‘Under Their Thumb’: Bill German, a career with The Rolling Stones

The. Rolling. Stones. Those three words have carried some heavy weight in the world of rock n’ roll for the past 50 years. The band’s members have ruled headlines with their talent as well as their drug use, indiscretions and diva moments. And beginning in 1978, at the age of 16, Bill German was there to witness it all.

Images of a teenager snatching autographs and memorabilia should be cut short. German began printing his own fanzine covering the Stones in his high school’s mimeograph room. Dripping with dedication and reeking of cheap ink his publication, Beggar’s Banquet, eventually landed in the hands of rock gods. The Rolling Stones hired German to publish their antics and invited him for exclusive access on a 17-year-long ride.

What sounds like a scene from “Almost Famous” was real to German. His experiences were recently published in his book, “Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with The Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It).”

Grand Central Magazine had a chance to sit down with German to talk about his publication, his rock star stories, his music and  the future of journalists.

Bring us back to when you were an early teenager in Brooklyn. What fired you up and drove you to publish the first editions of your fanzine?

Well, I love journalism as much as I love the Stones. I figured I knew more about the Stones more than any other subject in my life and it was just kind of the perfect marriage to start a fanzine about the Stones. At the time I wasn’t getting such exclusive information because I didn’t know the band personally but I did know a lot of people who were living in New York City who were older than me who did see the Stones on a weekly basis. They would give me information about the band and before I knew it I was this teenage kid who had exclusive information about the Stones

And that’s some pretty heavy stuff. So, where did your passion for the Stones come from? Why the Stones?

I just thought that they were the most rebellious guys in the world. I mean, I grew up a goody-two-shoes nice Jewish kid from Brooklyn and seeing pictures of them and hearing their music they just seemed so wild. I would hear stories about them and how they had been busted for drugs and how they played at a concert where someone got killed I just thought that was so cool, you know (laughs).

It all started with the music, that’s what drew me to them. I first started listening to the Stones when I was 10 years old, in 1972, and they were already around for a while (me and the Stones are the same age, they started in 1962). And some of their lyrics, like their song called “Bitch.” In 1972 you could not say the word “bitch” in public, they didn’t have words like that on TV. And, here, the Stones have a whole song called “Bitch” and that just seemed so rebellious.

In your book you describe hanging out at different night clubs you knew they were at and you decided to start giving them your magazines. Eventually, The Rolling Stones supported and eventually financed Beggar’s Banquet. Why do you think the band members were so taken by your production and your writing even at such a young age?

I think they appreciated the dedication. Even though they were the big bad Rolling Stones I think they were maybe flattered to see a kid that was so into them and knew so much about them. I think they were kind of amused by this seemingly innocent kid who knew everything about them.

As big as they were and as covered as they were in so many other publications and media outlets, it’s weird but I think they found something charming about this young kid who was putting in all of this time and effort and who knew all of the stuff that was going on with them. Mick Jagger used to say, “This kid knows what we’re doing before we do.

After you had started hanging out with them, how did it feel to be in the presence of such an influential rock band? Did the “star-struck” effect to wear off?

For some reason, I wasn’t really that star–struck by it, I guess I figured it was bound to happen. Mind you, by the time I started to come around they were not as wild as they used to be. They were still doing a lot of drugs but probably not as much as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. I still saw a lot of drug use like pills and cocaine but they weren’t doing heroin. They were starting to become family men in some ways they were starting to have more solid relationships with their girlfriends. It was relatively normal but it was still wild at times but nothing too dangerous.

(From left) Keith Richards, Bill German and Ronnie Wood

You even dropped out of New York University to pursue the band on tour. How was that situation, breaking that news to your parents? 

Yeah, that was not easy telling that to my folks. But I think that they realized that I was a responsible kid. You know, they never got a call with, “Come pick up your kid, he’s at the police station.” They saw my dedication and that I was really in it for the fanzine and that I wasn’t just going to run off with a rock band and do drugs or something like that.  Ultimately, I don’t think I let them down. I unintentionally became a business owner for many years. All in all, it worked out okay.

Overall, your story has similarities to the movie “Almost Famous” as I’m sure you’ve realized over the years. What is the craziest rock star experience you’ve been a part of? You said that they had calmed down a bit from their previous antics but I guess I’m asking if Keith Richards ever yelled, “I am a golden god!” from a rooftop.

(Laughs) Boy, you know I don’t know if I ever witnessed a scene like that. It was more Mick Jagger’s moodiness. He could be really nice to you or really nasty from day to day or even hour to hour. He occasionally got really pissed off at me for stuff I wrote in the newsletter if there was some piece of news I put out there that he wanted to keep close to the vest.

Sometimes I would put my opinions in there like there was this big concert called Live Aid in 1985 that all of these bands reunited for and, it being a charity show, I wrote that the only reason that the Stones wound up partaking in it was out of emotional blackmail. Mick took real offense to that and cornered me one day in Ron Wood’s basement and literally got in my face and started yelling at me. It was a little intimidating getting chewed out by one of my favorite rock stars. But, you know, that was Mick.

As far as Keith, he never went onto a rooftop and jumped into a pool (laughs) but there were some pretty big drug moments. There was a scene that I talk about in my book when we were in Tokyo and he had taken so many pills that he just started slowing down like a wind-up toy in his speech and motor skills. His body guard had to come in and drag him out of the room.

There was another moment when I was alone with Ron Wood and I went to go check on him and thought he was dead. I mean, this was the Stones, you never knew after hearing so many stories about Jimi Hendrix or whoever. After shaking him, I really couldn’t tell if he was dead or asleep so I just left the house. If he’s dead, he’s dead there’s nothing I can do about it and if he’s asleep well that’s okay he’ll wake up. Those were some of the stereotypical rock star moments that I had with those guys.

Your book often discusses the vast personality differences between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. What are the key differences between the two?

Keith, it seems to me, is more loyal to his friends and family members. He’s with you for the long haul for better or worse.

Mick, I think, is very business minded. It’s what motivates a lot of his actions. If he’s nice or nasty to you it probably has some ulterior motive of business. Just from seeing the way he related to me and to the people that I’ve known, that’s what I can say about him.

Mick is more about number one as where Keith is more concerned about the people around him.

Did you ever feel it difficult to write about the band’s front men objectively when, for you, Keith was much more preferable?

Well even when Mick was at his nastiest or his jerkiest he was still, in my opinion, one of the best lead singers of all time so I could still separate the professional with the personal. I never had trouble with that.

Alright, so objectivity wasn’t a problem but did you struggle with censorship from the band or its representatives in your coverage?

Yes. There was a point that lasted about a year and a half where I had to submit all of my text and photos to them before it was published. And as a journalism major and as someone who aspired to get into journalism, that was not fun. Even though I was getting more and more access to the band I had to submit my stuff and it was annoying because you want editorial control.

But even outside that time period, there were always times when I would hear back about my stuff after the fact. The two guys that were to the coolest were Keith Richards and Ron Wood, they would let me write whatever I wanted and never hassled me. But there were times when I would hear from Mick or their lawyers telling me I couldn’t write about this or that.

German and Wood
German and The Rolling Stones guitarist, Ronnie Wood

After 17 years of writing about the band, Beggar’s Banquet became your baby but, you were saying, eventually a thorn in your side.  What made you decide it was time to move away from the fanzine after it was such a big part of your life?

Mixing hobby and profession is a great thing and can make every day feel like fun but eventually it starts to become a bit of a drag, or at least in my case it did.

The Stones started going out on these big tours staring in 1989 with the “Steel Wheels” tour and another in 1994 called the “Voodoo Lounge” tour and money became such a major part of the picture for them. The more that money became involved, the more strict they became as far as information and access.

Where I used to be able to call up Keith Richards or Ron Wood for an interview and they would say, “Come right over,” now I have to go through a publicists or a tour promoter and they’re more careful and strict. It just became difficult and they were just trying to stop the flow of information. That’s when it became more of a drag for me.

Reportedly the Stones will be making between $4 and $5 million for each of their 18 scheduled shows in 2013. Reflecting on their past motives how does this news of yet more profit strike you?

I’m not surprised. The thing is that the Stones don’t need any more money. They love money but it’s not the money per say, they love being ranked number one and being talked about. They love that they’re the bad asses that are charging you more money than any other concert you’ve ever been to. They just want to be number one.

So, when they charged you up to $800 face value for a ticket (and they did in a recent show in New Jersey), everyone was up in arms but that’s what they love about it. No one else is charging that amount of money, not Springsteen, not Madonna. They love to see their name in Forbes magazine as the highest grossing concert tour.

The band’s now half-a-century-old, and if money isn’t necessarily the motivation, when do you think the band will call it quits? When do you think they’ll grow tired of being number one?

I think they’ll keep going until death. Why not? They have nothing else to do and they love playing.

If you look at their idols, those guys literally played until they died, look at Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. And Chuck Berry is still playing and probably does about 100 concerts a year, he’s still out there! So, why not the Stones? I think they feel they can do it until they literally can’t play anymore.

Let’s say you were 16 and could do it all again, who in today’s music scene would you choose to follow passionately? Why?

It definitely wouldn’t be any of these boy pop bands. It wouldn’t be Justin Timberlake or Justin Beiber. The people that excite me now are some of the folky type of bands, the Avett Brothers really are my favorite band right now. Maybe I would do a fanzine about them but I do not think they are as interesting as the Stones, and there’s the difference.

When I first started the fanzine the Stones had toured in Canada and Mick and Ron had an affair with the first lady of Canada, Margaret Trudeau that ended in divorce. Imagine that today! Let’s say one of the guys from Mumford and Sons had an affair with Michelle Obama and it lead to a divorce while Barack Obama was in office. That’s literally what happened with the Stones.

And just as the music scene, the nature of journalism has changed quite a bit since you started your fanzine. Do you think the accessibility and ease of blogging has helped or hindered the potential for writers to break from the crowd when it comes to journalism?

Hopefully you’ll rise to the top as a writer but everyone thinks they’re interesting, look at Facebook. With people posting pictures of their omelets  everything gets mixed in with people who might have something important to say and that’s the sad part.

There used to be a screening process. The whole do-it-yourself ethic has changed, now it’s so much easier to do-it-yourself. When I started, cut and paste literally meant to cut and to paste and it took you literally all day to lay out a magazine. Now it takes a few seconds and cut and past is just a click and a click. Because it’s easier so many more people are getting involved in it and I don’t know if the most talented or clever or intelligent blogger can rise to the top with so much clutter. How does the cream rise to the top? I don’t know but I hope it will eventually.

You recently took the opportunity to write a book about your experience but what are your future endeavors?

To keep writing more books. I’ve known a lot of interesting people in my life (not just the Stones) and they all have their stories. I want to keep writing about the characters that I’ve known in my life. I’m tempted to write fiction but I think the people I’ve known in my personal life are much stranger than fiction. I want to be a story teller and that’s why I got interested in journalism to begin with.