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How Tom Wolfe Transformed Music Journalism



A walk in Tom Wolfe's house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was like a stroll in literary history. The place looked like an old-world library, with all the wood and books and cloth-covered tables. I was there one afternoon in the 2000s to interview him for CNN, where I was a new correspondent. Some producers wanted to interview him immediately and I accepted the challenge to come to him. I emailed him and asked if I could come by. He immediately said yes – we were both in the Brotherhood Rolling Stone and he felt that you had to be there for your Rolling Stone family. So I hurried to meet him. I arrived there around 2pm. and though he was at home, he was immaculately dressed. He was in one of his bespoke suits, a bespoke vanilla two-rower number with a colorful tie and a bold, perfectly-folded pocket handkerchief. Under the tie knot was a golden connecting rod. He looked luxurious ̵

1; he made dressing fun, expressing creativity and character.

That was his trademark: the white suit, the bold splashes of color in the tie, the boldness and taste of the whole look. It established him as an old-school Southern gentleman, a man who was both tasteful and conspicuous, who had both a great personality and an unmistakable sense of sophistication. As always, that day was perfect manners and bright, happy charm. When we started the interview, he gave me some quick, funny soundbites that made me laugh. I knew right away that it would play perfectly. He made me look good to my producers. From that moment on, I felt I owe him something.

But by this time I was already in great debt to Tom. I grew up reading it especially in my early twenties when I learned how to write. I was a hungry, young music journalist trying to figure out how to do the job, and his New Journalism style was exciting. I read in Esquire by a racing car driver named Junior Johnson, in New York Magazine and Rolling Stone on the Black Panthers on the Upper East Side. Astronauts who were larger than life. But as I read Tom, I looked beyond his subjects to see the techniques and tactics with which he told the stories.

I realized that you can build scenes and tell stories and use the dialogue with great effect. You could spell words phonetically and generously use italics and punctuation to communicate energy. You could get the voice of the character on the page through spelling, grammar and the ear of a novelist. I learned that the author should not hide behind the vanilla voice of God, but instead emerge from behind the curtain and take a position in the circus he describes. I've learned that you can write in the present tense and you can include all sorts of details about the status icons that people use to show who they are. And I've learned that you can – and should – invade the minds of your characters, and tell people about their minds. Tom's work was to feel him next to you and to tell you an incredible story.

In the early nineties, when I began writing for Rolling Stone Tom's style was the journal's style. In fact, his ideas about journalism – tirelessly shadows themes, tell their story through novels scenes and dialogues, writing with momentum and energy, and let the prose shine and crackle – that was the style in music journalism.

Tom was not only influential – he created the style of music journalism in which we all worked – he was a writer who kept taking up the big ideas about culture. In the 1960s he wrote about "radical chic", describes sedan liberals deftly, in the 1970s he coined the term "The Me Decade" and in the 1980s he turned to the novel and wrote about the "Masters of the Universe" in The bonfires of vanities . For a long time this thick paperback was omnipresent – it was one of those books that almost everyone had read.

His work and style cemented him as a great, famous writer, whose name was widely known and respected, frequented large social parties, and frequently popped into photos of these high-profile affairs. He was a man in town, a bon vivant, a star of his own, like a remnant from an earlier age, when writers could be cultural superstars. With his brilliance, wit, suits, and great writing, he was just the kind of person we would all write about if we got the job.

When I published my first non-fiction book, I turned to Tom for a blurb. He responded quickly and wrote: "He is – if you can imagine it – Oscar Wilde as street killer." It felt very Wolfean, though I did not really know what that meant-I'm far away from a street killer-but I was thrilled to be supporting him. Tom Wolfe was one of my writing fathers. I owe him a big debt until the day I go to heaven – but if I'm there, he'll be too much of a gentleman to ever mention it.


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