‘Problem was, I lost a lot of my art. Especially when I was living in New York [in the Eighties] on West 78th Street. There was so much drink and drugs, and you had no idea who was in and out of the place. A load of stuff went walkabout.
‘I’ve spent years trying to track stuff down and spent thousands buying paintings back. I’ve found my paintings on the internet or bought them back off a middle-man – I recently got back a picture of Pete Townshend that I’d done. I’m not going to let stuff go, even if it costs me, because it’s about getting my life back, actually feeling in control for the first time.’
Fans may be surprised to read that Wood is so moved by his debut art book, especially given the massive achievements of his music career.
But Wood claims that if music has been his making, it is art that has been his salvation. And one artist in particular, Damien Hirst, has been in part responsible for that. Hirst – no stranger to excessive living himself – came into Wood’s life when the guitarist’s wheels really had finally fallen off. It was the winter of 2008, soon after Ronnie had left his wife of 30 years, Jo Wood, and taken up with an 18-year-old Russian waitress, Ekaterina Ivanova, blitzed most days on booze and drugs.
With an upcoming tour and a desperate need to get Wood ‘straight’, the guitarist’s family reached out to snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan, one of Wood’s big pals and a former drinking buddy, to think of someone who could persuade him to sort himself out, because he was stubbornly ignoring Jagger’s calls to get clean.
O’Sullivan, who had supported Wood during various stints in The Priory, immediately contacted Hirst.
‘I didn’t know Damien back then,’ says Wood. ‘I was living in Ireland in a mad cocoon and Damien just came over, took charge, put me in the back of a bread van [to avoid paparazzi] and got me on a flight back to London and took me to Life Works [clinic] in Woking.
‘I’d done rehab a few times before because it takes a long time to properly get clean. And when I finally came out of Life Works, Damien was there. He took me to this house that he’d stacked full of canvases, paints, brushes, easels, crayons – enough to furnish a whole art school – and he just said, “Go on then. Now start paying the rent.”
Fans may be surprised to read that Wood is so moved by his debut art book, especially given the massive achievements of his music career
‘The first painting I did was an abstract saying “I Feel Like Painting”. Damien loved it. He says it’s still his favourite painting of mine. He’s become a really good mate. He did it because he cares. He hates waste. He didn’t want me to go to waste.’
It was the beginning of Wood’s journey towards sobriety, but it was also the beginning of the musician being taken seriously by the art world.
The introduction to his book is written by the highly respected critic and art historian Emmanuel Guigon, who is now director of the Museo Picasso in Barcelona. The notoriously spiky late critic Brian Sewell described Wood as an ‘accomplished and respectable artist’.
And, says Wood – who studied art at Ealing Art College after leaving school – ‘Tracey Emin always tells me I can draw much better than her.’
Kate Moss recently asked him to draw her. ‘She was a bit of a problem because she wouldn’t sit still,’ says Wood. ‘She was driving me mad, so I took a picture of her instead.’
Alongside the inevitable images of the Stones and Stewart are impressionistic landscapes, pictures of horses and ballet dancers and some delicate line-drawn nudes of his wife. Does she mind?
‘Not at all!’ he mischievously retorts. ‘Her favourite outfit is her birthday suit. And it looks very good on her.’
Among the most poignant images is a series of words and tiny crayon drawings on a scrap of brown paper that make up a timeline of his life.
‘I did that in Cottonwood [in 2002]. I had nothing else to draw on and there’s a point – Step Four in the Alcoholics Anonymous programme – where you have to write an inventory of your life. I couldn’t write it but I could draw it. All the times I hadn’t wanted to deal with – like my dad dying in 1989 and my mum dying in 1999. I still really miss them. When my mum died my whole world changed, and I didn’t realise how much I relied on her.
‘I used to speak to my mum every day. She was the first person I’d go and see before I left the country and the first person I’d see after I came back. She never saw me sober, but she saw me trying. I was very trying! But she had faith I could do it. And now I feel I have her back because my little Gracie is like a reincarnation of her – which is just incredible.’
The book is dedicated to his mum, along with his dad and two older brothers, Ted and Art, who have also passed away. What does his wing man, Keith Richards, make of his new sobriety?
‘He was more bothered I’d quit the fags,’ says Wood. ‘I took Champix [a nicotine inhibitor] for three weeks. That stuff is heavy duty. Makes me sick even to think of it now. I just stopped wanting the ciggies. It was like when me and Keith went to a woman called Meg Patterson to get off heroin and she had this black box and we’d be given these electric shocks that compensated for the cravings for heroin – that worked too.’
Richards generously provided the handwritten ‘outro’ to the book.
‘He follows no rules, just like me, which is why we play the guitar,’ writes Richards. ‘He is, in fact, a regular picasshole!’
Woods smirks. ‘That’s the highest compliment I’m ever going to get from Keith. We’re both works of art – because we’re both still standing.’
‘Ronnie Wood: Artist’ is published by Thames & Hudson on August 21, priced £24.95 Top: Mick Voodoo, 1996: created during rehearsals for the Voodoo Lounge tour.