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Rolling with the Stones
Bill Wyman, with Richard Havers
London: Dorling Kindersley, 2002.
£30.00, 512 pages, ISBN 0-7513-4646-2.

Claude Chastagner
Université de Montpellier III

If only the whole world could stay young
Keith Richards, 1966 (248)

Of the five hundred pages of Rolling with the Stones, four hundred are devoted to the first ten years of the Rolling Stones' history, only one hundred to the next thirty. Bill Wyman, bass player with the band until 1992, knows better than anyone else that there is not much to save from their production after 1972 (when the album Exile on Main Street was released), hence the apparent imbalance of the book. Anyone interested in the Stones knew that their bass player had been keeping a diary since his first days with the band and had amassed a huge collection of memorabilia, so that in his old age he would be able to show his son some traces of the few months he thought he was going to spend playing in a rock combo. In 1990, he had already published his autobiography, Stone Alone, but the fans were waiting for more: the ultimate story of the Rolling Stones, rich with previously unreleased pictures and revelations about the band.

Coffee-table books on rock bands seem to be the norm these days. 2000 had seen the publication of a similar book on the Beatles, Anthology, told mostly by the fab four themselves, with occasional comments by insiders. The format of Rolling with the Stones is rather similar. With its 30 by 25 centimeters, it makes an awkward read but the exceptionally beautiful and clear layout and design somewhat makes up for it. The story is told here by Bill Wyman alone, the other Stones appearing merely in occasional quotes. In order to compensate for the limitations of a single view point, Wyman has asked Richard Havers to write additional commentaries "to add perspective and objectivity to the book." Wyman's retelling of the Stones' story is thus interspersed with pages called "commentary" featuring Haver and other people's perspectives. The written word is complemented by an astounding iconography, a wealth of black and white or color pictures by famous photographers such as David Bailey, Claude Gassian, Ethan Russell, Gered Mankowitz or Dominique Tarlé, which occupy at least half of the book's content. It is not however a book one would merely browse. Wyman has made sure to include an enormous amount of facts whose accuracy is certified by their having been written down on the spot in his diary. It includes a very complete fact sheet for each album, containing the names of the additional musicians, designers, photographs, studios, producers and recording engineers, recording dates, chart placings, all kinds of information which had until then be difficult to obtain. Each national or international tour, from the very early days, is carefully documented, with a map of the countries visited, the number of spectators, the ticket price, the date and location of each concert, the name of the support bands, the set list, etc. Similarly, Wyman details the Stones' early appearances on television, with the date of airing and the title of the songs performed. The most striking contrast offered by the book is in fact the extent to which it has been conceived at the same time as a glossy picture book your friends will love to leaf through, and as the most reliable and informative document ever published on the Rolling Stones.

All the famous moments of the Stones' story are dealt with, from the death of Brian Jones to the departure of Mick Taylor, from the drug busts to the conflicts with Allen Klein, their manager, from the early Richmond gigs to the Altamont fiasco, from the numerous riots that plagued their concerts to the gibes and punches they suffered for wearing their hair long and looking scruffy, but do not expect any sensational revelation. Wyman is a wise, cautious man, not prone to easy sensationalism; he is not after scoops but after the truth, even if the truth is ordinary and unglamorous. This is not Wyman's revenge. He quietly asserts his rights on a number of songs or riffs, but one soon realizes that the book has been written by a man well into his fifties whose urge to settle accounts has long been subdued. Wyman's honesty also shows in the care he brings to establish the importance of their first manager, Andrew Oldham, and of the sixth Stone, the pianist cum road manager Ian 'Stu' Stewart. Wyman also goes as far as to mention which artists (very often black ones) or what songs influenced (sometimes very strongly) the tunes the Stones wrote. Along the way, a few myths are debunked, such as the story that had the Stones' manager locking Jagger and Richards in a room until they had written their first song. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the importance Wyman has devoted to the historical and geographical context. The first thirty pages or so give an intimate view of life during and after World War II in Britain seldom found in this kind of publication, insisting on the hardships youngsters and their parents were going through, and documenting the awakening of a music scene in Britain, from trad jazz to skiffle. Maps abound, showing where the Stones come from, where they lived, the hot spots of Swinging London, etc.

An extremely surprising dimension of the book is the comparatively limited space music as such occupies. If Wyman deals at length with the band's blues and rhythm & blues influences, if additional musicians are all acknowledged, if each record is carefully reviewed, we eventually learn very little about the circumstances surrounding the writing of most songs, the way they developed, their possible meanings, the recording techniques used. Likewise, apart from his first bass guitar, Wyman makes no mention of the Stones' instruments or instrumentation. Above all, I do not think he ever mentions the pleasure and excitement, or conversely, if so was the case, the agony or boredom of playing music night after night, of rehearsing, of jamming with the group or with other musicians. These moments are alluded to but with no more emphasis and empathy than is displayed when Wyman gives the list of the cars owned by the Stones. In fact, the only element which is given paramount importance in the text, is, unsurprisingly, money: how much was received, missing or spent, on what and when. More than playing rock 'n' roll, the Stones' story appears as an unending quest for money.

All in all, Rolling with the Stones may be pleasant enough to leaf through, but extremely boring to read, something one already suspected from Wyman's autobiography. The man has no style, no rhythm (for a bass player!), no sense of timing, of suspense; let's be frank, Bill Wyman can't write. His honesty turns what he puts down on paper into an extremely faithful but dull and ponderous (three kilos!) account of the Stones' years. If one was to get something from the book, though, it would be a nostalgic sense of the passing of time, a fascination for what happened to these young men's physique, for how sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll can imprint their marks and leave scars on what was once the unblemished faces of youth. Yes indeed, as Keith Richards says, if only the world could stay young. But it does, and it is teeming with hundreds of new Rolling Stones, except that the days of mega, global bands are over, and in the future, few musicians from the 2000s will be chronicled in books such as Rolling with the Stones.

For a more exciting, and in the end, more faithful account of life with the Rolling Stones, I would definitely advise the reader to turn after Rolling with the Stones to Robert Greenfield's A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones (Panther, 1975).

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