Posted April, 2009
Keith Richards and Bill German - Courtesy of Bill German
Imagine that you’re sixteen years old. Do you remember which famous person, or persons, that you idolized and fantasized about meeting or hanging out with? Admit it! You’ve done it and so have I. The closest that most of us have ever come to realizing those dreams were paying to see our idols in concert or hanging out at the hotel that where they stayed. If we were real lucky, we managed to buy excellent seats or catch a glimpse of the objects of our affections before they disappeared into a limo or the hotel.
For most of us, if we achieved that level of “success”, we’d talk about it for a lifetime, driving everyone within earshot absolutely crazy. However, there are those who have refused to accept a mere glimpse at the rich and famous. Some pursue actually knowing them on a personal basis. Bill German is just such a person.
As a teenager in the late ‘70’s, Mr. German started a newsletter dedicated to news about the Stones. It was named after what is arguably the best album ever recorded by the Stones entitled, “Beggar’s Banquet”. Bill parlayed his labor of love into not only meeting the boys in the band but managed to become personal friends with the band’s legendary guitarist, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood.
Having been a Stones fan since I was the same age as German and being incredibly envious of his achievements in this area, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he has a book coming out that details his life with the bad boys of rock and roll. The tome is entitled, “Under Their Thumb”. It’s a warts and all, open kimono recounting of German’s life and times with Mick and the boys.
I tracked Bill down in New York City to ask him about his relationship with the Rolling Stones as well as his future plans. He was kind enough to oblige despite his incredibly busy schedule promoting his book and preliminary ground work on future books.
German’s story is very similar to Cameron Crowe and “Almost Famous”. The big difference is that Bill witnessed the inner workings and battles within the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. While newspapers and magazines all over the world could only speculate and rely on second and third hand information about the perceived demise of the band, German was a first hand observer of what actually took place. And, often to the chagrin of Sir Mick, reported the events in “Beggar’s Banquet”.
In summarizing how it all started, German relates that “I was an aspiring journalist (my idol was Tom Snyder) and a rabid Rolling Stones fan. In 1978, as I was turning 16, I decided to marry the two by launching my "Beggars Banquet" newsletter. I printed the first year of issues in the mimeo room of my high school. I tried selling copies to my classmates, but found no takers. Ironically, it was the Stones who took notice and welcomed me into their circle. (Every time I published a new issue, I'd make sure they received copies, by either leaving it with their doormen, or by presenting it to them in person at New York City's nightclubs.)
Eventually, the band put German on the Stones payroll but found dealing with their business associates “a frustrating experience, and, in the end, I preferred maintaining my independence. Eventually, my business relationship with the Stones returned to a ‘I make my own money and pay my own way’ policy.”
“Under Their Thumb” isn’t the first book Bill German has been involved with the writing of. In the mid-eighties, he co-wrote, “The Works” with Ronnie Wood. While German didn’t make much money from his efforts, he undertook the task because he “was the only person who could write it.”
German’s “Beggar’s Banquet” opened doors to other Stones-related gigs such as an article covering the band’s 1990 tour was published in Rolling Stone Magazine; a print interview with Keith Richards for Spin Magazine as well as for ABC Radio. He was also asked to do a lot of “Stones reporting” for various other radio stations.
When I asked Bill to name his best and worst experiences during his “Beggar’s Banquet” years, he good naturedly says, “Hey, Randy, I can write a book about it! Oh, wait, I have! In short, I'd say the best part was the mid-'80s, spending quality time with Keith and Ronnie; watching Stones jams at the recording studio or in Ronnie's kitchen and basement. Feeling like there was no other place on earth I wanted to be.
The lousy parts were dealing with the Stones' ‘machinery,’ as they became over-corporatized and a little too focused on the bottom line. It left me pretty disenchanted.”
Beggar's Banquet ceased publication in 1996. However, German is offering the archives for sale at his website, BeggarsBanquetonline.com, for diehard fans. I asked Bill why he stopped his labor of love.
“There's the Stones-related reason, which I discuss in the previous answer. The over-corporatization sucked the fun out of it and made it more difficult to find the man-bites-dog stories, which is a journalist's job) - too many people running interference. But there were also financial, personal, and technological reasons: Making very little money, working 24-7 (feeling like I was always on call), and dealing with snail mail, postage stamps, printers, etc. If the Web were around, it'd have saved me tons of time and energy.”
When asked if he’s still in contact with Keith or Ronnie, he offers, “Not in a while. I did send Keith & Patti (Keith’s wife of 25 years) an advance copy of the book about a month ago, but wasn't expecting to hear back.” Why? “Keith ain't the type to send e-mail or grab the horn and call anybody.” Continuing on, he adds, “I tried to reach Ronnie a few months back, but he was in rehab. And now that he's out, he's moved in with his mistress/girlfriend, and I don't have his current contact info.”
I asked Bill if, with the release of his book, he assumes that any relationship with the Stones is all but over. He concedes that it’s highly unlikely that he will receive any congratulatory messages from the band’s Prince of Darkness. One reason is that Bill gives his unvarnished view and interpretation of various events. Some of those do not portray Jagger in the most flattering of ways. The most nefarious of stories was recently splashed all over the New York Post.
German says, “As hard as it may be for Stones fans to understand, I'd already detached myself from the Stones quite a bit in order to write this book (so that I could reflect on my memories.) That's combined with the fact that it's just not as easy as it used to be to hang out with them. They've got families now, as well as more layers of intermediaries. (Not to mention ever-changing phone numbers and hotel pseudonyms.) The book -- unintentionally -- comes off as a love letter to Keith and Ronnie, so we'll see what I hear from them. As for Mick, I'm probably off his Christmas list.”
I mentioned that I noticed in the Stones’s “Four Flicks” DVD collection, there are scenes that seem to strain at portraying the band as relatively clean family guys. I asked German if this was an accurate image. “I can't really comment, since I haven't hung out with them in a while. Ron's obviously been in and out of rehab lately. The only time I ever witnessed Mick do drugs was during that one night in Ron's basement (which of course is what the New York Post zoned in on).”
Speaking of Ron Wood, I asked German to give his prediction as to whether or not Woody would come to his senses and live his grandchild-aged girlfriend and return to his lovely wife, Jo. “Your guess is as good as mine, but I hope it's the former. He wouldn't be alive today if it were not for her love, support, and vigilance.”
After the promotional work for “Thumb” is complete, German has more literary work on his radar. He says, “I've been approached to ghost-write the memoir of a famous rock photographer, but, whether or not I take on that project, I'd like to continue writing memoirs about other facets of my life. As big a presence as the Stones had, they represent only a fraction of the unique people I've known in my life.”
An engrossing page turner for Rolling Stones fans, “Under Their Thumb” is currently available at large bookstores everywhere.