Back in 1969, 27-year-old freelance writer Michael Lydon scored a coveted assignment by The New York Times Magazine: go on the road for one month with the Rolling Stones as they toured America. He became part of the Stones’ road show as it rumbled across a divided country blighted by social upheaval and racial unrest. It was a dream assignment: Lydon had a front-row seat at the cultural revolution shaking the country with the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Better yet, he never paid for a hotel room or an airplane ticket; it was all picked up by the tour. When he returned to New York, he handed in a 100-page typewritten story expecting that it might be published over the course of two weeks. Instead, the magazine rejected it because of its length. Lydon promptly turned around and sold it to Ramparts magazine, which published the article in the winter of 1970.
Lydon went on to have a successful career as a musician and book author, and eventually founded his own small publishing company Franklin Press in New York City. As the 50th anniversary of formation of the Rolling Stones neared in 2012, he got the idea of turning his long magazine article into an e-book single “The Rolling Stones Discover America.” His agent David Dunton submitted it to Kindle Singles editor David Blum and it was quickly accepted. The story still evokes rich memories of the era and readers who let themselves go, may find themselves catching an imaginary whiff of incense or marijuana wafting from the digital pages. Howard Polskin of Thin Reads conducted this email interview to learn more about his reporting and why the story has gained a new measure of popularity today.
Thin Reads: There's a saying, "If you remember the 60s, you weren't there." Do you still have vivid memories of touring with the Stones? How sharp are those memories?
Lydon: I think I have a good memory for the 60s. During one of my summer vacations from college, I wrote about the civil rights struggle in Mississippi for the Boston Globe. After graduating Yale in 65, I went to work for Newsweek in London where I interviewed John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Two years later Newsweek transferred me to San Francisco just in time for the whole hippie explosion. From then on my whole artistic hippie side started to come out and I truly joined my generation.
Of the Stones tour I remember the music, the excitement, the huge crowds of kids, my bothers and sisters. I also remember the nervousness of being around huge stars. The Stones were like the sun; everyone else was spinning in an orbit around them. The closer you were to the Stones the cooler you were. That was tough. But they were good guys and we had fun as well as long stoned conversations. I truly admired them.
Thin Reads: Of all the Stones concerts you attended during the tour, what was your most memorable?
Perhaps the most memorable was the first in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was the tour's tryout concert and the excitement was huge. I had never seen the Stones live before, so my little mind was totally blown. The music really reached out and grabbed the kids, no holds barred. The second it was over – whoosh! – we were out of there in the limos back to Denver for a flight back to Los Angeles. That was my entry to the world of big time rock and roll touring and it made a big impression on me.
Thin Reads: Why do you think the Rolling Stones agreed to let you follow them for a whole month and essentially embed yourself with their tour?
Because they – and especially Mick Jagger – were very aware of the importance of publicity. They very savvy about show business, and how to become and remain top-level stars. I had an assignment from the New York Times, and that carried a lot of weight. Their day-to-day manager was Ronnie Schneider, a New Yorker, so he knew what getting a big piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine could do in legitimizing the band. Plus Jagger was negotiating with Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records to become the Stones' new label, and my guess is that he thought Times coverage would give him added clout.
Thin Reads: Was there anything that you didn't report in your story that you'd like to reveal now?
The biggest thing was my occasional extreme nervousness. Being on the tour was cool and I knew I was where every hippie in the world wanted to be. However, being in such a big money, big fame, big music atmosphere was sometimes a huge strain. I was on the tour because someone had said, "Michael is okay," but my tenure didn't feel secure. I was afraid I'd be left out.
Thin Reads: Did you maintain contact with any band members after you left the tour?
No. We were all close when the tour was going, but it was really a professional thing. I was a reporter with a notebook, not a friend. Charlie Watts was a likable down-to-earth guy, very intelligent. Keith was a driven musician, constantly pursuing the essence of the music. I liked him very much. Jagger was a cool customer, private but also flirting with everyone. I don't mean sexually but he had a humorous way of keeping people both close and at a distance. Bill Wyman never spoke a word to me.
Thin Reads: As a writer, were you crushed when the Times wouldn't publish your article at its original length? And then you took it to Ramparts. Why Ramparts? Why not Rolling Stone magazine?
I wasn't crushed because Ramparts snapped it right up, and I knew that the Times was unlikely to run my piece at full length. Ramparts also made a deal to have the piece published as an entire one-off magazine which got me extra money.
I took it to Ramparts because I was writing a lot for Ramparts at that time. Rolling Stone magazine had turned me down when I first pitched the idea.
Thin Reads: What made you decide last year that you could turn this ancient magazine article into a piece of content that might have enormous value in the digital age?
As soon as I heard about Kindle Singles, I thought The Rolling Stones Discover America would be perfect— a long article or a short book, a big name subject, a look at the 60s, rock and roll. Also it's vivid, dramatic writing of a vivid dramatic time.
One agent gave it a try and came up empty handed. Then another agent reached Dave Blum at Kindle Singles, and in a couple of days we had a deal. I am delighted with its success.
Thin Reads: Your e-book single has been on the Amazon Singles best-seller list for a good part of 2013. Besides the – ahem – deft writing and epic scenes, what else accounts for the tremendous popularity of The Rolling Stones Discover America?
The 60s are still seen as a fascinating period in cultural history. And the Stones are inherently fascinating. They’re sexy. The music is excellent. Their lyrics are filled with big ideas. Girls like the Stones. Boys like the Stones. So people like to read about them
Plus the tour had a dramatic curve. It started just a few months after the huge love fest of Woodstock and it ended in murder at the Altamount concert. There is a sense of come-uppance and a bit of ying and yang. That gave my story a dramatic form, concluding with the end of the decade.
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