At the start of their (still running) 40 years on the road, a staple of the Rolling Stones’ repertoire was Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness?” With the publication of ex-Stone Bill Wyman’s “Rolling With The Stones,” the answer is a resounding “yes.” The old saw that “if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there,” doesn’t apply to Wyman, who not only remembers but has the photos, letters, tour programs, ticket stubs, etc. to verify his recollections. Only facile gossipmongers are likely to be disappointed by Wyman’s epic, yet intensely personal journey through the history of the oft-described “greatest rock and roll band in the world.” In place of sordid details about the trysts and various drug escapades (most of which are noted for the record, however), Wyman has exhaustively recorded the making and sustaining of a true 20th (and now 21st) century cultural phenomenon. The amount of detail both visual and from the diaries he’s kept for decades is amazing. Rolling Stones aficionados will treat “Rolling” with the reverence of a sacred text and rock music historians will find it an essential reference tool.
From page one, “Rolling” begins weaving its magic via Wyman’s insider understanding (and wonderfully evocative photos) of the birth of the band in 1962-63. That was when a few South London lads who loved the blues started jamming in local pubs and halls and were quickly swept up as the rowdy alternative to the already polished and about to be internationally famous Beatles. By 1964, the British Invasion of America’s music scene was under way and popular music and culture were never to be the same. Wyman’s tome is, however, no dry recitation of the facts. As he did with his previous Blues Foundation Award-winning study, “Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey,” Wyman infuses this history with passion and an appreciation for the magic that happens in the studio and in front of an audience.
By virtue of his place in the group, if the reader comes armed with a fan’s knowledge of the Stones, Wyman also deepens the understanding of the disparate personalities that constitute the band over the years. In 40 years, there have been remarkably few changes in the lineup. The band’s founder, Brian Jones, famously died young, after losing his grip on life and his place in the band. Virtuoso guitarist Mick Taylor passed through for a few years, to be replaced by Ronnie Wood, who’s still in the lineup decades later. Wyman left his position as bass player after 31 years and the band effectively became, at least in business terms, a foursome.
“We were all damaged by our time in the band,” says Wyman mournfully, “but Brian was the only one who died from it.” With observations like that, Wyman not only measures the toll taken by a life in rock and roll, but also puts in perspective the creative achievements and financial rewards. And the ripoffs, as well.
Wyman is amazingly almost without rancor, able to calmly detail the business disaster that was rock and roll in the ’60s, pointing out that at the end of that magic decade, the band’s financial settlement with manager Allen Klein netted him and Charlie each a not-so-grand $160,000. Happily, by the early ’70s, the band’s finances were put in the hands of financial adviser Prince Rupert Loewenstein, and Wyman is clearly grateful for that change in their fortunes. The most recent estimate by Fortune magazine is that the band grossed $1.5 billion from 1989 to their current tour.
It’s hard to single out one episode as an example of the behind the scenes insights Wyman brings to the reader, but the squabbling over the decision to release “Satisfaction,” arguably the greatest rock and roll record ever made, is a shocker. “We voted on it and it was Charlie, Andrew (manager Andrew Loog Oldham), Stu (longtime associate Ian Stewart) and me voting to put it out as a single with Mick and Keith voting no,” Wyman recalls. Thanks to a sharp memory and a diarist’s dedication, Wyman may not play the last Stones gig, but he does get the last laugh.