Under Their Thumb: How A Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With The Rolling Stones (And Lived To Tell About It), by Bill German

This is certainly the most unusual book yet written about The Rolling Stones. Prior books had either been written by insiders (Up And Down With The Rolling Stones by Keith Richards’ drug supplier and aide-de-camp “Spanish” Tony Sanchez) or by professional writers/biographers (Old Gods Almost Dead by the ever-present Stephen Davis). What we have here in Under Their Thumb is a book written by a fan.

Bill German is not just any fan, though. As a teenager he started to self-publish the Rolling Stones fanzine Beggar’s Banquet. He toiled in obscurity for several years, building a network of fans and bootleggers who gave him tips about what (and who) the Stones were doing.

As fate would have it, German met the Rolling Stones and pressed a copy of his fanzine into the hands of Ron Wood, who looked it over and handed it to Keith Richards.

From this inauspicious beginning, Bill German somehow became a friend to the Rolling Stones. Not quite an insider, but far from being a mere fan, he managed to strike up friendships with both Ron Wood and Keith Richards. He went to their apartments, was invited to their parties, drank with them (but stayed away from drugs). He interviewed them, got insider information which was then published in Beggar’s Banquet with the approval of the Stones. Throughout he seems to have remained aware that he was possibly the luckiest Rolling Stones fan ever. Woody and Keith seemed to genuinely like the guy. Ron Wood asked him to help write his book of artwork, The Works. He got into press conferences, and backstage. Bill German was the proverbial fly on the wall.

His presence was disconcerting, if not downright alarming, to many of the business people that were tasked with taking care of the Stones. German would publish insider information straight from Ron Wood’s mouth, but then would get lectured by the managers and handlers who wanted all the information about the band to funnel from them. It seems apparent that, as the Stones went from their relatively care-free rock band days to becoming a business and marketing juggernaut, Mick Jagger began to become as much businessman as rocker, and as time went on he began to distance himself from German.

After first embracing German (Beggar’s Banquet became the official Stones newsletter around the time of the Undercover album), the suits behind the scenes began to fear him. Even though German usually sought approval before publishing anything, he still insisted that he was a “journalist.” Having a journalist deep in the heart of the Stones camp where outrageous drug use and serial infidelity were the norm was a worrisome prospect for those tasked with making sure the Stones got through customs at the airport and maintained good relationships with their wives.

The inevitable ending should surprise nobody except, apparently, the author. Bill German became frustrated and angry that the access he once enjoyed was now being denied. Once the Stones became the Machine starting with the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, even his friendship with Keith and Woody was not enough to get him where he felt he needed to be to continue putting out the fanzine.

He managed to hang in there until after the Voodoo Lounge tour but then closed the fanzine down and fell largely out of touch with his friends in the Stones camp.

German has a nice style, conversational, easy-to-read. He comes across as a likable and pretty level-headed guy and takes great pains to portray Ron Wood and Keith Richards as being wonderful human beings. Mick Jagger is, in Keith’s words, “a great bunch of guys.” Jagger is shown as coldly calculating, warm to those he likes and trusts, but he doesn’t like or trust too many people, including the author.

For me, the selling point of the book was that it was about the Rolling Stones well past their prime. Most Stones books concentrate on the Sixties and early Seventies, when they were challenging The Beatles for supremacy of the music world and The Who for the title of “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World.” Under Their Thumb is about the period of time that these earlier Stones biographies gloss over: the dreaded 80s and 90s when the Stones were releasing mediocre albums and tearing at each other’s throats. It’s a period that has an interesting story behind it. Here is where you’ll find the near break up of the band, Mick’s awful solo albums, Keith’s excellent solo albums, the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll Chuck Berry film that Keith organized, and the massive tours that brought the Stones back from the brink of death, but brought them back in a way that was largely unrecognizable from what they had been before. It is, somewhat surprisingly, a fascinating period in the history of the band, and Bill German was there for almost all of it.

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Hondo, by Louis L’Amour

Intrigued by a recent article in a news magazine, I decided to take my first stab at reading a novel by the prolific Louis L’Amour. I’d seen his books on the bookstore shelves my entire life, but never felt the desire to buy one. As far as I was concerned, Westerns were movies. Books about cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen were dime novels.

The one exception I made in my snobbery was Larry McMurtry. I had read (and loved, loved, loved) Lonesome Dove over 20 years ago, and since then had read the other books in the Dove tetralogy, as well as the Western novels Anything for Billy and Buffalo Girls. But I never made the leap to L’Amour. I think I always associated him in my mind with Zane Grey, who also churned out an astonishing number of slim volumes about the American west.

The novel I chose for my inaugural dance was Hondo. I’ve seen the movie with John Wayne and enjoyed it thoroughly, so I hoped the source material would be as good.  Somewhat to my surprise, it was.

There’s no mistaking L’Amour’s prose with great literature. He’s not Larry McMurtry by any stretch of the imagination. The style is spare and lean, and the characters are not fleshed out to any degree. The book moves on the premise, and anything else is tossed overboard. Nary a word is wasted; there is no real padding.

The plot is straightforward. A scout for the U.S. Army meets a lone woman and her son deep in the heart of Apache territory. The Apaches are on the warpath, and she refuses to leave her home. They fall in love. He ends up defending her from the Apaches.

It’s a classic tale of hard men, tough women, and a parched landscape. As you read, it is easy to see what drew John Wayne to the idea of turning it into a movie.

I’m agnostic on the idea of reading more of L’Amour’s work. Even the otherwise laudatory article was clear that many of his novels are strictly second-rate. But this suggests a question: Why are there so few great novels of the American West? Maybe I’m just missing them, of course, and I’m open to recommendations. It seems to me, though, that the Great American Novel will most likely be a Western, because the story of how the West was won is the great mythos of America.

I think that Lonesome Dove is one of the finest novels ever written. The other books in the series run a gamut from mediocre (Dean Man’s Walk) to good (Streets Of Laredo) to great (Comanche Moon), but none come close to the towering achievement of Lonesome Dove. Few books do. But considering all of the sweep, romanticism, adventure, danger, and epic scope of the taming of the Wild West, why is this a genre that attracts more L’Amours and Greys (workman-like writers pumping out easy-to-read adventure stories with strictly functional dialogue, two-dimensional characters and limited descriptive sense) than McMurtrys (gifted stylists with an ear for brilliant dialogue and an Ansel Adams-like eye for setting)?

My fear is that because the Western is a traditionally conservative field with good guys and bad guys, strong men and the women who love them, many writers in today’s PC culture simply don’t want to be associated with the genre that John Wayne and John Ford popularized. This would be too bad because Westerns are a mother lode of gold ore that is waiting to be mined by great writers, and the old Westerns were rarely the clichéd anti-Injun tracts they are often purported to be.

Even in Hondo, as standard an old-style Western as they come, the Apaches are treated with a great deal of respect and sympathy. They could not possibly be on the warpath, Angie Lowe tell Hondo Lane. “There’s a treaty.”

“We broke it,” replies Hondo. Not exactly the stereotypical “the savage Red Man doesn’t respect treaties” nonsense that many would have you believe is the currency of Westerns. Even in the old movies of John Ford and John Wayne, the American Indian is often treated with respect. The Searchers is as strong an anti-racism film as has been made by any modern-day director.

But the clichés live, and have done a great disservice to a uniquely American genre that deserves a deeper look in literature. Instead of classic stories of good and bad, heroes and villains, sweep and grandeur, we get politically correct junk like Dances With Wolves, a story that is as annoying as it is patronizing to the Sioux, a proud warrior nation turned into a bunch of pacifist eco-weenies. Hondo is a classic Western because of the story it tells. If that story had been told by a first-class prose stylist, it would be considered a classic, period.

Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz

In the increasingly lengthy oeuvre of Dean Koontz, there have been two recurring main characters. The first of these is Christopher Snow, the hero of the books Fear Nothing and Seize The Night. Snow is a surfer dude with a rare skin condition that makes it impossible for him to be subjected to high degrees of light. The character is, frankly, lame, as were the two books in which he starred.

The second recurring character is Odd Thomas, a short-order fry cook who has various extrasensory perceptions. For starters, he can see dead people, though they can’t speak to him. He also has a type of psychic magnetism that allows him to find people or things just by thinking about them and following his instincts when they tell him whether to turn left or right. He can also see black, ghost-like forms that congregate days in advance wherever there is liable to be death and sorrow.

Odd Thomas is one of Koontz’s most likable characters. The books in which he appears, Odd Thomas, Forever Odd, Brother Odd, and Odd Hours, are written from his perspective as manuscripts detailing his adventures. Odd doesn’t seek trouble, but finds it seemingly wherever he turns. In the first book in the series, Odd stops a terrorist attack but not before many are killed including his girlfriend and soulmate, Stormy. Without her, he leaves his hometown and begins to wander.

Yes, just like Kane in Kung Fu.

All four of the Odd Thomas books are enjoyable. They’re light and breezy, full of good humor and thrilling action sequences. In these “manuscripts” Odd rarely lets more than a few paragraphs go by without making some kind of joke. Despite the deaths (and more than a few people are killed in various ways in each of the books), these really are somewhat comic novels.

Consider this: Odd Thomas is sneaking on board a boat that is going to rendezvous with another ship and retrieve four nuclear weapons to detonate in American cities. There is of course, a guard. It is night, Odd is trying not to be seen. The situation is tense.

To get aboard, I would have to take out the guard here on the dock, but I could see no way to do it quietly.

Besides,  I had to cross a swath of open planking to reach him, and I had no doubt that he would be better armed than I was. A better marksman. A better fighter. Tougher than I was. More brutal. Probably a kung fu master. Wicked with knives and martial-arts throwing stars that would be secreted in six places on his superbly fit body. And if I was somehow able to disarm him of every murderous implement, this guy would know how to make a lethal weapon from one of his shoes, left or right, he wouldn’t care which.

Koontz uses this tone in nearly all of his most recent books and it’s a tone that’s frequently jarring. Coming as the Voice of Odd, it’s not. One could make the case that it’s somewhat indulgent and serves little more than padding once it reaches a certain point, and those criticisms are at least partially true. Without the humorous asides and the Bringing Up Baby-style banter between characters, most Dean Koontz books would be about 150 pages long.

This makes it crucial to the success or failure of a Dean Koontz book that those 150 pages of serious content be good. The stronger the situation, the better the plot, the better the book. While that’s generally true of all fiction, for Koontz it is especially important. When he is inspired, his books become top-notch thrillers with a humorous edge. When the plot is lacking, there is no skeleton on which to hang clothes. The style is enjoyable, but it is not enough to carry a book.

Sad to say, the plot of Odd Hours is less than inspired.  A small cabal of beach town police and citizens are conspiring with an unnamed Middle Eastern country to detonate four nuclear bombs in four cities. Odd meets an equally odd pregnant woman who speaks in riddles and who serves no discernible purpose in the book. Perhaps she will in the next book, but in Odd Hours the character of Annamaria is nothing more than providing a female presence. She hints that she is somehow magical and is able to command threatening coyotes to leave. Then she disappears for the next 60% of the book and makes one last appearance at the end, joining Odd Thomas as he continues his journey.

Odd is captured by the cabal but escapes by goading the ever present ghost of Frank Sinatra (he sees dead people, remember? And Sinatra has replaced Elvis, who was Odd’s invisible companion in the previous books) into becoming an angry poltergeist. He then gets a helping hand from an old woman who also has some sort of psychic magnetism. He finds the cabal, kills them all, and rides off into the sunrise with Annamaria at his side.

Frankly, it’s all very humdrum. The plot is way too thin and the resolution of the dramatic acts way too matter-of-fact. The character deserves better. Odd Hours seems like it was dashed off over a long weekend.

I do want to take one minute here to praise Koontz for his own idiosyncratic style. He writes across multiple genres: thrillers, sci-fi, horror, suspense, action, comedy, romance…frequently all in the same book. He does not so much write in a genre as he has invented his own. Earlier books, like Phantoms or Darkfall were easily summarized as horror fiction, Strangers and Demon Seed were science fiction, etc.  But for over a decade now Koontz has been blending all of the different styles like an expert mixmaster.

The single biggest constant in his works, though, is hope. His books are not bleak or nihilistic (e,g, Scott Smith’s The Ruins). There is a genuine love of people (and dogs…boy, does Koontz love dogs!) that runs like a thread through all of his work. There is also a heavy amount of that ol’ time religion (Catholicism in Koontz’s case…whether the characters themselves are religious or not, the good guys at least behave in a uniquely Catholic manner, right down to abstaining from pre-marital sex). 

These threads of love and religion give Koontz a platform in every book to make the case that despite the evil that lurks in the heart of men, goodness and light will win the day in the end. Unfortunately in these days this counts as a profound point, and Koontz makes it at every opportunity. It’s a message worth hearing, and the fact that it’s usually wrapped in a good old comic thriller makes it even more palatable. Sadly, Odd Hours is not all that good. It’s a passable way to spend a few hours, and that’s about all.

But the message remains.

John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman

For all of the millions of words that have been written about the Beatles as a band or as singular musicians, it’s somewhat surprising that the man who formed the group and who was one of the two pillars that supported it has never been the subject of a serious biography. Until now.

There have been a couple of not-so-serious books written about Lennon. The most recent entry was Albert Goldman’s ridiculous and risible The Lives Of John Lennon, a book that was as mean-spirited in tone as it was unfair to subject and reader alike. The book grabbed a fair share of headlines back in the late 80s, and inspired U2 to write the song "God, Part II" (with the lyrics "I don’t believe in Goldman/His type like a curse/Instant Karma’s gonna get him/If I don’t get him first").

Now comes the first Lennon biography that is worthy of its subject, Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life. It is a massive book for a short life, but the life that was lived is endlessly fascinating. Of course, the lion’s share of the book is taken with the Beatle years, but a substantial amount is dedicated to the young Lennon, pre-Beatles and even pre-Quarrymen. Surprisingly, it is this account of the young man that is the most fascinating part of the book. The Beatle years have been written about endlessly. (Norman himself wrote one of the very first biographies of that band, the excellent Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation, way back in 1981 or so.) John Winston Lennon’s childhood and teenage years have only been glossed over.

The conventional narrative of John’s young life goes like this: Lennon was abandoned by his father, his mother was unable to care for him and gave John to her sister Mimi, Lennon managed to form a relationship with his mother shortly before she was killed by a drunk driver, Lennon channeled his anger and sadness into his new band.

The kernels of truth are all there, but the actual story is so much more complicated. Among other revelations, I had been unaware that John’s father had tried to take John away from his mother because his mother was not a particularly fit Mom, and that it was a very young John who made the choice to stay with his mother. His father abandoned John, but only after he was told that he wasn’t wanted (not an excuse, I know, but at least a wrinkle in the conventional narrative).

Julia Lennon was a very young woman who had almost no maternal instincts. She was at least as unwilling to care for John as she was unable. Again, it was news to me that John maintained a relationship with Julia the entire time he was living under the care of his Aunt Mimi. He would frequently stay at Julia’s home whenever he and Mimi had a row, and Julia went to see John play with the Quarrymen several times.

Far from the usual story (propagated by Lennon himself), John Lennon was not a poor kid from Liverpool. He was raised in what we would now call a middle class (or even upper middle class) home. Mimi adored him, despite their occasional fights. His mother also loved him, and so did the entire extended family. Far from being the alienated, disaffected youth he frequently portrayed himself as, John Lennon was a boy surrounded by love and concern. In retrospect, this is not surprising. Alienated, disaffected young men (think Kurt Cobain) do not write songs like "In My Life." John Lennon was no working class hero. He was a largely pampered, but deeply troubled, young boy.

There is also no question that a lot of Lennon’s angst was all too real. His young, attractive mother was more of a family friend than a mother, which led to some awfully conflicted feelings in John. Sigmund Freud may have been full of hot air about almost anything and everything, but John Lennon was a textbook case of the Oedipal Complex. He not only "loved" his mother, he lusted after her. As the boy started to become the teenager and started to become aware of his own sexuality, he found it directed towards his own mother…young, beautiful, free-spirited, independent Julia. Walking into her house one afternoon he found her with a lover in flagrante delicto, which further sent the signal to him that this woman was a highly sexual being. John would curl up behind his mother while she slept and wonder if he should touch her breasts. In John’s mind, Julia may have been willing. (The idea that she was willing is probably due to Julia’s cluelessness about her son’s feelings and her own lack of a maternal instinct…what mother lets her young teenage son cuddle with her on her bed?). It was a perfect storm of wrong signals that was set into concrete when Julia was killed. As you read Norman’s book, you can see John’s emotional and sexual needs coalescing around an ideal of the perfect woman: part nurturing Mother, part lover, free-spirited, independent, an outsider in her own society. Paging Yoko Ono, come in Yoko Ono.

John’s enrollment in art school, his friendship with Stuart Sutcliffe (also doomed to die at a crucial time in John’s life), the formation of the Quarrymen and the Beatles are also handled in depth. The Beatle years do take up the majority of the book, but a large amount of attention is paid to the early years of the band when they were a proto-punk band storming the stage in Hamburg, Germany, gorging themselves on amphetamines to help them stay awake and strippers to help them calm down. It is in Hamburg where they met Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr, two extremely influential figures in Beatle-lore. Klaus would later design the famous Revolver cover and become a bass player for Manfred Mann and, later, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Astrid was the girl who stole Stuart Sutcliffe away from the Beatles and who provided the only early photographic record of what would soon be the most photographed band on the planet. But Klaus and Astrid also introduced the Beatles to the Exies, German and French Existentialists (the heavy duty artists crowd). Being introduced to these alternative types of art, literature, and music would later manifest itself when the Beatles broke out of the three-minute love song.

The fame years of the Beatles are handled perfectly for a Lennon biography. Paul McCartney remains a strong supporting role, but George Harrison and Ringo Starr are bit players. The focus, even during these years, is solidly on John. This book will never be confused with a general Beatles biography. John reconnects with his father (even has his father come live with him), becomes distant from his first wife Cynthia, loses his friend and manager Brian Epstein (another authority figure who dies too soon), and meets Yoko Ono. In the meantime there is an incredible amount of pot, LSD, cocaine, and heroin consumed and the most timeless music of the rock era written and recorded.

The Beatles were, in many ways, the first instance of the rock and roll band as a group. They were essentially a gang, and the public perception of them (written in stone by the movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) was of four close friends who lived together, wrote together, sang together, vacationed together. They were inseparable. Of course the reality was far different, but the shattering of that illusion by the sudden appearance of a certain diminutive Japanese "artist" caused bad feelings all around. To the average fan that grew up with this perception of the Beatles, the gnashing of teeth and public bickering during their breakup must have been difficult. It was "a golden age for lawyers" as stated in The Rutles.

Lennon’s post-Beatle life is similarly well chronicled in The Life. John’s solo career has achieved more legendary status than it deserves in the wake of his death. He released one stunningly brilliant album (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), one great album of pop classics (Imagine), one God-awful piece of unlistenable junk (Some Time In New York City), two mediocre albums of original songs (Mind Games, Walls And Bridges), and one mediocre collection of oldies (Rock ‘N’ Roll). He is nearly as well known for his year-long "Lost Weekend" of depraved debauchery as he is for most of his solo music. The Life recounts in great detail the Lost Weekend and also John’s descent into hard Left radical buffoonery and his subsequent "What, me a radical? I’m just a singer" fight against deportation.

The last stage of John’s life was his retirement and withdrawl into the Dakota. He stayed home and raised (with a lot of help) his new son Sean and made several half-hearted attempts to reconnect with his first son Julian. He learned to bake bread, and stayed away from music and musicians. Keith Moon tried to visit and Lennon refused to see him, even though Moon was more than happy to just sit and have a cup of tea. "I don’t want to have tea with Keith Moon," said John. "If I see him at all I want to get loaded and have a party." Even during his househusband years, there was a devil inside of John that he somehow kept on a short leash. More power to him.

Lennon famously emerged from isolation in late 1980 with the album Double Fantasy. One half of the album is a collection of pop gems, odes to hearth and home, beautifully written and sung by John. The other half isn’t. Within a few days of being told that Double Fantasy had gone gold, and that his record was a hit, Lennon was dead, murdered by a fan.

In the public eye, Lennon’s murder did three things:

  • John became a martyr, despite the fact that his murderer was not some right wing reactionary, but was one of the millions of people who followed and supported Lennon throughout his career.
  • Despite his vocal and financial support of various violent Leftist groups like the IRA or the Black Panthers, he became the "man of Peace" and not just a musician. His ineffectual, goofball attempts at "promoting peace" were now seen as being parallel to Gandhi, or even Jesus, and not as childish publicity stunts. The doggerel rhymes of "Give Peace A Chance" and the insufferable naiveté of "Imagine" came to symbolize the man and his beliefs to millions of people who didn’t listen closely to the "count me in" lyric of "Revolution" and who (wisely) skipped the entire Some Time In New York City album. This is the favored portrayal of Lennon from Yoko and her spokespeople, and even from McCartney and Ringo, who should know better. Let me just add that for all of its starry-eyed utopian blather and Communist Manifesto sympathies, "Imagine" remains an exquisitely beautiful piece of music.
  • Lennon’s reputation as a Beatle and solo artist was enhanced at Paul McCartney’s expense. Suddenly McCartney was the guy who wrote those slight, silly love songs with moon/June/croon/spoon lyrics. It’s a criticism that is deeply unfair to McCartney who, yes, did write those songs but who also was the truly avant-garde Beatle and the writer of at least as many classic songs as Lennon and possibly more.

The murder of John Lennon is handled quickly in the book. John is killed in the last couple of pages. The Life is over and so is The Life. The spectacle of thousands of weeping, shell-shocked fans (I was one of them) is thankfully skipped. It is the common error of so many looks at Lennon’s life to include the post-murder tributes that have made a deeply flawed man who happened to be one of the greatest songwriters of the last 100 years into Blessed John, Martyred Patron Saint of Peace.

Several years ago, Barry Miles wrote a biography of Paul McCartney called Many Years From Now. It is one of the best of all rock biographies. Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life can now take a place proudly next to it on the bookshelf.