Charles M. Young: A Rolling Stone Colleague Remembers

From the Sex Pistols to Noam Chomsky to Cadillacs for Everyone: a friend looks back at the life and times of one of the magazine's most electric writers, who died this week

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Charles M. Young on his graduation day from Columbia in 1975. © Hillary Johnson

On August 18th, longtime Rolling Stone contributor Charles M. Young died of a brain tumor at age 63. Here's how he'll be remembered by colleague and friend, David Felton.

Charles M. Young, Chuck Young, was one of the great anarchists of new journalism, and one of its most entertaining. He lived his punk life with grace and gentle truth and wrote with wit and rebellion, filling the pages of Rolling Stone and other cultural journals with radical ideas about music, politics, comedy, sports, psychology and Beavis and Butt-head.

I first met Chuck in 1977 when Rolling Stone moved its main office from San Francisco to New York City. While a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Class of '75, Chuck had won Rolling Stone's first national college writing competition and was now working there as an associate editor. He had just introduced the magazine, against its better judgment, to punk, with a cover story on the Sex Pistols. "Rock is Sick and Living in London," plus definitive pieces on the Ramones, Patti Smith and Television.

Chuck and I hit it off right away. We admired each other's good writing and bad work habits. We scoffed at deadlines. And we developed other bad habits. He introduced me to the Dead Boys and a band called Steel Tips whose leader blew himself up with firecrackers. Chuck showed me how he could shoot beer through his teeth. Across the room. And we made fools of ourselves at the office Christmas party. Thus by 1980, Chuck and I were out of work and out of funds. We would sit around my apartment and debate: if we had just one dollar between us, should it go for food or toilet paper? When I visited him recently in the hospice, we still thought it a profound question.

Read all of Young's Rolling Stone stories here.

Then one day in 1981 Chuck saved my life. I was wasted, and he said, "David, you gotta do something about that monster inside you that's out to kill you." He pushed me into recovery, I gave up drugs as well as alcohol, got a sponsor, the whole program. Seven years later, in 1988, to my complete surprise, Chuck saved his own life and joined the program. I never realized he had a problem. And he didn't just get sober, he got others sober by helping found a new AA meeting on the Upper West Side, called Cadillacs for Everyone. It's for guys addicted to alcohol and Elvis, whatever that means.

Both our lives got better. Chuck started writing again for Rolling Stone in the Nineties, profiling the Butthole Surfers and Geraldo Rivera, and also, having gotten into radical politics, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader.

In 2010 Chuck got involved with Occupy Wall Street, and it lifted his anarchistic spirits. He wrote about it, participated in it, hung out for days at Zuccotti Park. "I haven't been this excited since 1972," he said. But by 2012 he had fallen into a dark funk, possibly brought on by the tumor. He isolated himself at home, couldn't write, couldn't earn a living, didn't open his mail for a year. Then on Super Bowl Weekend in February 2013, his longtime friend Hillary Johnson took him to the hospital. He thought he had a toothache, and they discovered the stage four glioblastoma.

For nearly a year and a half, Chuck beat the odds. Friends took him to lunch and dinner and walks in the park. They threw him a huge birthday bash at a friend's apartment in February -- you could hardly get in the door. Last September he celebrated his 25th Anniversary sober at Cadillacs for Everyone. And Don Henley invited him backstage at Madison Square Garden. And through it all Chuck beamed and expressed gratitude for "one of the best years of my life."

By the last days, Chuck had become like a white-bearded sage, a grand old man of music and letters surrounded by a community of devotees. He looked like Father Christmas, cracking jokes and fondly reminiscing about the good times of his life. But in his dreams the Rev. Charles M. Young was still a punk.

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