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COVER STORY

In the '70s, He Saw It All--and Lived to Write About It

'Almost Famous' triggers flashbacks for a scribe who documented the excesses and eccentrics of the scene.

August 27, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

One night I found myself in the company of several big-shot journalists who were regaling the dinner table with big-shot stories: being under fire in Vietnam, playing poker with the president and smuggling dispatches out of Uganda after a coup. Finally, to be polite, someone turned to me and asked if the onetime rock journalist had any war stories to tell. "I'm not sure," I hesitantly replied. "Does the time Sid Vicious tried to break a bottle of whiskey over my head count?"

Being a rock journalist in the 1970s was like covering an accidental war where no one was ever killed, except through the occasional drug-induced misadventure. The guns were electric guitars, the ammo made you very high and the nurses in the Red Cross tent were groupies hoping to get that all-access backstage pass that would let them cruise the headlining band's dressing room.

Rock writers were geeks before they'd invented the word, policy wonks in a world where the diplomats all wore black leather pants with codpieces. I wrote for anyone who paid cash money. My favorite was Creem magazine, which at its zenith in the early '70s published rock's most gonzo writers: Lester Bangs (the oracle of "Almost Famous"), Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Nick Kent, Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau. As I watched the scene in "Almost Famous" where Cameron Crowe, trying to get backstage to do an interview, waves a copy of Creem at the backstage guard, all I could think was, "Hey, I had a story in that issue!"

As the movie suggests, journalistic ethics were a fluid thing. If the groupies ignored us, we slept with the record company publicists. It was hard to maintain a pretense of journalistic integrity when you woke up in the publicist's hotel bed in Milwaukee, asking her blearily what time your interview was with Rod Stewart. Of course, being a '70s rock star, Stewart would be hung over, cancel at the last minute and you'd end up flying to Detroit and then Minneapolis before he'd ever talk to you.

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Needless to say, watching "Almost Famous" brought back a rush of acid-flashback-style memories. Seeing Stillwater, Crowe's fictional band, play Cleveland's raucous Agoura Ballroom conjured up long-forgotten images of Iggy Pop rubbing glass shards into his chest and diving into the crowd, and Patti Smith holding court backstage, telling me the only thing that compared to a Who concert was a Mayakovski poetry reading (prompting a mad bookstore dash the next morning to find out who the hell this Mayakovski guy was).

Cameron's film perfectly captures the headlong spirit of the time, even if he sprinkles a bit more fairy dust on the era than it might deserve. Cameron and I were kids when we started as rock writers, but he was more mature than any of us. He also exuded a sweetness and enthusiasm that rock stars returned in kind. True to the Creem spirit, I was rude and sarcastic and got it back in spades. Elvis Costello angrily stalked out in the middle of an interview, convinced I was an obnoxious pest (and, oh, was he right).

Still, it's hard not to have fond memories: The Kinks' Ray Davies took me to the Russian Tea Room and taught me how to eat foie gras. Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant sat in the moonlight at the foot of his favorite Confederate war hero statue in Dotham, Ala., touting the great books I should read about the South if I wanted to understand the glory of lost causes. And the Who's Keith Moon treated me to a king's ransom of clothes on a shopping spree in Houston. ("Don't worry," he said, waving a fistful of credit cards. "We'll be long gone before they realize these aren't any good.")

It was like being a political writer in the time of Earl Long and Adam Clayton Powell. There were colorful characters everywhere and their excesses were part of their charm. Danny Markus a fabled Atlantic Records promotion man, used to give deejays joints with his initials--DSM--stamped on the side, like a brand of china. Keith Richards, skeletal as a mummy, was stoned every time I met him. Moon was so drunk that he passed out in the middle of an interview, but he told great stories before he hit the floor.

You loved these guys because they loved the music as much as you did. After a Faces concert in Chicago, Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart insisted on tracking down J.B. Hutto, an obscure local blues man who was a cult figure in England. We found him playing in a dank South Side blues club, using a moldy $29 Sears guitar. Stewart and Wood were so awe-struck that they needed a few drinks before they got up the courage to introduce themselves.

At night's end, Rod slipped something into Hutto's pocket. The romantic side of me wants to believe it was a wad of cash, but maybe it was just the sock he had stuffed in his trousers backstage before the concert.

It was the '70s, it was rock 'n' roll and who knew it would be over so soon?

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Patrick Goldstein wrote for Creem and other music publications in the '70s and covered pop music for the L.A. Times in the '80s.

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