Gasoline Alley remains permeated with a raw and rich artistry later sacrificed for fame
In A Word: Timeless
Ask almost anyone who was a dedicated rock fan/listener as the 1960s met the ’70s what their favorite Rod Stewart album is, and chances are 999.9 out of a thousand they’ll say Every Picture Tells A Story, his 1971 breakout album. And for damned good reasons – it’s a killer disc.
However, I’d answer the query a bit differently. Back up an album to his second solo release, 45 years ago, Gasoline Alley. (I’d also rate his debut, the somewhat similarly flavored Rod Stewart Album, close behind at #2, But that’s another discussion.)
It’s a recording that is parsecs removed from such later Stewart commercial pandering as “Hot Legs” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and far different from the two proto-heavy metal albums by The Jeff Beck Group with Stewart as lead singer that preceded his solo career and stint fronting The Faces. And it’s unlike most anything else in Stewart’s now vast catalog, although its echoes can be heard on Every Picture…, Never A Dull Moment and Smiler. And then they fade….
Gasoline Alley arrived almost as an instant artifact, as the cobblestones on its cover imply. There’s a patina of sepia across the whole affair that summons up a sense of historicity, reinforced by acoustic guitars, fiddle and mandolin. Yet it was also right on time for 1970 as a number of U.K. artists were feeling a return-to-the roots influence after the release of The Band’s game-changing Music From Big Pink two years before. It captures a rare magical and now seemingly distant moment in Stewart’s career as well as his singing and songwriting. But it’s less lightning in a bottle and more a warm kerosene lamp.
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An aura of the past is evoked by the wistful sentiments of the opening title track, written by Stewart and Ron Wood: “Goin’ home, rollin’ home, back to Gasoline Alley where I started from.” Throughout the song, a slinky electric slide guitar part by Wood – the album’s instrumental co-star, playing at his most inspired – seconds every word Stewart sings in unison. It reinforces the cry of Rod’s palpable longing wonderfully.
Next up, a ballsy move on Stewart’s part: Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” which had been the first #1 hit for The Rolling Stones a mere six years before. But where that take was a (very Stonesian) sneer, Rod and company really stick it to the disloyal wench with a rollicking romp of jubilant liberation. Carried along by Ian McLagan’s boozy, hyperactive boogie-woogie piano and Mick Waller’s sloshy syncopated drumming, it epitomizes the pints-down-at-the-pub spirit of the Stewart/Faces union. Then in the middle Woody tears in with whiplashing slide guitar and the song gallops off to its finish like a stallion feeling his oats in spring.
On track three is where the enduring heart of this collection emerges. The Rod the Mod of that day may have been an unabashed rocker. But his reading of Bob Dylan’s “Only A Hobo” is suffused with profound and genuinely humane empathy for a tattered bum in the gutter, Stewart near whispering the words. Similarly, his take on “Country Comfort” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin – whose own version wouldn’t arrive stateside until four months after Gasoline Alley’s release – uncovers the loamy pastoral pleasures of rural life like a horse-drawn plow pulling up the fertile soil of a simple yet purposeful existence.
The collection’s most affecting moments are two Stewart originals. “Lady Day” is confessional drenched with heartache and regret that opens with words that unspool like the chill of a late autumnal breeze as the bass darts about atop a subtle high-hat cymbal beat: “North winds have made my face a little older/And my back is bent through trying too hard.” As the then-26-year-old Stewart sings with the preternatural raspy wisdom of a man who’s traveled many rutted roads, Wood laces the melody with teary bottleneck guitar lines. It’s an open heart that lays its sadness on the line, and a deeply moving four or so minutes of earnest honesty.
“Jo’s Lament” slowly sails through similarly deep emotional waters of apology to the tune of what feels like an ages-old guitar-drenched folk melody, punctuated by a devastating final line: “Now I’m not so young and I am so afraid… to sleep alone for the rest of my days.” At age 16 when I first heard it, the song’s unalloyed emotionality slayed me. Now at 61, I wonder how the young Stewart even knew such feelings much less was able to express them so openly… and just what happened to a writer and singer of such courageous tenderness.
Those four tracks alone mark Gasoline Alley as far more a singer’s album than all five volumes of his journey through the Great American Songbook as well as his Soulbook and Great Rock Classics… albums. For as Rolling Stone critic Langdon Winner noted at the time, “Stewart has a rare sensitivity for the delicate moments in a person’s existence when a crucial but often neglected truth flashes before his eyes and then vanishes. The amazing character of Stewart’s work is largely due to the fact that he can recall these fragile moments of insight to our minds without destroying their essence.” It’s a Stewart we haven’t heard since he conquered the arena stage and then partied afterwards at the disco.
And lest we forget, Gasoline Alley hardly skimps on the rock. With his reprise of the Small Faces gem “My Way of Giving,” he assertively signals that they are now his band. The fiddle-driven, loose-limbed take on “Cut Across Shorty” transforms Eddie Cochran’s bopping rockabilly into a back-porch celebration of the common man finally taking the prize.
The set wraps up with a rousing number off Little Richard’s 1966 return to rocking that Delaney & Bonnie, also in 1970, whipped up into a show-stopping tour de force on their live On Tour With Eric Clapton album, “You’re My Girl (Don’t Want To Discuss It).” Stewart backs off the simmering beat and makes it a funk-inflected declaration, howling “You’re… my… girl! with raw authority, accenting the sentiment with cries “woo” and “woo-hoo” to bring the nine-song set to a rousing close.
Gasoline Alley is an album that over all the years since has never failed to not just satisfy but to also summon up both its own singular sense of place and time and a resonance outside all time. It’s Stewart at his realest and rawest, at alternating moments tender and cocksure, singing from the depths of his heart and soul, almost Dylanesque in its artistry. No matter what else he’s done and what I may feel about it, it always reminds me of those days of yore when, for me, Rod was, hands down, a rock ‘n ‘roll voice without compare.