When I first moved to Rolling Stone (from Newsday) in 1975, Chet Flippo was the NYC bureau chief–and the only other editorial person in Manhattan. Alas, this did not last long, but when we moved to 745 5th Avenue as new headquarters (the magazine then had three or maybe four floors in that beautiful art deco heap), we made sure to have offices next door to one another, though I eventually decided, in thrall to my acrophobia, that I wanted an office without a window.
Chet was one of my great co-conspirators. I’m trying to pare it down to just the highlights, because the thing was, every week was an adventure then, and Chet led his share of the way from helping build the rep of the Lone Star to serving as Austin’s ambassador to Manhattan. He hated bureaucracy as much as I did though he handled it much more quietly. So his subversion generally took other forms, though sometimes we collaborated. There was trying to get past the fact-checking department, in an album review, references to Ray “Wylie” Hubbard (a punctuation alteration which, would have changed his entire career, we believed or at least convinced ourselves–both of us loved Ray…and do.) There was having a meeting with Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres, of a very very nascent World Hunger Year, who informed us that they were about to get the United Nations to stage an anti-hunger concert in NYC, produced by Michael Viner, who they boasted had been the director of “youth events’ for the second Nixon inaugural (and later a guy who earned notoriety by publishing a book by O.J.’s wife’s BFF). We not very gently explained why they weren’t.
In the very early ’70s, Chet wrote a story for Creem that was a pretty perfect parody of Hunter S. Thompson’s early shit, though it unfortunately didn’t hold up very well when I reread it a few years ago. But he used it to hip readers (at least me) to a whole world of Texas music, starting with Sunny and the Sunglows, which is pretty much primordial Austin. He carried on at Rolling Stone–I got to see Waylon, I mean the person not the show, because of Chet, to know Marshall Chapman, a whole gaggle of people like that. When Waylon and Willie decided to make the Outlaw Country collection Chet was the only conceivable writer for the notes — I don’t know if he coined the phrase but he was pretty much the phenomenon’s offstage architect.
He covered the entirety of John Lennon’s immigration struggle, a fine set of accounts that made plain the political animus without ever slipping out of objective voice. In the midst of that mess, Lennon needed an expert witness for the trial of his lawsuit against Morris Levy (who had taken an unmixed cassette of John’s “Rock’n’Roll” album and turned it into a “Lennon album” available only by mail order off late night TV ads). Chet recused himself, appropriately, then suggested that they really needed me anyway, as I was chock full of musical opinion.
And he really wasn’t full of it himself, other than that he loved the music he grew up on (thus his Hank Williams book, Your Cheatin’ Heart, which is sorely underrated to the point of being almost a lost classic), and hated the idea that he looked like John Denver, though he did–well at least they had the same cheekbones and sandy hair. Chet was a reporter before he was anything else, albeit a reporter in the fashion of someone like A.J. Liebling, only even more deadpan funny. He was who he was: Chet had been in Navy intelligence but nevertheless the Cuban government (which had refused me a visa a couple of years earlier, on grounds I don’t know but always suspected had something to do with Detroit radical politics, although maybe they just didn’t like music hippies) let him in to report on the tour that a bunch of CBS artists, lead by Billy Joel, made to Cuba around ’80 or so. Chet turned it into a spy piece, with meet-ups with dissidents on the beach being the main attraction, the music pretty much a sidebar. I hated the politics but that was the only part of what he wrote that was anything like a cliché.
One of the things that we had most in common was that thinking that whether or not the Stones were has-beens–I was a firmer yes than he–Mick Jagger was a dipstick in the oil pan of rock stardom, as wrinkled and shriveled in our minds then as he is in photographs today. The real feat of his nakedly anti-Stones story getting published in Rolling Stone was that Jann Wenner was a Stones fan to the point where he worshiped them even above the Kennedy family. And Peter Rudge, still my friend after all these decades, has never been described better than in that relatively brief story–I laughed out loud, in delight, when I tea that because it not only brought Chet back to life for me, but also captured Peter at his height, when he still managed both the Stones and the Who. (I hasten to add that I would love Peter even if he managed Bob Jovi, as Jim Carroll called him in the Irish Times the other day.)
One thing that has gotten lost, I suppose (though I know I have a copy–just not where the fuck it is) is Chet’s masters (if I remember right) dissertation for UT, It was allegedly a history of Rolling Stone but it was really the first expansive history of the rock music press ever written, and has a lot of really fundamental things in it. (I’m pretty sure that I first talked to Chet when he interviewed me about Creem for it.) It was a sturdy little story, like all of his, and took the topic as far as it could be taken in ’71 or ’73 or whenever it was. Popular Music and Society ran pretty much the whole of it over three consecutive issues–be about $25 per issue if you could find ’em, which you couldn’t. Turns out Chet continued writing for that little academic publication until the late ’70s, which had to be, as much about loyalty as opportunity to talk about things he couldn’t write for anyone else. (That is, he could have sold his “reappraisal” of Willie Nelson and Austin for actual money. Those were the days–you could pass up a payday once in a while, though that was in my view a pretty big expression of loyalty.)
His books were mostly collections of magazine articles, and they hold up better than you’d imagine, especially the Stones assemblage. I have spent about 30 years now wishing I’d had the insight, skill and discipline to write his plain, witty, deeply respectful and slightly salacious Dolly Parton feature in Rolling Stone. Call me a Flippo fan–it’s a fact and probably a boast, to boot. And I wish to hell his planned official biography of Roy Orbison had worked out. That was actually my idea–I had been offered the job, and while I would have loved to try, it was completely obvious that the book belonged in Chet’s hands. I don’t think I ever did that any other time–gave away the story of someone I truly loved. But then, it was passed on to someone I truly loved.
Chet and I never, ever talked or saw one another without my feeling I was in the company of a guy who totally got it. There aren’t so many people who can put me that completely at ease simply by showing up. His death has left me feeling disturbed for almost a month. It’s one thing to not talk to a friend very often, even when the intervals start becoming years not days. It’s another thing to realize a hole is left in the universe. So I listen to Waylon and Gary Stewart and a few of the other gifts he gave me, feeling like an old five and dimer myself.
Tags: Chet Flippo