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Under Their Thumb: Part Two

Our conversation with Bill German, the author of Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With The Rolling Stones (And Lived to Tell About It), continues. Part One is here.


Beachwood: You describe living life without the Stones changing from daunting to necessary. What was that like?

German: It may have had something to do with me turning 30, but it just started to feel like a bit of a drag. It was a cumulative effect; dealing with the people around the Stones got harder, and things started to get more corporate, starting with the Steel Wheels tour. I knew it wasn't going to get any better.

When they did their Voodoo Lounge tour in '94-'95, everything was just so much more corporate. It made it that much more difficult for me to interview the band. It used to be that I would just pop over to Ronnie Wood's house to interview him. I'd just call him up, and tell him I am coming over. Keith, pretty much the same thing. He would say, send Bill German down and it was like, okay, Bill German is coming down. It was just that easy, and then suddenly there are publicists, and tour promoters and bodyguards, which they didn't have in the 1980s, not on a regular basis anyways. All of that made my job more difficult, as far as getting interviews, getting access, getting news to the fans. Even getting photos became a problem, they developed all these rules about photos and it just became too much of a crush.

Then I got disenchanted as a fan. It's just too disappointing to know that the Stones are going to charge $500 for a ticket and that fans are going to be locked out. Some of their hardest core fans won't be able to see them because they simple can't afford it. So of all that together conspired to make me feel like I had done it long enough. And it had been 17 years; it was more than half my life. That's basically what got me to quit.

BONUS AUDIO: German talks about Keith's passion
Beachwood: After having dedicated over half your life to this, was there a period of loss when you gave it up?

German: Yeah, there was an emptiness. This was something that consumed me every day, and then suddenly I didn't have it. And it was like, well, where do I go next? I did considered writing about everything else in the world, other than the Rolling Stones. But it took me a little while to get that going; I just had all of these Stones flashbacks whenever I wrote. I felt like I couldn't move on with my life until I had the catharsis of writing this book, Under Their Thumb. I knew I wouldn't be right until I got this book out of me, so I finally sat down and did.

I started taking notes, and the notes just piled up and piled up and I said, I have to start organizing these. Eventually I did, and here we are. Getting this book out has been a really nice catharsis for me. I'll never fully have the Stones out of my life - I don't want them to be completely out of my life - but it's been nice to get all of that stuff out of my head and off my chest and on to the page.

Beachwood: How did Bill German survive the Rolling Stones notorious killing machine for 17 years?

German: I knew when to ask questions and at the same time, I knew when to be a fly on the wall. I think that is how I survived as long as I did around the Stones. I saw so many people who burned themselves out. They might have gotten in for a little while, and might have partied with them but then they burned themselves out and made themselves unwelcome.

Physically speaking, I never did the drugs, so that's it right there because there were so many causalities. I've thought about this a lot. I think it might have been my upbringing; my parents weren't into booze or anything like that. Even my clique of friends were not into the drugs, so I really wasn't into booze or drugs. I would have the occasional drink, as I mention in the book, I'd have the occasional Jack Daniels [with Keith Richards]. But it really wasn't my thing. There were so many people around the Stones just to do the drugs and that just wasn't me.

It may sound corny but it was a dream come true for me to hang out with the Stones. So when I am in Ron Wood's house or Keith's hotel room, I want to remember every single minute of it. Plus, I was doing journalism, and I was there to gather up news and information. If I was any kind of "holic" it would be a workaholic. That's how I managed to survive physically.

Emotionally, I've always had a sense of humor about it all. I knew we weren't curing cancer here; it is only rock 'n' roll. One of the things I tried to do with Beggars Banquet was show a more human side of the Stones, some of the humorous sides of the Stones; some of the ironies of celebrity life that you don't have in show business now.

For instance, if I told you, 30 years ago, that Keith Richards was on the street, walking his dog, it was humorous because it was Keith Richards. There was some irony to it as far as Keith's image. But nowadays, it's the front cover of People magazine that celebrities are walking their dogs. So it's a lot different, the irony of Mick Jagger or Keith Richards or Ron Wood being seen around New York City.

In one of my early issues, I had a picture of Mick on roller skates. So that was funny back then, Mick Jagger, the big rock 'n' roll God on roller skates and that humanized the Stones. I always had a sense of humor about it, and I think that's how I survived emotionally.

Beachwood: Have you had any feedback from the Stones on your book?

German: Everyone asks me that and so far the answer is no. I haven't really tried to get any feedback. I did send a copy to Keith's house in Connecticut. I never heard back but that's typical Keith. He doesn't call people, he's not on the Internet or anything like that. He doesn't tweet. I wasn't expecting to hear from him.

I was going to send Ron Wood a copy but he shacked up with this 21-year-old girl. He moved out of his house and I didn't have his little love nest address. I haven't really tried contacting him about it. The others I didn't really bother with.

So no feedback so far, but I know that Keith Richards and Ron Wood come off looking pretty good, as well they should. My goal was to just tell a true story and what comes out, comes out. In the end, maybe Mick doesn't come off looking so nice but again, in the end I was just trying to tell a true story, at least from my perspective, and I think that I accomplished that, so I am pretty proud of the book on that level.

Beachwood: What kind of Rolling Stones fan are you now?

German: I am still a fan of the music; I am still entertained any time I watch them on TV. I would still go to a show here and there if it were still affordable. I am not as crazy as I once was as far as collecting. I don't have to go to 20 shows a tour; one show a tour is fine. Just flipping through the dial the other night I stumbled onto the T.A.M.I. show, from 1964, on the local PBS station, where the Stones were on a bill with James Brown, The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry. I stumbled on to that and I am glued to it, still, all the years later.

I am still a fan of their music and their charisma. I'll carry that with me forever, no objections there. I always separated the people from the artists. Well, maybe not always, but once I really started hanging around with Mick, I realized that the guy might be a bit of an asshole at times but he is still, in my opinion, the best lead singer out there. I am not going to let his personal stuff color my opinion of him artistically.

Beachwood: You've had a prolific career - a couple of books, you published a magazine for 17 years, yet you didn't finish journalism school. How did not going to journalism school inform your career?

German: I learned by trial-and-error. I made a lot of mistakes on my own. I can look back and realize a lot of mistakes that I made, in various ways, nothing major. I learned on the job; I think there is just a lot of stuff that you can't learn in journalism school. I don't really know because I can't compare or contrast what a full four-year college journalism education at NYU would have gotten me.

I mentioned this before, but I learned a lot from watching Tom Snyder, even though I was a writer and he was a broadcaster; I learned certain techniques from him. Then later on, I loved Charlie Rose in the mid-eighties when he was on overnight. I learned interview techniques by watching these people, as well as reading the writers I loved in Rolling Stone magazine, people like David Dalton, pre-MTV Kurt Loder, the people that wrote for Creem magazine, the DJs on WNEW, here in New York. That's who I patterned myself after. I felt like I kind of didn't need to learn that in school. I have no idea if it would have benefited me or not.

Beachwood: I have one last question: Is the coolest thing you've ever said: "Tell Keith Richards that Bill German is here"?

German: It's funny when I look back, now that I am leading such a different life. When I step back, it really does amaze me that I was friends with these guys. I really could tell someone, "Tell Keith that Bill German is here." And that was my entree and no problem. And wow, when I look back at that . . .

When Keith would enter a room, and if I was in the room and the room was full of people, Keith would come straight to me, instead of some record company executive or someone else. And it's like wow, even now, it's amazing. I still can't believe it sometimes. And I guess that's the perspective of the book.

I really did come into as a fan, and maybe I ended up leaving it older and wiser or maybe a little sadder and wiser. But I did come into as a fan, and that's why I think the readers can relate to it. Because if I came into it any other way, if I was a fellow celebrity that got to know the Stones or some record company executive who was already big and powerful and then got to meet the Stones because I signed them to my record label, it would have been a totally different perspective. This book is written from the honest perspective of being a fan who befriended the Rolling Stones, which is extremely rare but it happens.

Sometimes I look back and I think, wow, did I really hang out with these guys that much? It's amazing because it's kind of different from my life now. I am glad I lived it, and I am glad that I got to write about it.


Bill German lives in New York City and is working on a memoir about the disco vs. rock wars in Brooklyn in the late 70s.


Comments welcome.


Posted on May 6, 2010

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