Interview by John Wisniewski
Bill German authored Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It) about his first hand experiences with the band.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about the Rolling Stones fanzine that you started when
You were in your teens?
Bill German: I was an aspiring journalist and a crazed Rolling Stones fan, so, in September 1978, the week of my sixteenth birthday, I decided to marry the two. I launched a fanzine all about the Stones’ latest goings-on. (At the time,they were about to appear on Saturday Night Live, and Keith was on trial for heroin possession in Canada.) I called the ‘zine “Beggars Banquet” and surreptitiously printed a hundred copies of the first issue in my high school’s mimeograph room. (A friend of mine had the keys.) I then tried selling it to my fellow students for a quarter apiece, but none of ’em were interested. (I was in southern Brooklyn, which was in the throes of Saturday Night Fever fever, so most kids my age were into Tony Manero, not Keith Richards.) But I kept the ‘zine going because I enjoyed the process (choosing stories, picking photos) and eventually, ironically, the Stones themselves found out about it and became my biggest supporters, declaring it their official newsletter and advertising it in one of their albums.
John Wisniewski: How did you meet the Rolling Stones, Bill?
Bill German: In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Stones were living in New York City — well, at least Mick, Keith and Ronnie Wood — and they were going out to clubs on a nightly basis. They were very accessible to the average New Yorker, and very willing to press the flesh. I was sixteen years old — legally unable to enter those clubs — but I’d hear about it from “grownups.” People would tell me, “I was at the Bottom Line last night, and Keith got up to play.” It was great info for my ‘zine and made me feel it was just a matter of time until I myself would get to interact with the Stones. In June of 1980, when I was seventeen, I heard they were having a party at a club called Danceteria, to promote the release of their “Emotional Rescue” album. I wasn’t on the guest list and had no connections in the Stones camp, but I showed up anyway. I waited for them to come out of the club, and handed them the latest issue of my ‘zine. My only goal was to let them know about the ‘zine’s existence. I didn’t want an autograph or handshake or photo, etc. They smiled, took the’zine into their limo, and the rest is history.
John Wisniewski: What was it like to hang out with the band?
Bill German: The older I get, and the more the Stones are viewed as “historical” figures, the more I realize how surreal it all was. Because at the time, it felt kind of normal. I’m watching Keith Richards play Buddy Holly covers in Ron Wood’s kitchen while the two of them are having a farting contest. A scenario like that was beyond my wildest dreams when I was just a fan, but now, hanging out with the Stones had become my job. And there were lots of ups and downs involved, as with any job. The highlights were those musical moments (jam sessions at their homes, concerts in tiny nightclubs), and the lowlights were the day-to-day hassles of dealing with super-famous people who hadn’t heard the word “no” since their early twenties. As kind and generous as they were to me, there were moments when they could be dismissive without even realizing it. (And not just to me, but to their own family members.)
John Wisniewski: What were the recording sessions like with the Stones?
Bill German: The particular ones I witnessed were the “Dirty Work” sessions in New York, in the summer of 1985. It was at the height of the Mick-versus-Keith feud. So the two of them would rarely be in the studio at the same time. In general, Mick would come in from 7pm till midnight, and then Keith and Ronnie would show up at 1 and stay until 7 or 8 in the morning. Keith told me I could visit anytime I wanted, as long as “Brenda” wasn’t there. I asked him who “Brenda” was, and he informed me it was his nickname for Mick. It was NOT a term of endearment. And, although the story behind that nickname has been published in both my and Keith’s books, it was a secret at the time, shared by just a handful of us. Mick didn’t know about it, and I was obviously asked not to mention it in my zine. But, considering that Keith wanted to stab Mick in the eyeballs that summer, I suppose that referring to his prima donna lead singer by a female name was a much healthier way to vent.
Bill German: I knew I had a unique story to tell, from a unique perspective. I lived the dream of millions of Rolling Stones fans around the world, so I felt that many of them would want to imagine themselves in my position, by reading my book. Like I said before, there were lots of ups, but lots of downs. Some readers told me they were envious of all my experiences, while some felt I made a schmuck out of myself by letting the Stones take advantage of me. It’s up to each reader to decide.
John Wisniewski: Which Stone was your favorite?
Bill German: I’d have to say it’s a tie between Keith and Ronnie. The kindness, generosity and hospitality they showed me went way beyond the call of duty. I was just a putzy kid who they really didn’t have to give the time of day to. But they invited me into their homes and work spaces, gave me tons of their time, and stuck up for me in my various dealings with their own organization. I could write a book about it! And I did.