Biographer shares stories of Rolling with the Stones

March 19, 2014

By Nat Edson

 

The “Beggar’s Banquet” was a “fanzine” that catered to those hungry for information about the rock  mega-group the Rolling Stones.

A fan-based magazine lasting nearly two decades with a worldwide subscription, it covered topics other media couldn’t, containing within its pages knowledge about the band  other sources never matched. It had detailed interviews and a look at the musician’s personal life.

The “fanzine” didn’t have a large staff or even a staff at all. It had just one man who did everything: from writing the stories, to laying out the pages, printing it and sending it out through snail mail. His name was Bill German, and he was 16 years old.

“I wanted to be a journalist, and I was a big rock fan,” German said. “Perfect way to marry the two.”

German will journey from his home in New York City to Whitewater to give a talk about his time running the fanzine, and the experiences he had with the Rolling Stones. He plans on sharing stories from his recently released book, including how his story got started.

When German was beginning his sophomore year in high school he said he already knew that he wanted to be a journalist. He carried with him a passion for the Rolling Stones as well, and when he realized that no real magazines would hire him, he decided to start his own fanzine.

German lived and still lives in New York City, the same city as the Rolling Stones, so he was in close proximity to the group as they went about their daily lives. Three or four times a week the group would go out and hop between night clubs, clubs German was too young to get into.

That didn’t stop German, though. The young man waited outside or contacted people he knew who were old enough and got first-hand accounts of what was going on with his favorite rock group, making contacts and gathering the seeds needed for his “fanzine.”

At night, German would sneak into the mimeograph room of his high school, what he called a “smelly, old fashioned way of printing.” There he would secretly print out his fanzine and wrap it up to be shipped to his subscribers.

Word of mouth served to keep German going, getting people from a wide area interested in reading his fanzine. Soon enough he had subscribers from other countries, sending three dollars to his bedroom for a year-long subscription.

German finally met the musicians after finding out about a party they were going to attend. He said he rushed straight to them and handed them a copy of the most recent “Beggar’s Banquet” into their hands.

“That was two days after my high school graduation,” German said. “The bigger event was meeting the Stones. Definitely had a bigger impact on my life.”

For the next 17 years, German spent almost every waking moment either working on his fanzine or being with the band. He went to almost every performance, formal or informal. Sometimes he would be on the bus, or just headed over to the house to hang with them and their family.

Drugs were a fairly present thing as German journeyed with the Rolling Stones, but he never partook. He said that as a journalist, he needed to be sober. Sometimes they would play songs just for him, sometimes songs that hadn’t been released yet, and he needed to be able to remember that clearly.

“I had the occasional drink, though,” German said. “Jack Daniel’s came out of the taps of their houses.”

This ability to stay separate from the target of his writing is one of the reasons he was chosen to speak at UW-Whitewater by professor Carol Terracina-Hartman. She petitioned to the Visiting Artists and Speakers program to fund bringing him to UW-W, who accepted, because he has a story she said is valuable to budding journalists.

“How do you write objectively when you are traveling with your sources?” Terracina-Hartman said. “How do you ‘party’ with your sources, but not really ‘party with them?’”

Eventually, though, the ride came to an end. After 17 years the job had changed. By the mid-nineties the Rolling Stones hated each other, German said. The only thing that brought them back was the money.

They still loved the music, but for the band it became more about the money. Ticket prices skyrocketed, and for German, getting interviews with the musicians became a practice in frustration. Whereas once he merely had to call them up and jog over to their house, he now had to go through layers of publicists and managers and bodyguards.

The technical aspect of the fanzine was beginning to wear on German, too. He described what an old history teacher had told him once: when you mix hobby and profession your job might get more fun, but your hobby will start to feel like work.

At the age of 33, 17 years and 102 issues after his start, German ended the “Beggars Banquet.” He still journeys to Rolling Stones concerts now and then, but he said he has become slightly jaded to the whole experience.

The writer will be making an appearance at UW-Whitewater to give a talk about his book and his experiences. The talk will take place at 7 p.m. on  April 1 in Heide Hall, Room 101.

“For anyone interested in music criticism, media history, and journalism,” Terracina-Hartman said. “[German’s] lecture will be not only valuable, but a lot of fun.”

German, now 51, also has published a book chronicling his time with the band titled “Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It).” In it he has recounted a myriad of stories from his two decades with the band, from the highest highs to the lowest lows.