Tributes to Timothy White
(Billboard Editor in Chief and longtime rock journalist, Timothy White, died on June 27, 2002. rockcritics.com asked a few writers to share their memories. The official Billboard announcement is here.)
A Shitty Day
A Shitty Day
Yesterday was one of the shittiest days in recent memory. Someone contacted Scott Woods at rockcritics.com and told him that Billboard magazine Editor-in-Chief, Timothy White, died of a heart attack. At first, we thought it might be a hoax--there were no sources to verify this news. I called Billboard and they confirmed it.
I was in utter disbelief.
The first thing I thought of was that I missed the opportunity to interview one of the great rock journalists. Make no mistake: White was never a rock critic. But the man was a master interviewer. And his early training as a reporter with AP taught White how to tell a story.
It was White's masterful interviews with people like Peter Gabriel, Pete Townshend, Steve Winwood, Roger Waters, and members of Fleetwood Mac in the mid-to-late '80s version of Musician that started my love affair with rock journalism.
In fact, the first two books I ever bought connected to rock journalism were Kurt Loder's Rolling Stone article collection, Bat Chain Puller, and White's collection of interviews, Rock Lives.
When I got home from work yesterday, I called Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Anthony DeCurtis to ask him if heard about White's death. The last time I called DeCurtis, it was the day George Harrison died. When DeCurtis heard it was me, he assumed I was calling about "The Ox."
"I guess you're calling about John Entwistle," DeCurtis asked. "No," I told DeCurtis. "What happened to John Entwistle?" Another ton of bricks to the head.
Both men had been robbed of their lives early--White was only 50 and Entwistle was 57. Heart attacks. It's scary to even think about.
To be honest, it's been a while since I've read Timothy White's Billboard column, "Music To My Ears." Still, I often go back to Rock Lives, and to his Bob Marley biography, Catch a Fire. Quite simply, it if was not for Timothy White--and a string of others writers at Musician magazine--I would not be associated with this website, I would not be writing rock criticism right now, and the music would not mean half as much as it does.
It was just a terribly shitty day.
No Place in the Bully Pulpit
No Place in the Bully Pulpit
In a weird way, Timothy White was probably the most influential rock critic since Robert Christgau, and what makes that weird is the fact that Timothy never really was much of a critic. Obviously, he had his biases, and certainly wrote his share of reviews. But at heart, he was a fan, and applied that enthusiasm and hunger for detail to profile writing--a field that is far closer to actual heart of contemporary music journalism.
For some critics, that was reason enough to dislike him (or what he came to represent). White wasn't a muckraker, and seemed to have little interest in making an interview subject squirm, which for those who believe music journalism needs to be adversarial made him seem a big softie. But White didn't write for idol-killers or anti-industry types; he wrote for fans, people who cared about music and wanted to get closer to the people who made it. And even when his profiles didn't quite penetrate to the inner core of a musician's personality, the readers always walked away knowing more than when they started.
It's worth stressing that what they learned had to do with the subject, not the author. Unlike such personality-intensive stylists as Lester Bangs or Richard Meltzer--or even such viscerally personal critics as Christgau or Dave Marsh--White kept himself off to the side, so that in the end we knew more about his taste in barbers or neckware than we did about the man himself. That changed somewhat when he began his Billboard column, but even then, there was a certain reticence, a tendency to let others voice complaints rather than assume his place in the bully pulpit. He had to be truly riled--either very angry or very excited--for his views to seem genuinely personal. It's hard to think of another music writer whose work involved such large quantities of influence and diffidence.
And that's as it should be. Humbling though it is for those of us on the writing end, people buy music magazines to read what the stars have to say, not what's being said about them. Timothy White seemed to possess an almost instinctive grasp of that fact, and never gave any hint of resenting it. That's a lesson a lot of us could learn.
An Unabashed Booster
An Unabashed Booster
I'm not the only music critic who owes great personal gratitude to Tim White. He helped secure my first full-time rock-critic job (as copy editor at Crawdaddy), assigned me my first Rolling Stone cover story and recommended me for my next full-time job (as assistant editor at Rolling Stone). But that's a small debt compared to the one we all owe him for his work.
Tim was indefatigable and passionate about music. He was a thorough reporter who wouldn't just track down the musician, the band and the producer, but also the musicians' parents and, sometimes, the history of a hometown or a region. He was a stickler for facts who plunged into and sorted out the extremely murky histories of Bob Marley and Brian Wilson because he admired their music. He was an unabashed booster of musicians, particularly songwriters, whose music touched him, from Joni Mitchell and John Mellencamp to Rokia Traore. He repeatedly denounced the misogyny and violence that he heard as pandering in 1990's rock and rap, and even if (as I did) you thought he grew too censorious, it was clear that he heard music as a moral force.
He was, I thought in 1991, an odd choice for the editor of Billboard. He was a music lover, not a business reporter or a record-company insider. And in his years at Billboard, while the magazine prospered, he made it clear that the music came first, not the business. He kept the magazine that everyone depends on honest and independent and rigorous, while making sure that non-blockbuster music had a strong presence. He added things like the "Heatseekers" chart, to make the business pay attention to new acts. He had his reporters take up issues like the work-for-hire controversy, when record-company lobbyists slipped an amendment past Congress that could have handed authorship over to labels rather than musicians. (After Billboard raised the alarm, musicians' organizations got the amendment repealed.) Somehow, he managed to write his intensely researched column every week while editing the magazine, doing his syndicated radio show, writing a book and raising twin boys with his wife. I have no idea if he ever slept.
And, of course, he was the only rock critic who ever knew how to tie a bowtie. He'll be missed.