30.8.17

DAVID BOWIE – A LIFE by Dylan Jones




The longer we mourn David Bowie the more his absence becomes apparent. Nevertheless, in many ways the death of a great rock star nowadays affects only those to whom they were personally close, and makes little difference to most of their fans. Thanks to the heritage industry they no longer fade away: we continue to buy and listen to their records, watch their concerts on screens and read about them as if they were still alive. True, we can’t see them in person any more but, because David Bowie absented himself from public life for over a decade before his death, his actual absence is illusive, like the extinction of an endangered species, regrettable but remote. The obituaries have been written but the books keep on coming. 
I thought about this a lot as I read Dylan Jones’ David Bowie: A Life, a book I welcome, albeit with some reservations. Though advertised as a biography, it is in reality an oral history, Jones having interviewed and/or solicited contributions from 182 individuals with connections to Bowie; some – like myself – quite tangential and others – like his garrulous first wife, collaborating musicians and long term associates – with much more to say. Bowie’s story is told through their words, linked by Jones’ lucid and informative passages that set the scene and hurry things along, and the result is both enlightening and far-reaching, the best text-led Bowie book I’ve read since David Buckley’s Strange Fascination. It’s surprisingly pacy too and, with so many opinions to decode, Bowie’s fluid, restless and magpie-like character is fully developed well before fame beckons. 
As the present editor of GQ magazine, former editor of a few more and the author of 20 other books, Jones has been awarded the OBE for services to publishing, and his work ethic is clearly Herculean. This book is 556 pages long yet contains no images whatsoever, which is probably a first in the Bowie book industry, and pretty audacious since he remains far and away the most photogenic rock star the UK has ever produced. The format of the book precludes Jones from having to take a view on matters that some fans might find distasteful, thus enabling him to craft a ‘warts and all’ book that manages to avoid the rather prurient sensationalism of several other Bowie biographies I’ve read, yet include the debauchery anyway*. At the same time Bowie’s work is venerated through the opinions of experts: fellow musicians, record producers and prominent persons in the worlds of art and fashion. Some might consider this approach dispassionate but any such charges are mitigated by the scale of the undertaking, not to mention the wealth of information, much of it fresh, that can be gleaned from its pages. 
“The lack of subjectivity… should enable the truth to shine through,” Jones asserts in his acknowledgements, which is a nice way of saying that many of his interviewees speak their mind without concern for the feelings of others. There was always an element of bitchiness amongst those who surrounded Bowie, at least in the Mainman era and immediately afterwards, and the book certainly benefits from their candour and, probably, creative imagination. In this regard I would question the reliability of certain interviewees, not least a journalist who states that Bowie visited early manager Kenneth Pitt ‘just before Ken died’. I happen to know that Pitt is alive and well, now 95 and well cared for. This is but one dubious statement I found, not many but enough to create concern, leading me to discern a tendency in Jones to value the impact of a juicy quote over its truthfulness, with the old Fleet Street maxim of ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’ never far away. Bowie himself, of course, was no stranger to this tactic. 
Just about everyone is in awe of Bowie, and many of the anecdotes confirm the widely-held view that he could switch on the charm at a moment’s notice, disarm new acquaintances with his knowledge of just about everything under the sun and simultaneously take on the air of a pubbable bloke with whom you’d enjoy exchanging corny jokes over a couple of pints in your local. Most of the women interviewed, and some of the men, seem to have been willing to leap into bed with him in an instant, and Bowie wasn’t one to let such opportunities slip by. No one was immune to his allure, and even those who were cast aside ultimately forgive him and appear delighted if communication is restored. It is clear from the book that he had a profound effect on almost everyone with whom he came into contact and that he was adept at putting people at ease who might otherwise be intimidated simply by his proximity. One of the few dissenting voices was an old man walking his dog who in 1980 interrupted the filming of the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video on Southend beach. ‘Do you know who this is?’ asked film director David Mallett. ‘Of course I do,’ he replied. ‘It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ “Sometime later,” Jones writes, “Bowie remembered, ‘That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realise, ‘Yes, I’m just some cunt in a clown suit.’”
Touches like this, and what I believe is a scoop about him singing backup on a Frank Sinatra recording during the Station To Station sessions, animate Jones’ book. Nevertheless, there are some important absentees, the missing voices: Iman Abdulmajid, Bowie’s second wife, granted only a few second-hand quotes; Corinne ‘Coco’ Schwab, his über-efficient personal assistant for upwards of 40 years, always a model of discretion, unafraid to offend A-list celebs who request an audience at the wrong moment; and Tony Defries, Bowie’s artful manager during the Ziggy period who, perhaps characteristically, tried to muscle in on the project and, when that failed, invoiced Jones (more out of hope that expectation) for $360,000 ‘for his contribution’. What was that about a leopard and its spots?
‘Never open a door yourself,’ was Defries’ sly advice to the client he signed in 1971, a bright, personable young man terrified he might become a one-hit wonder after his 1969 single ‘Space Oddity’, just about all he had to show for seven years as a professional musician, peaked at number five. Those seven years and the period before, Bowie’s schooldays, are covered well with family, childhood and teenage friends and early band mates, most of them the usual suspects, chipping in. Troubled stepbrother Terry looms large, clearly a big influence, and a contrast is drawn between supportive father Heyward ‘John’ Jones and his mother Peggy who seems like a very cold fish indeed.  
On the outside Bowie is the model of cool but inside a bundle of neuroses and it was probably desperation that led him to throw in his lot with Defries, a wonderful move in the short-term but disastrous a few years down the line. The colourful Mainman staffers have had their say in other books but it’s good to get them all together again to more or less confirm what we all suspected – fabulous presentation but absolute chaos behind the scenes – and many of their stories still raise a smile, especially as I was on nodding terms with most of them. Photographer Brian Duffy (who died in 2010) hits the nail on the head when he says that Defries ‘realised that in order to get the record company really going, you had to get them up to their neck in debt, which was… a masterstroke.’ It was a bit like a pyramid scheme which imploded leaving many investors skint, and that includes just about everyone apart from Defries and, to a lesser extent, Bowie from whose earnings the profligacy was debited. 
In the eye of the hurricane, Bowie realised he had to kill Ziggy and in the aftermath his life becomes disordered, as does the book. I was confused by the chronology in the period between the recording of Pin Ups and Station To Station; as if the disarray of Bowie’s daily life between 1974 and ’76, exacerbated by his copious cocaine consumption and the financial fallout of leaving Defries, was reflected in these pages. It’s not as if matters aren’t covered – Diamond Dogs, the ‘theatre tour’, Young Americans, ‘Fame’, the friendship with John Lennon (excellent quotes there), The Man Who Fell To Earth, the ‘Isolar’ tour – just that the sequencing is askew, and not until we reach the recording of Low and subsequent sojourn in Berlin is order restored, just as it was in real life. 
The Berlin period is fascinating, allowing Bowie to reconnect with reality after the horrors of Los Angeles, though I was surprised that more attention was paid to the cover of Lodger than the music it contained and that, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ aside, Scary Monsters was glossed over compared to the dire Just A Gigolo movie and Bowie’s heroic stage performance in The Elephant Man. ‘Heroes’, the song, gets the full treatment but not much else is said about the experimental music he made with Brian Eno. I don’t believe Jones is being deliberately selective here, just that revelations in the book are contingent on who’s willing to be interviewed, with the result that where witnesses are available whatever they witness gets fulsome coverage, and vice-versa when they aren’t accessible. 
Thanks mainly to Nile Rodgers no such problems occur with Let’s Dance, Bowie’s best-selling album ever, which for better or worse took him into the mainstream, and plenty of Bowie watchers line up to stick the knife into Tonight, which followed, and also Never Let Me Down. Plenty of associates talk about Absolute Beginners, the movie and the song, which like Jones I love, and he is especially good on Live Aid, which isn’t surprising as his 2014 book The Eighties: One Day, One Decade, focused on just that. Geldof’s charity bash, Bowie’s role in it and its repercussions get an enlightening chapter all to themselves. 
‘My biggest mistake during the 80s was to try and anticipate what the audience wanted,’ states Bowie as we move into the doldrums years, followed by the later years when David lived ‘like royalty in exile’, as Jones puts it. Though the 90s were not as interesting as the two previous decades, plenty of people come forward to talk about the less well known music that Bowie recorded in this more settled period of his life, his ongoing need to check out new trends and canny ability to avoid being recognised when he sought anonymity (often by wearing a hat and pretending to read a Greek newspaper), while a few testify to his tetchiness when things did not go precisely according to plan. A surprisingly large number of people met up with Bowie in the period after he abandoned live performance in 2004 to live privately, enjoy his marriage to Iman and raise their daughter, and we learn of projects that were mooted yet not acted upon and how remarkable it was that such secrecy was maintained before the release of The Next Day in 2013. Many interviewees confirm that the rumours concerning Bowie’s poor state of health were ill-founded, at least until the very end, and that he found peace in downtown New York where he could stroll unrecognised into book stores and coffee shops. Almost everyone assumes that his heavy smoking was fatal. 
        The final chapter is devoted largely to tributes, many of them heartfelt, and the conclusion I reached at the end was that it’s one hell of a shame that a man of Bowie’s talent, wisdom, influence and allure didn’t live to be 100. The comment that struck me most forcibly, however, came earlier in the book, from film-maker Julian Temple: “There have been many people who have liberated us politically, but David liberated us emotionally, sexually,” he says. “Ultimately he wanted to set people free.”


* The claim on page 155 by Lori Mattix that Bowie took her virginity when she was 14, sensationalised earlier this month in The Daily Mail as if it was a scoop, is from such an old interview that I honestly can’t remember where I first read it. It has been available to read on the internet for ages.

21.8.17

DAVID BOWIE: I WAS THERE by Neil Cossar



In June I reviewed on Just Backdated a book called The Who: I Was There, suggesting that it was a tribute to the group that their fans would contribute to a book of this kind and that only The Who inspired such affection from their followers. I was wrong, of course; so did David Bowie as this enjoyable book in the same series by a different author shows. (I contribute the introduction to this book, a slightly amended version of the text I wrote for a songbook that was published by Music Sales shortly after Bowie’s death in 2016, and which you can find elsewhere on this blog.)
This book follows the same format: a chronology of selected concert dates that were attended by fans and, in some cases, associates of Bowie, who offer their reminiscences of the shows, plus additional sightings of Bowie that merit attention. After a few recollections from teenage friends, among them David’s girlfriend Dana Gillespie (who at 14 looks more voluptuous than many women twice her age), we begin with The Konrads in June 1963 and work our way through to May 2006 when David appeared as a guest vocalist at a David Gilmour concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As with the book on The Who, it is the stories from the devoted fans that animate its pages, all of them detailed and affectionate, and in many cases simply offering grateful thanks towards a performer whose brilliance on stage is remembered decades after the event. Some even stray into how seeing and hearing the music of David Bowie had a profound effect on their personal relationships. 
Between August 1972 and March 1976 I saw Bowie on six occasions – twice in the UK, thrice in the US and once in Canada – and four of these shows are in the book. Among them is the celebrated July 3, 1973, concert at Hammersmith Odeon when David announced the cessation of The Spiders in terms that could be misinterpreted as if this was his last concert ever and not the last concert by the Mick Ronson-led band that backed him throughout the Ziggy era. An element of mystery has attached itself to this episode ever since, specifically with reference to who knew and who did not know what Bowie was planning. Soundman Robin Mayhew, interviewed for this book, has the last word: “Mick Ronson and [crew member] Peter Hunsley were the only ones who knew it was going to happen. Peter told me that David was going to ‘break up the band’ over the intercom just before the last show began.” Just like the lyric then, except that manager Tony Defries was probably in on it too. 
It is surprising that Neil Cossar couldn’t find a witness to the show at the O’Keefe Centre, Toronto, on June 16, 1974, the third concert in that year’s bold, theatrical and hugely influential Diamond Dogs tour. I was among a party of music writers flown from New York to Canada to report on this and I can still recall my amazement at witnessing a show that paid no lip service whatsoever to traditional rock concert presentation. (I can also remember booking a 4 am wake-up call in my hotel room so as to dictate my quite lengthy report on the show down the phone line to the editor’s secretary at Melody Maker, it being a Monday – press day – and Toronto being six hours behind London.) Still, there is a report on a similar concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 19, which I also attended, but the futuristic staging and props were best seen in a smallish theatre and didn’t really work in a 20,000-seat arena. Not long after this they were abandoned, largely due to the expense of carting them around, and the tour metamorphosed into what came to be known as Bowie’s ‘soul tour’.
Another show missing from the book is the one I saw on March 1, 1976, at the Cobo Hall in Detroit, now immortalised as the first ever rock concert that Madonna, then aged 17, attended. “It was a major event in my life,” she said later. “I was wearing my highest platform shoes and a long black silk cape… I don’t think I breathed for two hours. I came away a changed woman.” Regrettably, a similar quote from Madonna is attributed to a concert at the same venue in April 1978, the only mistake I spotted in an otherwise error-free book (unless, of course, Madonna attended both shows, which is unlikely since she moved to New York in 1977). 
That show was on the Isolar tour, with its dramatic black and white lighting and a besuited Bowie coolly puffing on Gitanes throughout. The ice-blue of the cigarette packet in the pocket of his black waistcoat was the only colour on stage. Though not as visually memorable as the Diamond Dogs show I saw in 1974, from a musical standpoint it was the most enjoyable Bowie concert I ever saw, the Station To Station material translating wonderfully to the stage, along with the same show on March 26 at Madison Square Garden, which is covered in the book.
From then on David Bowie just got bigger and bigger, and all the subsequent tours are covered religiously: Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Tin Machine, Sound + Vision, Outside, Hours, Heathen and Reality, which takes me up to the last time I saw Bowie, again at Hammersmith (now the Apollo) in October 2002. Bowie certainly worked hard, as this book testifies, and due attention is also paid to one-off events such as his four-song set at 1985’s Live Aid – still Bowie’s greatest ever big show concert appearance for my money – the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992, and his Sunday night headlining appearance at Glastonbury in 2000. Missing, however, is the Concert For New York City at Madison Square Garden in 2001 when Bowie opened the show by sitting cross-legged and singing Paul Simon’s ‘America’, minimally accompanying himself on an Omnichord, a tiny portable keyboard. This prefaced a reading of ‘Heroes’ that, because he was singing for the firemen of 9/11, just about matched the emotional punch of Live Aid. Either way, Bowie – a consummate professional as well as pioneering visionary – always rose to the occasion when part of a multi-artist bill at era-defining events. 
The final Bowie concert covered in the book, as opposed to the David Gilmour show mentioned above, is at Prague on June 23, 2004, from which David Mackuu reports, sadly, that after 15 minutes he left the stage. “Shortly afterwards David came back on and tried to sing ‘Life On Mars’, but then suddenly apologised for being in pain and that was the end of everything.”
It wasn’t quite the end of everything. After a concert at Scheeßel in Germany the following day (not covered here) he was taken to hospital for emergency treatment. He would live on for 11-and-a-half more years and make a handful of guest appearances but his career as a live performer was effectively over from that night. From that point on David Bowie went into virtual hiding, so the book closes with a few random sightings and, appropriately, a series of heartfelt tributes from fellow performers and musical associates.

15.8.17

CAUGHT IN A TRAP: The Kidnapping of ELVIS – Extract 3





This is the third and final extract from my novel CAUGHT IN A TRAP: The Kidnapping Of ELVIS, which is published tomorrow, August 16, the 40th anniversary of Elvis' death.

The Stockholm Syndrome has set in. Elvis Presley has bonded with his kidnappers. A ransom note has been delivered to Graceland. At the cabin in the Kentucky Hills where he is held captive, Elvis and his three captors – Delmore Pandel, his wife Sandra and their friend Roy Kruger – have time to kill. It is time for an experiment.


Before they slept they checked on Elvis in the locked bedroom. He was sleeping soundly. The following day, after breakfast, all four of them, Elvis, Del, Sandra and Roy, squeezed into the truck and drove into the Daniel Boone National Park, stopping at a gas station on the outskirts of Montecello to buy food for a picnic lunch. Elvis was in a buoyant mood and had to be persuaded to stay in the truck with Roy while Del and Sandra went inside to pick up the provisions, and when they returned he pleaded with them to be able to step outside.
        “I just want to be able to be normal in the midst of ordinary people,” he said. “That’s something I never had, not since I was famous anyway. Let me use the bathroom. I won’t try anything.”
        Del and Roy looked at one another. “Should we let him?” asked Del.
        “Yes,” said Sandra. “I trust him.”
        “OK, but you gotta wear this hat,” said Roy, handing Elvis a floppy hat in green camouflage material that he wore while out shooting. Elvis reluctantly placed it on his head. 
        Elvis Presley’s public appearances were almost always pre-planned, tightly choreographed and reported in the press, no matter how brief. On such occasions Elvis made sure he looked the part, dressing up in his capes, buckles and belts, the way he and his fans thought he ought to look. He usually wore outsize sunglasses. Elvis would no sooner slip out of the house in everyday clothes to pick up a quart of milk than the Queen of England would be seen in her nightdress.
During pre-production meetings in Los Angeles for the Singer special in May of 1968 its producer Steve Binder had suggested he and Elvis step out of his office on Sunset Boulevard and mingle with passers-by. Elvis was appalled by the suggestion, fearing that he would be mobbed on the street and some sort of disturbance ensue. He was therefore deeply humbled when no one recognised him. “We were just four guys standing in front of this building,” said Bones Howe, Binder’s audio engineer said afterwards.
It was quite another thing, however, for Elvis to use the bathroom in a roadside gas station without a security detail checking out the building first, making sure no one else was inside and waiting outside while he relieved himself. However, Elvis had been a captive now for five nights and, although he’d been given a change of clothing – the overalls and t-shirt he loathed so much – he hadn’t had a shave in all that time, nor been able to wash properly and re-dye his hair as was his custom. As a result Elvis’ natural brown colour was just starting to show at the roots and, as each day passed, his stubble had continued to grow but it wasn’t black like the dyed hair on his head, more salt and peppery. The camouflage hat only added to the obvious reality that he no longer resembled anything like the Elvis Presley that the world would recognise.
“OK,” said Roy. “But I’m coming with you.”
Elvis stepped down from the truck and walked across the forecourt to the bathroom. The only other customer, a young man dressed in a check shirt and similar overalls to those Elvis wore, was filling up a station wagon, and as they approached the bathroom a middle-aged woman pulled up in a sedan, got out and walked towards the shop. Neither gave Elvis and Roy a second glance. 
Inside the bathroom was another man, splashing water on his face at the basin. He turned and stepped aside as Elvis passed close by him, glancing at Elvis but showing no signs of recognition. When they had finished Elvis and Roy walked back to the truck, passing close to the woman from the sedan who was lingering by a newspaper stand close to the entrance to the shop. She ignored them.
Back in the truck Elvis appeared overjoyed. “You have no idea what that felt like for me,” he said. “That’s the first time in 20 years I’ve been able to walk around outside in public and not be recognised. Now I know what it’s like not to be Elvis Presley.”
Emboldened by the success of their experiment at the gas station, the quartet drove on into the National Park, eventually stopping at a picnic area and eating lunch. Although the area was far from crowded, a handful of other groups of picnickers settled nearby, among them a family of four: father, mother and two boys below the age of 10. After their meal the boys began to throw a football to one another and when one boy failed to catch the ball it rolled to where the group was sat. Elvis glanced at the others. Roy nodded. Elvis picked up the ball, stood up and threw it back to the boy. 
“Thanks mister,” he shouted from about 10 yards away. The father of the boys waved in acknowledgement and Elvis waved back. He smiled and sat down. The King of Rock’n’Roll was beginning to enjoy normality.
In the afternoon the four of them continued their drive through the National Park, stopping now and then and getting out of the truck to admire the scenery. At one particular spot they mingled with a coach party. Elvis again went unrecognised. Driving back to the cabin in the early evening they passed a roadside diner and Elvis suggested they stop to eat. “I can’t remember what it was like to go into a restaurant and be served, just like a normal person, no one making a fuss,” he said. 
There were only three other vehicles parked outside, and it was safe to assume one of them belonged to the staff. Roy parked the truck and sent Sandra inside to check on how crowded it was.
“There’s only two tables occupied,” she reported back. “A young couple on one and an old guy on the other.”
“OK,” said Del. “I’m sick of eating in the cabin anyway.”
“Me, too,” said Elvis. “But that’s not to say I don’t like your cooking Miss Sandra,” he added hurriedly.
Sandra smiled at Elvis, and Elvis grinned back. It seemed like any natural exchange between old friends. 
“You sit facing the wall Elvis,” said Roy. “If anything happens we’re out of here quick.”
The four of them ate burgers and fries washed down with coke. No one paid them the slightest notice. Elvis said little throughout the meal, relishing his anonymity. It never even occurred to him to go up to the counter and identify himself, not that the waitress would have recognised him anyway. As they walked back to the truck he asked, “Do y’all trust me now?”
“I guess so,” said Roy. “But I still had this with me, just in case.” He opened his jacket to reveal the .38 stuffed into his belt. 
Elvis winced. “You didn’t need that,” he said. “I gave you my word.” 
Sandra thought she detected a touch of hurt in his voice. “I believe you,” she said.  
Back at the cabin Elvis joined Roy, Del and Sandra on the porch before they turned in for the night. Roy and Del were drinking beer, Elvis and Sandra coke. “Did you guys serve in the army?” Elvis asked them.
Roy and Del nodded.
“Vietnam?”
“Yea,” said Roy. “But we don’t talk about it.”
“They don’t like to,” said Sandra. “Even I can’t get them to tell me anything about what they did there.”
“Why not?” asked Elvis.
“The way the Americans treated the Vietcong,” said Del. “It wasn’t good.”
They lapsed into silence. Then Roy spoke. “I’ll tell y’all one story. We took a prisoner once, me and Del. A stray Vietcong man we found in the jungle. We ought to have killed him but we didn’t. We couldn’t. Not in cold blood. He wasn’t a soldier, just a simple man, a farmer maybe. So we tied him up and took him with us, back to where we thought our camp was located. But we got lost in the jungle, didn’t know where we were, lost our sense of direction. It was night, there were no lights, nothing, just a torch that I had.”
Elvis nodded. “So what happened?”
“The Vietcong guy sensed that we were lost and he showed us the way,” said Del, picking up the story. “He couldn’t speak no English and we couldn’t understand him but he led us out of the jungle even though he was our prisoner. And when we got near the camp he pleaded with us to let him go because he knew that if we took him into the camp he’d be shot.”
“Did you let him go?” asked Elvis.
“Yea,” said Del. “He’d saved us. We thought maybe he had a wife and kids. He could have led us back to where his people were, and we’d have been captured or killed.”
“He ran off back into the jungle as fast his legs could carry him,” said Roy. “The thing is… we trusted him and he trusted us. We repaid his trust.”
“Just like today,” said Elvis. “You trusted me, and I repaid it. I can’t lead a normal life, and never will, even after you let me go. But you showed me what it was like. Millions of men dream of being Elvis Presley, and I dream sometimes of being one of those millions. Today a little piece of that dream came true for me. Because of the same trust you shared with that Vietcong guy in the jungle.”


13.8.17

BYRDS: Requiem For The Timeless, Volume 2 by Johnny Rogan




Until Mark Lewisohn began his detailed investigations into The Beatles, no music writer had devoted more time, words or commitment to chronicling the history of a group than Johnny Rogan with the Byrds. For Johnny, like Mark, it is an ongoing life work, not a project that is over once the book is published but, instead, a kind of mission – I hesitate to call it an obsession – to set down all the facts in all their wondrous detail as they continue to evolve. No surprise then that Johnny has followed up 2011’s Requiem… Vol 1 (1,200 pages), which concentrated on the group, with Vol 2 (1,248 pages), which tells the individual stories of the six Byrds who have left us: original members Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, together with Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin. Rogan has written individual chapters, two of them book-length, about all six that could be construed as separate biographies in themselves, yet has chosen to publish them all within the same volume.
A bit of history: Johnny Rogan and I first became acquainted in 1982 as a result our association with a publisher called Proteus Books, and neither of us today looks back fondly on this alliance. Johnny had written a book for them on Neil Young and I had written one on Pete Townshend. Both of us were invited to their Christmas party which was held that year in a function room on Sale Place in Bayswater, and we somehow ended up talking to one another while drinking as much free booze as we were able to stomach. Both of us had come to the unspoken conclusion that Proteus was not a company whose ethics were whiter than white, and that taking as much advantage of their hospitality as humanly possible was a prudent course of action. Not long afterwards we sat next to one another at a bankruptcy hearing for Proteus Books held in the ballroom of a hotel on The Aldwych at which the Irish rock photographer Finn Costello raised a huge cheer when he reproached the company’s MD in spectacularly colourful language. Johnny and I were amongst those who cheered the loudest and we’ve been friends ever since.



But back to the Byrds. The first edition of Johnny’s Byrds saga, then titled Timeless Flight, was published in 1981 by Scorpion/Dark Star and the second, which I still have, in 1990 by Square One Books. Johnny inscribed this one to me: “No 3 in the charts this week. Beaten out by Omnibus. Fix!” which sounds a bit like a Donald Trump tweet. Neither of these editions boasted the heft of the third edition, Timeless Flight Revisited: The Sequel, which came out in 1997 and, at 720 pages, drew a line in the sand as far as extent was concerned in terms of rock biography. Requiem… Vols 1 and 2 together, of course, make even that look like a mere pamphlet.
In the first volume of Requiem Johnny explained his incentive by recalling how he first heard The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ in June, 1965: “McGuinn’s strange vocal inflexions, that distinctive Rickenbacker and the sumptuous harmonies all contributed to a record that sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before… Several radio plays later I was completely entranced.” Johnny longed to get his hands on a Byrds album but family finances were tight in those far off days and to avoid parental ire at squandering hard-earned pocket money on something as superfluous to their daily existence as an LP, he bought record tokens which he mailed to himself with a faked note congratulating him on winning a competition sponsored by Radio Luxenbourg. “That’s how I came to purchase the first albums I ever owned,” he writes. “[The Byrds’] Mr Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!



And now here we are 52 years and five books later, and that’s just on the Byrds. Rogan, of course, has also written 19 other books, eight of which I published while running the editorial department at Omnibus Press. One of them was Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, the first significant book on The Smiths which, by rock book standards, became an international best seller. Morrissey disapproved of course, though its title – which implied that the Smiths’ singer and guitarist were the key members of the group – was cited as evidence on Morrissey's behalf in the court case brought by drummer Mike Joyce over what he claimed was an unjust distribution of royalties. 
But back to the Byrds. Because of the way it is structured, there’s no need to begin Requiem… Vol 2 at the beginning, so I didn’t, skipping around at my leisure and relishing Rogan’s absurd attention to detail. In all six cases Rogan has unearthed hitherto unreported facts and stories, most notably on Kevin Kelley, about whom nothing has been published prior to now, and also on the better known Gram Parsons and Clarence White. Nevertheless, whichever way you turn, it’s a rather bleak read, quite the opposite of a fairy tale. Four of the six – Clark, Clarke, Kelley and Parsons – pretty much drank and/or drugged themselves to death, the upshot of the rock’n’roll lifestyle (though in Parsons’ case it ran in the family), while White was tragically killed in a road accident and Battin was a victim of Alzheimer’s. Then there’s the temptations of the flesh that occur around all successful rock bands, and Rogan is especially good at tracing, and telling the stories of the women involved, thus adding a tasty spoonful of human interest that is all too often lacking in rock biographies. Naturally, such overindulgence in just about everything available to them had an injurious effect on their relationships with one another and on those close to the first four, especially their wives, girlfriends and offspring, with the result that recriminations and bitterness persisted for years, legacies were fought over and absolutely no one felt a whole lot better when they were gone. 
At almost 400 pages*, Gene Clark gets far and away the weightiest treatment, and rightly so in view of the fact that he was the first to leave the mothership; the great underachiever whose wonderful album No Other remains a cult favourite for connoisseurs everywhere and to whom an air of otherworldly remoteness clings to this day. No one better deserves the honorary tribute ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. Clark’s tale is perhaps the saddest of the lot, though it’s run a close second by his almost namesake Michael Clarke (135 pages) whose post-Byrds career never really amounted to much and who, like some of the others, later became involved in bogus editions of the group that angered his former colleagues. 
Second in order of coverage, perhaps inevitably, comes Gram Parsons (208 pages) whose riches-to-rags, well not quite, life story has already inspired two substantial biographies and whose adventures with The Flying Burrito Brothers, not to mention The Rolling Stones and Emmylou Harris, make him the ex-Byrd with the highest profile. Born into a fortune founded on orange juice, Parsons was a precociously talented songwriter as well as a gilded prince, arguably the originator of Americana, yet somehow doomed as the Byrd who flew too close to the sun, though if you believe Chris Hillman Parsons was never a Byrd at all. I’m inclined to think that this is sour grapes from the only other Byrd with a rightful claim to being a pioneer of country rock, and who still rankles at the posthumous acclaim that clings to Parsons. Either way, after several pages devoted to legal wrangling over Parsons’ song copyrights, Rogan concludes the chapter by rightly asserting that, “Only David Crosby and Gram Parsons have arguably transcended the group legacy by daring to create, or having thrust upon them, an equally enduring myth based on their own image.”
White (122 pages), Battin (96) and Kelley (82) are less well known but still interesting case studies, and like the first three covered in the kind of detail you would expect from Rogan. It is instructive to be reminded that White appeared on eight Byrds albums and was a full time member of the group for longer than all the originals barring McGuinn. Without doubt the finest instrumentalist to have flown as a Byrd – in the same class as James Burton and our own Albert Lee in my opinion – he was modest, unassuming and, by Byrds standards, relatively abstemious. One night at the Whisky in Los Angeles a flamboyantly dressed well-wisher told him: “I just want to tell you how much I love your guitar playing.” As Rogan relates, “White accepted the praise with characteristic good grace and later enquired of his fellow Byrds, ‘Hey, who was that guy who came in to talk to me?’ ‘That was Jimi Hendrix,’ they told him.”
Bass player Skip Battin, the oldest Byrd by some distance, is a relatively minor figure, another who became involved in later, ersatz, editions of several bands with whom he was associated, including the Byrds. Kevin Kelley, a cousin of Chris Hillman, was enlisted as drummer in 1967, lasted less than a year and worked as a session player between failed attempts to launch an independent career. Rather like the surviving John York, Kelley is a forgotten Byrd who, for much of his post-Byrd life, delivered flowers for a living. 


Left to right: Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley,
Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin

In the chapter devoted to Kelley, Rogan writes despairingly: “The Eighties was a decade of reckoning for every one of the surviving Byrds. All were forced to readjust their lives and find meaning in a world that no longer considered them gods or even fallen princes. Some sought salvation in the Lord, others in the bottle or the free-base pipe. Few seemed destined ever to record for a major label again. It was a time when the phrase ‘the good old days’ was no mere cliché but a brutal reality.”
The reality of a post-fame life for those who fell from grace, those who once sat alongside The Beatles in the pop charts, who were once screamed at on stages from London to Los Angeles, and who might once have appeared on the front pages of the music press, is an overriding theme of Johnny Rogan’s biographies of the Byrds, and no more so than in this latest book. Only a relatively small number of the great rock performers from the past find themselves living in the lap of luxury several decades on from their glory years; the remainder, the vast majority, scratch a living from a past that is recycled like the endless sub-par sequels to hit movies. Johnny Rogan’s telling of the Byrds’ story is therefore a salutary lesson that the joys of being ‘toppermost of the poppermost’ are more often than not short-lived. Nevertheless, the surviving Byrds and those who left us are fortunate to have attracted such a conscientious biographer, and those of us who love reading about the world of rock in all its ungainly, bloody and often mind-blowing detail are fortunate to have him too. For those who relish such authenticity, Rogan’s the man


* This includes copious credits, references and notes, over 60 pages following the Gene Clark chapter alone, and there are similar notes, relative in length to the chapters themselves, after the rest. The discography (of solo recordings by all the members of the Byrds, not just the six covered in this book) occupies a further 171 pages at the end of the book.