Gary James' Interview With Rolling Stones Author
Bill German lived the dream of every Rolling Stones' fan. He met the band when he was just a teenager after launching a magazine, Beggar's Banquet, devoted to The Stones. That magazine lasted seventeen years. During that time, Bill German traveled the world with The Stones, stayed at their homes and attended their recording sessions.
Bill German has authored a book about his experiences titled Under Their Thumb, How A Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With The Rolling Stones And Lived To Tell About It. (Random House / Villard Books)
Q - How old were you when you met The Stones?
A - I was seventeen. I started the fanzine when I was sixteen.
Q - Then you never met the original Stones with Brian Jones.
A - No. That pre-dates my time.
Q - So, you met them with Ron Wood?
A - Exactly, Ron Wood. I'm forty-seven now. I'm about to be forty-eight next month (September 2010). I was sixteen years old in September of 1978. It was the week of my sixteenth birthday and I decided to start a fanzine about them. They had just finished their "Some Girls" tour and they were in the press like every day and most of the regular media would always get the story wrong. Rolling Stone got it right. WNEW-FM, the big station here were always accurate with all their Stones information. But if you picked up The Daily News here or The New York Post or just some guy on Channel 9, the entertainment reporter, every time they talked about The Stones there was some kind of inaccuracy. It drove me crazy as a passionate sixteen year old fan and so I just started my own little fanzine or newsletter if you want to call it that, and tried to use my journalistic technique. And that's how it got started. I printed the first copies in my high school's mimeograph room. A friend of mine had the keys, he was a student volunteer. He got me in there after hours and so I printed those early copies on the Board of Ed's dime (laughs), and tried to circulate it around the school, but unfortunately in 1978, Brooklyn was in the throes of Saturday Night Fever.
Q - Bill, that was a strange time to launch a Stones fanzine. That was in the New Wave Era.
A - There was New Wave, but in my high school it was all Disco, Disco, Disco. There were some New Wave fans, some Classic Rock fans, Pink Floyd fans. The girls were into Styx and Boston and those kinds of groups. But I couldn't find any Stones fans in my high school. So, I would go around trying to peddle my little fanzine for twenty-five cents. It was a hard sell, but I stuck with it and eventually, through word-of-mouth, I started to get subscribers around the country. I took an ad out in Trouser Press Magazine back then and it just kind of snowballed and snowballed. Then I got to meet The Stones about a year into it, a year and a half into it. I was seventeen years old at that point and then I started to get all this exclusive news. The Stones were all living here, or three of them. They were going to nightclubs three times a week let's say. Sometimes getting up onstage. If I wasn't there, and usually I was too young to go really. The drinking age was eighteen. I was seventeen. But I would find out from some of my adult friends that I would hang out with in record stores or whatever. They would tell me, "Oh, yeah. Keith got up onstage last week and jammed with this one and that one." I'd put it in my little fanzine and someone in middle America or whatever, even as far as Europe, that would be exclusive news to them. The kind of thing that wasn't in Rolling Stone magazine. MTV wasn't around yet.
Q - I remember that time. I started interviewing musicians in 1978. There was no VH-1. No internet.
A - Exactly. And one of the things I even point out is that there wasn't even Entertainment Tonight, shows like that. The whole celebrity obsession. When I was like chasing after The Stones as a teenager, which is the other important point to make, it was just much more of an innocent kind of thing. I wound up getting to know paparazzi type photographers. I mean, I guess you would call them that. By today's standards those guys were nothing like that then. These were just Rock 'n' Roll fans who would stake out the nightclubs. If Keith showed up at a nightclub like Tracks, this person would take a photo of him and I would put it in my fanzine. So, I got to know a lot of those guys. But again, it was such a different atmosphere. It wasn't about Gotcha! journalism or Gotcha! photojournalism, paparazzi stuff. No one was being blamed for killing princesses in high speed car chases.
Q - Besides Trouser Press, where else were you advertising Beggar's Banquet?
A - I took ads out in Rolling Stone. Little classified ads. I look back now, I was just a teenager. I was eighteen, nineteen years old at this point, I would call up their advertising department and ask "Do you know when you're going to put The Stones on the cover?" They would tell me "Yes, we're planning a big cover of Mick and Keith 'cause their new album is coming out," or the "Emotional Rescue" album is coming out in 1980. "We're gonna put Mick and Keith on the cover." "OK. I want to take out a little classified ad in the back of that issue." And so that would bring in a hundred, two hundred people. I did that a few times. So, it really just started to catch on with Stones' fans. Then word of mouth was the best advertising really.
Q - Did you advertise in Goldmine?
A - I don't think so. I know that I wrote a couple of articles for Goldmine. So, probably in my by-line it gave the address or maybe I bartered it for a small ad.
Q - So, how did The Stones hear about Beggar's Banquet?
A - I first met them when I was seventeen years old and I was armed with copies of the newsletter. I knew they were having a party for the "Emotional Rescue" album in June of 1980 at a club called Danceteria. It was a press party in the afternoon. I showed up and I was not on the guest list. I didn't have any connections with The Stones camp at that point. I'm just a seventeen year old kid. But I showed up anyway and figured I'd wait for them outside and I did. They all came out. I just saw the right moment to approach Ron Wood. I went up to him first, gave him a copy of the fanzine. He looked at it like "What the heck is this?" But he had the opportunity to stand there on the sidewalk for like twenty seconds and quickly thumb through it. He seemed kind of impressed. Then he got into the limo with Keith. For some reason the window was open and I could see them looking at it, like wondering "what is this?" and looking at me and Ron actually pointed to me to Keith Richards, like "that's the kid that gave this to me." I don't know if they knew how old I was. I was seventeen, but they could tell I was pretty young. I guess they were just kind of impressed with my passion and just this funny little publication about them. It just kind of snow-balled from there. I started bringing the issues up to their office. Rolling Stones Records had an office by Rockefeller Center, right by the skating rink over there. And so, I would bring copies every time I came out with a new issue. I would go up there and the people up there would say "Oh, we're passing it along to The Stones." I just figured they're humoring me. I really had no idea, but then what started happening is I would start to bump into The Stones or related people at some of these nightclubs eventually. Or even paparazzi photographers would say "I saw Mick coming out of his apartment and he was carrying one of your issues." I'm like, "Wow!" Once I saw Keith and he said to me, "Hey, I love reading these on the can." (laughs)
Q - Well, at least he's reading it.
A - At least he's reading it. Right!
Q - How fortunate you were to be in New York City at that time.
A - For all the passion and obsession I had, I actually start out one of my chapters early in the book by saying "Location. Location. Location." If that's the one piece of luck that I had, it's that I was here. It was a very vibrant music scene here. Unlike some of the other classic bands like a Led Zeppelin or a Pink Floyd, The Stones really were mingling with the common folk. They loved being in Manhattan. They loved showing up at those nightclubs, whereas Led Zeppelin is hanging out in their castle with the Grim Reaper guy or whatever. Pink Floyd, I think their biggest fans might not know what Roger Waters looks like or David Gilmore. But here were The Stones and they really were rubbing elbows with their fans and the musicians who were influenced by them. They were going to see Patti Smith or The Dead Boys, bands like that. All the bands that were happening in the late '70s, early '80s in the Manhattan scene. All these bands that wore The Stones on their sleeve were getting to meet The Stones or sometimes even getting to jam with The Stones. It was a very exciting time here in New York. None of the other bands of The Stones' stature were doing anything like that. I loved it. I was living in Brooklyn at the time with my parents, as a teenager. I knew eventually I had to move to Manhattan, which is what I did in 1983. I actually got an apartment from Keith Richards' pharmacist. There's a whole chapter in the book about that. It was just all happening here in Manhattan and that's really what helped the newsletter / fanzine really really succeed. I was there. I was where it was happening.
Q - How did your attitude change towards The Stones as the years went by? When you were sixteen you probably idolized them.
A - Yeah.
Q - After all those years of knowing them as people, how did your attitude change? When you get right down to it, once they left the stage, they were just people.
A - Absolutely. Right. And so I started to see them as people. In some cases you're pleasantly surprised. In other cases you're brought down to earth a little bit. So, I spell that out in the book very much. Keith Richards and Ron Wood exceeded my expectations of how nice they were and generous with their time. Mick comes off not so well in my book. I think he's very business minded. I got to see that side of him. Even when he's nice to you, a lot of that is motivated by business. In fact, I have a chapter in the book called "A Nice Bunch Of Guys" and it's all about Mick because he has different personalities that suit him when he needs to act a certain way.
Q - Is Mick the leader of The Stones? Is he the one who calls the shots? Or is it Keith?
A - Well, it's kind of both. Keith has this quote where he says "We're a Mom and Pop operation. Mick is the Mom and I'm the Pop." Keith is sort of in charge of the music department I guess and Mick is in charge of the business department. So, that's how a lot of the decisions get made. Mick makes a lot of the business decisions. He's the one with the business people where Keith is more on top with the music stuff I guess. It's not 100% absolute, but it does kind of break down that way in a lot of ways.
Q - Did you ride on the plane with The Stones?
A - I never did get to go on the plane with them. That's much more tight as far as who gets to go on the plane. My relationship with The Stones lasted over the course of seventeen years. So, I had all kinds of agreements and relationships with them, financially and in terms of access. Things like that. There was a point where they were paying my way for things, but they weren't touring at that point. So, by the time they were touring like in '89, '90 and '94, '95, my arrangement with them was that I make my own money and I pay my own way. I was running the fanzine independently. They were allowing me to go backstage. At least during the "Steel Wheels" tour, I had a laminated pass. All Access. But no, I never got on the plane. That was much more of a political situation.
Q - What does that mean?
A - Well, there was the Mick versus Keith camp. So, I was in the Keith camp. So, for me to travel on The Stones' dime, it would have to be approved by someone like Mick for instance and that just wasn't going to happen. In other words, it was very hard for Keith's friends to hang out when Mick was around, and vice-versa too really. But the thing is, and I do point this out in the book, is that like Mick's people are the ones that ran the tours when The Stones were touring. Keith has his own manager. The people who work for Mick, when they were on tour, held prominent positions during the tour. Keith didn't really have his own people on tour. He had his manager, but she was kind of like an independent person. A lot of Mick's people got positions on the tour is the easiest way to describe it.
Q - Had you been with ABC News or Rolling Stone or Newsweek magazine, would that have made a difference?
A - It would not have made a difference. By the time they were doing the "Steel Wheels" touring in '89, the journalists that covered that were in and out. You do our own interviews and you leave. In fact, I did do something for ABC radio. I interviewed them. Well, I interviewed Keith for a national broadcast on the radio. It was like a one-shot deal. The whole reason ABC was allowed to interview The Stones was, for financial reasons The Stones actually auctioned off the radio rights. That's actually one of the points I make in this book is how much money became involved with The Stones and that's one of the things that eventually got me disenchanted with the whole operation. They started auctioning off the radio rights. Essentially they're auctioning off the rights to their speaking voice. If you wanted to hear The Stones on the radio, you had to pay one million dollars for it and ABC radio did just that.
Q - That's how much they charged?!!
A - Well, it included an interview with The Stones and a simulcast concert to the Pay-Per-View and The Stones auctioned it off for a million dollars.
Q - That was what year?
A - '89 for the "Steel Wheels" tour. That's why ABC radio had those two broadcasts exclusively. No one else could interview The Stones on the radio that year. It just didn't happen. They did that with just a bunch of different things. Their tickets. Every ticket said "Budweiser Presents." They sold that to Budweiser for ten million dollars. MTV gave them five million dollars to have their name on the ticket to get exclusive rights to telecast certain things. A lot of things were for sale starting with the "Steel Wheels" tour. And it made it more difficult for someone like me. I was sort of a grassroots guy, some small guy trying to run my newsletter and get access to the band.
Q - And I'm just guessing that today it would almost be impossible for a guy like me to interview Mick or Keith. It just wouldn't happen.
A - I really hate to say it, but it really would be impossible. It would have to be for the most major magazine. Every tour, they'll do the big interview for Rolling Stone and they don't charge Rolling Stone for that. They have done like 60 Minutes. So, they'll do something like that. They'll do one big TV interview. They'll do one big print interview - Rolling Stone. This might change in the future. I don't know. This is how it's been in the past. Then they'll like sell other types of interviews.
Q - I see Mick Jagger gave an interview to Larry King, but Larry King being as old as he is and having been around for as long as he has, didn't seem to know too much about Mick or The Stones. I don't think he did a good interview.
A - No. I saw that.
Q - It was garbage.
A - It really was. Right. That's the thing I actually notice with this whole campaign, that they had to plug the "Exile On Main Street" re-issue. That's why Mick was on there. Yeah, I was actually amazed at how they opened up and were willing to do more media stuff than they've ever done. When they go on tour, if they go on tour, you know, maybe they'll revert back to the old way, the "Steel Wheels" way where they do one TV, one print and that's it. I was surprised Keith went on The Jimmy Fallon Show. Mick and Keith both par-took in a whole bunch of skits you might have seen that whole week. So, that was kind of interesting. But then again, there is the whole corporate side of it. "Exile On Main Street" came out from Universal. They were the distributor. Universal owns NBC. So it's all kind of tied in. That's how Keith winds up on Jimmy Fallon. Well, Mick too did some stuff.
Q - I think The Stones push so hard to exact every last dollar from a financial view point, because they struggled so much in the beginning days. They're trying to see how much they can push their luck.
A - Yeah. There's also an ego thing which is they love to be number one. So, they love it when Forbes' list comes out and The Stones are number one as far as highest grossing tour of all time. Mick definitely has that. Keith has it just in terms of the competitive nature of it. That said, I think Keith would actually play for free. I think he loves it so much. He's not going to, but he would (laughs). He's in it for that part of it, the competitive part of it. "Hey, we made more than Springsteen! We made more than Madonna! We made more than U2!"
Keith is the number one Stones fan and he wants The Stones to be number one at all times. Mick wants it for that reason, but he also wants it for the money too, I guess. It's almost like a challenge. How much money can we make? Obviously they don't need the money anymore. They're set for a hundred lifetimes. Their last tour made over a half-a-billion dollars... with a B.
Q - Isn't that something.
A - It's just amazing. You think, gosh, they're in their twilight, but it's the most money they've ever made.
Q - Are they still living in England?
A - They kind of float around. Keith is in the US. He's in Connecticut most of the time. Mick bounces around, but yeah, he's mostly in England. Romania. Wood is mostly in England, although he does have a house in Ireland. Same way Mick has a house in France. Keith has a house in Jamaica. Charlie Watts is almost exclusively in England.
Q - Speaking of Charlie Watts. He would be a great guy to interview, but he never talks, does he?
A - Yeah. Well, that's actually the running joke throughout my book. I really got close to Keith and Ronnie. Got relatively close to Mick. Bill Wyman was very nave to me. I didn't see him that often 'cause he was living in England. Whenever I dealt with Bill Wyman, he was very courteous. Charlie Watts, I may have said ten or fifteen words to, total. In all the times I was around him. He's very introverted. He's a very nice guy. He's a little eccentric. I guess like a British eccentric. Supposedly he collects cars, but he doesn't drive. He just loves to collect cars. He collects horses. Somebody told me he lets the horses roam though his house, which that must be a hell of a clean-up job, I guess.
Q - I never heard that one.
A - Yeah. So, it's a running joke that I was in some very intimate situations with Charlie and we never really said anything more than "hello." I got the sense, and I say this throughout the whole book, that he was never quite sure who I was. Other people have told me, "oh, no, he definitely knows who you were." But I was never sure. I was supposed to interview him three separate times and it never happened. My book has a lot of humorous stuff in it, so that's one of the little running jokes in there.
Q - I was surprises to hear that Charlie Watts was a heroin addict?
A - Yeah. Hard to believe. Everyone thought he was one of the clean Stones. Him and Bill Wyman were the two clean ones. But he was going through a very tough time in the mid-'80s with his wife who had an alcohol problem which was very well publicized. She was like the front page of the tabloids quite frequently. His daughter got suspended from school. They caught her with Pot. Charlie was going through a very stressful time. No one knew what was going to happen to The Stones in the mid-'80s and so he just took to heroin. He loves Jazz more than Rock 'n' Roll and so many of his Jazz idols were heroin addicts. I guess maybe that's what started it. But yeah, he went through a pretty rough time. That was the time I was in some of those intimate situations with him, 1985, 1986, just hanging out in the recording studio, not saying more than two words to him and vice-versa. I didn't realize he was on heroin at the time. I knew something was going on. I didn't know it was heroin, but I was told shortly thereafter and then he went public with it. I think on 60 Minutes is where he first admitted to it.
Q - Were you able to pick the concerts you would see and go backstage to?
A - Exactly. I picked the places where I thought something special would happen. So, if I heard Clapton might jam with them in L.A. or obviously New York, I would go to shows and try to spread it out geographically or try to spread it out chronologically so that I felt I got a really good sampling of the tour. Even thinking about where are they going to have the most interesting backstage guests, let's say, that I could write about, or parties. Where's the most action going to happen?
Q - Now, I'm glad you brought up backstage guests. My brothers are musicians and friends with Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper took one of my brothers to The Stones' 1989 L.A. concert. Alice and my brother were backstage along with Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, people like that. After the concert, The Stones did not go backstage to do a Meet And Greet, even with all the celebrities in attendance. Why is that?
A - I have a picture of Mick and Barbra Streisand, (laughs) and Meryl Streep and Michael Douglas that's in the book. Here's the thing: I discuss this a lot in the book; on that tour, The Stones would hang out with celebrities before the show. So, if your brother was there after the show, forget it! The Stones were not there. The Stones tore out after every show with a police escort. As soon as they got offstage they would get out of there. They'd be back in their hotel rooms by the time the fireworks display was over. That's how quickly they got out of the stadium. Nothing would ever happen after the show. It would all happen before the show. I have a whole chapter about The Stones out in L.A. in 1989. They had all these circus tents your brother would probably remember. They were these big tents backstage. I actually mentioned that Alice was back there. Ron Wood had an art exhibition out there and Alice was there and I ran a picture of that, not in my book, but in the fanzine. I was actually supposed to be on Alice's radio show but that hasn't worked out yet, but that's beside the point. The thing I noticed in L.A. in 1989 was that all of the musicians were hanging out with Keith in his private tent. Mick and Keith each had their own private tent. It was all musicians in Keith's tent and it was all the Hollywood people in Mick's tent. I'm not saying that was 100% absolute, but that's pretty much the way it broke down. So, I ran this photo of Mick in the book with Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep and Michael Douglas. The thing is, Mick was trying to get into the whole Hollywood scene. He wanted to make movies, star in movies, produce movies and all that stuff. So, I think he was kind of courting the Hollywood elite, where Keith didn't care about impressing any of those people and he was just more about hanging out with musicians. I remember Tom Petty came to hang out with Keith, 'Lil Steven, Phil Spector, people like that, where Mick had Barbra Streisand.
Q - Did McCartney make it backstage?
A - I don't think McCartney was there in L.A. for that show, but I know McCartney has come backstage. In fact just few weeks ago, Keith went to see Ringo Starr at Radio City. They're all relatively still good friends.
Q - What occupies your time these days? You've written the book. What's next?
A - I'm still promoting the book. I'm very lucky that I have a great deal on the apartment so I don't have to work for the man. Whatever amount of money I've made from the publisher of this book, I can sort of live off for now. I also still sell back issues of Beggars Banquet at
www.BeggarsBanquetOnLine.com. I also have another website,
www.BillGerman.com. I'm now working on my next book, which might sort of be the back story of Under Their Thumb, meaning it would be more about what else was going on in my life other than The Stones. I mean, I'll definitely touch on The Stones in this, but other things that were going on in my life. Sort of like I was saying earlier, growing up in Brooklyn as a teenager surrounded by all these Disco kids and so what that was like for me, 1979, 1980. It was a very chaotic time and I'd like to capture that in a memoir from my perspective.