Book Review: ‘Under Their Thumb' by Bill German

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By Mark Athitakis,
who is a Washington-based editor and critic
Tuesday, February 24, 2009


How a Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It)

By Bill German

Villard. 354 pp. $25

The great book about life with the Rolling Stones has been written, and it's not "Under Their Thumb," Bill German's account of his 17 years running a fanzine dedicated to the band.

German isn't entirely to blame for falling short. He's a genial, enthusiastic narrator, has some fun stories to tell from the band's inner circle, and though his fan-boy temperament is obvious, he rarely lapses into sycophancy. Still, his timing stank. In the harrowing "True Adventures of the Rolling Stones," Stanley Booth covered the psychodrama of the band's 1969 tour and its grim climax at Altamont. German hung around from the early '80s to the mid-'90s as the Stones became musically dull and made a handful of albums that only hard-core fans care about now. But though "Under Their Thumb" lacks rock-band drama, it does offer an engaging bottom-rung perspective on how rock-and-roll became increasingly corporatized in the late '80s and the '90s.

Instead of heroin and groupies, German witnessed incidents like the Great Ron Wood Learning Annex Debacle of 1983, in which the Stones guitarist learned that a Manhattan crowd wanted more from a public speaking event than a bass solo and some videos. The band had settled in New York by then, and German was a Brooklynite who edited Beggars Banquet, a fanzine he launched in 1978 when he was 16. Using label staffers and Stones hangers-on as sources, he gathered enough tidbits about the band to gain access to it, eventually making the publication his full-time job. In the cases of Keith Richards and Wood, he even struck up something like a friendship, becoming intimate enough with the two to watch them engage in a gas-passing competition while playing Buddy Holly covers, and dismantle their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trophies and fling bits of them at each other.

Not exactly life on the edge. But in 1983 German was chummy enough with the band that Beggars Banquet briefly became an official publication of the Stones' fan club; setting up an interview with Richards was just a matter of dropping by his hotel room. Six years later, the band had signed a $65 million contract to tour, licensing deals were rampant and German's zine wasn't mission-critical. Even his backstage pass didn't really get him backstage anymore. One moment on the road captures the comic banality of his new existence: "When I tried to peek in on the Budweiser buffet, I was told I needed the room-specific pass," German writes. "I eventually wound up at CBS. I spotted Dustin Hoffman and Milli Vanilli in there and the meatballs weren't bad."

German isn't oblivious to his marginal position on the Stones' organizational chart, but following the band consumed his life until 1996, and there are occasional glimpses of how much it skewed his perspective. "I run a legitimate news publication," he imagines telling a condescending publicist. "I might cover just the Stones, but tell that to Sam Donaldson. He covered just the White House for twelve years." Toward the end of his tenure, he mocks the band's youth-chasing appearance on "Beverly Hills, 90210" but happily recalls meeting with Ben Stiller to discuss scripting a comedy, financed by the band, about two young Stones fans who'll do anything to meet them. German's contempt for the Stones gravy train often seems a function of his ability to hitch a ride on it.

"When you hang around the Stones, it's better to leave too early than too late," an insider warned German when he was starting out. Seventeen years is clearly hanging around too long for anybody who isn't a member of the band. Financially, it seems to have been more trouble than it was worth: He reports making $14,000 in 1992, and a couple of years later he was waiting to be paid $300 for work on the band's press kit. German knows that all this was his choice, and though he has plenty of complaints, he voices no regrets. After all, he was a fan. But by the time he was done, the Rolling Stones cared less about fans than about revenue streams.

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