“I’m the one who remembers”

The Rolling Stones story is full of unreliable witnesses; we choose who we want to believe. Today we can see that the victor’s version of history purveyed by Keith Richards, with his book Life, is the popular one – and that the book has, in effect, airbrushed out earlier accounts, including what was previously the definitive insider’s version, namely that of Bill Wyman.

Personally, while I was once an admirer of Keith, who in person has often seemed a sensitive and considerate person, I found much of that peter out after reading Life – which is loose with the facts and nasty, and even callous, in its judgements. In contrast, Bill Wyman’s is the book one can trust; a book that actually tries to work out what was going on in other people’s minds, and one where he admits his own faults. In particular, he castigates himself for not standing up for Brian Jones. He quotes his then-girlfriend, Astrid Lundström, in a very powerful paragraph: “Mick and Keith got away with murder because Bill and Charlie didn’t create any waves. The more destructive characters in any situation are the ones who enable other people to be sick. The worst criminals are the ones who don’t stand up for themselves. Bill and Charlie enabled Mick and Keith to carry on being what I consider to be incredibly selfish. .. Unfortunately he forgets his own part in allowing it to happen. I’m not blaming him, because to be around those people leaves scars.”

I met Bill again when he was doing publicity for his new album, Back To Basics. We had an insightful, often funny, conversation, despite an over-zealous personal assistant who kept interrupting, outraged that I should, for example, mention there was an impending book on Allen Klein. Bill was undeterred, and forthright: “Allen Crime is what I call him.”

In many ways, I’ve always found Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ post-mortem vilification of Brian Jones more distasteful than anything they did to him when they were all naive, ambitious, impressionable, randy, aggressive 21 or 25 year olds. It is spectacularly graceless when Brian Jones is, in essence, the man who gave them the job of a lifetime (and a man who, incidentally, was invariably kind about his fellow Stones in print). I’ve been accused of being partisan, of writing a hagiography, by making this point in Sympathy For The Devil. So perhaps today, which marks the paperback publication, is a good day for the opinion of someone who was actually there. The lead-up to Bill Wyman’s thoughts on Life came when we were discussing his first visit to Chess studios. In Life, Keith talks at length about how when he first met Muddy Waters, the King of the Blues was up on a ladder painting the studio, white paint spattered all over his handsome face. It is a ludicrous and patronising image; Muddy was a proud, regal figure and would never have performed such menial tasks, that’s if the Chess brothers would have asked one of their major artists to perform a bit of DIY in their (actually advanced and well-appointed) studio.

You met Willie Dixon, obviously his bass was a key part of the Chess sound, did you chat to him much?
Not really – I think that was the second time we went to Chess. We spoke to Muddy, who was lovely, very kind, helped us carry our amplifiers.

Was he painting the ceiling when you went in?
Of course he wasn’t. That’s ludicrous. I was there and it didn’t happen.Muddy Waters was still one of Chess’s best selling artists at the time, so why would he be painting the ceiling? I got to know Marshall Chess well, the son of [Leonard], and he says it would never have happened, either. I don’t know where Keith gets those stories from, it’s sheer fantasy. Then he tells these stories so often he starts to believe them. I try not to talk about it when people ask me about his book, but I care about how things happened, I’m the one who remembers! I really don’t know why he put all these things in that anyone knows can’t be true – like that Hitler was out to get him, sending over German bombers; he was only 18 month old when the war finished, and they’d been out staying in the country!

How did you feel about Keith’s book describing Brian Jones as a “rotting attachment”
Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting that he put that.  But then the whole book doesn’t really have anybody but him, as if he was the only person in the band, or it was just him and Mick. That’s the story now. Keith hardly mentions anyone else in his book at all. But people keep asking me about it, so I’ve learned to keep a diplomatic silence.

I know you still get on well with Charlie, but it must be strange, the whole relationship/non relationship aspect.
I still get on with Keith, we’re good mates, he still gets in touch. He can be very considerate and kind, he sends you very thoughtful presents, books he knows you’ll like.

Tell me about what I’ve always thought of one special moment with the band, when Brian introduces Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig, then you all sit down at his feet as he plays – the first time he’d been on TV, the moment when all these American kids discovered the music in their own backyard.
It was a very special moment, all sitting there at his feet. We were taking something that America had, and introducing it to them. And it was all the more amazing, in that Wolf introduced us to this elderly gentleman who he said was a friend. Brian and I went over and chatted to him, and it was Son House – this fantastic legend, who told us how he’d sit and watch Charley Patton play. Wolf had a great band, too, I can’t remember who was on bass, I think it was Ricky Nelson on guitar, so yes, it was amazing. For millions of kids watching TV, this was the first time they’d seen anything like it.Earl Slick & Bill Wyman

 

 

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