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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Last Word on the Stones?

Out from under their thumb

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At age 16 in 1978, Bill German began to steal time on his high-school mimeograph machine to produce the magazine Beggars Banquet-and for the subsequent 17 years, he kept at it. He never moved into a real office space, always utilizing whatever living space he could in typical do-it-yourself fashion, but he did move into the completely unraveled world of the Stones. Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with the Rolling Stones (And Lived to Tell About It) (Villard) was written after German finally gave it all up and wonders where his life will now go, which provides a unique narrative voice that is rife with insider dope (literally), remarkable insight regarding the classic era of rock music, hilarious perspectives and an existential drama that is unbeatable in any other book on the Stones. In fact, this should be the last Stones book.

Under Their Thumb is ultimately the story of the last kid standing in middle age who grows up too late but has enough sense to leave behind the twisted back stages and constantly turning lives of members of the world's self-appointed greatest rock 'n' roll band. This book is about being a fan and how the lifestyle is stone-age juvenility, no matter how you define it. It's not a real world.

We get Jagger as fearless dictator, Richards as gracious commoner, Watts as serially detached and Wood as scared, insecure. German was a ghostwriter for Ron Wood's art book, The Works, and spent 1986 on the inside of it all. This area of the text is especially interesting, rife with stories such as Wood going to Passover Seder at Groucho Marx's house, as the Stone and his fan basically stayed up all night for the entire year to make deadline. 1986 was a seminal year, too, as the Rolling Stones were no longer counterculture. "The rock 'n' roll demographic that made up the counterculture was slowly becoming the culture." When asked to pose for a photo with police officers, Richards opines, "In the old days…those guys would've been lookin' to bust me. But now they're lookin' to shake my hand and get my autograph. Their fathers on the force probably did bust me."

One gets a very unique perspective on Richards, as the kindest, most gracious man of the bunch. He keeps a wry eye on matters and always takes care of German, even inviting him to one of his solo concerts to which the author shows up in his finest Rosh Hashana synagogue clothes, for which Richards is appreciative.

We go through the passing of the classic era of rock 'n' roll into one that is a time of parody, and this is what German emphasizes with no amount of bedraggled self-pity, but certainly with the knowledge of one who sees many "things about rock 'n' roll-loving baby boomers: They had disposable income, young children, and guilt." Fed up with eating "spring rolls with Springsteen" backstage while the Stones pranced around in a bygone stance, German had the sense to realize that he used to love it, but that it's all over now. He gets out and gets lost.

His most haunting sorrow is that the artists never had ultimate control or, with Jagger as the penultimate satanic majesty, never tried for it. After reading this book one wonders if baby boomers were just an easy generation for the rock market to drag along, and if canonizing the music and those who created it means that being a rock fan is being somebody in need of perennial emotional rescue. Young fans, take heed. Old ones, take leave.