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The Quiet One: Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones Phones In

“Wherever we went, we were antagonized by the media. We were always put down as saying we had long hair, we were dirty, we smelled, we wore our grubby, grubby clothes –And they never talked about the music until much later.”

Rock musician Bill Wyman, most famously the bass guitarist rolling with the Stones for three decades, is on the line from London to talk about: all those years he’s been known as “the reluctant rock star”; his working-class roots as the son of a bricklayer; and a new film about his life as a founding member of the band.

PRAIRIE: Why did you want to tell the story of your life in a movie, The Quiet One, and why at this point in your life?

BILL WYMAN: Well over the years, many people have approached me to do a documentary of my life for TV or something, you know, and I’ve had such a varied life and a very unusual life compared with other sort of rock musicians from the 60s, because I lived earlier. I lived through wartime as a child and had some horrendous times there, and did my military service that others didn’t do because they were too young. I’ve had so much happen in my life. I just thought it’d be more interesting to do a film rather than a documentary for TV, and luckily I found some people that were equally interested.

PRAIRIE: And what do you think about the title of the film The Quiet One as a description of who you are–or not?

BILL WYMAN: I’ve always been mentioned as that. In fact, I was looking at an article from 1964 in England just yesterday, and this is not a joke, this is actually gospel truth, and it said, “Bill why are you known as The Quiet One?” It’s in so many articles and documentaries and things that always called me The Quiet One. And they would just say why don’t you ever speak, and I said, because no one ever asked me a question!

When we used to do press conferences, hundreds of them in every country in the world, you know, you’d sit there and they’d direct questions at Mick, and Mick’d say let someone else talk–and they’d direct it to Keith or Brian in the early days. And me and Charlie used to sit up the end and have a cup of tea and talk about where we’re going on holiday, you know, the football scores or something, you know, because we were never questioned! And so, I think it’s a perfect title really because I’m known as that. Although I wasn’t a loud bass player either. I mean John Entwistle of The Who always said to me if you play bass properly, you have to make their ears bleed! I didn’t play — I didn’t play like that. I played very quiet, subdued, so, I’m The Quiet One.

PRAIRIE: You said at one point in the film, “It was us against the world.” What do you mean by that?

BILL WYMAN: Well, wherever we went we were antagonized by the media, the newspapers, the TV, the radio. We were victimized really, we would always be put down as saying we had long hair, we were dirty, we smelled, we wore our grubby clothes, and none of it was truthful, you know, but they always had to gossip. They never talked about the music until much later.

We had to fight that battle in England at the beginning, then when we went to France, went to Germany, went to Holland, and Scandinavia, Australia, America, Canada. Wherever we went, we had to go through that that battle to kind of get the music across and not the image. We didn’t do the image as an image. That’s just the way we were, that’s the way we just wanted to be. It wasn’t planned or organized. You just did it.

PRAIRIE: And what can you say about your encounter with Ray Charles, his impact on you and what he meant to you?

BILL WYMAN: Oh, well, I always thought he was the greatest ever of everybody. My favorite song is “Georgia on My Mind,” you know, of songs I’ve ever heard. And I have many, many, great music idols from Fats Waller to Louis Armstrong to Elvis to The Beatles to Chuck Berry, you can go on, Muddy Waters–but Ray Charles just stands out so far ahead of everybody. He meant something really special to me.

And when I was able to see him a few times live, I just saw audiences in tears when he was singing, and it really impressed me. And then to meet him, to finally meet him, you know, after a concert and sit and talk to him for half an hour, was like a godsend! You know, you’re talking to someone that you idolize, who’s far above you. As I did with the great artist Marc Chagall in the south of France, who I became friends with for the last eight years of his life; I spent a lot of time with him. It was the same thing, he was way above my estimations of where I could possibly be.

PRAIRIE: What was the best thing and the worst thing about being in the Rolling Stones?

BILL WYMAN: Well, you’re opening a can of worms here! [Laughs] Well, the worst thing I think was time-keeping, because I’m OCD, and Charlie and me were always on time, always ready, always straight, always ready to do the business, whereas others weren’t; and so that was incredibly frustrating, year after year after year, day after day. Everybody was always late or never turned up and all that, you know, but that’s the way the band works, you know, and it worked for us. So we had to sort of deal with it in the end in that way.

As far as the best things, I suppose the best things were getting out of a very very poor childhood with no food, no clothes. You know, not having electricity until you were fifteen years old, not having a warm–a warm house until I was in my late twenties, you know, where I had an indoor bathroom and all that. I didn’t have that before that! So they’re all those benefits, being able to pay, the ability to travel, and also to meet all your idols. I became friends with all the tennis stars, sportsmen, movie stars and everything, writers, you know; I become great friends of Jimmy Baldwin, Ken Follet, writers like that, and it was just really special.

PRAIRIE: And why did you decide to leave?

BILL WYMAN: Because it was thirty years and in that thirty years, I always knew there were things I wanted to do. And we all thought and said when it started that it would last two, maybe three years. We used to sit and talk to The Beatles and The Hollies and The Animals and all the other bands. You know, “How long do you think you’ll last?” [And they’d reply] “Maybe two, maybe three, if we’re lucky,”– because bands never lasted longer than that! And I thought, Wow, then I can get on with my archaeology, my photography and all the other things that interest me: ancient cultures, go to special places, travel–and you know, thirty years later, I’m still waiting to do it!

It was time. It was time to–you know, after three amazing tours where we played 120 shows to seven and a quarter million people throughout America, Europe and Japan–I thought time to go, I can now do this stuff. So I said bye-bye to the band who didn’t believe me for two years, refused to believe that I left actually, and in the end accepted it, and we’ve been friends ever since. And I was able to move on and do my archaeology and my photography and my charity sport and open restaurants. And write nine books. All the things I wanted to do, have photo exhibitions. And have my own band, just do it for fun, the fun of it, not commercial reasons.

PRAIRIE: I think we have time for one last question. What would you hope people to understand about you with this film?

BILL WYMAN: Just that I’m a pretty normal human being–except I’m a bit OCD! So I do collect, and I do have to have things in the right order and everything. But I think one of the things that I think people should take on board which I have–and it’s been a godsend to me for all my life, for all my projects–and that is to keep a diary. And I’ve kept a diary since I was a child, and I still do: every morning I sit down and write my diary about the day before and it’s so valuable.

PRAIRIE: Well, thank you so much Bill Wyman for calling into our show, and I have to say you’re certainly not The Quiet One, I’ve discovered during this interview.

BILL WYMAN: Thank you very much. Good talking to you. Bye.

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Prairie Miller along with Jack Shalom hosts Arts Express where this interview originally aired–on the WBAI Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations at wbai.org

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