Graeme Thomson

IN A hotel room in Stuttgart, Chris Rea is midway through a substantive lament – rant would be too strong a word for his grizzled grumbling – for a world that has virtually vanished. “They sold the music business down the river a few years ago,” he sighs in the same undiluted north-east English growl he uses to sing. “Why the labels went to Steve Jobs and asked him what they thought they should do, is the most incomprehensible thing ever. It’s like getting into a swimming pool with crocodiles and asking, ‘You’re not going to bite me, are you?’ We’re stuck with it. Half of what we loved about music – the culture of album sleeves, the ritual of listening – is completely gone now. It’s a million miles from where I started out.”

You’ll remember Rea. A burly, blokey bluesman from Middlesbrough, he enjoyed a string of hits in the 1980s and 1990s, among them On The Beach, Let’s Dance and that seasonal staple, Driving Home For Christmas. When his 1989 album, The Road To Hell, sold three million copies, Rea found himself selling out a week of concerts at Wembley Arena.

Since then, he has undergone something of a personal transformation; it’s not only the music industry which seems diminished these days. Smaller and frailer, with reading glasses, a slight limp and a scrappy white beard, at 66 Rea appears a shadow of his former self, and little wonder. In the past two decades he has battled peritonitis, pancreatic cancer and diabetes. Debilitated by retroperitoneal fibrosis, a condition where the internal tissues attack each other, he has endured nine major operations, and last year suffered a stroke. He shoots insulin seven times a day, and takes a fistful of pills each time he eats.

On his current tour, in support of new album Road Songs For Lovers, he is undergoing three hours of therapy each day to combat frozen nerves on his right hand. “There you go, that’s life,” he shrugs. “It’s getting better.”

Despite recurring serious illness and the decline of the industry in which he has worked since first picking up a guitar at the advanced age of 22, Rea has continued making music. In many ways he seems more content than ever. Road Songs For Lovers – his first album on a major label for many years – recently reached the top ten, and he continues to tour regularly. Indeed, he seems happy that nowadays he can operate at a more manageable level than was possible at the peak of his success.

“We got too big,” he says simply. “I genuinely didn’t like that fame thing. I never intended it. My ambition, a long, long time ago, was to be a film music writer. A compromise then was to be the guy who wrote songs for a band and played slide guitar. Then one day the singer didn’t turn up for an audition, and I was the only one who knew the words. That was it – bingo! Life took a different course, immediately. When The Road To Hell happened, I just didn’t know what I was doing. I became quite menacing. I was totally paranoid, about people taking the piss and f****** me over. I ruled by fear, and I used to explode many times.” He sighs. “I’m not complaining, I’m just telling you how weird it was. I didn’t enjoy it. In some ways I wish I had.”

His reaction to success was to focus on making a series of more low-key blues-based albums. He was genuinely relieved when mainstream “pop” stardom tapered off. “I didn’t have an ego, so not being king didn’t worry me at all,” he says. “I always knew it was going to back off, I saw it coming and it didn’t bother me. I’d already been lucky. In the music business, talent allows you to play backgammon, but only the dice dictates whether you win or lose.”

His favourite part of the game is, and always has been, performing live: not for nothing is the first track on the new album called Happy On The Road. But isn’t touring a bit of a pain – all that travel, all those anonymous hotel rooms? “Oh, it isn’t arduous at all,” he says. “I haven’t moved today! Touring on our level is still very, very nice. It’s not hard work, although I can’t stand being in hotel rooms. They remind me of hospital rooms, and I’ve had enough of them, so I spend the day at the venue, hanging out with the crew. I set up my little kitchen at the gig, talk about the football results. I’m not very good at being a rock star and behaving in that way. I went to the Porsche museum yesterday. It’s not very rock and roll, but it’s hardly what you’d call arduous, is it?

“I love playing. I never take it for granted. We’re one of the lucky ones. When we had success, we were making a lot of money, and that allows you to continue. I’m grateful for that. Mind you, you look out from the stage and some of the audience look so old. Then you realise that they’re actually a generation younger than you. Uh-oh! Better not think about that too much.”

You suspect Rea thinks about such things rather a lot. Road Songs For Lovers is an often sombre affair, flecked with regrets, rueful ruminations and intimations of mortality – hardly surprising, given what he has been through. Of the ghostly Last Train, he explains that “life has become so bad that it’s not the last train home, it’s just the last train. You don’t know where it’s going, but you have to get on it. What must it be like for a man to jump on the last train when he doesn’t even know where it’s going?”

It’s a question he has been forced to contemplate more than most. “I’m aware of mortality, because I’ve been so close to it,” he says. “The first major operation scared the s*** out of me, because you don’t want to die. The second time wasn’t so bad, and it goes on like that. Now I’m a bit like a war veteran.” Not that it’s all doom and gloom. The album also includes declarations of love for his wife, Joan. They’ve been together for 48 years. “I’m lucky, I actually think she’s great,” he says. “All my education is from her. I came out of Middlesbrough hardly being able to read.”

Rea is enjoying the musical freedom he has so doggedly carved out for himself, and has become adept at balancing the various aspects of his career. “I don’t have a problem singing the old stuff,” he says. “I used to. When you’re younger, you only want the new album to be the gig, but I don’t really have an ego in that direction any more. We do the hits differently each time we go out. Last night On The Beach went into a reggae feel.” He shrugs. “Like a lot of things in life, it just happened.”

Road Songs For Lovers (BMG) is out now. Chris Rea plays the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, on November 22