Notes From An Artist

Bill Wyman Discusses His New Book "Billy In The Wars"

October 27, 2023 David C Gross and Tom Semioli
Notes From An Artist
Bill Wyman Discusses His New Book "Billy In The Wars"
Show Notes Transcript

Author, historian, charity cricketer, archeologist, and founding member of the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman joins hosts and fellow bassists David C. Gross and Tom Semioli to discuss his latest book Billy In The Wars on Pegasus Books. An illustrated memoir, the book recounts Wyman's experiences as a young boy growing up in wartime Britain. 

Bill Wyman Billy In The Wars Playlist

Bill Wyman Discusses Billy In The Wars

PREAMBLE / INTRODUCTION

Author, historian, charity cricketer, archeologist, and founding member of the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman joins hosts and fellow bassists David C. Gross and Tom Semioli to discuss his latest book Billy In The Wars (2023) on Pegasus Books. An illustrated memoir, the book recounts Wyman's experiences as a young boy growing up in wartime Britain. 

TS: David, please to meet you, hope you guess my name!

DCG: Big show tonight, Tom, Bill is back!

TS: Yes, the author, historian, and founding member of the Rolling Stones is our guest for the second time in five months. Bill was first on our show in June of 2023 for the publication of Bill Wyman’s Chelsea which is a fascinating, comprehensive walking guide to the famed district in West London. 

David, next time you’re in London, you must visit Chelsea! And take Bill’s book with you! 

DCG: Absolutely, because I want to see all those knockers!

TS: What David is referring to is “door knockers.” Bill takes us on a deep dive into the historical, cultural and rock and roll landmarks of that now affluent district, and Bill’s photographs also include several ornate door knockers – those are the “knockers” David speaks of! Not the British slang for women’s breasts…

Bill’s latest book is entitled Billy In The Wars – it is his latest book as of October 2023. This is Bill’s thirteenth book! By the time you hear this he might have written a couple of more! 

DCG: The official release date is October 24, and what is special about that day? 

TS: That’s the day Bill completed yet another trip around the sun! 

TS: In this memoir Bill recalls his experiences as a young boy growing up in wartime Britain. 

We get a very personal diary of Bill’s childhood in this memoir. He recalls having to seek refuge in air-raid shelters, the traumas of fighter planes flying overhead in London, he recalls bombings wherein he lost neighbors, and classmates, and constantly moving to avoid the German military onslaught. 

We also enjoy a glimpse into his relationship with his grandmother with whom Bill credits with making him the man he is today. She was an extraordinary woman as we will discuss. Her nickname was “Frenchie” and when she first picked up her grandson, she proclaimed to the other family members that Bill was going to be “world famous.” And indeed, he is among the most famous bass players in the world!

DCG: Next to you and I of course!

TS: The illustrations in the book are by Eoin Marron who is known for his various graphic novel and comic book publications. 

The underlying themes in Billy and the Wars are courage, persistence, and resilience. And that can be felt all throughout the book. But it’s also a story of adventure and opportunity. 

When you think of Bill joining the Rolling Stones in 1962 you can certainly trace that back to his sense of adventure and opportunity. And when you think of Bill leaving the band in 1993 to pursue his academic interests, again, that is borne of his appetite for growth – which we can trace back to his passion for adventure and opportunity. 

DCG: Absolutely. And you have to credit his grandmother Frenchie to many, many things that happened in Bill’s life; his love of writing journals, his love of collecting, and Rudyard Kipling – his grandmother read “If” to him. This poem is a beautiful way to spend your life. Bill is a direct result of this poem. 

TS: And it was Bill’s grandmother who took him to the Royal Academy of Music to study piano. And that musical education certainly served him very well. 

When you see Bill’s peers, such as Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, The Zombies, and The Rolling Stones, in the recording studio and on the bandstand into their 80s, it all goes back to opportunity and adventure. 

DCG: And it’s also about passion. One of the first “pop” stars to end his days performing was Frank Sinatra. There was no reason for him to stop. He loved to sing. He loved the songs. 

I think about myself and you… we’re going to go on forever! And why not! 

INTERVIEW

 

TS: Let’s bring on Bill Wyman …welcome back to the show Bill!

BW: Thank you!

TS: You join John Altman, Ron Carter, Marc Myers as a returning guest.

BW: Oh you had John on, did you? 

TS: Yes we’ve had him on twice, he loves to talk about himself…

BW: (Laughter) He’s a good friend of mine, we play charity cricket together. 

DCG: We think of John Altman as “Zelig” he seems to be everywhere and has done everything and he knows everybody!

BW: (Laughter) I know exactly what you mean!

TS: Yes, we had him on the show to discuss his book The Hidden Man (2022).

DCG: He’s the hidden man in plain sight!

TS: And congratulations on another trip around the sun!

BW: Well that’s a good way of putting it I suppose…

DCG: Happy Birthday Bill!

TS: Let me officially introduce Bill to the audience… he is an author, he is a photographer, he is a collector, he is an archeologist, he is a historian, he is a recording and performing artist… he is a bass player…

BW: …and don’t forget charity cricketer…

TS: …yes he is a charity cricketer and in his spare time he was a founding member of the Rolling Stones. 

BW: (Laughter)

TS: We are here to talk about his new book Billy In The Wars which is available on Pegasus Books – this is book number thirteen for you, yes?

BW: Yes! Do you have a copy!

DCG: Of course, we read books!

BW: So you know what you’re talking about!

DCG: We can’t say that for sure, but we do read your books!

BW: (Laughter) 

TS: The book is an illustrated memoir of your experiences growing up during World War ll in South London. The graphics were created by Eoin Marron and they really paint a vivid picture of what your young life was like. How did you come to collaborate with him? 

BW: Eoin is from Southern Ireland, and he happens to be my eldest daughter’s boyfriend. She has a degree in animation – she has many films on YouTube – and she met him. Eoin creates his own comics and I love what he does, so I asked him to illustrate the book. He did a nice job I think…

DCG: Did you give him an artistic direction?

BW: I gave him a couple of photos…such as the photo of my mother and father…and one of me when I was five years old. That’s the earliest photo of me. We’re weren’t rich enough to own cameras. My mother and father got married, but they do not have a wedding picture! 

We just didn’t have those things back then – they were real bonuses! 

TS: Bill this book has universal applications, somewhere in the world right now there is a William Perks in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq…when you set out on this project, did you think about the people you are going through what you went through as a child? 

BW: Well there obviously is, but they’re starting to get fewer and far between. I thought it would be important for people to understand what it is actually like. Some years ago I did interviews – well more like questions and answers – with schools and talked about what it was like growing up with no electricity, no television, no radio, no dishwashers… and these kids were absolutely amazed! They couldn’t understand how we lived back then… 

So here I am, telling my stories, because I do remember it all. 

DCG The hero of this book is your grandmother! She tutored you, afforded you the attention that every child needs. She taught you, in your own words “to be something special.” Was that her way of instilling you with the will to survive in wartime? 

BW: It created me. I wouldn’t be me if it hadn’t had been for her. She taught me to write a diary, to collect things, she read me all the famous books such as Treasure Island, and Gulliver’s Travels and so on… she was a great reader herself. 

She could talk on all kinds of subjects. She had me collecting postage stamps, cigarette cards – which you call baseball cards in America…and she started me on piano lessons, and she took me to the Royal College of Music in London, which is behind the Royal Albert Hall, where I passed my first two piano exams. 

She guided me on the way to music. I don’t know what I’d have done without her. And she gave me love and affection all throughout the war when there was not much around. 

TS: She predicted that you would become “world famous” in a time when it wasn’t common to become world famous as global television, social media, or digital technology had yet to materialize. Nor did the concept of an international “rock star” even exist! 

BW: Indeed she was clairvoyant. She made that statement when she first picked me up and I must’ve been only two weeks old!

She was with all the relatives and this was the first time she saw her grandson. When she said that, everybody roared with laughter! But she was right in the end, and she helped to ‘achieve me!’ 

TS: Courage is certainly a theme which underlies this book, but also a sense of adventure. When you migrate to Pembrokeshire in Wales you first experience nature, helping your dad out as a bricklayer, living in the Crowder house, then returning to London – it seems as if it all was an adventure to you.

BW: It was. When I was evacuated to Mansfield – which is near Nottingham, I had a mile and a half walk to school which went through lanes, and farms was the first time I saw nature. Living in South London was just bricks and mortar. Yes, that was a magical adventure to me. 

DCG: And you were a young entrepreneur, you earned the money to purchase your first bicycle when you were just six years old!

BW: It sounds impossible, but it took four months when I was in South London. I ran errands for the neighbors, aunts, and uncles…they’d give me a few coins here and there. I saved every one of them. One day I went to the shop, and the owner said ‘you’ve bought yourself a bike!’ 

DCG: When you think about America and the fact that even during WW ll, no one attacked us on the mainland. However, the Brits were bombed directly – you were really ‘in’ it. And that’s something we do not understand in the US. 

Even with 9/11 – which was an isolated incident in a small, nonresidential area – Londoners were in the thick of it. 

BW: Yes. We slept in air-raid shelters night after night after night. People couldn’t stay in their houses. The Germans were sending 600 to 800 bomber planes every day. Sometimes three times a day. I used to attended school during the bombings – we had air raid shelters at our schools. We were taught what to do if you were caught out in an air-raid and if you couldn’t get into a shelter how you could save yourself. And we learned all the propaganda when we were 6,7,8 years old – but it was necessary.

Food was rare. It’s bizarre. You won’t even understand it I think… The war ended in 1945 and the whole country was on rationing since the war started. That rationing ended in 1953 – eight years after the war ended! 

So (laughter) that’s why we’re all little! A lot of the rock bands from England are little – the Small Faces, us (Rolling Stones). That’s because our diet was really, really limited. 

We scrounged and searched for anything to eat in those days. 

TS: Bill take us back to the time in Penge when you witnessed a speech by Winston Churchill. Recall for us that experience and what Churchill meant to your generation.

BW: I remember him coming up the main street in Penge in an open car. The school children were told to go behind barriers. 

The car moved slowly, it stopped a few times to give Churchill the opportunity to wave to the crowd. He had his cigar, and was giving the victory sign. I was about 12 or 15 feet away from him. It was an extraordinary experience. He is a huge hero of mine, of course. 

There were certain people you had to admire in those days. Churchill really saved us. His strength, his great speeches, his great one-liners – were extraordinary. I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for him.

DCG: It was also interesting to read about the camaraderie that British families had amongst each other. You mention in the book that Hitler tried to destroy British morale but he actually strengthened it.

BW: Exactly. It was brilliant. It’s not the same anymore. On our street, and all the other streets as far as I know as I had friends on other streets, everybody’s door was open for anybody to come in and out. Any time of the day or evening! 

When the kids had grown up a bit, they would give away the clothes to other families with smaller children. People helped out with food, all kinds of stuff. 

It was so wonderful, that sense of community that does not exist anymore. Everybody did everything for everyone. If anybody got ill, if anybody died there were collections made in the streets for them. It was extraordinary. 

Nowadays English people don’t know who lives next door to them, which is a shame. 

TS: You write about your Aunt Dorothy who dated servicemen, and took you to the Croydon Ballroom where you became enamored with the dance bands of the era. 

BW: Yes, those were the first times I saw live music! I must have been eight or nine years old. England had lots of big bands in those days. American singers would come over and perform and record with them. 

I saw the soldiers and girls doing the ‘jitter-bug’ which was ‘early jiving!’ I sat there with my lemonade and I’d wish that I could be in a band when I get older!   

Of course, I never imagined that it could be possible at all as they were all classy musicians that knew how to read and been taught everything. It wasn’t at all like wound up doing things being free by doing everything by ear. 

That was quite a magical time.

DCG: Reading biographies of other musicians of your era, such as John Altman’s Hidden Man you see everything in life as an opportunity. You quote Rudyard Kipling ‘yours is the earth and everything that’s in it….’ So, it seems like you were denied so much, that anything that came by was an opportunity, such as joining a rock and roll band…

BW: Yes, and that is from my favorite poem ‘If’ My grandmother told me to live my life based on what Kipling has written. 

And fortunately, years later when I did a speech at the Cambridge Union Society they noted that I was very fond of Kipling. They said ‘we’ve got something to show you…’ and it was the original ‘If’ poem and a lot of his other works written on very thin blue paper. It was like the paper you’d get on airplanes. I saw all the corrections in the margins and I was amazed at seeing the real thing. 

DCG: Bill, since you served in the military did anything from your early life crossover out of your serving? Memories? 

BW: I was actually in the RAF (Royal Air Force) and I served in Germany. I had German friends. And there were German civilians working in the camp. So there was this nice feeling of forgetting the war and making friends again. I was a couple of years in Northen Germany, it was bloody cold! 

I learned to be more independent, to be stronger in myself. At the time I was introverted, very nervous, shy … and serving did pull me out of it.   

TS: I spoke to your colleague Chris White (bassist, songwriter The Zombies) and you both shared similar war experiences. And of course, he composed “The Butcher’s Tale” – which was actually about WW I. When that  song came out on their Odessy & Oracle album in 1968 – most people thought it was about the Vietnam War. But akin to your book, the song has universal applications. 

BW: Yes, I am getting a lot of feedback from it already, and it’s only been out a few days. 

DCG: So many interesting tidbits in this book. Soaking and re-baking bread. 

BW: Yes that’s what we had to do! My mum would send me to bombsites and I’d pick the dandelions and we’d eat the leaves between slices of bread. It was absolutely disgusting! We tried everything and on that particular day there was nothing left to eat in the house. 

And everything was powered! Powdered milk, powdered egg, powered potatoes, in metal cans. That’s how we survived. 

TS: Your grandmother nurtured your love of collecting and writing. You used flour to make sticky-backs to adhere pictures to your scrapbook.

BW: Yes, she taught me that! When I came home from my first military leave, my mum said ‘you can sleep downstairs now, we have a big sofa bed for you…you don’t have to sleep with your brothers anymore…’  When I asked where my scrapbooks and things were she replied ‘I threw it all out, that’s just kids’ stuff…’ 

I was so disappointed. But I still have my ration book and my identity card…

TS: I can’t imagine your transition when the Rolling Stones had a hit record, and now you can afford to live in a house with an inside bathroom, you ate the best food, you were chauffeured in limousines and such. That must have been a significant change in life, especially for you as you were older than your bandmates and you experienced the war more intensely. 

BW: Yes, I was seven years older than Mick and Keith. I was giving me a new chance in live. I moved from a slummy house with my wife and my eight-month-old son to a little simple apartment over a garage which actually had a toilet! I was twenty-six years old and it was the first time I’d lived in such accommodations.   I’d never had indoor hot water! Yes, it was a complete change for me. But we still had to scrimp money wise as we weren’t earning much. 

It was an elevation which I really did appreciate! 

 

Bill Wyman Billy and The Wars NOTES FROM AN ARTIST PLAYLIST

“You’re the Tops”                          Teddy Foster Orchestra                              Begin the Beguine

“Jeep Jockey Jump”                      Glenn Miller                                                  Army Air Force Band

“Speak Low When You Speak Love” Glenn Miller                                           Army Air Force Band

“Juke Box Saturday Night”            Glenn Miller                                                 Essential Glenn Miller

“If I Didn’t Care”                            The Ink Spots                                                An Anthology 

“All or Nothing At All”                   Frank Sinatra / Harry James Orchestra              Essential Frank Sinatra

“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”              Andrew Sisters                               20th Century Masters

“Midnight Rambler”                     Rolling Stones                                              Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out

“Monkey Grip Glue”                      Bill Wyman                                                   Monkey Grip

“White Lightening”                        Bill Wyman                                                   White Lightening 

“Stuff Can’t Get Enough”             Bill Wyman                                                   Stuff

“Anyway The Wind Blows”          Bill Wyman                                                   Anyway The Wind Blows

“The Love Gangster”                    Stephen Stills                                  Manassas

“Blow with Ry”                               Rolling Stones / Ry Cooder          Jamming with Edward

“Hoo Doo Man Blues”                  Buddy Guy / Junior Wells             Live at Legends

“Sitting On Top of the World”     Howlin’ Wolf                                   Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions

 

Bill Wyman NOTES FROM AN ARTIST – SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Stone Alone (Da Capo Press 1997) 

Rolling with the Stones (DK Books 2002) 

Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey (DK Books 2001)

The Stones – A History in Cartoons (Sutton Books 2006) 

Billy And The Wars (Pegasus Books 2023) 

Bill Wyman’s Chelsea (Unicorn 2023) 

Bill Wyman NOTES FROM AN ARTIST – SELECT FILMOGRAPHY

Bill Wyman: The Quite One (Backbeat Documentaries)