11/15/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
He'll turn 60 in January, a career ice age for most graying rockers. So why is Rod Stewart smiling? Because last month Stardust...The Great American Songbook, Vol. III, the gravel-voiced Brit's latest album of standards, became his first ever to debut at No. 1, selling 240,000 copies in its first week. Nesting nowadays in his Beverly Hills estate with his girlfriend, Penny Lancaster, 33, a British model, the twice-divorced Stewart says his late-blooming comeback is "absolutely sweeter. I've been written off so many bloody times, it's like I had the last laugh." As he enters his elder statesman years, PEOPLE asked Stewart to look back in wisdom at the days when he was a mere towheaded lad in very tight trousers.