For years, people around the Rolling Stones have talked about Bill Wyman's book. As the only band member to have compulsively kept a diary throughout all those oh-so-tumultuous years, Wyman figured to have the goods on everyone. He alone clipped articles from the local paper wherever the Stones played. It was even said that he had a book of matches from every club the boys ever visited, either singly or in a group, after their show was done. By all accounts, Wyman's story would be the one that told all.
Not so. Rather than "the story of a rock and roll band," "Stone Alone" is instead the autobiography of a most peculiar man, one so particularly English that he can only be understood in the context of when and where he was born.
Wyman grew up poor in the England of World War II so brilliantly depicted by John Boorman in his film, "Hope and Glory." Money and food and coal were scarce. All eight members of his family shared a single toothbrush. They bathed but once a week and then in a single tub of hot water. As the eldest, Bill went last. In the dead of winter when work was scarce, his bricklayer father would take out all his anger and frustration on his six children with his hands, beating them for what they had not done. From such circumstances, Charles Dickens wrested his great work.
In the hands of Wyman--and his co-author, Ray Coleman, who for 11 years served as editor-in-chief of England's Melody Maker--all this very dramatic material comes across in monochromatic black-and-white. Bill has in fact forgotten nothing. But from him we get only the facts and never the real story. When the Stones play, it is no accident that this man stands stock-still on stage with what has often been described as "the great stone face." At times, Wyman seems so completely removed from his own experience that his book reads as though it was all happening to someone else, with Bill just barely there to record the exact date and proper sequence of events.
"Stone Alone" also is proof positive that a metronomic, deadly prose style can serve to render even the most interesting subject matter dead on the page. Early on, Wyman tells us that his interest in the opposite sex began when he kissed the girl next door at age 4. Three hundred interminable pages and 25 years later, the Stones sit around a hotel room talking about how many women they have each had in their two years together on the road. Bill, of course, makes a list. It reads: "Charlie: 0. Keith: 6. Mick: 30. Brian: 130. Bill: 278."
In the autobiography of Frank Harris or Vladimir Horowitz, such single-minded pursuit might give the reader some deeper insight into the creative process itself. For Wyman, it is just another entry on another of the lists that comprise this book: gigs played, day-by-day and night-by-night; women bedded in stops along the road; money earned, as constantly noted in overdrafts from his bank while Mick and Keith, the songwriters in the band, and first Eric Easton and Andrew Oldham and then Alan Klein, the businessmen, rake in all the dough.
Wyman always was both older and straighter than the rest of the Stones. Those 278 women notwithstanding, he also was always married, and with a son as well. As the Stones clawed their way to the top, Bill never was able to understand why people persisted in saying such awful things about them, so how could he?
Bill himself was never anything but a desperately poor boy from Sydenham who learned early on that his job in the band was to step back, shut up and play bass. And so he did until he was able to afford the castle of his dreams.
Of Brian Jones, Wyman actually writes: "Brian Jones, founder of the Stones, lived fast and died young." Had Wyman ever dared to play this big a musical cliche on stage, Keith Richards would have swung his guitar at his head. Wyman's book concentrates on the band's first decade, ending not with Altamont but the free concerts put on by the Stones at Hyde Park in July, 1969, in memory of Brian Jones. (Unbelievably, the ensuing 21 years are covered in a very awkward 32-page "Flash Forward" at the start.) Weighing in at a hefty 584 pages, Wyman's book is hardly a casual read. As both Barbara Tuchman and Robert Caro have proved, not even history need be this dull.
Wyman's book does have the virtue of not making any great claims on which it then does not deliver. The same cannot be said for the extremely overblown "Blown Away: The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties" by A. E. Hotchner, once best known for "Papa Hemingway" but now perhaps equally famous as Paul Newman's partner in salad oil.