by Curt Schleier
Special To The Jewish Week
In 1972, Bill German was an innocent 9-year-old yeshiva bocher growing up in Brooklyn. His musical knowledge was pretty much limited to the Beatles, Michael Jackson and any group that had a Saturday morning television show.
But one morning, he heard the strains of “Get Your Ya-Yas Out” wafting from his sister’s room next door. It was a live Rolling Stones album and it provided young German with a great deal of — you should excuse the pun — satisfaction. It ultimately led him to produce a monthly Stones fanzine called Beggars Banquet and a place in the Stones’ entourage.
German writes about his adventures in his new memoir, “Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With The
Rolling Stones and Lived to Tell About It” (Villard). It’s all there: how drummer Charlie Watts once punched Mick Jagger in the face; how German accidentally spilled orange juice on Jagger’s 16th-century Persian rug; how German got his dad’s permission to skip Rosh HaShanah services in order to attend a special Keith Richards event.
It’s an adventure that began with the music. “It all seemed so wild,” German told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “It was wilder than anything I’d heard before. The music was something I couldn’t ignore.”
The fanzine allowed German to combine his fascination with the Stones and his desire to become a reporter. “I wanted to be a journalist at an early age. A lot of it started with my mom. She ran the newsletter for her local chapter of Hadassah. I would watch her do it and I wanted to be just like my mommy and start my own newsletter.”
His desire was further fueled by his admiration for Tom Snyder. “As a teenager, I’d stay up late and watch [his ‘Tomorrow Show’]. He had great newsmakers on, from Charles Manson to Jimmy Carter.”
But the turning point was the inaccurate coverage of the Stones written by so-called journalists. “That’s what motivated me,” he says. So the week of his 16th birthday, he pecked away at a borrowed typewriter, snuck into his high school mimeographing room and produced the first of 102 issues of his fanzine.
He admits that he didn’t think things through. “I didn’t know who my audience would be. In some ways, it was just a way to clear all the facts that were swimming in my head.” But he kept at it and a year or so later quit college so he could devote himself full time to his publication.
“My parents were not pleased. They were almost ready to sit shiva for me. They were so happy I got into NYU. But of course the reason I picked NYU is because it was in New York City where the Stones were. My parents questioned me about sticking with the Stones. What if they break up?”
Through various intermediaries and just by standing on streets where he knew they’d pass, he got copies of the publication to members of the group. Eventually, he became close to Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Drummer Charlie Watts was always aloof, Bill Wyman is hardly mentioned and Mick Jagger blew hot and mostly cold. Clearly, German had no sympathy for this devil.
Once German called the lead singer to see if he could attend a party he was throwing. Jagger said of course and yelled to someone for the guest list. “I want to put a friend on.” But a few weeks later, Jagger passed German in the hall and acted as though he didn’t know him.
Observing this, Wood noted: “That’s Mick. A nice bunch of guys.”
Wood and Richards come off the best. They appreciated and complimented what German did and regularly invited him to their homes and exclusive parties. In fact, German was the ghostwriter of Wood’s first memoir, “The Works.”
German threw a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his fanzine. Not only did Richards leave an important rehearsal to attend, but German saw “the Prince of Darkness” kibbitzing with Bernie and Sylvia, his parents, two kosher deli workers from Brooklyn.
German’s mother, originally upset that her son quit college to follow the Stones, became a news source (well-meaning albeit slightly unreliable) by keeping up with the Stones in the papers. She called to tell him Jagger was going to be in a new movie, “Freeze Jack”; she meant “Freejack.” Also, she left a message that Richards was going to “be doing a jig soon”; he actually had a gig.
In the United States, the Stones had a lot of Jews around them. Jane Rose, a member of their management team, was a doctor’s daughter from Long Island; Richards at one point had a personal assistant, Svi, who was a Talmudic scholar. Richards, too, befriended Freddy Sessler, a Holocaust survivor. And of course there was German himself.
Hanging out with the group exposed him to a lifestyle completely alien to the way he was raised. “It didn’t turn me off to them [the Stones], because I knew who they were, but it turned me off to the lifestyle. I saw them making mistakes with the drugs; I knew that was not something I wanted to do."
German credits his Jewish upbringing with helping him resist temptation. “That was just not part of my upbringing. I had a stereotypical Jewish childhood. I do not have any alcoholism or drug addiction in my family, and that was not something that appealed to me. It was easy for me to say no and just be an observer in the room.”