21.2.14

TIMOTHY WHITE - 1952-2002

In my post on Wednesday I mentioned Timothy White. Although we’d met before when I lived in New York, we became good friends in 1991 when Omnibus Press bought the rights to Catch A Fire, his Bob Marley biography, after the original publishers had stupidly allowed it to go out of print. What were they thinking, that Bob Marley & The Wailers were a here-today-gone-tomorrow boy band?
      Timothy died in 2002, in the same 24-hour period as John Entwistle. Tony Fletcher called me from New York at about ten in the evening to relay the news. I was gobsmacked. The Ox gone... and I’d only seen Timothy a month before in London. It was with a heavy heart that I wrote Timothy's obituary for the Guardian, reproduced below.

In his polka-dot bow tie, cream chinos and white buckskin shoes, the music writer Timothy White, who has died aged 50, cut a stylish figure in a profession not generally known for its sartorial elegance, but White’s attire reflected his deep love of history and a tradition amongst New York magazine writers that began with Scott Fitzgerald and was continued by the eternally white-suited Tom Wolfe.
      This same love of history informed several authoritative music biographies written by White. In all of them the subject didn’t appear until at least a quarter of the way into the tale, the early chapters being devoted to ancestral matters, times past and scene setting. Long Ago And Far Away: James Taylor, His Life & Music, published last year, opens in 1622 with the story of Taylor’s Scottish ancestor Hercules Tailyeour, a shipbuilder from Montrose. The first 100 pages or more of The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience, are devoted to a history of the state itself and, equally importantly bearing in mind the subject, the history of the sport of surfing. In a discipline in which rigorous research is not always apparent, White’s fastidious attention to historical detail earned him many admirers.
      Timothy White was a workaholic, which was probably a factor in his early demise. As well as writing books, columns and hosting a syndicated radio show, for the past 12 years he was the editor of Billboard magazine, the American music industry’s principal trade paper, of which he read every single word of its 100 plus A3-sized pages every week of the year. He is best known in the UK as the author of Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, which is generally regarded as the definitive work on reggae’s greatest star. Timothy always enjoyed telling how, dressed in his familiar debonair fashion, he strolled unabashed through the lawless ghettos of Trenchtown to conduct first hand research amongst the not always friendly dreads and Rastas. Nothing got in the way of the story as far as White was concerned.
      Born in Patterson, New Jersey, into a large Irish family - he had seven siblings - White majored in journalism at Fordham in 1972. His first job was as a copy boy at Associated Press where he soon graduated to writing about sports and entertainment. This was followed by a spell on Crawdaddy, America’s first ‘serious’ rock magazine, then published in New York. From Crawdaddy White joined Rolling Stone for which he wrote more cover stories than any other writer. His personable character and general air of bonhomie encouraged interviewees to reveal more about themselves than they might otherwise do, and White’s personality profiles of Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and Muhammed Ali, not to mention numerous rock performers, are benchmarks of magazine journalism. Many of his rock interviews are collated in his book Rock Lives, others in The Entertainers
      Like many of its writers Timothy White quit Rolling Stone after coming into conflict with its autocratic founder Jann Wenner. He went on to write Catch A Fire, then wrote for Musician magazine, which is owned by the publishers of Billboard, which he joined as editor in 1990. At Billboard Timothy set about turning a dry, industry-dominated trade journal into a readable, music-orientated, campaigning magazine. Among the innovative changes he introduced were the Billboard Century Award, bestowed annually upon artists for creative achievement; Continental Drift, a column devoted to unsigned acts; and Heatseekers, a column on acts who have never appeared in the top half of the Billboard 200.
      Timothy wrote a regular Billboard column, Music To My Ears, which frequently championed little known artists or styles of music, and he was fearless in campaigning for artists rights in an industry not always noted for its generosity towards the creators of the product on which it depends. Driven by a fierce sense of morality, he was equally unafraid in tackling the controversial issue of misogyny and homophobia in rap lyrics, and he even took a stand on gun control, banning adverts with artwork that featured guns. His moving obituary of George Harrison, a close personal friend, which appeared in Billboard issue dated December 15, 2001, earned Timothy his fourth ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for journalism.
      Timothy’s ethical nature was perhaps best reflected in his decision to donate all his royalties from Catch A Fire, his best selling book, to Amnesty International. He was so appalled at the behaviour of certain individuals with regard to the Marley legacy that, in his own words, he “long ago decided that Catch A Fire was going to be a unique and evolving matter in terms of personal profit, private charity and public gestures in memory of Marley.” He was adamant that publishers should not overly promote new editions of the work, writing to me in the following terms: “Surely the market can stand one Bob Marley related offering that expands its audience without endless, vulgar fanfare… so some day we can bounce our grandchildren on our knees and tell them that money doesn't justify everything.”
      Timothy was last in the UK a month ago to appoint a new London bureau chief for Billboard, and on his final night he stopped by our house in Shepherds Bush for dinner. Later he and I walked across Uxbridge Road to the Crown & Sceptre pub where, as ever, his striking attire caused heads to turn. He talked about his twin boys, one of whom is handicapped, the strain of editing Billboard and commuting from Boston, where he lived, to New York every week, and what his next book might be. He had an idea for a joint biography of Eric Clapton and George Harrison, tracing their intermingling lives and careers, and was confident he could secure the co-operation of all involved. As we strolled back home after a couple of pints – Tim was one of those rare Americans who loved English ale – he promised to make some initial inquiries just as soon as he got back to New York.
      Timothy suffered a fatal heart attack in the elevator of Billboard’s New York offices after having lunched with his close friend, the screenwriter Mitch Glazer. He is survived by his wife Judy Garlan, a graphic designer, and twin sons Christopher and Alexander, aged 10.

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