From the Archives: David Dalton (2001)

El David: Saint Dalton Shoots His Mouth Off

By Steven Ward (May 2001) 

David Dalton was a founding editor of Rolling Stone Magazine. In between 1968 and 1971, Dalton penned Rolling Stone cover stories on Little Richard, James Brown and Elvis Presley. In 1970, Dalton and co-writer David Felton won the prestigious Columbia School Of Journalism Award for their Rolling Stone interview with killer/Godhead/psycho Charles Manson. In 1969, Dalton collaborated with frequent Rolling Stone contributor Jonathan Cott on the Beatles-commissioned book, Get Back, a journal of the recording sessions of the Fab Four’s final album.

One could argue that Dalton has contributed more than his fair share to the rockwrite canon (if there is such a thing).

But some of Dalton’s best writing and most important contributions to the world of music journalism may come from the books he published after writing for Jann Wenner’s media empire. These include:

  • 1972–The Rolling Stones: An Unauthorized Biography
  • 1977–Rock 100 (with co-writer Lenny Kaye) This book may be the best book of its kind since Lillian Roxon’s 1969 masterpiece, “Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia.” I think “Rock 100” is the spiritual sequel to Roxon’s book–a book she never got to write because of her early and sudden death in the early 70s.
  • 1991–Mr. Mojo Risin. Jim Morrison, The Last Holy Fool.
  • 1994–Faithfull, the Autobiography of Marianne Faithfull. (co-written with Faithfull). My favorite Dalton book and quite possibly the best co-written rock autobiography ever published.
  • 1996–Living with the Dead, an anecdotal biography of the Grateful Dead (co-written with Dead manager Rock Scully)
  • 1997–El Sid. Thirty-two chapters on Sex Pistols bassist/self-destruction poster child Sid Vicious.
  • 1999–To Hell and Back. Meat Loaf’s autobiography (co-written with Meatloaf) 2000–Been Here and Gone. Dalton’s first novel about a blues musician.

The following interview was conducted by e-mail.

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Steven:   You wrote for Rolling Stone in the early ’70s. You were one of the founding writers of the magazine. How would you compare that experience to writing for a pop culture bi-monthly like Gadfly today?

David:   Well, long, long ago, when I began writing for Rolling Stone it was as a rock evangelist. This sounds more than a little pretentious (and portentous) even as I write it, sinking it in the past tense of the deep. But, o my brothers and sisters, that was the way it felt to me then. I was as intent as John the Revelator scribbling his apocalyptic verses on the Island of Patmos. Rock was the very plasma that held the counterculture together. Everything was plugged into it, everything I cared about, anyway. It was the Pentecostal flame that would bring the New Jerusalem into existence.

Writing for Rolling Stone I don’t think I ever used the word “I”. “We” maybe. But essentially I saw myself as a chronicler, as a fan who managed to enter this or that sanctum sanctorum and bring back the glad tidings, the revelations, and thus-spake very words uttered by our idols. In Gadfly I often revisited these same stories but now putting myself back into them–in other words looking at them from another perspective, which in many ways was more honest and more interesting than my so-called evangelical reports–and definitely more humorous. For instance the time Brian Wilson mistook me for Phil Spector.

Steven:   How did you hook up with Gadfly and do you like the column outlet?

David:   Jayson Whitehead the magazine’s editor at the time, had read my biography (and experiment in Punk channeling) El Sid: Saint Vicious and asked me to write an article about the Sex Pistols. From there I went on to write articles on James Dean, my terrifying experiences with Charles Manson and the Family (I thought he was innocent and went to live on the Spahn Ranch–I want a t-shirt!) via Dennis Wilson, the Stones Circus, Xmas with the Beatles (I wrote a book with Jonathan Cott that went in their last Brit album, Let It Be). Anyway, Jayson was an inspiring and hip editor who admired the early Rolling Stone and Gadfly then and now has that same feeling of purpose, intelligence and avant-garde evangelism. Gadfly is great! It becomes virtual on May 7, 2001. Gadfly focuses on the great saints of modernism, Kerouac, Francis Bacon, Burroughs, Hunter Thompson–along with rock and social criticism. I usually end up reading every article in the magazine, finding them all interesting and generally well-written.

Steven:   You are English–born in London and raised in British Columbia. How did you wind up in Upstate New York and how did you first get involved with music journalism?

David:   I came to New York City with my dad one summer and refused to leave. I got into Columbia that fall because I was able to recite the Cataline orations and read the New Testament (He Diatheke) in Greek to Joseph Campbell (a pompous, fatuous, idiot). Went to art school simultaneously and when I got out the Brit Invasion had begun. I supported myself taking photos of rock groups. Yardbirds, Animals, Stones, Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, etc. I was the same age as the people in the groups–it was fun and these were heady days. I saw the first issue of Rolling Stone in the fall of ’67, had a payphone in my loft with an open line and started calling up Jann Wenner. In December, came close to getting busted, and thought it a good idea to go back to England for a while. I started sending Jann photos (Yoko’s exhibit–the one John saw and fell in love with), Stevie Winwood, etc. “We need stories to go with these pictures,” Jann said.

Photographing rock groups is a pain to sensitive souls like myself, requiring either the brashness, fawningness, or military bark I lacked. You are constantly dealing with self-conscious, obnoxious teenagers like oneself but to whom one had to pander, cajole, or plead in order to get a decent pic. Somebody in the group would always be secretly giving the finger, have their eyes closed or fly unzipped, or, my favorite, “Too bad Percy couldn’t’ve made the photo session.” The captions to my pictures were getting longer and longer anyway, viz: “You’ll never guess what happened 30 seconds before I took this picture.” I lost my Pentax in an airport and thus began my long, blessed and oft-cursed career as rock writer, first as a journalist, then as a rock-dog-on-the road anecdotalist–Ah yes, I well remember the time Janis and I were kidnapped in Kansas City–then as a rock biographer and omnium gatherumist, then as a rock star doppelganger, The Autobiograpy of Marianne Faithfull by David Dalton type of thing.

Steven:   Were there rock writers you admired or that influenced you before you started, or was it too early in the rockcrit game for that?

David:   We were in the first ten seconds. Before us–nothing! I suppose Tom Wolfe was the first great Pop-cult writer, but my own nutty project early on was to link rock mythology with anthropological mythology—i.e., seeing Janis’s self-flaying performances as a parallel to the dismantling-of-their-own-skeleton ceremonies of Igluk shamans.

Steven:   Besides Rolling Stone, what other rock mags did you like to read and what other rock writers did you come to admire as the ’70s rolled along and rock journalism actually became a sort of vocation?

David:   First the fanzines, CrawdaddyMojo Navigator, then R. Meltzer, Jonathan Cott, Michael Lydon, then, of course, like everyone else, Hunter Thompson who showed us all how it should be done–not that he wrote about rock but he did write with perfect pitch in the rock-drugs-on-into-the-hallucinated-frontier tongue of fire.

Steven:   Do you prefer magazine journalism to writing rock books?

David:   These are really two different ways of looking at things arising from different phases of my life. When I wrote rock journalism I was younger, I was involved with the scene as it was happening, evolving. I went anywhere at the drop of a hat. When I got into my 30s I began writing about the past and have lived there ever since. I admire my peers still out there at the barricades but also consider it self-deluding. Each era has its own current and you have to be of your age, to have grown into it, to really get it–i.e., you have to be young, have grown up and into the time-spirit of your age, otherwise you are a sort of dirty old man peering through a basement window at children’s playground games. Writing books is now my natural mode. I love it. I love taking forms like biography and just letting my temperament warp the form. I’ve gone from mytho-poetic memoir (“Piece of My Heart”) to fairly straight biography (“James Dean: The Mutant King”) to meta-biographies Mr. Mojo Risin’: Jim Morrison, the Last Holy Fool and El Sid: Saint Vicious.

Steven:   You have written rock bios and written “with” rock icons like Marianne Faithfull, Rock Scully (the flaky, one-time manager of the Dead), and Meat Loaf for their autobiographies. What is the process like–writing with someone as opposed to writing about someone?

David:   More like fiction. Basically you conceive of your subject as a character, and, being rock stars, rock dogs, etc., they already have well-established personae–masks through which they speak. Then you write their stories as if you were writing a first-person novel. You dilute your subject into a literary solution, so to speak, and get high on them (not that I ever have shot anything up–it’s a metaphor, babe). Afterwards one has to have ones brain rewired. Biography is supposedly a more objective form, but I have come to think of it in somewhat similar ways. Proust in an essay, “The Method of Sainte-Beuve,” describes two types of biography: (1) where you weigh the pros and cons of a story, an anecdote, a personality quirk and come to some conclusion; and (2) where you identify with your character. On this point Marcel and I agree–only the second is honest. In El Sid: Saint Vicious I actually started to hear Sid’s voice talking to me (abusively, of course: “You naff, ‘ippie wanker,” etc.) and included this as his diary entries in the book–some of this was from things he actually did say, of course.

The Meat Loaf book doesn’t really count in this category–Meat was going on a U.S. tour that fall and the book had to be written in six weeks on the preceding European tour. Also, working with Meat, who’s a sweet guy, was a little like writing a book with Henry Kissinger (as I imagine it). You got a couple of hours every other day when Meat would recount. There wasn’t much room for mad writing and definitely no fictionalizing, so it was a sobering experience. So, be fore-warned, ye who attempt this genre–your general as-told-to book is far more likely to resemble the Meat Loaf saga than that of the hipster-memoirs of Faithfull and Scully. Living With the Dead (out again this fall from Cooper Square Books with a psychedelic Austin Powers cover) is one of my favorite books because in it we tried to evoke the jumping-out-of-your-skin ecstasy of the times–it’s written not only in the first person but also the present tense–an absolute necessity when recounting acid trips. I think the autobiography and the ‘ghosted’ autobio are great forms when the writer is allowed to wing it. Not too good for one’s ego, though, since, as my principle states, the better you do it, the more invisible you become. I’ve always loved first-person accounts–ie Celine, Pliny the Elder on the eruption of Vesuvius (he died while observing it–now that’s dedication!), the encounter of the French ambassador with the pungent, bawdy, iconic Elizabeth I, Proust’s maid on Marcel in “Monsieur Proust,” and the Duc de Saint-Simon on life at Versailles. Bring us the quivering, freshly-hatched Now from the womb of time.

Steven:   How did the Rock 100 book with Lenny Kaye come about and why did you guys decide to not let readers know which writer wrote the different biographical essays inside?

David:   Jonathan Cott had been asked to do this book, a hipper update of Lillian Roxon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Encyclopedia, I imagine, but didn’t want to do it and talked me into doing it. I immediately went to seek out Lenny’s help. We began with very different writing styles, but–curioser and curioser–we ended up absorbing each others mannerisms–or, as we like to call it, vision. Still, I think it’s pretty obvious which ones Lenny wrote. Lenny really has chops, not only in the godling category (Elvis, Hendrix) but also in the demi-mondes of rock, the garage-bands, the glitterati, the bizarre, and idiosyncratic demons. Lenny’s Mr. Nuggets, after all! Also, foolish mortal, we wanted it to seem to be a Gesamtkunstwerk or the Gotterdamerung of rock, where we, scribbling as lava of the future poured over these histories, fused our souls in a single apostolic voice.

Steven:   Marianne Faithfull seems to me to be the coolest woman in rock music. It’s something about her being so sophisticated yet devilish. What do you think of that assessment?

David:   It’s pretty close. She fused the myth of the decadent Romantic poet with the jaded, hipster rock star in one seamless persona that was so potent it almost killed her (a number of times). I love Marianne. She’s an aristocratic Beatnik. In other words, a hip, literate, post-degenerate rock star who has become the curator of her persona and voice.

Steven:   Tell us about Jann Wenner and your experiences at Rolling Stone.

David:   My theory about Jann is that there are two Wenners (and he ain’t ashamed). There’s the evangelical Jann who started the magazine and Jann the clever business man who jointly started the magazine with him. As Rolling Stone became more successful–and, also, as we moved out of the utopian (and naive) sixties, cynicism reigned, radicalism was mocked, the more extreme projects of social change became clearly unattainable–we grew older, got married, went into rehab, etc. and rock became part of the entertainment industry again (it always had been, but the illusion that it functioned as an independent engine of change was a powerful motivator)–the radical Jann was unceremoniously dumped over the stern of the ship one night by the by now hugely successful captain of industry, Citizen Jann, who owned the steamship line lock, stock, and board of directors. But this whole tale and my befuddled relationship with Jann and Rolling Stone is told in “We Visit Mr. Zeitgeist–Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Jann Wenner” which I have attached as an addendum to this questionnaire.

Steven:   What was it like to interview Charles Manson in 1970 for your Rolling Stone piece with David Felton?

David:   David had worked for real newspapers, I had only written for rock magazines–pretty much only for Rolling Stone, actually. I was, as I said, a rock evangelist, and, like most of my hippie peers (including Jann–who originally wanted to put “Manson Is Innocent” on the cover), I thought Manson was innocent and had been railroaded by the L.A.P.D. It was a scary awakening for me to find out that not every long-haired, dope-smoking freak was a peace-and-love hippie. My whole harrowing adventure is told in “If Christ Came Back as a Con Man: Or How I Started out Thinking Charlie Manson Was Innocent and almost Ended Up Dead” in Gadfly–which should be archived at Gadfly. Org, I would think.

Steven:   Did you ever do any rock criticism? I would guess you consider yourself more of a rock writer than critic.

David:   I have always said I’m too confused to render an opinion on albums (or anything else). I also think there’s something inherently elitist in the whole business–well, duh! If someone likes a Kid Rock song, a Dixie Chicks album, who am I to trash it? And, philosophically, it seems irrelevant, if not actually against the democratic grain of rock itself. Most of these critics posit themselves as post-modern hipsters laying down what’s cool and what’s not. You only have to look at back issues of Esquire (or Rolling Stone, for that matter) with their lists of what’s in and what’s out, to sense the pathetic nature of these endeavors. And, really, in the postmodern world we now inhabit there is no bad or good, we are Nietzsche’s progeny–it’s all stuff to be sampled or looked at from another POV-from the Sex Pistols to the Spice Girls.

Steven:   What are your favorite pieces you’ve written?

David:   My novel, Been Here and Gone, also El Sid: Saint ViciousMr. Mojo Risin’.

Steven:   Do you read any rock mags today, are there any new, younger writers you like and what do you think of the state rock journalism today?

David:   I occasionally flip through my son’s magazines–XXLVibeMurder Dog, etc., but I don’t think I’m competent enough to judge. The writing is probably better, hipper, even kind of psycho-telegraphic and code-lingo-saturated, and I’m always glad to see that–to watch words morphing. I’ll sometimes see a review in Mojo, for instance, and it reads like a Japanese cyber-punk haiku.

Steven:   What’s up next for David Dalton?

David:   Dunno. Any ideas?

Steven:   If you were stranded on a desert island, what CD would take with you (if you could only take one) and why?

David:   If I had to choose just one it would be Blonde on Blonde. But you’d probably give me a little more latitude than that, and, therefore I’d add the StonesExile on Main Street, for similar reasons to those for Blonde on Blonde–in other words an album that creates a world in miniature, a sort of self-contained planet inhabited by the fantasies that rock projects, and, as with Blonde on Blonde, a species of rock bunker hallucination–the same might also be said of my third choice, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. It’s not that I play these albums that often. I tend more to perform séances with them. On nights when the moon is dark and little children have forgotten to say their prayers.

Lead on, Bob, into your noirish ghost movie! Blonde on Blonde is an intercortical epic of Beat hipster Tales of Mystery and the Imagination filmed by an androgynous vampire rock star swaddled in fur coats and amphetamines. The recluse who rises from his coffin in the crypt of his house on Bleecker Street accompanied by dwarves and monkeys, gypsies, and thieves. The songs begin in the middle of some already-existing psycho-turbulent scene. Inspired automatic writing–haunted dioramas of the lower depths, drugs, doom, desire, fetishism, mysticism, claustrophobia, exile. His phantasmagoric vision of America like the delirious memories of a deranged Captain Ahab. The cross-country travels of two years before (and the radio geography of his childhood) have become a hallucinatory, panoramic portrait of America. The USA as a mythical place–the road maps of the Beats taken into the black heart of the continent. Images almost telepathically transmitted from some shadowy zone of Dylan’s head. As if while listening to the song these thoughts spontaneously occur to Dylan and you. “If the songs are dreamed, it’s like my voice is coming out of their dream.” Henceforth journeys would be interior explorations–thus the need of drugs to bring out the new hidden reality.

One thought on “From the Archives: David Dalton (2001)

  1. As a young man drowning and thrashing violently in the waters of a tumultuous adolescence and searching desperately for land, Dalton’s 1974 biography of James Dean was a true lifeboat, a gorgeous shining vessel that appeared out of the mists and delivered me safely into harbor.

    I consider that book to this day to be the reliquary and talisman of my youthful passions, both by way of it’s subject matter, but more importantly by the deeply poetic quality and intensity of Dalton’s writing style, which I can only describe as supernal. Unlike all the other Dean biographies that followed (and how crucial it was to feel in that explosive Watergate summer of 1974 when devouring the iridescent and voluptuous pages of that book that you, and you alone, along with Mr. Dalton, were unearthing Dean’s genius and cultural impact for the very first time, as a figure whose revolutionary art had long since faded and was now just being thrillingly rediscovered, rather than the 21st century “James Dean” we know today as merchandise and merchandising product…. as shopping bag and jeans commercial, as postage stamp and coffee mug, which has now rendered that revolutionary art into utter banality) how crucial it was, indeed, for someone who aspired to the theatrical, to see the role of an actor as something more than just an object of public fetish and sexual fantasy, more than just a designated social icon representing the capitalist paradigm of success, wealth ,power, and fame, but as a true artist and change-agent, as an elemental force that could truly influence people’s lives through the overwhelming power of their creative gifts.

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