When Bill Wyman first met Marc Chagall three years ago, the great Russian-Jewish artist took one look at the Englishman's shoulder-length hair, flipped a stray curl with his finger and said, "Change it. It's not original."
Wyman was wounded. "But we started this," he protested. "In 1962."
"Ah," Chagall said with sudden respect. "Okay, then."
The common bond of the creative impulse, you see. In the south of France, where Wyman and Chagall maintain expatriate domiciles, the possession of extraordinary wealth – les fonds serieux, as Ian Fleming, another noted Riviera gadabout, once put it – alone is no distinction. Art, or artfulness, is all.
"Here, they treat anybody creative as an equal," Wyman said recently. "It's rather wonderful if you're rock & roll, because in other countries you're regarded as something that the cat dragged in, you know? So it's kind of lovely to go to people's houses here – artists and writers in their sixties and seventies and eighties – and see that they actually have Rolling Stones records from 1965. And Pink Floyd and Yes and Bob Dylan. It's extraordinary."
Wyman's Mediterranean retreat – which he shares with such neighbors as Roger Moore, David Niven, James Baldwin and Dirk Bogarde – has been an altogether stimulating influence on the Stones bassist. Since the band is not together frequently unless on the road or in the studio, Wyman has had plenty of time for his own pursuits. He composed the soundtrack to Green Ice, an action film about emerald smuggling starring Omar Sharif and Ryan O'Neal. His candid photo portraits of Chagall will illustrate a book about the artist that's due to be published in France this fall. The text will be written by the venerable French poet Andre Verdet, who introduced Wyman to Chagall. In Britain, he's just released his first single, "Je Suis un Rockstar," under a new solo recording deal with A&M Records. He described the song, which is currently not scheduled for U.S. release, as "a bit of a sendup."
Despite the appearance given by all this solo activity, Wyman squelched – hopefully once and for all – a persistent claim that he is planning to quit the Rolling Stones next year on the occasion of their twentieth anniversary. The amiable bassist, who insists that the band is still "the biggest project in my life and always will be," ignored this report when it first appeared in London's Daily Express a year and a half ago, and he gritted his teeth but remained mum when it resurfaced last February in another English tabloid, the News of the World. But when the London Daily Star recently ran what it called an "exclusive interview" with Wyman, claiming that he was "fed up with rocking on" and was definitely "going to quit," he angrily filed suit against the paper for libel. (The Daily Star had no comment on the suit.)
"I'm not asking any damages," he explained. "It's just the point of it: The story was totally untrue. I had no interview with them. This guy happened to sit in on an interview I did in February at MIDEM [the international music-industry convention held at Cannes, near Wyman's home]. I was under the impression that he was writing for the MIDEM newsletter. Then he went off and sold his story as if it were an exclusive – and even then it didn't come out until like four or five months later. I got well pissed off with this continual rehashing of a little thing I had said that was taken out of context eighteen months ago by the Daily Express.
"It was a very casual remark – like when John Lennon said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, you know? But it always seems to be an 'angle' when a member of a well-known band appears in a different light. The papers jump the gun and think, 'Right, he's leaving. He's doing his own thing.' It happens all the time, and it gets very boring. The paper seems apologetic now, and I'm just hoping that once and for all this will kill these little scandal stories in these bad newspapers."
In fact, the Stones have finally wrapped up a new album and are scrambling to plan a tour. "I'm looking forward to the tour," Wyman said. "I think it'll be a lot of fun. We were hoping to get moving early in July, but that was a bit too optimistic. It takes so long to organize these things. We're considering doing small venues as well as large ones, pretty much the same as the '78 tour, which worked out very, very well. I think it's nice to switch from a 100,000 open-air date to a 3,000-seat theater – takes you right back to the roots, like the old jazz clubs we used to play in the early Sixties."
The album, which should be released in August, hasn't been titled yet. "But that's always the last thing. They just finished the final mixes. I met the lads in New York and we got together and saw how we were and had a listen, and I found the album very, very good. Usually, there're always one or two tracks that don't, like, get me off, you know? But on this one, I liked every track. It's sort of like the last two albums – there's that same kind of freshness – and there's a little bit harkin' back to the Sixties as well."
Wyman has left the rest of this year clear for the Stones, but once the tour is over he'll return to France and resume work in his various thriving sidelines. Because he wasn't particularly happy with his two previous solo albums, Monkey Grip and Stone Alone, he wants to stick to making singles for a while. And as a result of the Green Ice soundtrack (which features one of Wyman's favorite vocalists, Maria Muldaur, singing his lyrics on two tracks), he's received more offers to do film scores. "I'm in the running for quite a nice one, a sort of thriller, which is gonna be a good movie. And someone asked me if I'd like to do a Broadway musical, which I thought was interesting, but a bit off the wall at this time in my career."
More important, Wyman hopes to see his Chagall book translated into English. "It's called Chagall Mediterranee – The Mediterranean Chagall – and the great thing is, he's done four new watercolors and eight pen-and-ink drawings for the book." Wyman is clearly inspired by the artist's undiminished creativity – Chagall, after all, turned ninety-four on July 7th, which makes him a bit more than twice Wyman's age. "He's wonderful," he said. "He paints as well as ever, his eyes are bright and sparkly and alive – he's exactly the same."
This story is from the August 20th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.