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The Birth of Beggars Banquet

by Bill German   

From the time I became a Stones fan at the age of ten, I wanted to be like the writers in Creem and Rolling Stone. "Those guys hang out with the Stones," I thought. "That job's for me!"

In September 1978, when I was about to turn sixteen, I typed the first issue of Beggars Banquet in my New York bedroom. The Stones had just completed their "Some Girls" tour and were about to play "Saturday Night Live."

As a rabid fan, I was frustrated with how the Stones were portrayed in the mainstream media that year. Most newspaper articles focused on their age -- Mick had just turned 35 -- and most TV anchors got their facts wrong. Even as a teen, beginning my junior year in high school, I felt I could do a better job at covering my favorite band. So I printed that first issue and tried selling it to my classmates for a quarter apiece.

An issue of Beggars Banquet from 1978, long before web sites or Photoshop.

Lucky for me, the Stones -- or at least Mick, Keith, and Ronnie -- were living in New York back then. They visited the city's nightclubs on an almost nightly basis, and often hopped onstage for impromptu jams. I was too young to enter these clubs -- I cried when I missed Keith jamming at the Bottom Line with Dave Edmunds -- so I relied on grownups to provide eyewitness accounts, which I then wrote up in my newsletter.

Thanks to my "sources," I was scooping Creem and Rolling Stone when it came to Stones stories. Word spread among Stones fans that "there's a kid in New York who knows everything the Stones are up to." By the middle of 1979, I had a few dozen subscribers from all over the world. (I was charging 3 bucks a subscription.)

Eventually, I felt proud enough to show my creation to the Stones. In June 1980 -- two days after my high school graduation -- I heard they were hosting a party for their "Emotional Rescue" album at a club called Danceteria. I wasn't on the guest list and couldn't get in, but I was determined to finally meet my favorite rock stars. I introduced myself to Ronnie as he exited the club, and handed him my latest issue, which contained an exclusive preview of the album. (One of my sources had procured an advance tape.)

As they got in their limo, Ronnie showed the issue to Keith. They looked down at the newsletter, then up at me, and must've wondered, "How the hell does he know all this stuff?" They might not have pinpointed my age (17), but they could tell I was a kid.

From that day on, I made sure the Stones received each new issue of Beggars Banquet. I'd drop copies off at their midtown office, where the employees promised to forward them to the Stones. I didn't know whether they were actually getting them, until a friend spotted Mick on Central Park West, clutching an issue. And when I met Bobby Keys one night at a bar, he told me he'd seen one on Keith's coffee table.

After hitting the legal drinking age (which was 18 in New York), I began tracking down the Stones at local nightclubs. If Chuck Berry or Jimmy Cliff were playing the Ritz, it wasn't hard to figure out that a Stone or two would be in the audience. My objective was to hand them the latest issue and walk away, but they wouldn't let me sometimes. They'd literally grab me and tell me how much they enjoyed the newsletter. Ronnie would say, "I've got this one, where's the next one?" And Keith would say, "I like readin' 'em on the can."

From there, things just snowballed. Through the contacts I made at the Stones' office, I had some decent access along the 1981 "Tattoo You" tour. I saw the band at the tiny Fox Theatre in Atlanta and got into Keith's backstage birthday party in Hampton. (That's the concert where Keith smacked that kid with his guitar. You can YouTube it.)

Sharing an issue with Keith and Patti.  They like it!

My sporadic and brief hook-ups with the Stones were great, but I forged a tighter relationship with Keith in 1982, when I learned he was at the Plaza Hotel under the name "Richard Hurrah." All I wanted to do was drop off the latest issue at the front desk, but, on a whim, I phoned his room to let him know it was there. The hotel operator screened the call, asked my name, and put me on hold. To my surprise, the next voice I heard was Keith's.

He said he was happy that I called because he'd been wanting to get together with me. ("This has to be a mistake," I thought. "Does he think he's talking to Bill Wyman instead of Bill German?") He reiterated how much he liked Beggars Banquet and suggested I interview him within the next few days. He said things were getting hectic, but that I shouldn't give up on him: "Call me tomorrow, 'round this time."

We wound up speaking almost every day for three weeks, as he tried to fit me into his schedule. Each day it was: "Try me tomorrow. I'll know more then what I gotta do." He sincerely wanted to hook up with me, because he always accepted my calls. (Of course, I was too naive to realize that celebrity interviews are arranged by publicists and agents, not by the celebrities themselves. Keith just made it seem so personal and friendly.)

Ronnie thanked me profusely and our friendship was forged.

In the meantime, Ronnie was going to conduct a lecture at Town Hall in New York. Yes, a lecture. It was affiliated with that adult education place, the Learning Annex. Ronnie had no idea what he was going to do for this lecture, but I had a plan of my own: I was determined to publish the show's official program. (Like the Playbill at a Broadway show.)

But here's the catch: I didn't check with anyone about this in advance. Not the Learning Annex, not Town Hall, and not anyone associated with Ron Wood. I guess I didn't want to give anyone the opportunity to say no. Town Hall's capacity was 1,500, so that's how many programs I printed. I paid for it myself and titled it "The Banquet." It was 16 pages, containing photos of Ronnie and a bio I'd written about him. (I'm told it's now a collector's item.)

Two hours before showtime, I arrived at Town Hall with a huge box. I told the security guard, "I'm here with the programs," and he let me right in. As luck would have it, Ronnie was onstage doing a soundcheck. I walked up to him and handed him a program. He seemed stunned: "I didn't know there was going to be a program."

"There wasn't," I answered. "I did it on my own."

Keith offered to staple these.

He thanked me profusely and our friendship was forged. Upon seeing Ronnie's reaction, someone from the Learning Annex assumed I was supposed to be there. He instantly gave me a backstage pass for the show.

The fun didn't stop there: Town Hall's head usher did not question that this was the official program. Mind you, I was prepared to give these things out on my own, on the street, if I had to. But now the head usher was telling his underlings: "Listen up. The programs are in this box. Grab as many as you can and hand them out when you bring people to their seats."

When the theater opened, I sat quietly and watched a dozen-or-so uniformed ushers handing out the programs. As a writer, I still consider it one of the most exciting nights of my life. I was surrounded by fifteen hundred people reading my work at the same time. (As for the lecture itself, well, that's another story for another day.)

But wait, there's a funnier part to this saga. The night before Ronnie's lecture, I was on the phone with Keith. Like I said, he kept telling me to call him at the Plaza, in hopes of setting up an interview. It was 11:30 at night, and I figured he'd say, "Call me tomorrow," as usual. Instead, he said, "Let's do it. How soon can you get here?"

Obviously, because Keith is such a hard guy to pin down, I knew I had to grab the opportunity when it presented itself. But I was in the middle of putting together the Town Hall programs. (To save money, I stapled them myself.) So, believe it or not, I actually said, "Um, Keith, can we do it another day? Because I'm sitting here stapling these books for Ronnie's show tomorrow."

With a bottle of J.D. close at hand, Keith and I discuss BB's first official issue (Volume 2, Number 1).

Keith's response, and I swear this is verbatim, was: "Bring 'em here. I'll help you staple." I believe he meant it -- because that's the kind of guy he is -- but I didn't take him up on it. Instead, I begged some friends to finish my stapling, while I rushed to the Plaza Hotel with my tape recorder and notepad.

Unfortunately, the subway didn't get me there until 1 AM, by which time Keith had fallen asleep. (He was very apologetic the next time I spoke with him and invited me to a party the Stones were hosting for the "Let's Spend The Night Together" film.)

I eventually interviewed Keith eight months later (in September 1983) and it was well worth the wait. He gave me three hours of his time, at the Stones' office in Rockefeller Center. And in case that wasn't enough, I interviewed Mick on the same day. Mick's also lasted three hours and was conducted at his house. It was the day after my 21st birthday, and I couldn't think of a better gift.

Visiting Bill Wyman's London apartment.

Parts of those interviews began appearing in the first official issue of Beggars Banquet, in January 1984. As for how Beggars Banquet became official, I'll try to make a very long story very short. The Stones (or actually their business managers) decided to have a fan club that year. Their goal, primarily, was to sell Stones merchandise. But Mick and Keith insisted that the club have a newsletter to keep the fans in touch with everything. And since Mick and Keith were very familiar with me and my work, they both insisted that I be the one hired to write it.

Beggars Banquet was then advertised inside the "Undercover" album, and Bill Wyman (the fan club's president) sent a letter to the fan club members explaining it all.

And so, after publishing Beggars Banquet on my own for five years, the Stones had practically become my business partners, an adventure that kept rolling for the next twelve years.

Look for Bill German's book, Under Their Thumb, to be published by Random House/Villard in 2009.


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