Since Bill Wyman left the Rolling Stones in 1991, the bassist has released several books, devoted time to his London burger-and-steak joint Sticky Fingers, held photo exhibitions, toured and released new music with his band the Rhythm Kings and even patented his own metal detector. “I’ve always been very fortunate that, whenever I put my hand to something, something amazing happens,” Wyman tells Rolling Stone. “I meet incredible people and I go off on these fantastic tangents with other projects and it’s so exciting. It’s much better than just playing rock & roll all your life.”
Wyman, an obsessive archivist, has just released Bill Wyman’s Scrapbook, a massive, limited-edition coffee-table book with images ranging from his London childhood to his final full show with the band at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1990. Stones images include early live photos, recording “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with a full choir and partying with David Bowie in 1975. Wyman spoke to Rolling Stone about the new book, his many other artistic and scientific interests and why reuniting with the Stones in December in London wasn’t much fun.
Why was it important for you to work as an archivist, keeping press clippings, tickets, etc. even as the band was just starting out?
Well, that was just me. The band wasn’t slightly interested in collecting anything and they thought I was an idiot for doing it. But they don’t think I’m an idiot anymore. I did it because I had an eight-month-old son when I joined the band, and I wanted to keep things so that he knew I was in a band once and we were on television and made two records. So I kept a little scrapbook of the first bits and pieces, and it just kept going, and then I ended up with 15 scrapbooks and then it became a couple of cardboard boxes and then six trunks and then 30 trunks. That’s the way it was, because once I started, I thought, “What the hell? I might as well carry it on.” I thought it would only last for a year or two, as we all did at that time.
Do you see the Bill Wyman who plays music and the guy who is interested in archiving and digging up old things as two completely different sides of you?
I’ve always been interested in multiple things since I was a teenager. I’ve always been interested in ancient cultures, archaeology, astronomy, photography, art – and as I grew up, I tried to learn more and embellish those things by reading books and documentaries and films. When I was in the band for 30 years, that was very difficult, because I didn’t have the opportunity to spend much time doing that. But I did meet great artists in France, like Marc Chagall. I learned about art and I met historians. I met scientists. And I went to look at the stars in observatories, and it just opened my life to many, many different other aspects.
So that is one of the reasons I left [the Rolling Stones], because I wanted to get involved in all those other things that I loved but didn’t have the time to progress with and that’s why I wrote books about various different things in archaeology. I found Roman sites that people didn’t even know were there. Coins and tons of stuff. I’ve taken 25,000 photos, you know. And then I found that people wanted to exhibit my photos, so that’s what I do now. I’ve had about eight of them and that’s all part of this book, you know? This book’s my eighth book and it just explains to anybody that doesn’t know me or even people that do know me the scope of my life, which has been amazing. I just want to share it.
Where do you keep all of this stuff?
I’m not telling you. (laughs)
Some storage building somewhere?
Certainly not. There’s an underground vault.
What about the props you guys used to use on the road? Do you have any?
No, no, of course not. No. They were not mine particularly. I keep my stage clothes and all kinds of stuff like that: thousands of posters, guitars. I’ve got my homemade bass, which I made in ’61, before the Stones, which was the first fretless bass ever made. I didn’t know I made a fretless bass until they started to make fretless basses six years later. There’s just lots of things that happened in my life. Some amazing things happened to me. I’ve always been very fortunate that, whenever I put my hand to something, something amazing happens. I meet incredible people and I go off on these fantastic tangents with other projects and it’s so exciting. It’s much better than just playing rock & roll all your life. You know, that’s why I wanted to move on. I think that is shown in the book, if you really sort of get into the book.
Can you tell me about the fondest period of your life to look back on, when you look through these images?
When I was a kid, after the war. We were very, very poor, so there was always a lot of hardship, but going into the military and the Air Force in Germany was a special time, because it was there that I heard the beginnings of rock & roll in 1955 on American Forces Radio, which was in an American zone, which was right next to us. I heard the beginnings of rock & roll, you know, with Elvis, Bill Haley, Little Richard and all that and it just blew my mind, because it hadn’t happened in England at that time.
When you would meet those heroes in the early days, was it ever a disappointment?
Only Chuck Berry.
You know why (laughs). Everybody in the business – 95 percent of the people in the business – are fantastic people. When we first did The T.A.M.I. Show in early ’64, James Brown, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, they were fantastic people. They were always great, you know. They weren’t pretentious. They weren’t a bit difficult. Bo Diddley. But Chuck Berry was always so difficult and so impossible to deal with. One minute he was friendly and the next minute he wouldn’t speak to you. There’s a few like that, but they’re very few and far between.
There‘s a great letter [in the book that] you wrote to a fan in 1965. I was surprised you guys had the time to do that.
I always tried to do that. All of us did. Actually, there’s footage of us signing things in the dressing rooms. We all tried to do it. And there were stacks and stacks of autographed books, programs to be signed, and we just used to grab a bunch each and sign everybody’s name. We all learned to sign each other’s signatures (laughs). Except for Charlie. He wouldn’t sign anything. But me, Keith, Mick and Brian all could sign each other’s autographs. When I see them now for sale, I know that, you know, two of them are not theirs – originals and all that. But it was the only way to do it, because you couldn’t pass this stuff around. You didn’t have time. You were onstage in 10 minutes.
Did anything in the book make you a little emotional?
Oh, I get emotional all the time. You say the right thing, I’ll get emotional talking to you. I’m a bit like that. I’m a bit of a softie. When I have to do speeches or anything, I always get a bit emotional. When I receive awards or anything, so, I always have to get a sort of stiff upper lip that English people are supposed to have. They say, “Where’s your stiff upper lip?” and you say, “Just above this soggy chin.” I like the stuff outside of the Stones, because it hasn’t been portrayed as much, and it will probably come fresher to the viewer and people who are buying the book, because they know all the other stuff and it’s nice to have a bit of it, but I didn’t want to focus purely on that.
One reason you left the band is you didn’t want to fly anymore. Keith talks about it a little bit in his book and he says he didn’t understand that and how that could have just happened, because you had been on so many tough flights and never gotten scared. [He wrote, “I’d been in some of the most ramshackle aircraft in the world with that guy and he’d never batted an eyelid.”] How did you respond to that?
Well, I was flying before the Stones, you know. I was flying when I was in the military, years before I ever flew with them. After 40 years, and some quite frightening moments – like being in a twin-engine plane on a runway and seeing a jet coming straight at us and having to sort of swerve off to the side – I got to a point on our Japan tour of 1990 where I just didn’t want to fly anymore. I did the last part of that tour in Europe by road and I used to get to the gigs before the band did. They used to say, “How’d you get here?” It was quite amusing.
After that, I thought, “I don’t need to fly anymore.” I’ve got my career and I can do anything now. I’m going to raise a new family. I want to be with them. I don’t want to be traveling around the world. I’ve got a great restaurant. I’m not going to finance it or franchise it, because that means I’m going to have to travel again. I’ll do everything from home. And that’s what I’ve done and I’ve never been happier.
A couple of years ago, Bob Dylan said that after you left, the Stones became a funk band. [“They‘ll be the real Rolling Stones when they get Bill back.“]
I know. He was very, very sweet, wasn’t he? He said, “The best way they could get back to the way they were was to get Bill back in the band.” I thought it was very sweet of him. Tom Petty has said the same thing and so has Lenny Kravitz. So has Bob Geldof. There’s been a lot of nice people that I’m friendly with or that I’ve known in the past that have been very much complimentary in that way, but you can’t recapture something that’s gone. You can’t redo it.
Watching the footage of you onstage with the Stones again in London [recently], doing “It‘s Only Rock & Roll“ and “Honky Tonk Women,“ was very powerful. What was that experience like for you?
What it was like? It was nice. Because I loved playing with Charlie, first off, but the main thing was that my three teenage daughters saw me for the first time and the Stones onstage, which they hadn’t seen before. I’d take them to Stones shows, and they’d seen me onstage in my band a lot, but they’d never seen me onstage with the Stones, so it was a bit special for that reason. But I was there five minutes and off, obviously. I was a bit disappointed with that. That’s the end of it, you know.
Why couldn‘t they have you on for more songs?
They didn’t want me on for more. They said, “You only do two songs.”
Who said that?
Mick. So that’s why I didn’t go to America, you know? Because I said, “I’m not [traveling] for two weeks to do three concerts for two songs,” you know? And I don’t want to get into this anymore. We’ve said it enough times, but I realized you cannot return to something from the past after years, because it’s not the same. School reunions, old girlfriends, divorces, getting back with the old wife – it doesn’t work. It’s the same with a band. So I’m quite happy with my life now, and we’re still great friends. We still send each other birthday and Christmas presents, as we’ve always done. We’re great friends. I see Ronnie at events and we socialize together but we don’t do business. I do business with them if it’s things that involve me, but I don’t want to be in the band anymore, you know? I left that 20 years ago and the 30 years I was in the band was fantastic, but I’ve done other things. I did archaeology. I write books. I’ve got a successful restaurant. And I’ve got a beautiful family of three beautiful daughters and that’s all I want in my life, you know?
Is it harder to get enthusiastic about playing rock & roll as you get older?
Well, I don’t play rock & roll in my band. I played a completely. . . I’ve got some musicians in my band like [guitarist] Martin Taylor, [keyboardist] Gary Brooker. I’ve had various people in the band. We play jazz, blues, soul music, country music, folk music, gospel, rock & roll, rockabilly, a whole mixture of music, because there are singers in the band and they all sing different styles and we just do a show like that and there’s so much variety in it and I find that so much more interesting than just bashing out heavy rock.
And of course, the older you get, you kind of don’t really like loud music anymore. There’s two things you don’t like as you get really old – you’ll find this out when you get older – you don’t like volume, you like it a bit reduced, and you don’t like speed. You like that reduced as well. Those are two things you really don’t like anymore.
Do you feel your age?
No, I’ve always been healthy. I’ve always looked younger. You know, I was always older than them. You know, I was seven years older than Mick and Keith. Five older than Charlie. In the Seventies and Eighties, [people] always thought I was the youngest. And, of course, I didn’t oppose that. I just let them get on with it. Especially girls.
You have a reputation of getting more women than anyone in the band.
I used to. I used to get a lot of attention. I don’t now. I’ve been married 20 years. We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary this weekend and I’m going away with my wife to France for a few days. It’s like a second honeymoon. It’s the place where we got married so that’s gonna be nice. I don’t know.
Will we see you at Hyde Park when the Stones play, possibly?
I’ll be on holiday with my family in France at that time, very conveniently.