By Rick Coates
Tom Wrights memoir, Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out, hits the bookstores this week. Several critics and rock legends are calling it one of the most important books interpreting the 60s and early 70s rock music scene.
Roadwork had experienced several flat tires over the years on its way to being published. A year and half ago the engine blew, almost sending the tales of Tom Wright to the salvage yard for uniformed music scholars to tell.
It was a frightening call in October of 2005. Hey Rick, Tom Wright just had a heart attack and they are rushing him to the hospital. That message on my voice mail from Kozmo, the former bass player with the 60s Detroit rock band, The Frut, sent my mind off in 20 directions.
As I drove frantically to Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey to see Tom, my first thought was Tom couldnt go yet; he has to finish his book, because who the hell else was going to be able to explain the 500,000 photographs he took during his career, documenting rock music luminaries?
Then there was this much-anticipated explanation of what the 60s and early 70s music scene was all about that he promised to give in his memoir. Tom Wright was center stage of the scene and his perspective of that era had not been given. Rock legend Pete Townshend of The Who had read early excerpts of what Tom was crafting, and predicted in his blog that the book would be one of the most important and best books on rock music.
Sure, Wright had captured so much with his camera, but more importantly he had captured the essence of it all with his mind. That was now in jeopardy of being lost forever.
LIFE IN THE BALANCE
When I arrived at the hospital, Tom was faced with the typical Tom Wright crossroads (his many crossroads are documented throughout Roadwork). Choose a seven-bypass heart surgery (which would be a first for the hospitals heart surgeons), or go home and take his chances. He had been there before, sort of, but this was the first time his actual life was hanging in the balance.
There were few words that I could offer him, but I knew others could and would. When I got home that night I immediately e-mailed the royalty of rock and roll: guys from The Who, The Stones, The Eagles, MC5, The Faces, Rod Stewart and numerous others. Just the simple Tom Wright in the subject line would get them all to open their e-mail. Why? Because Tom Wright holds a place in rock and rolls inner circle, as he played a crucial role of inspiration and artistic direction to many of rock musics most influential players.
The responses came back fast and furious. Joe Walsh offered to write the $100,000 check to pay for the surgery (Tom, without any medical insurance, declined the offer). Pete Townshend, on behalf of The Who, wrote back: There are few others I care to listen to, but I will always listen to you. We are all totally committed to you whatever your decision, but obviously, selfishly, we would like you to do the bypass.
Ron Wood wrote on behalf of The Stones: We dont have time to come in to perform Amazing Grace for you. A reference to when The Rolling Stones flew into Marquette for the funeral of one of Toms best friends, and performed the song at the service. Wayne Kramer of the MC5 checked in, as did Ian McLagan of The Faces and several others offering support and encouragement.
SHOW GOES ON
Probably inspired by the words of support from all of his rock and roll friends, Wright opted for the surgery. Had he went home without it, he probably would have died and Roadwork would have been scrapped.
Now, all of this might seem trivial on the surface, but not to the true fan of the 60s rock music scene. Roadwork by Tom Wright builds the bridge between the land of misunderstanding where so many have been living, to the island of insights.
Wrights heart attack surely played a role in this book. It brought clarity and perspective to his life, a life that at times brought self-doubt not only to him but to thousands of others from that generation who began asking what it all meant?
In the book Wright reflects on whether he wasted the most productive years of his life. By the 80s, rockers from the 60s were either dead, in rehab or asking the question: Why did they let disco come in and take over, and did any of it really matter? Fortunately, Wright puts it all in perspective in Roadwork.
After recovery, Wright went to his computer, and with the help from seasoned music biographer Susan VanHecke, began piecing together what surely will be one of the best music scene memoirs ever written. It is definitely in the same league as
Bob Dylans, which is by far the best written to date.
A FRIEND WRITES
When guitar legend Pete Townshend received an early draft, he was so inspired by what he read he wrote a three-page foreword for the book. Townshend, is one of rock musics most intellectual members and has written numerous book reviews, writes eloquently to Wrights contribution to the whole process. For fans of The Who, it might come as a surprise that had Townshend not met Wright in 1962 at the Ealing Art School, there would have not been a band known as The Who.
One thing is certain. Had I not met Tom Wright, The Who would never had become successful, Townshend writes. We would have remained the Detours, a solid little pop band doing what hundreds of others were doing around the same time: playing local clubs, pubs, weddings and parties purely for pleasure After a few years I would have stopped playing with them and gone off to work as a sculptor, or for an ad agency Roger Daltrey often puts the success of The Who down to his efforts in 1962 of getting me out of bed Roger and I must differ. I put our success down to the fellow who left that particular bed behind when he was deported.
The list of those influenced by Wright is a literal whos who of the 60s rock and roll scene, from Joe Walsh to guys in the Rolling Stones, and several Wright would meet during his days at the famed Grande Ballroom in Detroit.
While Wrights more than 500,000 photographs make for a great story, it is his words that are the focus of Roadwork. Wright had been trying to publish his work since the mid-70s, but publishing houses wanted more shots of Micks lips or stars strung out on drugs. They were not interested in Wrights inside observations of what had just happened over the past 10 years. It appeared no one was.
In fact, Wright, distraught, depressed and drained from rehab, even considered tossing everything away until his mother convinced him to have others look at his collection. After having his collection appraised and getting input from John R. Payne, one of the most respected appraisers of antiquities in the world (he appraised the President Nixon collection), Wright decided to bequeath his collection to the University of Texas Center for American History.
For the person looking for a coffee table book of glossy photographs, this book isnt for you. In fact, albeit while they look really cool, Wrights photos take backstage to his written reflections. Only some of his Mexican collection photos are glossy; Wright opted to have the rest of the photos on a dusty archival paper.
Little of his photographic work has been seen until recently. Some album covers and a few photos appeared with magazine articles, and the occasional print was given to the artists he captured, but most never made their way to prints or the public eye.
One thing Wright wont be able to do is inspire a lost generation of rock music photographers. He is critical of some of his contemporaries and second-generation rock music photographers.
I was in the front car of a spaced-out rollercoaster, and every once in awhile Id just turn and snap everybodys picture. I wasnt one of those guys who stopped the rollercoaster, rearranged it, made everybody get out and use hairspray. I got the shots from the inside, where the action was exploding. I shot the whole thing from within the eye at least half a million pictures while the public, the press, and front row photographers were outside blowing in the wind misunderstanding everything.
Wright is also critical of photographers of his generation who simply held up their camera, snapped hundreds of pictures, sent the rolls in for someone to develop, and selected the best shot. He personally developed every shot, rarely took portraits, and never put the camera on auto while holding the button down. He eyed every shot he took.
Besides being a photographer with all area access, Wright managed several bands. He also became the stage manager of the Grande Ballroom in Detroit and for two of the most financially successful outdoor music festivals of the day; The Detroit Rock and Roll Revival and Goose Lake.
Wright also orchestrated what is considered one of the top 10 great moments off the stage in rock & roll history: Keith Moons birthday party at the Flint Holiday Inn in 1967. Wright sets the record straight on that night and so much else.
Roadwork is a must read for anyone who lived the 60s music scene. Wrights perspectives are those of an insider, a person who helped create the music and the scene of the day. His access was like no other, and while others have attempted to capture this era, no one has come as close as Wright. The popularity of the bands of that day remains intact today, making Roadwork an excellent read for a younger generation of music fans wondering why the bands of their era wont have the same impact of rock musics greatest generation.
Pete Townshend was only partially correct when he wrote in the foreward, This is also very much my story. No Pete, this is very much all of our story. Look for Roadwork at your favorite bookseller today. A warning: dont plan on doing anything else once you pick up a copy; once you start reading, you wont want to put it down until you are finished.