Hunter and collector
Former Rolling Stones bass guitarist Bill Wyman becomes the official organiser of rock’n’roll ephemera. BY GARY STEEL
Starter for four. Bill Wyman’s outstanding contribution to world culture is: 1) A groupie cull numbering in the thousands. 2) Rolling Stones’ tub-thumping bass player for 31 years. 3) That legendary 10-minute streaming public wee. 4) His current group the Rhythm Kings, whose members include Gary Brooker (Procul Harum), Georgie Fame (the Blue Flames) and Peter Frampton (Peter Frampton).
Answer: None of the above.
More likely, Bill Wyman’s legacy will be his obsessive hoarding of rock artefacts and trivia… 40 years of them.
A rather testy old goat at 66, Wyman has compulsively kept a diary since the beginnings of the Rolling Stones in 1963. Selling his coveted stamp collection to buy musical equipment as a lad, he traded one kind of collecting for another. An indescribable array of mementos from decades of rock superstardom form the visual basis of his latest book, a pictorial history of the Rolling Stones, imaginatively titled ‘Rolling With The Stones’.
“I’m the only guy in the 60s in any band I know – and I’ve spoken to just about everybody who was in a band over the years – that ever collected anything,” says Wyman, ingenuously. “Back in the 60s and 70s and early 80s, no-one had anything. I used to give the Beatles stuff. I gave Paul and Ringo videos of their first shows in America, because they’d never even seen them let alone owned them. They were amazed.”
“Everybody said I was a bit nutty, a bit eccentric for collecting this stuff. It was just something that I’d grown up with when I was a little kiddie living through the war with my grandmother in South London. She gave me access to cigarette card collections in books that she’d had over the years from her family. It just carried on really.”
Traumatised by his mother’s dumping of his childhood diaries and scrapbooks, on return from military service in the airforce, he resolved to make collecting a life-long habit. When the fledgling Rolling Stones allowed Wyman into the fold in 1963 (brazenly and cravenly for his equipment rather than his personality or talent) he already had an eight-month-old son to provide an excuse for his collector-mania.
“I’d been married about three years, and none of us knew how long this was going to last. No-one in the band thought it would last more than two or three years. ‘Oh, I’d better keep two or three things just to show him I used to be in a band once, and we made a record and were on television’.”
‘Rolling With The Stones’ – Wyman’s third book following his 1990 autobiography ‘Stone Alone’ and last year’s ‘Blues Odyssey’ – is a weighty 500 pages of mind-numbing details. In turns mundane, amusing, illuminating and alarming, “It’s just full of illustrations and maps and little boxes of information and all that,” says Wyman, proudly. Representing about five percent of the scrupulously archived material he has to hand, the book could well herald the start of an avalanche of Wyman-generated ephemera: still unseen is the “Thirty-odd reels of 7-inch film from ‘65 onwards, and about 10,000 photographs and colour slides I’ve taken.”
For Wyman, his new life as an archivist/writer fulfills a practical agenda: because he’s not on a gravy train from the songs he didn’t write for the Stones, he’s mindful of maintaining a lifestyle for himself, and his new family (‘my new wife and three lovely daughters from six to four’). Beyond that, it’s the information byway.
As if you hadn’t guessed, Bill Wyman is a resoundingly practical bloke. Not given to flights of fancy (except perhaps in weighing up his own importance), he was always the Stone with his feet on the ground.
“My best subject at school was mathematics, and when I went into the compulsory national service for two years I had to deal with statistics and graphs and charts and all that kind of stuff. When I was in the Stones (he’s been out of the Stones for an inconceivable 13 years already) I was always looking at the contracts and going through all the accounts, and looking after the mobile studio accounts and wages.”
It’s this keen (some would say dull) sense of keeping a tidy house that makes him such an expert gatherer and cataloguer.
“It’s always been like that. My record collection’s in alphabetical order, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to find what I’m looking for. And then you waste time. A lot of people just have piles of stuff dumped all over the place, and can never find what they want. They say ‘I’ve got a great thing here’ and it takes them half an hour to find it.”
To that end, the Wyman secret stash “is all catalogued and everything. That takes a lot of work, putting it into a catalogue, recording everything and cross-referencing everything. But in the end it saves you an awful lot of time when you want to find something”.
You have to wonder, though: in all those mad, tumultuous years getting his ya-ya’s out with his Satanic Majesties, where and how did he find the time to keep such fastidiously fact-packed diaries?
“There are always loads of lonely hours in hotels when you’re bored and on tour. You did your madness in the daytime and your shows in the evening, but there were always times when you just sat very quietly in a hotel, bored to death, because you couldn’t go to the town and look around or go to a restaurant or walk in the park or anything in those days, so I found it quite easy to keep a diary when I was on the road.”
“Bill had an absolute compulsion. He had to have a bird,” said Keith Richards of Wyman’s on-the-road habits. Lurid visions of thousands of groupie ‘conquests’ sitting on Wyman’s hotel bed, watching their hero write his diary. Doh!
It’s a diary that got quite a bit of use during the Rolling Stones’ inaugural New Zealand tour in 1965. We get the thumbs down:
‘Everything in New Zealand appeared to be shut,” he wrote. ‘We were booked into the United Service Hotel in Cathedral Square (Christchurch), supposedly the best in town. It was a dump, so lacking in amenities that we had to wash out our own socks and shirts. We moved on two days later to Invercargill. It was even more shut. All the other cities we went to in New Zealand turned out to be similar. To cap it all, I got a bad eye infection.’
Doth prostest the bass player: “I was the one that went out in the free time and drove around and looked at places and took photographs and took movies. And I loved the scenery. I thought it was one of the most beautiful countries I’d ever seen, and I still do. Because it just changes every few miles. I went to Rotorua with Ian Stewart (‘the fifth Stone’), none of the others did. It was just that when you got to a hotel, there were no bathrooms. And when you settled into the hotel and thought ‘oh well, we’re not working tonight, gig tomorrow, you walked out of the hotel looking for some fun and the place was dead. It closed for the night at half past six or seven o’clock in the evening. That’s how it was in 1965. It was just so old-fashioned. The radio was like England in the 30s, it was really quaint and it was like no-one was allowed to own a new car.”
Having left the Stones in 1990 (“I didn’t want it to be like Spinal Tap or something. I didn’t want to be playing Jumping Jack Flash for the next ten years”), Wyman is quite prepared to celebrate their triumphs from a distance, while bemoaning the state of rock today:
“There isn’t any rock scene today is there really? The England scene is dire, it’s a joke. It’s contrived bands who can’t play an instrument, can’t even sing. Let’s talk about soccer: if a guy can’t kick a ball, head the ball pass, score goals or save them, he would never be on the football pitch, would he? But the music business is different for some reason, because it’s all hype and they don’t have to sing live, they mime to tracks and and look pretty, wear the right clothes and the right hairstyle… I can’t relate to that.
“When we had things like Satisfaction out, they had to sell 600,000 to get in the top 5. Now you sell 35,000 and you’re the top 5. And probably a lot of them are bought by the manager and the agent. YEAH, OF COURSE THEY ARE! BECAUSE THEY GO IN AT NUMBER ONE AND TWO WEEKS LATER THEY’RE GONE!”
Yes, Bill. Right. And on and on.
And on he goes, working like a madman, planning never to retire.
“My average time of going to bed is three or four in the morning. Sometimes I go through the night if I get sucked into working on something I’m excited about. I average about five hours a night, have done for thirty years. Churchill, Thatcher, Einstein… all those people never slept much either, all had shallow hours. I find sleeping a bit of a waste of time. It’s like refuelling: going to the garage, filling up and driving off.”