‘Thumb’ looks at fan’s 17 years with Stones
To this day, Bill German has no idea why the Rolling Stones accepted him into their manic rock ‘n’ roll tribe. No clue why he, out of thousands who would have gladly sold their souls to rub shoulders with Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, was granted admission to birthday parties, recording sessions and private gatherings.
Perhaps, German muses, it was because he asked for no favors, no special privileges, nothing beyond being able to interview band members for his fanzine, “Beggars Banquet.”
“I came in as this goody-two-shoes kid from Brooklyn, and I never lost that,” German says. “Even though I was on the inside, I still felt like an outsider. … Maybe I dressed like them at times, or wore my hair like them, but I never really wanted to be them.”
German’s new book, “Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It)” chronicles the 17 years he spent with, and writing about the world’s most famous rock band.
He was only 17 in 1980, just two days removed from his high-school graduation, when he first encountered the Stones outside a club in New York City. German was lurking outside Danceteria, where the Stones were holding a press conference, hawking the latest issue “Beggars Banquet.” Ron Wood accepted a copy, and noticed that the cover featured exclusive photos from the Rolling Stones’ forthcoming album, “Emotional Rescue.”
Wood remarked “How’d you have thatâ¢ It’s not out til today !” And soon German was a known, and often welcome, person in the Stones’ camp.
German’s circle of contacts — mostly fellow Stones fans — enabled him to publish items that the mainstream press missed. In 1981, when Richards got into a fight with Chuck Berry at a New York nightspot, German put out an edition with the headline “Keith Hits the Ritz (and Berry Hits Keith)” before anyone else had the news. He would break other stories by virtue of being an embedded reporter long before the term was used to describe war correspondents in battle zones.
German admits he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Back in the early-to-mid 1980s — as hard as it is to imagine now — the Stones traveled on their own, without bodyguards.
“It was a different situation, even with the paparazzi, who weren’t being accused of killing princesses or anything like that,” German says. “It was a much more mellow scene, and people were there for the music and not the celebrity. They were very accessible, and in a weird way the Stones were almost like a New York band during those years, as much as the Ramones were.”
Another factor might have contributed to German’s proximity to the Rolling Stones. Because he wanted nothing more than to talk, he filled a void felt especially by Richards and Wood.
“During those mid-’80s times, they kind of needed friends,” German says. “I know it’s hard for people to believe today, with stadiums full of people going to see them. But in the mid-1980s, they were a little lonely. They were living in New York City, and they had their wives and girlfriends, but I think they needed some guy friends, and I think that’s what they found in me.”
German — who dropped out of New York University in 1981 to go on tour with the Stones — was enlisted briefly by the Rolling Stones to have “Beggars Banquet” become the official publication of the band’s fan club. But the added exposure brought increased scrutiny from the group’s management, and he often bristled at some of the restrictions placed upon him. Richards and Jagger had recommended him for the job, but German feared that he would be ostracized when he decided to not renew his contract.
Richards, however, became a staunch ally, and told him to do what was best for Bill German, not the Rolling Stones.
“It was amazing that he was actually advising me to go against his own company,” German says. “But that’s the kind of guy that he is, the ethics that he has. I guess a lot of people don’t realize that. … They have an image of Keith as this drugged-out guy who doesn’t care about anything or doesn’t realize what’s going on, but he is as sharp as a tack. and he is very aware of everything. He is a very ethical guy; he might have his own code of ethics, but he lives by it.”
German would become particularly close to Ron Wood, writing the text for the guitarist’s art book, “The Works.” He developed a similarly simpatico relationship with Richards, and Bill Wyman, when he was in the band, always treated him well.
Charlie Wattsâ¢ A bit aloof, a “very introverted person,” German says. “If he doesn’t know who you are, or doesn’t know your life’s story, he’s not going to talk to you.”
Mick Jagger, German says, lives up to Wood’s description of the singer: “Mick Jagger is a nice bunch of guys. It depends on which one you get.”
“Sometimes he can be so charming, and other times he avoids all eye contact, he won’t shake your hand,” German says. “But I sometimes give Mick a pass, because that’s his defense mechanism, and he needs to have a shell around him because he’s more in demand than the others. He’s more famous than the others.”
“Woody and Keith, what more can I say?” German adds. “The generosity and the hospitality they showed me is something I can never repay.”
By way of his fanzine, ‘Beggars Banquet,’ Bill German achieved what many fans dream about: He met his idols, the Rolling Stones. His memoir ‘Under Their Thumb’ chronicles the 17 years German spent as a friend and confidante, particularly to Keith Richards and Ron Woods. German’s anecdotes are often priceless — whether it’s spilling orange juice on Mick Jagger’s rug and watching the singer clean it up, or recalling when Richards stopped his limousine after a concert to give a limping fan a ride home — but there was also a price to be paid. He went for years without health insurance, barely made enough money to survive and saw personal relationships suffer because his loyalty was to the band. While German remains fond of that period of his life, ‘Under Their Thumb’ also is as a cautionary tale about life on the edges of rock ‘n’ roll.
â¢ Rege Behe