Social media has put the final nail in the coffin of the rock stars. They existed outside the mainstream; the mainstream didn’t approve of them, broadly. These days we live in very censorious times. If you had someone today behaving the way David Bowie or Jimmy Page did in ’71 or ’72, they’d be forced to apologize on a weekly basis.
Credit Imogen Hepworth
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
The chronology of events, and how fast the world of popular music used to move. For example, John Lennon meets Paul McCartney in summer 1957, when they’re teenagers. Ten years later, they release “Sgt. Pepper’s,” which is an absolutely extraordinary speed of transformation. You think the world moves more quickly nowadays, but I’m not sure it does.
What I also realized is that rock stars are often rock stars before they make records. These people stood out. They carried themselves in a very different way. I’ve concluded that Bob Dylan’s greatest invention was Bob Dylan. Never mind the Nobel Prize for Literature, he deserves an Oscar for his lifetime dedication to playing this part. I’ve been looking at him and thinking about him for 50 years, and I recently thought: I don’t know anything more now than I did in the beginning. That’s rock star mystique. It’s difficult to imagine anyone coming along now and maintaining that same mystique.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
What I’ve learned writing books is that structure is everything. The key decision I made was to take one star on one day in each year between 1955 and 1994. It starts with Little Richard and we end with Kurt Cobain, who I think just couldn’t face the responsibility he felt upon himself to be a rock star.
That’s what changed in the process, and that forces you to be selective. There are people who aren’t in the book — Chuck Berry, the Sex Pistols — but I don’t mind that. I also became less afraid to put myself into it. Lots of books about rock music now are like books about World War II, written by people who weren’t there.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Bruce Springsteen. He’s six months older than I am, and obviously he’s shaped by the same music. I identify with him in lots of ways. It was a lot harder for him to break through in the ’70s than it had been for people like Elvis and the Beatles. People like Springsteen didn’t make it until they were 26, 27 years old. It was a lot more competitive, there was a lot more stuff around, and a lot of the obvious stuff had been done already. The tapestry had been filled in. He had to make music that took into account the music that had come before.
I’ve interviewed him a bunch of times, and I’ve always been really impressed by how much thought he puts in to what he does. I believe he’s as good as he is because he works harder than anybody else. He once told me that you have a responsibility to be “living in the moment when 8:00 comes around,” because to a fan, it’s the most important 8:00 of their life. It’s a very un-rock star attitude, actually. That’s a fan’s attitude in the shoes of a rock star.
Persuade someone to read “Uncommon People” in 50 words or less.
It’s about the kind of people who became rock stars; it’s about what their becoming rock stars did to them, and what our choice of them as rock stars says about us. And all the chapters are short, so you can finish them before you sleep.
This interview has been condensed and edited.