STONE ALONE The Story of a Rock 'n' Roll Band By Bill Wyman with Ray Coleman Viking. 594 pp. $22.95
OVER THE LAST three decades, Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman has accumulated trunkfuls of memorabilia and clippings tracing the rise, fall, rise, fall, etc., of the world's once greatest (and now oldest) rock 'n' roll band. Now Wyman has sorted through those myriad trunks to produce Stone Alone, a 594-page tome that follows the Stones from their roots as blues and r&b wannabes to their current status as rock icons (actually, to the end of 1969, where the book -- and some feel the band's importance -- ends).
A few years back, lead singer Mick Jagger was given a huge advance for his autobiography, but had to return it when it became apparent he couldn't really remember much that was particularly interesting. Wyman, on the other hand, remembers everything, but while Stone Alone has a wealth of detail, it has little depth. It reads like what it is: a combination of Wyman's meticulously kept diaries and clips of the day (evenly drawn in that pre-rock magazine era from disapproving adult newspapers and fawning teen journals). Even with the help of veteran music writer Ray Coleman, Wyman never manages to be anything more than dry and methodical in his remembrances, and the book feels more like a private investigator's report than a public instigator's confessions.
Of course, that "Rolling Stones in the '60s" story has already been told many times, sometimes very well (Stanley Booth's Dance With the Devil) and sometimes very badly (A.E. Hotchner's recent Blown Away: The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties). There are certainly no new bombshells in the Wyman version, except perhaps for the many young girls who pass through his bed.
That's the most amusing subtext here: Wyman as superstud, albeit without the Charles Mingus details. It's almost as if at age 54 (as of Oct. 24), Wyman is intent on establishing late-blooming bragging rights. It starts with his recollections of exchanging kisses with Mary Tappington under the bushes in his front garden at age 4, to heavy petting with Janice Jacks in his teens, to sitting down in a hotel room in 1965 and working out "that since the band started two years earlier, I'd had 278 girls, Brian 130, Mick about 30, Keith six and Charlie none." Happily, Wyman doesn't name all 278 and does point out that drummer Charlie Watts was married and faithful (Wyman was one but not the other), while Jagger and Richards had their songwriting and steady girlfriends to keep them warm.
By the time the '60s ended, Wyman's buddy count was probably in the thousands -- including 13 in one Los Angeles stop-over. One suspects Tappington and Jacks, now in their 50s, may not appreciate being named as pre-puberty correspondents, but the rest can be assured that they're just part of Wyman's hit list, with only a few named.
From the evidence in Stone Alone, it seems the only things band members weren't getting enough of in the '60s were sleep and money. In fact, the latter gets a detailed examination in the book. When in doubt, Wyman balances events with his bank account (after doing the Ed Sullivan show in New York, "back in England my bank account showed a debit of
133 on this day"). Wyman has apparently kept a copy of every band bill and concert statement because such information is scattered throughout the book, sometimes to ridiculous effect (each Stone's telephone bill from one hotel stay, what trains were taken where, how much each got for gigs, how many people attended, how many girls fainted, etc).
Wyman's documentary approach does work well in conveying the mob hysteria that swept the Stones ever further into the media spotlight, and often the dispatches seem to come right from the heart of a cultural war zone. Which, of course, they did. Wyman actually sounds gleeful recounting the very real dangers involved in performing under such circumstances, and maybe it is important to remember the immense hostility, physical and institutional, that attended the Stones' rise to stardom.
But when you've read about four or five riots, you've read about them all. Even less involving are the band's legal and financial problems: The former have been recounted at great length elsewhere, and the Allen Klein debacle will interest only those looking to manage or be managed in future rock 'n' roll circuses.
What's missing is any insight into relationships within the band, much less how the music was created. Wyman admits that the other Stones are "not the sort of blokes I'd have chosen as mates if I hadn't joined them in a group," and there's not really a whole lot of new insight to accompany the wealth of detail. There is open and apparently ongoing resentment. "If Charlie Watts and I hadn't been so understanding, forgiving, conscientious and tolerant of other people's excesses, the Stones wouldn't have existed for more than the band's first five years," Wyman writes. "The greatness of the front line is beyond question, but living with them hasn't been easy."
Wyman credits Brian Jones as the Stones' "inventor and inspiration." Conceding that Jones was both driving force and liability, Wyman insists "the band would not have existed without him . . . Many of the attitudes and sounds of the '60s were developed from Brian's style and determination, traceable to his own roots and frustrations. He was the archetypal middle-class kid screaming to break away from his background."
Perhaps the most revealing part of Stone Alone is Wyman's warm recounting of growing up as Bill Perks in the shadow of World War II, which should interest his fans and former lovers -- if each of the latter buys a copy, the book is headed for best-seller status. Dry, detailed and dull, this book will need that kind of help or we may never see Volume Two, the Stones post-Altamont, which could well be the more interesting book. Richard Harrington covers pop music for the Style section of The Washington Post.