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"Rolling With The Stones" by Bill Wyman

Coffee-table books on the Rolling Stones

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

What can a poor boy do when every time you turn around, there's some new way to spend your hard-earned wages on the Stones?

Among the more expensive ways to show you've still got love if they want it -- and they do, especially the singer -- are, of course, the tour (which brings the band to town tonight) and the massive Abkco catalog reissue (which is definitely worth it, even if it means you have to go without a pair of tickets to the show). And this is in addition to the triple-platinum two-disc "40 Licks" collection (which is fun to listen to, of course, but couldn't even hope to scratch the surface), which you had to buy to get your hands -- officially, at least -- on four new songs (of which at least two -- maybe even three -- were definitely worth it).

But you may have missed the books, as Stones fans may not be as likely as, say, Rufus Wainwright fans to spend a lot of time in book stores.

Original bassist Bill Wyman is back at Barnes & Noble with his second book about his Stones adventures, "Rolling With The Stones," a $50 coffee-table book with just over 500 pages of classic photos (many showing Wyman in the foreground) and the bassist's recollections of the era, which because he's kept a diary since childhood, are extremely detailed -- which is not the same, it should be noted, as extremely interesting. In the foreward, you're forewarned that Wyman's goal here is to tell the story from a historical viewpoint -- because, he explains, "so much that has been written about the Stones skirts the truth, embellishes half-truths, or, in some cases, tells total untruths."

But because those half-truths and/or total untruths are, by nature, more enjoyable to read, it's up to Wyman to deliver the truth with a sense of excitement, which he rarely does (although you have to give him credit for outing "Dirty Work" as "an average recording"). Even when he talks about his reasons for leaving the band, not to mention the death of a 4-month-old brother, he spits out details with a cool reserve that once inspired Brian Jones to describe him as "rather matter-of-fact."

As a matter of fact, he is (although the one thing that brings some emotion to Wyman's writing is, ironically enough, his respect and affection for Jones -- "the original Rolling Stone," as Wyman writes).

To get a feel for how obsessed with detail Wyman is, consider the note he's attached to a list of nearly ever gig they played in 1962. "As I wasn't there for many of these," he writes, "it has taken me endless hours of research to piece it all together. If anyone can fill in any gaps, they're welcome."

The fate of the world is hanging in the balance, after all.

But this being the Stones, it's not a total snooze. The author shares some classic anecdotes that only an insider could have shared -- from how freaked out the Americans were to hear the boys ask each other for "fags," a British term for cigarettes, when they first hit the States to their appearance that same year on British TV program "Juke Box Jury," where a member of the group pronounced the latest Elvis single "dated." And the quotes he pulls from other sources bring some passion, insight and/or humor to the table, from the Stones themselves to Richards' mum, who says, "He was always a bit of a mother's boy. He was a cry-baby, often in tears. A timid, introvert boy, he didn't like football. If a ball came near him, he'd run away. He hated being tackled and didn't like to be hurt. He didn't want to be on the rough side of life."

Of course, she also notes, "I caught him smoking once; it made him ill."

Two other coffee-table books -- "Rolling Stones 40 x 20" and "The Stones 65-67" -- are little more than picture books. But few bands lend themselves as readily to photo-heavy treatment as the Stones, whose bad-boy image -- let's be honest -- always played a bigger role in their appeal than any Muddy Waters record.

It's been decades since the Stones have looked as cool as they do in the pages of "The Stones 65-67." As Andrew Loog Oldham notes (as only Oldham would or could) in his hilariously candid yet unfashionably loyal foreward, "This is not a book of stars in self-conscious glory, maligned and snapped by the hack shutter that demands the lads fey forever young at umpteen award cathode carnivals."

Instead, what you get is a book of the Stones at the height of their "street-fighting dandy look" (to quote the cover blurb), as captured in the photographs of Gered Mankowitz, who traveled with the band and shot the covers of "Out of Our Heads" and, more impressively, that towering triumph of decadent chic, "Between the Buttons."

Page after page is devoted to nothing but photos, mostly black and white, from live performance shots that seem to come alive to more reflective glimpses of the Stones in their youth at the eye of a hurricane they once controlled. And while the group's "unofficial-official photographer" may not have captured the Stones in the act of relieving themselves on the wall of an unsuspecting filling station, there's a shot here of Mr. Respectable, Charlie Watts, making use of the nearest available sink.

Despite the focus on his photos, Mankowitz supplies a casually insightful narrative that gives a real sense of the times in which the Stones exploded. One time in the South, he writes, "Charlie and I were going to have some breakfast and a little old lady berated us for being long-haired and filthy. If you were long-haired, you were filthy." Mankowitz's most compelling observations, though, are reserved -- with sympathy -- for Brian Jones, who died in '69 but was already fading away in front of Mankowitz's camera.

"40 x 20," its title a nod to "12 x 5" (perhaps the band's most underrated album), takes you up through '98, with 20 photographers telling the tale. The look is striking. Even Mankowitz's photos seem more vivid here. And yes, the recent shots can be a little horrifying, but the early stuff is great, from matching suits in '63 to the ultimate bad-boy pose -- Keith Richards in '72 in a pair of giant porn-star shades, detained at customs in Seattle, defiantly standing in front of a sign that reads "Patience please ... A drug free America comes first!" Other highlights range from Art Kane's shots of Keith and Brian chewing on a picture of the queen in '66 to Michael Joseph's outtakes from the "Beggars Banquet" photo shoot and Michael Cooper's shot of a star-spangled Brian attacking the camera with a rifle butt in 1968. The commentary, by each of the 20 photographers, isn't half as interesting as Mankowitz's prose, but buy it for the photos and you won't be disappointed.

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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