Sympathy for the Devils
There have been a lot of biographies about the Rolling Stones, but most skip over the '80s and '90s in favor of the band's heyday in the '60s and '70s, which is why Bill German's archly titled Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It) is of more than passing interest. The longtime editor of the Stones newsletter/zine Beggars Banquet comes off as a little square at times, but he dutifully fills in some of the gaps in the oft-told myth with some fascinating new anecdotes, even as he wrestles with doubts about whether he's ultimately a reporter, friend or fan. Strangely, his lifelong obsession with the band doesn't pay off in drugs or groupies. As he wryly notes, "I spent the prime of my virility licking more postage stamps than anything else." Of course, German is admittedly a bit odd, even among the ranks of diehard Stones fanatics. He claims that, in the late '70s, he was just about to have sex for the very first time, when a friend phoned to say that the last copy of a Stones bootleg LP was waiting for him at the record store. Incredibly, he blows off his new girlfriend to rush down to the store to buy the album. (This might be understandable if the bootleg was from the Mick Taylor years, when the Stones were clearly at their peak, but German actually delays his sexual satisfaction so he can acquire an LP from the so-so 1978 tour, the second jaunt with Taylor's merely adequate replacement, Ron Wood.) This all makes one wonder just how much German understood the whole point of the band's lyrics -- getting laid. (Would Mick Jagger miss a chance to have sex just so he could go buy an old Chuck Berry album? Somehow, I doubt it.) German isn't a particularly stylish writer, but he has a sober, clear-eyed perspective and brings to life the under-documented Ron Wood era and the group's struggles to stay relevant into the '90s. Much of the memoir recounts German's efforts to maintain his position during various shakeups in the Stones' increasingly corporate-minded hierarchy; what's more interesting are behind-the-scenes details about the band's awkward reunion with Taylor at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and first-person accounts of watching the band jam privately with folks like Eric Clapton. Like so many other characters and narrators in the Stones saga -- from semi-bitter ex-members (Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman), former drug dealers (Tony Sanchez) and the many journalists who've tagged along on tour -- German ultimately sees far "too much in too few years" and comes out a little disillusioned by it all in the end.
Tue., March 31, 7 p.m., 2009
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