Bill Wyman Talks About Being ‘The Quiet One’ and Not Like a (Typical) Rolling StoneAs a documentary hits theaters, Wyman discusses bass instincts and tells Variety he hasn't missed the last 30 years of Stones touring one bit.Pete Sanders
By Chris Willman
There’s a new documentary about Bill Wyman hitting theaters, and contrary to expectations, perhaps, it’s not a silent movie. But it is titled “The Quiet One,” in deference to the legendary bass player’s reputation as the most reserved of the Rolling Stones, an image he thinks he merited only by being pitted against some of the most outgoing bandmates rock ‘n’ roll has ever known. He has plenty to say in the film, although sometimes it’s about things besides words he thinks there are too many of… like notes, when it comes to fellow players whose style is too flamboyant for his tastes.
Wyman, 82, hopped on the phone from his home in England to discuss the Sundance Selects film, which opens this weekend at the Nuart in Los Angeles and IFC Center in New York City, before becoming available on demand for streaming June 28. An edited version of our conversation follows.The movie is called “The Quiet One,” so that must be an image you came to accept over time?
It seemed like quite a good title. When interviews were ever done, I was mentioned in many cases as the quiet one, the one that didn’t speak. Interviewers used to say to me later, when I did solo records and worked in other projects, “Why didn’t you ever speak when you were in the Stones?” And I said, “Well, no one ever asked me.” They always went straight to Mick or to Brian, or later to Keith. Charlie and I never got questioned at press conferences and all that. We just had a cup of tea and talked about where we were going on holidays.But the press could have gotten a lot more out of you at the time, if they’d only been asking?
Well, I had a lot going on in the background which no one knew about, obviously. Because I was doing photography and interested in all kinds of ancient cultures and doing archaeology and reading lots of books on science and astronomy. Also, of course, I was bringing up a child, as I was married. I had an 8-month-old son when I joined the band, who I got custody of when we were divorced, and I brought him up. There was a lot going on in my life all the time.
There are some vintage interview clips in the film where someone will ask you a question and you pause an almost uncomfortably long time before you answer. So you weren’t necessarily leaping to be garrulous when the opportunity arose.
Well, I learned that from watching other people do interviews. [Laughs.]About what not to do, you mean?
Yeah, I saw how people just burst out with answers when they weren’t thinking and came to regret it. So I was always a bit wary. I don’t suddenly burst into doing or saying things without thinking first. But I’ve always been very logical and very calculating, I suppose you could say. And not in a weird way, but I wrote diaries and I was very logical.The one time in the film where you are on screen in the present talking at length, you’re talking about meeting Ray Charles, and you get so emotional that your wife, Susannah, has to finish the story for you. Most people might not go into this film imagining the most emotionally vulnerable part of the movie is going to be you meeting Ray Charles.
Well, I do regard him as the greatest artist of the 20th century, although he had problems in his life. My favorite song of all time is “Georgia on My Mind,” and I’d always wanted to meet him, and there was just the one opportunity. But I do get emotional about things. I find it difficult not to be. When I do speeches and things, or when I talk to my children and they tell me they love me, I get emotional. You know, I’m very soft inside. I’m not like the regular Rolling Stone sort of image that people have.
Charlie’s a bit like that as well. You know, Mick and Keith aren’t. But Charlie and I have always been sort of laid back and very quiet. And of course, we were the first married, so we both had responsibilities, and we weren’t nightclubbing all the time like the others were and having fun in town. We were going home to our families. So that’s probably why we were called the straightest rhythm section in rock ‘n’ roll. [Laughs.]Speaking of “A Stone Alone” (the title of Wyman’s solo anthology boxed set): The movie makes a point of how you didn’t do drugs. You were probably close to being alone in that, not just in the Stones but in the entire scene in the ‘60s. You relate the story of how you smoked something you believe was laced with something else, and had a bad experience looking into a mirror, and that was it for you.
Yeah, that really made me realize, and that was just because I just took a joint, which was quite rare. I did mention in the film the way the boys always tried to entice me, but I always stayed clean. There was never any heavy alcohol. No drugs. You know, the odd pep pill to keep awake sometimes when it was necessary, but that was about it, and the odd joint very, very early on. But I realized that if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to do all the things I did want to do, which is like keep my diaries and do my photography — and be a family man. So that’s what kept me straight and on the narrow, and I’m very proud of it, actually, and that’s probably why I look younger than the rest of them do. [Laughs.]You didn’t have any drug busts, but you did have controversy. People were curious about how you would handle some of the personal stuff, which you deal with at more length in your memoir. There isn’t much time devoted to your marriage to Mandy Smith. Did you have any guidelines for the filmmakers — like acknowledging that it would have to be addressed, but wanting to keep it to a minimum?
I had to keep all my relationships to a minimum because there was not room. My (first) marriage, as well… my six years living with Astrid Lindstrom is at a minimum, and she helped me bring up (his son) Steven — she’s hardly in the film, either. I had relationships with people that should have been in the film but they weren’t, because that wasn’t what the film was going to be about anyway.The film consists largely of you talking in voiceover over older film footage, until near the end. Was that an approach you preferred, to stay mostly off-camera for the interviews?
That was just the way that (the filmmakers) thought it would be best to do. But also, a problem was that halfway through filming, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and I had to spend nearly two years of treatment before I was back to normal. So we had to stop filming because I was taking steroids and getting puff-faced and not looking myself.We were going to ask how your health has been since that diagnosis.
I’ve been totally cured, thank you. Back to normal now, and I didn’t have to have the hammer and chisel job, either. Just radiotherapy, so there was no cutting in or anything, which was nice.Early on in the film, there’s a vintage interview where you’re being extremely self-deprecating and you say, “I’m not a musician. I just play in a band.” Were you being that humble because you were playing rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-‘60s and people didn’t think that counted, or did it have something to do with being a bass player, where humility maybe comes with the territory a little bit?
Well, I think it’s because I’ve always regarded a musician as someone who reads music, who sits and practices for hours and hours and hours, and probably plays in a classical orchestra or is working to be the top jazz musician. Those people rehearse and practice daily, four or five hours. I never did that. I played by ear, the same as the rest of the band did. I did take piano lessons as a child, which helped me understand the formation of music, and so I was able to pick up song ideas quicker than the others and sort of get my shit together on a song. But that was about it, really.
I don’t regard myself as an incredible bass player. I’m very efficient and I do my job very well and I’m not noticed, and that’s the way it should be. I don’t profess to be like Stanley Clarke or someone like that. … You just sit with the drums and build the basics of the song — you know, foundations. That’s what I learned from Duck Dunn in the Booker T. band and those kinds of bands that I admired, and the double bass players in early rock ‘n’ roll and Willie Dixon and all the Chicago blues.Is it still hard for you to listen to music where there’s a really busy bass player?
Yeah, Ronnie Wood’s like that. [Laughs.] When Ronnie used to sit in for me, if I had the flu or something, he’d do something on a Stones song, and then when I’d come in feeling better, he’d say “Have a listen to my bass line,” and I used to say, “Ronnie, that’s not bass playing — you’re playing guitar again! There’s no bottom in the song.” We would laugh about it.You were included in a book that Geddy Lee of Rush put together, “The Big Book of Bass.” In an interview, he talked about interviewing you for his book and said, “He’s a very interesting guy because he has a myriad of interests. He’s a photographer and an amateur archaeologist and a football fan. So he wants to talk about anything but basses. It was quite a challenge for me, bringing it back to the subject. But he’s a lovely guy.”
Yeah, he was nice. We had a good old chat and we enjoyed it, but he’s all technical, talking about certain bass guitars and their serial numbers and all these amplifiers, and I know none of that. I just play bass and I play through an amplifier. I don’t care what kind of amplifier it is, as long as it sounds proper. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an Ampeg or a Vox or a Boogie. If it plays right, that’s all I need. And that’s what was confusing him! He thought it was quite amusing, actually.
But Charlie’s the same. Charlie has the smallest drum kit of any rock star. He has seven pieces. That’s all he’s got. And he’s so widely admired by every other drummer. And I’ve seen drummers with 40-, 50-piece drum kits — they’re ridiculous. But Charlie just plays very basic and very simple, on the simplest kit. He sounds good on it, and that’s the way I was… I hope!Geddy Lee said you mostly wanted to talk about archaeology and football in your interview with him. Those two things didn’t make it into this documentary, either.
I did archaeology for 20 years, and I discovered a site where the Romans lived in my village in the third century, and I found hundreds of coins and brooches. It’s not in the film because there’s no room, but those kind of weird things happen to me all the time. There’s nothing about me writing nine books or doing photo exhibitions around the world, but it’s not a film to brag about what I did and didn’t do.
My life just had so many crazy moments and changes in it that I thought it would be interesting to do a film, because I’d done books about it, but film is much more interesting. I thought I had a very unusual story because I was the only one in the ‘60s British bands, for instance, that was born pre-war rather than post-war. And so as a child, I went through all the bombing in South London, being strafed by Germans in the streets and being bombed out, and living in real bad poverty in those days. I never had anywhere to live that had heating in it until I was 27 years old. I was 15 before we had electricity. That’s part and parcel of the weirdness of my life, and I was hoping to get those kind of things across in the film.You have an amazing collection of memorabilia. Plenty of people would pay a lot to have a few hours going through that archive we see in the movie.
In the beginning, when I only started to collect a few things, it was for my son when he grew up, just to say “I was in this band once, Stephen, when I was young, and we were on television and we did two records,” or something — because no one saw anything being longer than that. And it just escalated, and I just kept collecting, and it became an obsession. In those days, no one collected. I knew Ringo, and when I met Paul McCartney, I played videos of them at Shea Stadium and the first Washington show they did in ‘64. They’d never seen them, and I gave them copies of the films, and then I think they started collecting. I gave Zeppelin things. In the early days you had to rush into a gig and do the show and get out before the kids got out, so people never had time to pick up a poster or a program. I got lucky to be able to grab some of that stuff when I could.I can remember going to the Stones’ tour in ‘89 thinking, “Well, we all better catch this while we can, because this will probably be the last one.” Judging from your comments in the film, that’s kind of how you felt about that tour, too. You felt like it was a suitable swan song and you got out afterward.
As I say in the film, we played 120 shows in America, Europe, Japan, to seven and a quarter million people. We averaged 60,000 per show. And I didn’t see it going any bigger than six shows at Shea Stadium, five in Wembley Stadium in England, 10 at the Tokyo Dome, and so on. Since I left, those sizes and amounts of shows have never happened since. And I thought, it’s a great place to end, at the top. I didn’t want to end when we were drifting down or anything like that. Fortunately it hasn’t happened, but I didn’t know that at the time.
And I’d been in a band 30 years, and there were so many things that I needed to do. I had to get my life in order. I had to get married again and have a new family, which I have. My life’s been wonderful since I left the band. I had to move on. It’s like if you were a bricklayer for years and years and years, you want something different, don’t you? And everybody does, you know. There’s sportsmen who want to be musicians, musicians who want to be sportsmen — whatever career you have, there’s always something else you want to do. And I had so many other interests that I had to get my head into and deal with, and they all became very successful, so I was very fortunate in that way. Restaurants as well — I never mentioned restaurants!Your friend Mary Wilson in the film talks about how you are the epitome of a stop-and-smell-the-roses guy. But haven’t you ever had moments of seeing the Stones continuing to tour and thinking. “Screw the roses —I’d like to be up there having people screaming my name again”?
I never enjoyed that. And neither did Charlie. We weren’t interested in the adulation and all that, so that’s why we were able to get away from it and not worry about it. No, I haven’t missed it once. I’ve stayed friends with the band ever since, individually, socially. We send gifts to each other for birthdays and Christmas and always have. We mix families when available. My daughters are friends with Jerry and Mick’s children. Jerry’s the best friend of my wife. Charlie’s always been my great friend, and we love sport together and things like that. I see Woody. I see Mick on charity occasions and things like that. I don’t see Keith very much, because he hardly comes out of America, and I don’t go there. But otherwise, it’s just like a family and it always has been.
I don’t miss the performances or anything, either. I played with a bunch of really excellent musicians in my own band (the Rhythm Kings) for 20 years, with Peter Frampton and Gary Brooker and Georgie Fame, and people guesting like Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler and Chris Rea. I was doing it in a different way. I didn’t do it for the adulation. I was doing it just because I like to play music to an audience that loved to hear it.Are you planning to do more shows with the Rhythm Kings?
Well, I had to stop those as well when I got my prostate problem, because I had to stay in London for daily treatments. The band has gone on and it still plays on occasions, but I don’t do it anymore. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, you know. I’m 82 years old. I’ve got enough on my plate with family work, charity work, photo exhibitions, writing books…And restaurants.
And restaurants, and everything else I still do. My life is very, very full, so I’ve got no time to miss playing in a band. But it’s good to see they’re still doing it.