Chet Flippo loved to tell the story of his first glimpse of Rolling Stone. He was in the Navy, and he and his buddies were sitting on the fantail of a destroyer, smoking pot and marveling that finally there was a magazine covering everything they were interested in. About a year later, he got his first RS assignment: Janis Joplin’s high school reunion in Port Arthur, Texas.
Fast forward to a decade later. Native Texan Chet and a staff mostly transplanted from San Francisco were ensconced in the magazine’s New York offices on Fifth Avenue. By virtue of his seniority, Chet was dean of the music writers, an absurdly talented bunch that included Dave Marsh, James Henke, Charles M. Young, Timothy White, Kurt Loder and Paul Nelson. Almost from the start, Chet was the magazine’s country music advocate, but like his peers, his versatility took him in many directions.
He did Rolling Stone Interviews with Chet Atkins and John Denver, but he also did one with Tom Wolfe, and profiled the peripatetic, chain-smoking New York Post police beat writer Steve Dunleavy. He wrote about filmmaker George Romero, and managed to wangle a bit part as a zombie in Dawn of the Dead. He was savvy about the music business, and produced thoughtful articles on Clive Davis’ resurgence as the head of Arista Records, as well as Seymour Stein’s new wave/punk label Sire Records, which produced albums by Talking Heads, the Dead Boys and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He visited the Mexican set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, interviewing the unlikely trio of Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Sam Peckinpah. He tirelessly chronicled the ongoing adventures of the Rolling Stones from 1975 to 1980, and the articles did not always please them.
I was Chet’s primary editor for most of the decade, and we also became friends by phone, since he was in Austin and later, New York, while I was still in San Francisco. And then came the day in 1975, when I sent Chet the galleys of his RS Interview with squeaky-clean John Denver. The phone rang.
Chet: “Why did you take out the word ‘fuck?'”
Me: “I didn’t. There were hardly any expletives. It’s John Denver!”
Chet: “He said it! Check the transcripts.”
I went to the fact-checkers and got a copy of the transcripts. They were the rawest transcripts I had ever seen. Chet didn’t draw Xs through paragraphs or cut line by line. He took what looked like a Number One pencil, soft leaded, and obliterated entire pages with a series of whorls that looked like two-dimensional tumbleweed. I spent about an hour poring over the pages, going cross-eyed, when I suddenly spotted a tiny “fuck” peeking through a tornado of whirls. When I determined that it had actually come from Denver’s mouth, we decided where to place it, satisfied that we’d show the world a G-rated folk singer could swear like a sailor on shore leave.
When I moved to New York City the following year, Chet and his wonderful wife Martha Hume eased my transition from SF to Manhattan with friendship and hospitality. The annual Kentucky Derby party at their East Side apartment was a favorite event. Chet would mix serious mint juleps, and Martha, wearing an outrageous Derby Day hat, would serve her amazing fried chicken.
In those days Rolling Stone was still housed in a rabbit’s warren of offices on East 56th Street. Chet and I adopted Wilde’s, an Irish bar downstairs, as our after-work watering hole. He also introduced me to The Bottom Line, the city’s prime music venue of the day. I became an enthusiastic regular.
Reading tributes to Chet over the past couple of days, via the Internet, Facebook or e-mails, I discovered a side I wasn’t aware of: He was a fine teacher and editor, as well as a writer. Early in their careers, accomplished journalists such as Maryanne Vollers, Mitch Glazer and Mikal Gilmore were inspired by Chet’s wisdom, and yes, his grace. New York Daily News music critic Jim Farber put it succinctly: “I met Chet as a nervous 17 year old, who had just written his first piece for Rolling Stone. He was kindly and generous with his advice. Chet Flippo provided an object lesson on how to write about music fairly, vividly, and with love.”