Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, sprinkled with love and betrayal, plus the odd smattering of violence, forms the basis of Tony Parson’s novel, Stories We Could Tell — a familiar setting for the man who made his name in the 1970s writing for England’s seminal rock publication NME, and a tale which isn’t lacking in autobiographical parallels.
Inspired to become a music journalist, because writing and music were the two things he loved most, and, as he says, “a music paper was the only kind of paper that was prepared to give me a chance”, Parsons embedded himself in the post-Hippy generation, personified by the rise of punk rock.
In his early career he followed anarchic enfants terrible like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, while not being averse to mixing up his musical tastes with the diverse sounds of David Bowie and The Who.
It was a mad time.
“The life I lived at the end of the 70s was 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – you can only do that for so long,” he muses. “I was glad to get out before I was 25, and happy to get out alive.”
There’s no doubt that for Parsons now, life at 50 trundles at a much slower pace than it did amidst the chaos of the 70s. But while it may lack the buzz of hitting the town every night, going to gigs and regularly breaking stories of obscure bands on the brink of success, it’s hard to deny that these former days have left him rich in experiences – ones which have sparked more than the occasional literary inspiration.
His latest offering puts the author’s bacchanalian history to good use, as he explains.
“Stories We Could Tell is as autobiographical as my other books, which means some of it is made up, some of it is almost as it happened, and a lot of it is exactly as it happened – especially the stuff about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s usually the most unbelievable stuff that’s true.”
Set in the summer of 1979 the book focuses on a hippified music journalist Ray; an aging rock star Dag Wood who cuckolds his friend Terry’s girlfriend Misty; and the Dagenham Dogs, a gang of violent groupies who follow the Sewer Rats, a band much maligned by a writer called Leon.
Set against the backdrop of the Silver Jubilee and Elvis Presley’s death, the lives of this disparate group become entangled and mutually explore the limits of their own freedoms.
While he says he writes with no real readership in mind, he thinks Stories We Could Tell will appeal “to anyone who knows what it means to be young”.
“The reason I started writing novels is that some themes and thoughts need a full-length work to explore them fully,” he adds. “It is my way of making sense of my world.”
So how has Parsons and his world changed over the years?
Well, while he is still true to his musical roots, the man’s tastes have broadened in the last three decades and now includes, blues, country and reggae, as well as rock and soul. He is inspired by the new British Ska explosion, in particular a band called The Beat, but laments the way the media today thrusts bands into the limelight before they are ready.
“In the past, a band – although this is also true for painters, writers, anyone doing something creative – would be ignored for a long time and given a chance to hone their style.
“That said, the UK is still a hotbed of creativity and I am constantly amazed at the number of great bands we produce.”
In spite of his years of rubbing shoulders and getting sweaty with many of the musical greats of the last three decades, he’s clear as to what his greatest life experiences have been.
“The birth of my son and my daughter passes everything else. And beyond the miracle of birth, the thing I remember most is seeing the Cormorant fishermen of southern China.”
In terms of reading, Parsons’ influences have changed over the years. He cites Ian Fleming’s James Bond books as favourites, age seven, JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye as a major influence as a teenager, along with the work of F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and puts Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as the best read of all time, calling it “a timeless love letter to freedom”.
Currently he’s reading Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, “to increase my understanding of those murderous bastards,” as he puts it. An apt choice considering how London was recently rocked by suicide bombers.
Paradoxically, some positive developments have spawned by the terrorist campaign, he says.
“At the moment everyone is united – I actually think that it has improved race relations here, because most sensible people know that the majority of our Muslim community hates the terrorists as much as anyone else – and of course there were Muslim victims among the dead of 7th July.
“I think it will go on for a long time, but London survived the German bombers, it survived the IRA and it will certainly survive these Islamic nut cases. If the history of London teaches us anything, it’s that Londoners cannot be bombed into submission.”
Parsons’ says the police response in bombings’ aftermath was “brilliant” and he much admires their “almost Sherlock Homes-type” detective work.
While this newfound respect for the boys in blue may seem strange for someone who lived and documented the excesses of the smash-it-up, brick-chucking anger of the 70s – stranger even than his plan to pen a love story– he still retains some of his Punk ethics – namely a deep disrespect for politicians.
“They all disgust me,” he says. “I have a problem with any kind of authority.
“I would have made a good caveman.”
Originally published in 2005