Ed Ward Interview

Ed Ward is a music journalist OG, having gotten his start in the late ‘60s with Crawdaddy, before moving on to Rolling Stone and Creem in the following decade. For many years, though, you likely heard him as the rock journalist on NPR’s Fresh Air. Over the past few years, Ward has taken his considerable knowledge to the task of writing nothing less than The History of Rock & Roll. Volume 2 of the planned trilogy has just been released, so I sent him a few interview questions via email late last month.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

You mean 70 years old, impoverished, and ignored? It was easy! In early 1967, I’d been laid off from my job, and to celebrate, I took my girlfriend to a Judy Collins/Tom Rush show at Town Hall in New York. Turned out I knew the woman at the box office, and she sold me tickets in the press section.

During the interval, a skinny kid stood up and surveyed the audience holding a bunch of stapled-together magazines. I asked him if he were Paul Williams and he said yes, and I told him that my girlfriend’s father had galleys of a new book, Tarantula, by Bob Dylan. He dismissed the idea that it existed, but both she and I were adamant. He gave me a magazine, which was called Crawdaddy!, and I copied down the address and showed up a couple of days later with the galleys. He’d just moved to New York, and was, to put it mildly, very shorthanded, so I told him I was a good typist and he encouraged me to come around. Thus began my music writing career, which fizzled out when Paul handed the magazine over to someone else while I was out of town for a few days. 

Soon afterward I saw a new magazine called Rolling Stone in a bookstore near my college campus and it had a solicitation for writers. Citing Crawdaddy! I volunteered, and soon I had a big box of albums of electronic music, an area I’d mentioned some expertise in. That review led to others, and soon when the current reviews editor, Greil Marcus, quit to go to grad school, I was recruited and moved to San Francisco to be a part of the staff from March to October 1970. I became freelance, writing most regularly for Creem, from which I was forced to disengage in 1977 for continued nonpayment of their already tiny fees. 

Luckily, I was recruited for the music beat at the Austin American-Statesman, the local daily, where I worked for almost five years, until I got a telegram (!) from Rolling Stone books to be one of three authors for their forthcoming history of rock and roll (with Ken Tucker and Geoffrey Stokes), Rock of Ages. This led to my being recruited to do short rock history segments for a new NPR show out of Philadelphia, Fresh Air. I contributed to the show for 30 years. Fans of the show kept asking me to do a collection of my scripts, which would make very dull reading indeed, since a large part of their enjoyment came from the music clips I played, but the idea had been planted in my head. 

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

Lots. The man who got the Tarantula galleys, Quentin Fiore, showed me that it was possible to have a freelance career while also remaining interested in loads of stuff happening in the cultural world. Among the people I met through him were Dr. Humphry Osmond, coiner of the word “psychedelic,” and a renowned researcher in that field, Florynce Kennedy, pioneering feminist and lawyer, and, in an odd incident, Ornette Coleman, who delivered the sandwiches at his office one day. “Well,” he said, “I gotta eat and so do you, which is why you ordered these sandwiches.” 

Another mentor was John Burks, managing editor of Rolling Stone when I joined and fired just before I was, who taught me the rudiments of journalism in those days of hot-type composition: our first office was in a space in our printer’s shop, among the typesetters. To a certain extent, Greil Marcus, who continued to provide guidance when I was getting started, and definitely John Goddard, who owned a record store near where I lived in Mill Valley, California, and turned me on to an amazing spectrum of great stuff, as well as finding out about obscure blues, country, and gospel shows coming to the Bay Area, getting tickets, and driving a bunch of us to see them. 

How did you conceive your series? Why a history of rock and roll, especially right now?

See above, but also I finally secured a literary agent after many years’ trying (rock writers are, often justly, dismissed as bad or dull writers, so most of my inquiries to agents had been ignored) and worked on an idea I’d had for years, non-music, because I don’t particularly identify as a music writer, but he was unable to sell it. Panicked, I suggested a rock and roll history based on my decades of work for Fresh Air, which, because the program is noted for its ability to accelerate book sales, got me a decent advance for it. I used the money to move back to the US (I’d been in Europe for 20 years) so I could be with my archives and more easily knock out the book.

Was there much of a research process? How did you go about writing the actual book?

My process consisted of 1) reading back issues of Billboard magazine for the industry angle (available on Google Books) and back issues of Rolling Stone off the collected issues on DVD that I bought, for the years after 1967. Since I’d been interested in the record business since my Crawdaddy! days (Paul always insisted we get the trades every week), this provided me with valuable facts; for instance, in Vol. 2 there’s a quick note about early digital sound capture, impractical at the time because the files would have clogged up most computers. I also could notice things like Ronnie Dio making pop records in the ‘60s and other details that would become more important than anyone knew at the time. Like I tell interviewers, “I was there and I know how the story ends.” Always a great asset for historical writing.

As for process, I’d wake up, drink my post-breakfast coffee, grab my legal pad (depending on whether I was doing Billboard, Rolling Stone, or a film), and take notes. There would come a time when I realized that it was time to put it down on paper, that a unit had been completed, and then I’d grab the notes, occasional liner notes, relevant books, and get to work. 

I didn’t make outlines since the reading process made them for me in my head, and I most assuredly didn’t listen to music while I worked, although I did familiarize myself with the era I was writing about when it came to artists I hadn’t liked at the time (Led Zeppelin, David Bowie) and had some revelations along the way, particularly about Bowie, whom I’d just flat-out missed.

One thing I enjoyed about the book was how you seemed to weave in funny little details on nearly every page. I'm curious about some of your favorites.

Mostly things that filled in details that helped make the story flow. Jim Morrison’s death wasn’t funny, but I knew a friend in Paris had told me a different story than the accepted one. He’s a respected journalist, but I know libel laws are different in France, so I was wary of going with it. Then, out of the blue, I got a note from a woman who said she was a photographer in Austin in the ‘80s and now lived in Paris, but was returning to take care of some family business, and would I like to have lunch? I did, and as we talked, I learned that she was on a committee that took care of Morrison’s grave! I started telling her Gérard’s version, and she was completing my sentences. He was right, all the way down the line! Then there were coincidences that had a larger meaning, as in the June 1965 stuff. But really, anecdotes that advance the narrative were what I was after, and I kept running into them. 

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of what you're talking about?

The most valuable books I read were Charles Perry’s history of the Haight-Ashbury, Fred Goodman’s biography of Allen Klein, Lloyd Bradley’s Bass Culture about reggae, which has another title in the US (This is Reggae Music, I believe), Peter Guralnick’s biographies of Elvis and Sam Cooke, Robert Gordon’s book on Stax, Barney Hoskyns’ books on L.A. and Woodstock, RJ Smith’s The One, a great biography of James Brown, Peter Brown’s The Love You Make, a Beatle biog, and Joel Selvin’s book on Altamont

As for films, I can’t recommend Long Strange Trip, a four-hour documentary about the Grateful Dead, more highly. I first saw at its premiere here in Austin at SXSW. I am emphatically not a Deadhead, but I was glued to my seat for four hours. After all, my book is a social history as much as anything else. I also saw Monterey Pop, and Murray Lerner’s Festival, as well as goofy stuff like The Trip and Revolution!, which I couldn’t watch all the way through. As far as tracks, I assume the Let It Roll podcast will be assembling playlists for each chapter like we did last time.

There’s a long bibli-film-ography at the end of Vol. 2. 

Where will Volume III end, if it's written? The present day? Or somewhere else?

My plan all along was to end in 2000 with Napster, which destroyed the old school music business and, with it, the structures that had allowed bands to flourish and, maybe, make some money at what they did. After that, the fence-cutters at Woodstock won: music was, essentially, free to the consumer, who did nothing to compensate the creators. 

Anything you want to plug?

My other book, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, which finally got back into print, and, of course, my two short Kindle-only books. And of course Vol. 1, which nobody’s read because someone at Fresh Air saw to it that I was rewarded for decades of underpaid work by not mentioning that it was out. It never sold, and I vanished from the face of the earth… Prominent rocker dies? Phone doesn’t ring. Ditto for the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, and many other occasions. If I can get Vol. 3 out, I’ll probably never do another music book. I hope not, anyway.