If you’re not a Rod Stewart fan, that’s understandable. Lord knows the man has given even his most faithful followers plenty of reasons to jump ship over the years, the least of which being his recent reinvention as Tony Bennett, Mach II. Greil Marcus once proclaimed, perhaps a little unfairly, that “no one in the history of popular music has more comprehensively betrayed their talent than Rod Stewart.” Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to believe that there was period of time between 1968 and 1975 when Rod made some of the most glorious music the idiom has ever produced. His Mercury albums still stand, in my humble opinion, alongside the best of The Stones and The Kinks of that era – the first four are uniformly genius, and the fifth, Smiler, is better than its reputation would have you believe. The same goes for his work with The Faces: all stellar and completely indispensable for any rock fan.

Rod may not have tackled much explicitly Gospel material, musically speaking, but that genre’s influence pervaded everything he sang during this period, i.e. before it all went so wrong. He possessed a rare and unrivaled knack for wringing spiritual significance out of the most ramshackle party music. Take for instance the way he prays his way through McCartney’s ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’:

Rock n Roll just does not get better than that.

One significant facet of his talent that has been overlooked in recent years was/is his skill as an interpreter of Bob Dylan. As much as I love The Byrds, when he was on his game, Rod had no peer in this department.  His version of “Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time” surpasses both the author’s as well as The King’s. And if you substitute Johnny Cash for Elvis, the same holds true for Rod’s version of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”. I promise that you haven’t heard ‘Wicked Messenger’ until you hear what he did with it. So I was very excited to learn that sometime in the 90s he recorded (but never released for some reason) an excellent version of “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”, one of Dylan’s greatest apocalyptic stompers from the 80s. Beyond the surface allusions to Christ and the Church, there’s some great lines about Miss Claudette. It’s one of the last gasps of Dylan’s explicitly Christian period, sung by Rod with real ferocity. And while I’m not sure Rod tops the original here, it’s still heartening to know that his flame may not have gone out entirely. Enjoy:

Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement,
Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent
Felt around for the light switch, turned around for her face.
Been treated like a farm animal, on a wild goose chase.

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the page, curtain risin’ on a new age,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.

Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery,
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your shyness for snobbery,
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becomin’ what one was never meant to be.

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the stage, curtain risin’ on a new age,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar. 

Don’t know what I can say about Claudette that wouldn’t come back to haunt me,
Finally had to give her up ’bout the time she began to want me.
But I know God has mercy on them who are slandered and humiliated.
I’d a-done anything for that woman if she didn’t make me feel so obligated. 

West of the Jordan, west of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the cage, curtain risin’ on a new stage,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.

Put your hand on my head, baby, do I have a temperature?
I see people who are supposed to know better standin’ around like furniture.
There’s a wall between you and what you want and you got to leap it,
Tonight you got the power to take it, tomorrow you won’t have the power to
keep it.

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the stage, curtain risin’ on a new age,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.

Cities on fire, phones out of order,
They’re killing nuns and soldiers, there’s fighting on the border.
What can I say about Claudette?
Ain’t seen her since January,
She could be respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.

Five Favorite Rod Stewart Records*:
1. Never A Dull Moment
2. Every Picture Tells A Story
3. Nod Is As Good As A Wink
4. The Rod Stewart Album
5. Ooh La La

*Stewart’s Mercury records sound notoriously great on vinyl.