Book review – 4 Stars
By Anthony Kuzminski
Falling in love may be the most profound experience a human can encounter. When it happens, nothing else in the world seems to matter as long as that love exists. However, the experience of love doesn’t always involve the romantic entangling of two people, but can come from the love of a certain hobby. For Bill German, the great love of his life was the Rolling Stones. German was so head over heels infatuated with the band that in the midst of losing his virginity, he walked out on a half naked girl because the local record store received a rare live bootleg from the Some Girls tour and only one copy was left. German felt that losing his virginity could wait, but the Stones wouldn’t. This last sentence pretty much summed up German’s life from 1978 to early 1996. Bill German gave his heart, body, mind, soul, bank account and adolescence to the Rolling Stones and finally, he has something to point to which represents nearly twenty-years of his life in the form of a memoir; Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It) .
Bill German started the Beggar’s Banquet newsletter out of passion in 1978 and within a few years it became the definitive source for information on the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger was even quoted as saying “Bill knows what we’re doing even before we do”. When the Stones began to think of starting their own fan club, they wanted German to run it. It was a short lived excursion as the many layers of Stones management proved to be too much to handle and German found out that being independent was far greater than being part of a bigger machine. When the Stones geared up for their Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge tours in 1989 and 1994 respectively, German got on board as well for nearly every show sometimes finding himself on stage with the band and at other times inside a club for their rare intimate club shows. He was also at Keith Richards Christmas parties (in a state he couldn’t publish in his newsletter) and he became close and intimate with Ron Wood even ghost writing a book about his art with him. Amazingly, German managed to keep his head above the water during all of this and these are the stories that make Under Their Thumb one of the truly great books about the Rolling Stones ever written.
In recent years, I have come to loathe authorized rock bio’s because I often find they contain more fiction than unauthorized ones by artists who don’t look fondly on their pasts. These artists often carefully enhance legacies where they don’t need enhancing. I like my rock biographies rough around the edges, with stories of conflict because in all honesty, this is where the truth lies. German’s book houses a detailed account of the Stones albums and tours through the end of 1995’s Voodoo Lounge tour and why it may not have a track-by-track analysis of the records or songs, it offers invaluable insight into the daily lives of these guys when the spotlight isn’t shining on them. He gives insight into late night recording sessions, Ron Wood’s general ADD, Keith Richard’s love of music and Mick Jagger’s need for control. On the flipside, he details encounters of Jagger’s graciousness as well. He doesn’t hold these guys on a throne and he doesn’t beat them down either. He paints a picture of them that is ultimately the most humane the Stones have ever come off. What makes Under Their Thumb such great reading is the characters that German encounters through his adventures with the Stones. Their combined personalities would have made the greatest reality show ever and almost none of them did I hear about before this book. I do not want to spoil them for you, so you will have to take my word on it. Then there are one of a kind events German managed to be there for including rare club show, Ian Stewart’s tribute show from 1986, watching the band dismantle their Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame statues and even in Ron Wood’s basement cutting a demo with Mick Jagger. I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg of stories that entwine themselves in the book.
Stanley Booth and Robert Greenfield’s accounts of the bands in the late 1960’s and early 70’s find them knee deep in excess and epic misbehavior, but German’s book is for my tastes the most truthful and readable. Not to take anything away from Greenfield and Booth, but their books are poetic and legendary and involve people and world’s the average person would never be able to break into. German’s book makes you feel like you were in the studio right next to Wood and Richards as they track Dirty Work. That is not to say that German doesn’t have some juicy tidbits to share including a confrontation where Jagger angrily confronts him about not being terribly kind to their Live Aid performances and about how the monster machine of the band began to work once the band signed on with Michael Cohl in the late 80’s. However, what makes the book so enjoyable is his fly-on-the-wall nature of his writing. Some writers have complained that German was merely a fan who held onto the wings of the band and was able to do so by pure luck. They are missing the point. While Greenfield’s and Booth’s books may have more of an edge to them, ultimately, both were blinded by becoming too close. German was always aware of his place and ultimately, it is the perspective of a fan we love the most and German knows this character better than anyone.
Ultimately, there is a melancholy sweetness to the book that I cherish. It broke my heart. The bigger each tour got, the more handlers there were. The band was almost impossible to reach even if German had friendly relationships with both Richards and Wood. In the book you learn about how many obstacles get placed in front of the band when they take big money up front. You also learn why the band stopped doing impromptu club appearances, why they could not be photographed holding certain alcohol beverages and why they don’t even make the minor appearance at a local blues club anymore. All of it is disheartening, but as German details eloquently in the book, no other band in the world works at this level and none probably ever will.
Being a devout fan of a band is unlike any other experience. In some ways it was dangerously too close. Ever since I started writing, you tend to learn things bout your favorite artists you wish you never knew about. While German speaks of his heartache from seeing how the Stones worked on a schedule set by accountants and lawyers, he realized that by the 1980’s, it didn’t really have much of anything to do with music. What most people do not realize is that the Stones are merely one of hundreds of acts who work this way. Over time, whenever I feel I have tended to get too close to the flame, I tend to pull back, because the stories you hear do affect your love of the music. How German managed to remain a fan through and through for nearly two decades is astonishing. I’ve let the business of my favorite acts weigh me down to the point where I can’t even stand to hear them when they come on the radio. But German fought the good fight and throughout all of the politics he had to endure, he reported on the Stones every month for nearly two decades. His quasi-association with the Rolling Stones outdates Brian Jones and Mick Taylor’s tenures with the band and he lasted longer than any manager or record company ever did. Bill German accomplished something almost no one else ever could; he hung with the Stones, became familiar with their inner workings and ultimately left the party before it ended…alive.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.