Back in the 1970s, "rock critic" was a job description that conjured up an almost impossibly exotic lifestyle: You mean these people actually got to sit around listening to freebie records all day, and then churn out their opinions about them for money and public consumption? Jesus. Cool.
There had long been a pack of these exalted characters by the time I moved to New York in 1976: Greil Marcus, Chet Flippo, Robert Christgau (with The Village Voice), Jon Pareles (now with The New York Times). But the thought of actually encountering any of them walking around Manhattan, where many of them lived, was scary: hipness-wise, how could one ever be worthy?
But then, in the fall of that year, I did meet one. I was standing by the box office at Town Hall in New York, waiting to go in and hear a concert by Sandy Bull (obscurity alert!), when I heard someone scuffling up to the woman behind the glass window to pick up his freebie ticket.
"Bangs," he said. I whipped around and, yes, it was Lester Bangs, the sage of Creem magazine in Detroit, now relocated to NYC. I wound up spending a number of nights thereafter in a wondrously scrubby bar called the Bells of Hell with Lester and his fellow rock-crit icons: Billy Altman, John Morthland we were all so profoundly blitzed I can no longer recall all of their names. But the conversations! The debates (everything from Lou Reed to Balzac)! The scabrous anecdotes! Pure heaven.
Timothy White, who died on Thursday suddenly, impossibly, of a heart attack at the age of 50 (see "Billboard Editor Timothy White Dead At 50") was intimately allied with this rock-writer tribe. But he was never entirely of it. "Timbo" (as he was commonly addressed) was a reporter. He may have spent his gawky years holed up in his bedroom headphoning the Beach Boys, James Brown, whatever. But without moving away from that, he moved on.
Tim started out with the Associated Press straight, hard-core reporting and the old-school journalistic skills he learned there illuminated everything he wrote thereafter. And he wrote a lot of great stuff. I mean a lot. (Including a still-definitive biography of Bob Marley called "Catch a Fire.")
I first encountered Timbo when I arrived at Rolling Stone in the spring of 1979. It wasn't exactly the glory days of the earlier 1970s at the magazine, but there were still extraordinary writers on the payroll: Jon Pareles; Fred Schruers (madman); Charles M. Young (or "the Reverend Charles M. Young," who wrote the first national-mag cover story on the Sex Pistols); Hunter S. Thompson, still; David Felton (now at MTV), who'd broken the Manson Family story worldwide in 1969; and the really legendary Paul Nelson, who'd hung out with Bob Dylan in Minnesota before Dylan moved away to New York, and who later signed the New York Dolls to Mercury Records.
Timothy White moved easily among these people. He was one of them, of course, but his orientation was somewhat different. Tim had stepped over to Rolling Stone, along with Jon Pareles, after Crawdaddy an early rock-crit magazine that pre-dated Rolling Stone bit the dust. Although he knew all the obscure stuff that rock critics thrived on, from the Velvet Underground to Van Dyke Parks, his central interest, as a journalist, was stories the narratives with which people encapsulate their lives. Even pop stars.
At Rolling Stone, Tim readily took on the assignments that none of the staff hipsters really wanted, the mainstream things that the teenaged Cameron Crowe used to do. James Taylor? Carly Simon? He didn't care. They all had stories. And stories are what feature journalism is really all about. Tim was a total pro, and there aren't many people who were ever better at this sort of thing than he was.
The first Timothy White piece that really knocked me out, journalistically, was a Rolling Stone feature he did on the Ramones. At the time, the CBGB scene in downtown Manhattan was a mystery to the magazine's management. Was this new wave of punk bands selling records? No. And Tim who'd long before adopted a Tom Wolfe-like journalistic presentation centered on bow ties (can you believe?) and white-buck shoes must have seemed the least likely person to pursue the story.
But he went down to the Bowery, and he interviewed the Ramones (I can picture them eyeing the white bucks), and the impressive thing he nailed down each of their real, given names: Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, Tom Erdelyi. This was when the Ramones were a puzzlement to anyone outside of their scene. And Timbo got the story. And he slammed it into a national magazine before anybody even knew to care. And because of him, to a certain extent, maybe some of them started caring.
Tim used to note that he'd written more cover stories for Rolling Stone than any other writer, and that record may still stand. He moved on, of course. He became the editor of Billboard magazine, a tatty music-biz trade sheet the charts, the numbers which he turned into something that almost appeared to have a soul. Looking beyond the sales figures for any given musician, he started doing extended interviews with the best of them getting their stories.
He had his blind spots. As a devoted husband and father of twin boys, he deeply deplored the rise of Eminem. I understood his point of view he suggested to Billboard readers that, instead of buying a hateful Eminem CD, they send their dollars instead to a charity for battered women. I thought this was ridiculous: Eminem was the emblematic artist of the fin de siecle, a great talent. So we disagreed, extremely. But Tim was always a gent about it. A good, good guy. And now he's gone.
Once upon a time, the Rolling Stone record-review department had a meeting. I was there, Tim was there, the whole crew was on hand. I'd just come back from London with a compilation of fire-breathing punk tracks called Strength Through Oi!. Oi! was a punk variant largely (but not exclusively! I argued) devoted to skin-head skull-kicking anthems. We played it, loud. It was not Tim's thing I could tell by the droop of his face. But he'd heard a lot of indefensible stuff in his time, and he listened earnestly. The rest of the boys (very few girls in those days) were enthused. Timbo shook his head and finally smiled. He said: "Okay it's smokin'. Let's go with it."
That was him. I'll never forget. "Smokin'." God bless.