James Phelge leans against the bar at Sterch’s with a hand in his pocket, surrounded by obsessively devoted Rolling Stones fans. They’re bobbing their heads to a bootleg of “Happy,” and Phelge is surveying the scene with an indulgent smile. He’s probably the only person in the Lincoln Avenue bar who didn’t go to last night’s concert at the United Center.
“Ahhhh, they’re crap,” Phelge says to Don, who laughs. Don flew in from Massachusetts just to see the show; he’s seen the band play in eight different cities on this tour. There’s a stack of Polaroids on the bar from Wednesday’s “Glimmer Gathering,” a preconcert get-together of hard-core disciples. A few of the people in the photos have already moved on to the final stop of the North American tour in Toronto, but many are still here to party. One photo shows a man posing with a pair of briefs that Phelge autographed. The pictures pass from Thierry of France to Demery of the Netherlands to Greg of Winnipeg to Mayumi of Tokyo. Mayumi says she’s seen the Stones over 40 times in her 33 years.
Everyone here knew about Phelge before they met him. He’s a living legend in his own right, an infamous footnote sprung from numerous Stones biographies. He’s likely to be the closest these fans will ever get to their idols, so they’ve adopted him as their very own Stone.
Phelge spent most of his adult life living a quiet existence as the owner of a guitar store on London’s Denmark Street. He’d see his old mates on television every now and then, but he didn’t make much of the fact that in 1963 he shared a squalid three-room flat in Chelsea with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones a year before the world discovered them. Since then he’d been married and divorced. He had a couple of kids. “I had my own life to lead,” he says. “It sounds daft if you walk around saying ‘Hey man, I once knew the Rolling Stones.'”
What Phelge didn’t know was that he was famous. Legions of fans had puzzled over his existence for decades, based on numerous but cryptic mentions in the vast library of Stones literature. Richards has often repeated tales of the crazy roommate at 102 Edith Grove, “the most disgusting person ever,” who stood naked at the top of the stairs with his underwear on his head urinating on the band as they returned home from a gig in the wee hours of the morning. The band named their first publishing company “Nanker-Phelge,” a combination of his name and the contorted face and wheedling voice they all used to mock the blue-collar sods that hung out at the local pub. Some Glimmers believe that Jagger even cryptically referred to Phelge years after they lost touch in 1969’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: “I went down to the Chelsea drugstore / To get your prescription filled. / I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy, / And man did he look pretty ill.” Phelge isn’t too sure about that one, but he hints at the possibility by mentioning that he and Jagger once took a trip to the chemist for some throat spray.
Back then Phelge was 19, working a low-paying job in a print shop, and experimenting with a new image, having lost his beatnik’s beard and pipe in favor of sideburns and a short black corduroy coat buttoned up to the neck “for an Edwardian effect.” He began hanging out in the Ealing Jazz Club in West London and had got to know the mangy lads in the “Rollin’ Stones,” who had a weekly gig playing rhythm and blues for a small but growing group of fans. One night in the middle of their set the singer announced that he and the two guitarists were looking for a fourth roommate to share their flat in Chelsea for four pounds a month. Phelge thought Chelsea sounded glamorous, so he approached Jagger after the show and agreed to move in sight unseen.
Phelge apparently wasn’t bothered by the state of the apartment, which he likens to a World War II battlefront, but his new roommates were scandalized by a Perry Como record and a can of soybean sausages discovered among his few possessions. They immediately began to nanker him. He soon realized that if he allowed this to continue, the boys would walk all over him.
“One day they were poking fun because I was cleaning my shoes,” he says. “Keith was talking and mentioned that he’d been to art college. I turned around and gobbed on the wall and said, ‘Oh yeah? What else do you do?’ And that stopped them completely dead. Their faces sort of dropped. I said, ‘Oh, that painting on the wall there, that’s called “Yellow Humphrey.”‘ From that point on I was like one of them. It was just a question of ‘that guy is fucking mad, he has to be all right.'” Soon enough Phelge was accompanying the band to their gigs and struggling to make it in to work the next morning.
The boys he knew really were boys, not the World’s Oldest Rock and Roll Band. Phelge remembers the group’s hardscrabble existence; he tells tales of midday raids into the neighbors’ icebox and Richards making secret tape recordings of housemates using the building’s communal toilet. He also offers early indications of the band’s eventually ostracizing Brian Jones–who slept in the front lounge while everyone else shared the bedroom–but Phelge doesn’t gossip, bitch, or try to farm dirt aside from relating the often sadistic attempts to relieve the boredom in their filthy, freezing flat.
Their downstairs neighbor–a straitlaced journalist they called Triffid–seemed to bear much of the brunt of their wickedness. They hung frying pans out the window and swung them against his window when he was sleeping. They blasted Bo Diddley from Richards’s guitar amp into the hallway at 3 AM. Once Phelge and Richards broke into Triffid’s apartment and guzzled a beer they found on the kitchen table. Phelge put the bottle back after peeing in it and replacing the cap. Triffid finally moved out after the terminally housekey-less Richards shoved his guitar neck through the front window trying to get in one early morning.
Phelge lost touch with the band when their success shot them out of his social circle. Yet he showed up at the 1969 memorial concert for Brian Jones. He hadn’t seen any of the Stones for four years, but attending the concert seemed like the right thing to do. The band left in an army truck and Phelge began to follow in his car, thinking he’d catch up. But he decided to go home instead. “I wondered what I would say to them anyhow. Their experiences and success had taken them around the world several times, and I considered that we would probably no longer relate very strongly to each other.”
Phelge says that he never bothered to read any Rolling Stones books except occasionally to see what was written about him. But he found that the period during which he lived with the band was woefully underreported. “People just kept writing books and they kept copying from one book to another. There’s no new material coming along. And then there’s things which would be simple facts that have been twisted around, but no one can actually tell you that except for myself, Mick, or Keith.”
Phelge never wanted to write his own Stones book, though he did consider writing one about all the famous people he knew. After the Stones took off Phelge became friendly with music producer and pop star Kim Fowley, the man responsible for Joan Jett’s Runaways and the Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop.” Fowley noticed that Phelge had known a staggering number of people who went on to become famous. There was the guy he used to walk home from work with who was hanged for murder. There was a girl he almost dated who went on to become a Saudi princess. There were cycling champions, actors, photographers, and, of course, musicians he’d run across who’d risen out of the fertile breeding ground of swinging 60s London. “Anyone who touches Phelge becomes famous,” Fowley once said. Phelge has no explanation for this, but he never forgot it.
Years later, feeling restless at the guitar store, he decided to write a memoir, “Touch Me and You’re Famous,” but when he came to his years with the Stones he realized there was enough material for two or three books. The Edith Grove story had more obvious commercial potential than the others. He began writing in the evenings after closing the store. As an afterthought, he looked on the Internet to see what he could find about the Stones. What he found was Undercover, a daily Web digest written by a community of fans who want to keep up with current events, hook up at Glimmer Gatherings, trade recordings, or debate the finer points of Stones lore. He logged on to correct some minor details in an ongoing discussion, signing his message “Phelge,” just to see if anyone recognized his name. Everyone did, though at first no one believed it was really the Phelge. But after they checked him out, he says he was besieged.
“I never thought I was famous,” he says. “Unbeknownst to me, there were all these people who read about me and were trying to find out who this Phelge guy was. When I went on the Internet I was getting like 60 or 70 E-mails a day. People said, ‘Hey, I thought you were dead.’ I’m no one important, but it was quite nice.”
Phelge decided to publish the book himself rather than muck about with publishers. Those that had expressed interest in the project wanted to put him off for a couple of years or have him write a “Who Killed Brian Jones?” book. Phelge put together his own Web site (http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/james_phelge/) and began taking orders.
He also met Debbie White on the Undercover site. White, who has seen five Stones concerts on this tour, is an art director at a downtown ad agency. She logged on to the digest two years ago when she bought her first computer. “There were a couple of really funny posts signed ‘Phelge,’ and I remembered the name from the books and I thought, ‘Oh, it can’t be,'” she says. “But he checked out. He posted the first chapter of the book, and I wrote to him and said it was great, really funny, good luck with it. He wrote back, and we just got real attached to each other. Our first date was a month long.”
Last year Phelge got fed up with the guitar business and sold his store, saying he never wanted to hear another guitar again. He came to Chicago last month, hiring a proofreader and a local printing broker to handle the production of an initial print run of 2,000 copies of his book Phelge’s Stones, which he’s expecting in a few weeks. He’s already sold about 1,200 copies. He’s decided that he likes this writing business, and he’s thinking of making a career of it. He’s considering a book in which he defuses all the conspiracy theories surrounding Brian Jones’s death. He also wants to put together a Rolling Stones fan’s guide to London, detailing all the appropriate pilgrimages.
Last September at the beginning of the Stones’ latest tour Phelge attended his first Glimmer Gathering, which White had organized. He hates big concerts, though he attended that one at Soldier Field. “I always get stuck behind the girl with long hair that sticks in your face,” he says. “Everybody’s packed up standing there for two hours, and they’re all drunk. And it’s different nowadays when they come onstage. It’s like a big variety act. All they need is a small stage. Get rid of all these keyboards and trumpets and shit. I’ve seen them loads and loads of times. I’ve seen them naked. I’d like to see them again, but I’d like to see them in comfort.”
Before the concert, White brought Phelge to Sterch’s to meet the Glimmers. D.J. and Bob Beaton, who drove up from Arkansas for the United Center show and have seen the Stones four times on the current tour, said a stir went through the Glimmer Gathering when Phelge entered the bar.
“He walked in and everyone was like, ‘Oh, that’s Jim Phelge–don’t bother him,” says Bob, a doctor. “D.J. just said, ‘Aww the heck with it,’ and went over and introduced herself and said, ‘Why don’t you have your underwear on your head?'”
“He shot right back at me,” says D.J., a schoolteacher, “‘The question, my dear, is why don’t you have my underwear on your head.’ I was just as excited about meeting him as I was about going to the show. I had been told that he did not like talking about the Stones, but that was just not true. I loved him. He had a comeback for everything I said. He was very witty and clever.”
“It’s nice to know someone who was there in the beginning,” says Bob. “It’s almost like the Rolling Stones are a corporation now, but he gives a real nice perspective on what their lives were like before. But to me Jim is Jim, and I really like him as a person.”
“I’m not over it yet,” says D.J. “I told everybody that I met him and impressed all my friends. They all asked me this time if I was going to see Phelge and asked me if I could get autographs. I said maybe.”
Mishell, an attorney from New York City who’d thrown her bra onstage the night before, says Phelge surprised her too. “I’m always surprised at how small they are. Keith and Mick are really little just like that. It’s like they never had meat or something.”
What does Phelge think of his new fans and friends, many of whom think nothing of repeatedly dropping $300 for a good seat, not to mention the cost of airfare and hotel rooms, to see the same band over and over?
“They’re all real nice people,” he says. “Not an asshole in the bunch. But it baffles me. There’s one guy from Norway who went to the first 36 shows. It’s kind of nice that people know your name, even though it’s for putting your underpants on your head. But it’s kind of strange because it was just something I did at the spur of the moment and because of it I’m part of the Stones’ history.”
Back in Sterch’s some of the Glimmers make plans for the European leg of the tour. Demery, who will organize the Gathering in Amsterdam, passes around the seating chart for the soccer stadium where the band will play. Phelge works the crowd, chatting up friends and strangers with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Old Style in the other.
He has no idea when the Amsterdam show is, but he realizes that he must develop some sort of marketing plan for Phelge’s Stones aside from giving out his phone number (312-642-7554). “I don’t plan on sitting in a stall outside the stadium trying to sell the book, ” he says. “I’ll have to find some people to do that for me. I don’t follow the Rolling Stones anymore.” And he steadfastly refuses to nanker. “I don’t do that stuff anymore. You gotta move on. At my age it could result in some serious facial damage.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Phelge photo by Bruce Powell; Phledge with Brian Jones, 1964.