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Sunday, September 02, 2007
From celebrity to suburbia: Robert Sandall joins the rock legend Paul Weller on a journey back to childhood and English lyricism
It’s not hard to figure out why Paul Weller is still referred to as The Modfather. As he strides purposefully across the concourse of Waterloo station, he looks like a latter-day 1960s mod who’s parked the Lambretta but hung on to the gear. “All right, mate?” he inquires by way of a greeting, in affable, gruff sarf London. Sod the queue; he suggests we buy our tickets on the train. We’re off to Woking, the Surrey town where he grew up, and where we’re going to be spending the day revisiting his old haunts.
In person, Weller is a perfect specimen of “middle youth”. The straggly, lightly feathered hair is streaked with grey, and the maroon, buttoned T-shirt covers what might be the beginnings of a beer paunch, but in all other respects Weller is ageing brilliantly. The rectangular shades and deep tan set him apart from Waterloo’s morning commuter scrum and imply that he must be just back from holiday. But no, he says he leaves for southern Spain with girlfriend, Sami, and their two kids in a week’s time. One of his other three children – an 11-year-old girl called Dylan – will join them out there. As 49-year-old fathers of five go, it has to be said that Weller is a pretty good advert for the rock-star lifestyle.
Not that we’re meeting today to celebrate that exactly. In terms of his musical track record, Weller has little left to prove. He is, in any case, a reluctant media performer. He has given plenty of interviews over the years without giving much away. His private life – which has included a failed marriage and a bout of heavy cocaine use in the 1990s – has seldom made it into the tabloids.
A rock icon built on the foundations of an old-fashioned British bloke, his reticence is legendary. “Weller is bloody coy,” says a friend who’s known him for 12 years. “His interests extend much further than he will ever let on.” Others claim to have found him difficult: “chippy” is a word that journalists sometimes use to describe a man allegedly defensive of his working-class origins.
“Shy” seems a better description today: the longer we talk, the more relaxed and forthcoming he becomes. The general perception that Weller is a “diamond geezer” – a view that fits nicely with his whiskery, oak-aged singing voice, vivid melodies and keen eye for the details of ordinary British life; like his vignette of yob violence, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, or his paean to the street where he was born, Stanley Road – feels about right.
The Lifetime Achievement gong he picked up in 2006 at the Brit awards was one of the least controversial gold-watch awards ever dished out by the domestic pop industry. Thirty years since he first found fame in the punk era – as the singer and guitarist with the Jam – he’s become a pillar of the British rock establishment, with an uninterrupted run of more than 50 chart singles between 1977 and 2000, and millions of albums sold.
He is a rock star’s rock star. “Weller” – the no-nonsense handle by which he is usually known – is as deeply revered by the pop aristos he grew up worshipping, notably Paul McCartney, as he is by the Britpoppers who canonised him, like Oasis. Noel Gallagher is one of his best mates.
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