How Tom Wolfe Changed Music Journalism

His ideas about journalism – relentlessly shadowing subjects, telling a story through novelistic dialogue – became the hallmark of writing about music

Tom Wolfe in his Manhattan apartment, 1987. Credit: © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Walking into Tom Wolfe's home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was like walking into literary history. The place looked like an old-world library, with all the wood and books and cloth-draped tables. I was there one afternoon in the mid-2000s, to interview him for CNN, where I was a new correspondent. Some producer had wanted him interviewed right away and I took on the challenge of getting to him. I emailed him and asked if I could come by. He said yes right away – we both were in the Rolling Stone fraternity and he felt you've gotta be there for your Rolling Stone family. So I rushed up to his place to meet him. I got there at about 2 p.m. and, even though he was home, he was dressed immaculately. He was in one of his tailored suits, a bespoke vanilla double-breasted number with a brightly colored tie and a bold, perfectly folded pocket square. There was a gold tie bar beneath the tie's knot. He looked luxurious – he made dressing up seem fun, an expression of creativity and of character.

This was his trademark: the white suit, the bold pops of color in the tie, the boldness and yet tastefulness of the whole look. It established him as an old-school Southern gentleman, a man who was both tasteful and showy, who had both a big personality and an unmistakable sense of refinement. That day, as always, he was all perfect manners and bright, cheery charm. Once we started the interview, he gave me several quick, witty soundbites that made me laugh. I knew right away this would play perfectly. He made me look good in front of my producers. From that moment on, I felt I owed him.

But by that point I was already in massive debt to Tom. I grew up reading him voraciously, especially during my early twenties when I was learning how to write. I was a hungry, young music journalist trying to figure out how to do the job and his New Journalism style was thrilling. I read about a race-car driver named Junior Johnson in Esquire, the Black Panthers hanging on the Upper East Side in New York Magazine and, in Rolling Stone, astronauts who were larger than life. But when I read Tom, I looked beyond his subjects to see the techniques and the tactics he used to tell the stories. 

I realized that you could construct scenes and tell stories and use dialogue to great effect. You could spell words phonetically and use italics and punctuation liberally to communicate energy. You could get the character's voice on the page through spelling, grammar and a novelist's ear. I learned the writer should not hide behind the vanilla voice of God, but instead come out from behind the curtain and take a position on this circus that he's describing. I learned that you could write in the present tense and you could include all sorts of details about the status symbols people use to show who they are. And I learned that you could – and should – get inside the heads of your characters and tell people about their spirit. To read Tom's work was to feel him beside you, telling you an incredible story.

By the early Nineties, when I started writing for Rolling Stone, Tom's style was the magazine's style. In fact his ideas about journalism – relentlessly shadowing subjects, telling their story through novelistic scenes and dialogue, writing with verve and energy, and letting the prose shine and crackle – this was the style across music journalism.

Tom was not merely influential – having crafted the style of music journalism that we all worked within – he was a writer who time and again nailed the big ideas about the culture. In the 1960s he wrote about "radical chic," expertly describing limousine liberals, in the 1970s he coined the phrase "the Me Decade," and in the 1980s he turned to the novel, writing about the "Masters of the Universe" in The Bonfire of the Vanities. For a long time that thick paperback was ubiquitous – it was one of those books that almost everybody had read.

His work and his style cemented him as a big, famous writer whose his name was widely known and respected, who frequented great society parties and who often popped up in photos from these highfalutin affairs. He was a man about town, a bon vivant, a star in his own right, like a holdover from an earlier era when writers could be cultural superstars. With his brilliance, his wit, his suits and his record of great writing, he was exactly the sort of person we all would rush to write about if given the assignment.

When I was publishing my first book of nonfiction I turned to Tom for a blurb. He responded quickly, writing, "He is – if you can imagine it – Oscar Wilde as a street thug." It felt very Wolfean though I wasn't exactly sure what that meant – I'm far from a street thug – but I was thrilled to have him endorsing me. Tom Wolfe was one of my writing fathers. I'll owe him a great debt until the day I get to Heaven – but when I get there, he'll be too much of a gentleman to ever mention it.