Having incurred the wrath of The Smiths’ Morrissey and Van Morrison following biographies of both, is elusive rock writer Johnny Rogan taking a risk with a new look at 1960s band The Byrds?
THEY SEEK him here, they seek him there . . . I’m seeking Johnny Rogan in O’Neill’s pub in Dublin, and he’s nowhere to be found. I’ve scoured every nook and cranny of this labyrinthine emporium, but I can’t get a bead on the elusive rock biographer. There are precious few photos of him knocking around, and in most of those he’s wearing a bushy beard that almost completely hides his features.
“Let’s see, how will you recognise me, ’cos I’m not wearing the beard any more,” he’d said earlier, calling from his girlfriend’s mobile phone (he doesn’t own one). “I know, I’ll wear the shades. That should be rock’n’roll enough.” So here I am, staring meaningfully at anyone who looks like he might be a middle-aged rock biographer, and all I’m getting are blank responses with an undertone of suspicion. Even meeting Thomas Pynchon can’t be this hard.
Eventually, a dapper, greying chap saunters in, long leather coat swishing behind him, shades in place, and a large brown parcel under his arm. The jacket contains Johnny Rogan; the parcel contains a hardback copy of Rogan's latest book, The Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless,a biography of the jangly 1960s band that clocks in at a door-stopping 768 pages. And that's just volume one.
He's lugged it all the way up on the train from his home in Co Waterford, where he's been living for the past 10 years. Rogan made his reputation with his biography of The Smiths, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, which detailed the rise and disintegration of one of the most lauded partnerships in pop music, singer/lyricist Morrissey and guitarist/composer Johnny Marr. Since its publication in 1992, the book has never been out of print, and this year the 20th-anniversary edition will be published.
When The Severed Alliancewas first published, Morrissey said he hoped that Rogan would "end his days very soon in an M3 pile-up". But for Rogan, being someone's biographer is a lifetime commitment, and he feels compelled to keep up to date on his subject long after the last chapter has been written.
“Most biographers, when they’ve finished, they leave it behind and move on,” he says. “I keep boxes of material at home, and they keep getting filled up with stuff. I might wake up in the middle of the night and write an essay about, say, is Jarvis Cocker the new Morrissey?”
Rogan works in an almost obsessive way. Last month, he attended the hearing for Morrissey's libel suit against the NME, which, the singer claims, portrayed him as a racist in a 2007 interview. The case will be heard in the high court in London in mid-2012. Rogan also attended the 1996 court case when Smiths drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and Marr over unpaid recording and performance royalties. "I was the only person who went for the whole two weeks. The guy from the Manchester Evening Newswas there, but that was it. No fans, nothing. It was a very odd experience, because I knew most of the characters who were under oath, since I'd interviewed them."
Ironically, Morrissey referenced Rogan’s book in court to help bolster his case, but it didn’t do him any good. Ruling in Joyce’s favour, the judge described Morrissey as “devious, truculent and unreliable”.
“It’s one thing to hear Morrissey obfuscating with the press, and being his playful self,” muses Rogan. “But to see him grilled by a barrister is something else. Because you can’t play pop-star games in the same way, and with the rhetorical flourishes that you normally do, because it just doesn’t work in the high court. It’s just straight question and answer. And where Wildean wit would work in an interview context, in the high court they just come back to you again and again: ‘Would you please just answer the question?’”
Rogan has also incurred the wrath of Van Morrison with No Surrender, his acclaimed and controversial biography of the Belfast singer. Now Rogan is coming full circle with another gamble. Requiem for the Timelessis his third go at telling The Byrds's story. It's a self-published, expanded version of his first book, Timeless Flight, written while he was a student at Oxford and published in 1981.
For many people, The Byrds were little more than "that band that did Mr Tambourine Man". In the big, rock'n'roll scheme of things, they are hardly as important as, say, The Beatles or The Beach Boys.
Okay, they had no small cultural impact, and their members, including Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, Gram Parsons and David Crosby, have become bona fide rock stars, but their story hardly seems as though it could stretch to two weighty volumes, at least not without including an awful lot of minutiae.
Somewhere between the original book and the current incarnation, there was an interim version, Timeless Flight Revisited, acclaimed as "definitive" and somewhat grandiosely compared to War and Peaceby one music publication. So why come back to a book that had already been deemed definitive, not to mention a work worthy of Tolstoy? "I got drawn back, and the reason was the music. I was still playing it, and I think there's still much to be said. I wrote the first book before the age of the internet, when transatlantic travel was incredibly expensive. The interviews I did for that were in the late 1970s, and it cost a fortune, and I was still a student."
In a sense, Requiem for the Timelessis not just a biography of The Byrds – it's a painstakingly built-up case for putting the band in its rightful place in the pop pantheon. Did Rogan feel he had to sell The Byrds to readers? "I did at the time, but not now. Thankfully, The Byrds have become an institution. They're now part of rock's rich heritage, and everybody still namedrops them. How much has anyone under the age of 25, let alone under the age of 30, heard of them . . . ?"
For young Rogan, hearing the jangle of Turn! Turn! Turn!or the modal scales of Eight Miles High, The Byrds were a self-evident musical truth. "It was an intensely personal thing to me. It is about something that happened in my youth that triggered this whole interest in looking at popular music in an oddly obsessive way."
Rogan's obsession with pop music came into full bloom in 1965, when he was a pre-teen living in a rented house in Pimlico, London with "what was left of my death-ravaged family", as he writes in the introduction to Requiem for the Timeless. His father had died of a heart attack, his brother had drowned, and his sister had died of a brain haemorrhage. The house had no electricity – everything was powered by gas – and no inside toilet. Rogan followed the pop charts with fanatical enthusiasm, but, with no records to play (they were an unattainable luxury) and no record player to play them on, young Johnny had to get his musical fix from magazines, posters and a cable radio pumped in from the local relay station. "I discovered The Byrds by looking at a billboard, before I heard them. I looked at the name and the song title [ Mr Tambourine Man] and thought, that's important."
Thus began a lifelong, long-distance affair with the band who became known as “the American Beatles”. With UK pop fans spoilt for choice between The Beatles, the Stones, The Kinks, The Who and all the other great British bands of the day, following an American band who had a few minor UK hits was a solitary pastime.
What made The Byrds pivotal, according to Rogan, is that they were part of the evolution from pop into rock; while The Beatles were at number one with Day Tripper,The Byrds were already recording Eight Miles High,their mind-expanding anthem of the 1960s counterculture.
“The world was a-changing, and that’s what the book details. And The Byrds are fearless – they do not get stuck being a folk-rock jingle-jangle group. With each new single and album, the sound was challenging and changing, as it was with The Beatles, and there was a fearlessness there which goes well beyond careerism. And the template probably is The Beatles. Obviously drugs. Bob Dylan’s influence is crucially important, but the most fascinating thing about The Byrds is that I can talk about them as a fusion of The Beatles and Dylan.”
If that doesn't persuade you to pick up a copy of Requiem for the Timeless(using both hands – it's bloody heavy), then Rogan's name on the dustjacket should convince you. He is an individual blend of obsessive fan and relentless inquisitor, his writing conveying his respect for his subject, but never descending into hagiography. He's not afraid to rub his idols up the wrong way, and when he's writing about a band, especially one that's broken up acrimoniously, as The Smiths and The Byrds have done, he's careful not to align himself with any faction. And he's a great believer in the power of good research and scholarship combined with sharp critical insight.
"There's a lack of investigative journalism, it only seems to be done in the financial areas now. But nobody in the music press does it. You're more likely to see it in Vanity Fairor the Economist. The music-press tradition that I grew up with, they would, on strange occasions, go off and do these incredibly investigative pieces, simply for the reason that they liked this singer, this act, this phenomenon, and wanted to know more about it. And some of my favourite pieces of writing have come from that.
“It’s no use making a thesis about a particular artist or group or whatever, based on press cuttings or your assumption of what they’re trying to do in the work. It’s looking at sources, getting back to the sources, and then applying your critical tools to them.
“When I write a book, I’m trying to bring all those different skills into it and get better at each of them.”
Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless Volume Oneis published by Rogan House