No longer under their thumb


August 17, 2001



The other guys tend to get all the press, but I’ve always contended that Bill Wyman is the coolest Rolling Stone.

You could make a case for Brian Jones in the first part of the band’s career. And Charlie Watts is always gloriously and supremely Charlie Watts. But post-“Some Girls,” in the period of the group’s long, sad decline into bloated millionaire mediocrity, Wyman wins, hands down. Consider his accomplishments.

In 1990, the taciturn bassist and former RAF technician wrote the most fascinating rock autobiography ever, Stone Alone, in which he claimed to have shared his bed with more than 700 women in a two-year period. He scored the best Stones solo hit, “Si, Si, Je Suis Un Rockstar,” in 1981; opened a restaurant in London called Sticky Fingers, and put together a band called the Rhythm Kings just so he could jam on occasion with soul and blues legends such as keyboardist Georgie Fame and guitarist Albert Lee.

Best of all, Wyman had the integrity to walk away from the Stones and untold millions of dollars because he felt that the group was betraying its fans and no longer evolving musically. Talk about principles; that’s almost enough to make you forget that he married and divorced a girl he began courting at age 13.

I spoke with Wyman by phone during the current tour, moments before he walked onstage in Wooster, Mass.

Q. One of the things that’s striking about your new disc “Double Bill” is what a broad variety of music it includes. Was that part of your goal in making a double album?

A. Yeah. We’ve been doing that for four CDs now, and we do it live of course, on stage. There’s a lot of talented musicians and music of various styles, and I’ve got five singers, so we can cover a whole spectrum of music. Not only from different eras, but of different styles--from rockabilly to blues to jazz to gospel to soul. It’s jump music and it’s ballads. It’s all possible with this band.

Q. Did you ever feel limited in that other group you used to play with?

A. In a creative way, yeah. In a production way and arranging and all that kind of stuff. And writing of course. Because it was very limited--you didn’t have much of a chance. There were two guys who did it very efficiently, and you only made an album every 18 months with 10 songs on it, so there was no opportunity to do anything like that. So rather than do what the average band did when that thing happens--break up and rejoin other people--I just produced other artists, wrote songs for other people, and played on other people’s albums. I was the first one to do a solo album, and then film score music. That alleviated that sort of frustration, if you like.

Q. Nostalgia is the kiss of death for rock ’n’ roll. I talked with another famous wayward bassist, John Paul Jones, when he played the same Chicago venue you’re playing. He said it just isn’t worth touring anymore unless he can actually see the fans.

A. It’s lovely, because you’ve got the audience right up in front like you did when you first started out, and they’re part of the show again. All the music we play was done in those sort of venues, where people were close up. If we’re doing a song from the ’30s, they were usually played in small clubs or ale houses or gin palaces. So it all fits perfectly well, and the audience loves the closeness. If you’re a fan of Albert Lee or Gary Brooker or Georgie Fame, they can be six feet away, and you can’t do that in stadiums. You lose contact with the audience.

Q. Still, it must take an enormous amount of fortitude to walk away from a massively successful corporation like the Rolling Stones. You could have ridden that gravy train through the arenas in perpetuity.

A. Yeah, and made a fortune! But I didn’t see any future; I didn’t see anything new to conquer anymore like we had over the years. There wasn’t anything to break barriers or just do something different. I was doing the same things I’d been doing for 15 years--the same songs. I’d been playing “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Woman” for 20-odd years, you know? And I didn’t want to play them for another 10! And I wanted to get my private life in order. I didn’t want to go to Toronto for six months to cut an album, or to Munich or something, and wait three months while it was mixed, then do a week of videos and all that.

With the Rhythm Kings, the new album is 24 songs, and we went into the studio for eight days at the end of November last year and cut 22 masters, and they’re high quality. I can make a great album with the Rhythm Kings in a month or so, with overdubs and mixing, compared to six months with the Stones. And I feel just as satisfied. I have that extra time at home. And I enjoy myself more--it’s just a fun thing now, and I love it.

Q. Stone Alone is one of the best rock autobiographies ever thanks to the sheer level of inside detail. But it left us hanging in 1969 after Altamont! Where the heck is part two?

A. I had that finished last year, and two ghost writers let me down. One had it for about four or five months and came back with a rough, and it was awful. So I fired him and paid him off, got it to another guy, and the same thing happened. Then of course I started working with the Rhythm Kings, so I’ve had to put it off for a year or so until I found the right guy. But I think I’ve found the right guy now. I’ve just done this blues book which comes out in September, and I think I’ll work with him next year. It’s finished, really, it just needs to be written properly.

Q. Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey: A Journey to Music’s Heart & Soul is essentially a fan letter to all of the musicians you loved when you were starting out. Where did the impetus come from?

A. I’ve got lots of blues books--I love blues music--and a lot of them are very heavy reading. For anybody that isn’t a blues fan, they just won’t go through them, so I thought, “I’m gonna do a different kind of book here. It’s going to be something that’s very visual, that you can pick up and put down.” And the company (DK Publishing) are perfect for those kinds of books; they do them for children and all that, and I’ve got lots of their books. So I decided to do it that way, and that’s the way it turned out.

Q. One last question: If the Stones called to twist your arm into coming back…

A. Say, I’m actually walking out on stage now. Gotta go. See you in Chicago!