Grumpy old man

Bill Wyman is sick of talking about Mandy, still has an axe to grind with the Stones ... Thank heavens then for his latest, if unlikely, passion - metal-detecting.
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Arrive at Bill Wyman's Chelsea residence at the appointed hour, one o'clock, ring the bell and wait. A man of middle years opens the door, his shirt tucked firmly inside a pair of roomy jeans, feet encased in boxfresh white trainers, and a hairstyle that does its best to conceal the onset of baldness. He looks nothing like I expected, and momentarily I am confused until I realise that this isn't Wyman at all. I introduce myself, but in lieu of a response, he steps to one side and visibly frowns as I step over the threshold. Turning away from me, he shouts: "Bill, bloke from the paper's here. Where should I stick him?"

As I fret about where, exactly, this man is about to stick me, a furball on legs scuttles over, yapping furiously. I bend down to stroke it, and finally the mystery man - who, I later learn, is Wyman's "man Friday", Terry Taylor - addresses me.

"Wouldn't do that," he deadpans. "He'll have your hand off."

Eventually, I am directed into what was once probably referred to as the parlour, and take a seat at a large wooden table. Wyman's PA, Jilly, enters the room, polite but clearly suspicious of me. Minutes pass, mostly in silence, and as the sun dips behind a cloud, the room sinks into an irretrievable gloom.

"That's okay, Jilly, you don't need to hang around," says the man himself when, at last, he arrives, shuffling into the room like a veritable elderly. "Should be fine with this one." He turns to appraise me over the top of his half moon spectacles, his mouth seeming to struggle against an ironic grin.

Dressed in a lilac T-shirt, a pair of black trousers and moccasins, Wyman comes over, pulls out a chair, offers a cursory handshake, and sits down. From his pocket he retrieves a packet of Dunhill and a lighter. From somewhere else comes an ashtray. He lines them up side-by-side, surveying each with satisfaction, then reaches for the first cigarette. He looks good for his age: a largely smooth face (stubble appears only to grow above and below his mouth); soft, liver spot-free hands; and, incongruously, the delicate fingers of a teenager. On his head sits an expensive hairstyle, carefully coiffed and dyed, apparently, the colour of "spicy plum". The half moon spectacles, which regularly slide down his nose, are secured by some string around his neck, Miss Marple style. When he talks he mumbles, and as he mumbles he makes very little in the way of eye contact.

Now well into the autumn of his life, Bill Wyman is both a satisfied and a piqued man. He is happy, at last, to be surrounded by a proper family, but is dissatisfied that he isn't, as everybody seems to think, a multi-millionaire. Later, he says this: "The drummer from The Faces is absolutely loaded, living off somewhere in a huge mansion. The Faces were never as big as the Stones, but then they divided their publishing rights equally. The Stones didn't, and so Mick and Keith got most of the profits." He gives a rueful smile. "That's just the way it is, isn't it?"

But first our conversation must begin. I start with a mild pleasantry. How are you?

"How am I?" he repeats, as if incredulous at the very question. "I'm fine, of course. I'm always fine." Good, good.

Bill Wyman, the former Rolling Stone and current leader of goodtime blues collective Rhythm Kings, is now just three years shy of his 70th birthday. Despite his official entry, two years previously, into the OAP club, he is more active than he has ever been, those teenage fingers of his in several different pies. In the five years since the floating nine piece formed (featuring, among others, crooner Georgie Fame and guitarist Albert Lee), Rhythm Kings have released five studio albums and four official live bootlegs. They've just come back from a European tour. "Italy, France, Spain ... " Wyman ticks off. "Zagreb, parts of Scandinavia." Later this month, they will tour the UK. Last year, he published a variation of his 1990 autobiography Stone Alone, entitled Rolling With The Stones, and he is currently compiling another book on one of his other major passions, archaeology. On the homefront, meanwhile, he has three young daughters to attend: Katie, eight, Jessie, seven, and Matilda, five.

"It's a full life, but I love it," he says. "I no longer do anything I don't want to these days, and so I get to spend a lot of time with the family, which is very important. It never used to be like that."

Back in 1993, when Wyman walked away from one of the world's most enduring rock bands after 31 years' service, singer Mick Jagger claimed not to have noticed. "How hard can it be to play bass?" he was reported to have said. "I'll do it myself."

This quip, it is probably fair to surmise, was indicative of Wyman's role in the band. The Rolling Stones belonged to Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. Second guitarist, the fabulously flash Ronnie Wood, occasionally got a look in, and although drummer Charlie Watts was slate-faced and never said a word, he looked great, and was therefore "enigmatic". Wyman, on the other hand, was the band's black sheep. Born William Perks in Penge all the way back in 1936, he was older, for starters, and never seemed to fully engage with the others. Watch old footage of the band, and you'll see Wyman lingering somewhere in the background, often out of focus, and perennially incongruous.

"No one ever got the right image of me," he says now. "I was always referred to as the quiet one, the one who never spoke up. You know why I never spoke up? Because nobody asked me any bloody questions, that's why. They only ever cared about Mick and Keith."

When he joined in 1962, Wyman was already married (to childhood sweetheart Diane Cory) and had a young son, Stephen. The pressures on an Rolling Stones were myriad: the world was newly theirs; much fun was to be had in between engagements. But not for Wyman. While the band partied, he was home on nappy duty.

"I suppose I always was the loner in the group because of my responsibilities," he says. f "Also, I was never a particularly heavy drinker, and I never bothered with drugs, which was difficult when everybody else around me was doing loads."

A few years later, however, the marriage foundered and ended up in the divorce courts. Wyman was awarded sole custody of his son. But as the band became more successful, he found himself increasingly away from home. He continued to avoid most stimulants but Wyman, only human after all, developed another Achilles heel: women - the pursuit of, and the sleeping with. Within a two-year period in the 1960s, he totted up 278 conquests.

"I only remember because I happened to keep diaries," he says, recalling how the diaries - which were later published in Stone Alone - gave him one of his sweetest victories during his otherwise frustrating time with the band. "We were sitting around on tour one day - I think we were waiting for a storm to pass ... Anyway, the conversation turned to how many women we'd had." He leans back in his chair, smiling to himself. "I won." Now comes the frown. "That's not bragging, by the way. It's just ... well, it was just a moment in time."

One factor in his success, he claims - aside, one imagines, from dashing good looks, and a sparkling wit - was his low profile.

"The tabloids never focused on me, see, which meant I could get away with a lot more than the others, heh heh. I was never caught leaving clubs with girls, or creeping out of hotel rooms at six o'clock in the morning, because all they [the newspapers] cared about was Mick or Keith. I was very lucky."

It became a passion, then a form of addiction. In his lifetime, the self-confessed Quiet One will tell you that - yes, it's true, really - he has slept with over 1,000 women. But only one, as far as the public is concerned, stands out. When he first took prototype It girl Mandy Smith to bed, he knew that this one was different, special even. Smith was blonde and beautiful. She was infectious - like a child, you could say - and terrific company. Love (and it was love; they would later marry, albeit briefly) had blinded him to everything, including their difference in age.

He was 48, she 13.

"She did look older," he says, by way of an excuse.

Wyman, of course, is not the only music name to be linked with underage sex. Jonathan King is currently serving time for indecent assault and serious sexual offences (his preference being boys), and US R& B star R Kelly has several cases pending of child pornography stemming from a videotape that allegedly shows him having sex with an underage girl. Wyman's experiences differ because he was never arrested, and never taken to court. He was, he says, lucky: "No charges were ever brought against me." When the story hit the headlines, he snuck away to his home in the south of France, waiting for things to blow over. He didn't realise it at the time, but it would never entirely blow over.

"Friends said that people would forget all about it within three or four days," he says now, wearily. "But there were eight long years of press about it. I should know, I've got it all archived upstairs in my attic." He reaches for his third Dunhill, laughing bitterly at the warning on the box that says "SMOKING KILLS". "It's got over-talked about endlessly, on and bloody on." He lights up, and draws deeply. Right now, he seems reflective. In a couple of minutes, his mood will darken. "I suppose Mandy was my biggest regret, and it's very probably the only thing I've ever done wrong in my life. Apart from peeing in a garage in 1963."

Why ever did he do it?

"Look, it's over. It happened, I didn't get into trouble for it and, yes, I was very relieved not to have been arrested." Pause; slight smile. "Wouldn't you be?"

When the bassist finally quit the Rolling Stones, he became determined to introduce some belated order in his life. With the Mandy Smith hangover still haranguing him, he found himself calling up an old flame, Californian actress Suzanne Accosta. They'd dated back in 1979, he still held a candle for her, and reckoned she'd make good wife material. They met up again, went out on several dates, Wyman impressing upon her his yearning for a family and vowing that his womanising days were behind him. It's not entirely clear what Accosta's own circumstances were, but she readily accepted his proposal of marriage. Ten years on, and Wyman now has the family he had for so long craved.

"All the relationships I had during the Stones were compromised because I spent so much time on the road," he says. "When I left, I was finally able to focus on the things I'd missed out on. It really was like beginning over again, and not just in my personal life, either. There was no room for me as a songwriter in the Stones, and that was very frustrating. You know, just because I happened to be a bassist didn't mean I wasn't creative."

During his creative incarceration, he did find the occasional outlet - contributing to film soundtracks and, in 1983, recording his solo single "(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star" - but after his departure came freedom, and a chance to indulge. He opened his restaurant Sticky Fingers in Kensington, and began writing Stone Alone. He got married, and had children. He became the boss - "but not the dictator" - of his own band Rhythm Kings, and finally had time in his life for one of his greatest loves - metal detecting.

"It keeps me fit," he says. "Fit and active. Plus, I find loads of great stuff. I know exactly where to look," he says, tapping the side of his nose with the same two fingers that are holding his latest cigarette. "I've discovered several Roman sites, all manner of 15th-century artefacts, brooches, a Tudor buckle from 1520 just the other day, and at least 200 - no, 300 - Roman coins, all of which have been verified by the British Museum."

None of his discoveries have made him rich, however, and this is the source of lingering irritation. What with the lion's share of Rolling Stones profit going directly into the pockets of Jagger and Richards, Wyman insists he never made very much moolah. His current band brings him few financial rewards, and any wealth he ever did lay claim to was invested in the stock market. Post September 11, the stock market suffered greatly. So too did Wyman.

"This time last year I was in quite a tight situation," he says. "I had to make a lot of cutbacks, and things are difficult, especially with a young family to support."

The proverbial belt, he says, was tightened accordingly. Consequently, these days he retains just three homes (London, Suffolk, the south of France), three cars, a maid, a nanny, a cook and a PA. And of course Terry Taylor, man Friday. Bill Wyman isn't exactly poor, but he does switch the light off when leaving a room.

"Put it this away: I'll never be able to afford to retire. When I turned 65, I became entitled to a state pension. Over the years, I've given millions to the government in tax and how much pension do I get?" The face crumbles, the cheeks sag. "£34 a week. What a joke, eh? That doesn't even cover the cost of my cigarettes ..." E

The Rhythm Kings' UK tour begins on 4 November. They play the Royal Albert Hall on 12 November, call 020-7589 8212 for tickets