Bill Wyman Talks About Being ‘The Quiet One’ and Not Like a (Typical) Rolling Stone

There’s a new documentary about Bill Wyman hitting theaters, and contrary to expectations, perhaps, it’s not a silent movie. But it is titled “The Quiet One,” in deference to the legendary bass player’s reputation as the most reserved of the Rolling Stones, an image he thinks he merited only by being pitted against some of the most outgoing bandmates rock ‘n’ roll has ever known. He has plenty to say in the film, although sometimes it’s about things besides words he thinks there are too many of… like notes, when it comes to fellow players whose style is too flamboyant for his tastes.

Wyman, 82, hopped on the phone from his home in England to discuss the Sundance Selects film, which opens this weekend at the Nuart in Los Angeles and IFC Center in New York City, before becoming available on demand for streaming June 28. (Variety also has a couple of exclusive film clips from the documentary, above and below.) An edited version of our conversation follows.

The movie is called “The Quiet One,” so that must be an image you came to accept over time?
It seemed like quite a good title. When interviews were ever done, I was mentioned in many cases as the quiet one, the one that didn’t speak. Interviewers used to say to me later, when I did solo records and worked in other projects, “Why didn’t you ever speak when you were in the Stones?” And I said, “Well, no one ever asked me.” They always went straight to Mick or to Brian, or later to Keith. Charlie and I never got questioned at press conferences and all that. We just had a cup of tea and talked about where we were going on holidays.

But the press could have gotten a lot more out of you at the time, if they’d only been asking?
Well, I had a lot going on in the background which no one knew about, obviously. Because I was doing photography and interested in all kinds of ancient cultures and doing archaeology and reading lots of books on science and astronomy. Also, of course, I was bringing up a child, as I was married. I had an 8-month-old son when I joined the band, who I got custody of when we were divorced, and I brought him up. There was a lot going on in my life all the time.

There are some vintage interview clips in the film where someone will ask you a question and you pause an almost uncomfortably long time before you answer. So you weren’t necessarily leaping to be garrulous when the opportunity arose.
Well, I learned that from watching other people do interviews. [Laughs.]

About what not to do, you mean?
Yeah, I saw how people just burst out with answers when they weren’t thinking and came to regret it. So I was always a bit wary. I don’t suddenly burst into doing or saying things without thinking first. But I’ve always been very logical and very calculating, I suppose you could say. And not in a weird way, but I wrote diaries and I was very logical.

The one time in the film where you are on screen in the present talking at length, you’re talking about meeting Ray Charles, and you get so emotional that your wife, Susannah, has to finish the story for you. Most people might not go into this film imagining the most emotionally vulnerable part of the movie is going to be you meeting Ray Charles.
Well, I do regard him as the greatest artist of the 20th century, although he had problems in his life. My favorite song of all time is “Georgia on My Mind,” and I’d always wanted to meet him, and there was just the one opportunity. But I do get emotional about things. I find it difficult not to be. When I do speeches and things, or when I talk to my children and they tell me they love me, I get emotional. You know, I’m very soft inside. I’m not like the regular Rolling Stone sort of image that people have.

Charlie’s a bit like that as well. You know, Mick and Keith aren’t. But Charlie and I have always been sort of laid back and very quiet. And of course, we were the first married, so we both had responsibilities, and we weren’t nightclubbing all the time like the others were and having fun in town. We were going home to our families. So that’s probably why we were called the straightest rhythm section in rock ‘n’ roll. [Laughs.]

Bill Wyman and Suzanne Wyman aat Tramp 50th Anniversary party, London, UK - 23 May 2019

CREDIT: Richard Young/Shutterstock

Speaking of “A Stone Alone” (the title of Wyman’s solo anthology boxed set): The movie makes a point of how you didn’t do drugs. You were probably close to being alone in that, not just in the Stones but in the entire scene in the ‘60s. You relate the story of how you smoked something you believe was laced with something else, and had a bad experience looking into a mirror, and that was it for you.
Yeah, that really made me realize, and that was just because I just took a joint, which was quite rare. I did mention in the film the way the boys always tried to entice me, but I always stayed clean. There was never any heavy alcohol. No drugs. You know, the odd pep pill to keep awake sometimes when it was necessary, but that was about it, and the odd joint very, very early on. But I realized that if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to do all the things I did want to do, which is like keep my diaries and do my photography — and be a family man. So that’s what kept me straight and on the narrow, and I’m very proud of it, actually, and that’s probably why I look younger than the rest of them do. [Laughs.]

You didn’t have any drug busts, but you did have controversy. People were curious about how you would handle some of the personal stuff, which you deal with at more length in your memoir. There isn’t much time devoted to your marriage to Mandy Smith. Did you have any guidelines for the filmmakers — like acknowledging that it would have to be addressed, but wanting to keep it to a minimum?
I had to keep all my relationships to a minimum because there was not room. My (first) marriage, as well… my six years living with Astrid Lindstrom is at a minimum, and she helped me bring up (his son) Steven — she’s hardly in the film, either. I had relationships with people that should have been in the film but they weren’t, because that wasn’t what the film was going to be about anyway.

The film consists largely of you talking in voiceover over older film footage, until near the end. Was that an approach you preferred, to stay mostly off-camera for the interviews?
That was just the way that (the filmmakers) thought it would be best to do. But also, a problem was that halfway through filming, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and I had to spend nearly two years of treatment before I was back to normal. So we had to stop filming because I was taking steroids and getting puff-faced and not looking myself.

We were going to ask how your health has been since that diagnosis.
I’ve been totally cured, thank you. Back to normal now, and I didn’t have to have the hammer and chisel job, either. Just radiotherapy, so there was no cutting in or anything, which was nice.

Early on in the film, there’s a vintage interview where you’re being extremely self-deprecating and you say, “I’m not a musician. I just play in a band.” Were you being that humble because you were playing rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-‘60s and people didn’t think that counted, or did it have something to do with being a bass player, where humility maybe comes with the territory a little bit?
Well, I think it’s because I’ve always regarded a musician as someone who reads music, who sits and practices for hours and hours and hours, and probably plays in a classical orchestra or is working to be the top jazz musician. Those people rehearse and practice daily, four or five hours. I never did that. I played by ear, the same as the rest of the band did. I did take piano lessons as a child, which helped me understand the formation of music, and so I was able to pick up song ideas quicker than the others and sort of get my shit together on a song. But that was about it, really.

I don’t regard myself as an incredible bass player. I’m very efficient and I do my job very well and I’m not noticed, and that’s the way it should be. I don’t profess to be like Stanley Clarke or someone like that. … You just sit with the drums and build the basics of the song — you know, foundations. That’s what I learned from Duck Dunn in the Booker T. band and those kinds of bands that I admired, and the double bass players in early rock ‘n’ roll and Willie Dixon and all the Chicago blues.

Is it still hard for you to listen to music where there’s a really busy bass player?
Yeah, Ronnie Wood’s like that. [Laughs.] When Ronnie used to sit in for me, if I had the flu or something, he’d do something on a Stones song, and then when I’d come in feeling better, he’d say “Have a listen to my bass line,” and I used to say, “Ronnie, that’s not bass playing — you’re playing guitar again! There’s no bottom in the song.” We would laugh about it.

You were included in a book that Geddy Lee of Rush put together, “The Big Book of Bass.” In an interview, he talked about interviewing you for his book and said, “He’s a very interesting guy because he has a myriad of interests. He’s a photographer and an amateur archaeologist and a football fan. So he wants to talk about anything but basses. It was quite a challenge for me, bringing it back to the subject. But he’s a lovely guy.”
Yeah, he was nice. We had a good old chat and we enjoyed it, but he’s all technical, talking about certain bass guitars and their serial numbers and all these amplifiers, and I know none of that. I just play bass and I play through an amplifier. I don’t care what kind of amplifier it is, as long as it sounds proper. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an Ampeg or a Vox or a Boogie. If it plays right, that’s all I need. And that’s what was confusing him! He thought it was quite amusing, actually.

But Charlie’s the same. Charlie has the smallest drum kit of any rock star. He has seven pieces. That’s all he’s got. And he’s so widely admired by every other drummer. And I’ve seen drummers with 40-, 50-piece drum kits — they’re ridiculous. But Charlie just plays very basic and very simple, on the simplest kit. He sounds good on it, and that’s the way I was… I hope!

THE ROLLING STONES - BILL WYMANVarious

CREDIT: Pete Sanders/Shutterstock

Geddy Lee said you mostly wanted to talk about archaeology and football in your interview with him. Those two things didn’t make it into this documentary, either.
I did archaeology for 20 years, and I disco