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A Conversation With Tony Fletcher

Tony Fletcher

Since he was a teenager Tony Fletcher has had a serious passion for music. At first it led him to create and run a fanzine during the epicenter of the punk and post-punk movement. As an adult this passion grew, spurring a move to New York where he established himself as a distinguished music journalist, DJ and band manager.

In addition to writing for several publications, Fletcher has penned biographies on The Clash, Keith Moon, REM and Echo & The Bunnymen. His latest book, All Hopped Up & Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-77, is by far his most ambitious writing project to date.

As Fletcher bops and hops from club to club, weaving seamlessly from genre to genre, we discover not only his love for music but his excitement in discovering new sounds echoing from the past of the city he loves so much.

Written with perfect pitch and pacing All Hopped Up & Ready To Go begins with the Depression era rise of Afro Cuban jazz and Cubop and ends with the beginnings of hip-hop and the apex of the punk rock movement. The book takes the reader on a musical journey through the boroughs, bars, backstreets, nightclubs that has made New York arguably the most vibrant and significant musical city in the world.

Rob Levy: In your book you have covered the music scene in New York from 1927-1977, a broad swath of time. Which of those five decades that you covered do you think you have gone away the most interested in?

All Hopped Up & Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-77

Tony Fletcher: I would say probably the earlier decades. Writing about the early days I was genuinely nervous about taking on material that I didn’t know enough about but I really wanted to tell the story. I got really fascinated particularly by the story of the of the Cuban crossover and just how integral New York City was. Afro Cuban jazz really had its birth in New York City and Cubop had its birth in New York City and for that matter Bebop had its birth in New York City. I was very nervous even mentioning the jazz word because there’s already so much about it. I think I found an angle to write about and I came away feeling like I learned something and hopefully I’ve shared some of what I’ve learned.

RL: When you read the book you don’t get so burdened down with the back-story of jazz that you can move on.

TF: That was deliberate. It goes back to what I just said I thought that if I explained anything about the history of jazz lots of people would jump all over me. It’s just not worth going there. By starting in 1927 we’re in the midst of this really cool jazz age. Jazz is America’s most popular music. Lets take that as a given and see what happens next. You know one thing actually that I thought hadn’t been covered enough was the Cuban movement in jazz–people like Mario Bauza, who is the first character I introduce. I’d open up books on Latin music and they really wouldn’t touch upon American jazz. I scratched my head because it is self evident that between Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bauza, and Charlie Parker these guys were interacting all the time. There weren’t books that covered this crossover. I’d like to believe I go at a little bit of a different angle on that and that I’ve been able to tell a story that hasn’t been widely told in that regard.

RL: On your website you mentioned that the book took five years to write.

TF: It was a five-year project. I wouldn’t have been able to live off the advance over those five years. This has taken me longer than anything I’ve worked on.

RL: When you do a five-year project like this, do you come away at the end of the project finding that it has changed you as a music journalist?

[ad#rightpost]TF: I don’t know to what extent it has changed my writing style. I went into it willing to put in the extra mile to try and write something more than a biography of one artist; by taking on the biography I realized I was probably taking on a mountain that I may not possibly be able to climb. So the subject matter was that much deeper then anything I’d done before. I think I came away with a greater understanding of how these musical forms interplay. All the books I have written have tended to be about scenes. The Keith Moon book came out of a scene, REM and Echo & the Bunnymen really came out of regional scenes. I find all of that stuff extremely exciting. I find the nature of music scenes to be a very exciting thing. None of them ever happen in a vacuum. There’s a reason hip-hop was born in the South Bronx. It couldn’t be born anywhere else. It was very similar to the early days of disco. Equally similar about the vocal groups that were coming out of Harlem and the Bronx even though that was happening in other cities as well. You kind of keep tracing the story back and back. So I’d like to think I came away with a greater appreciation for the overall arc of the musical history and a little less focused on one specific group or one specific scene.

RL: How did you go about doing research on the early part of the book? It seems like that would be the most difficult part of writing the book.

TF: You obviously go out and interview people where you can find them. During the very early chapters the chances of having somebody alive who was doing anything of note in 1927 are slim to none. So unfortunately that takes care of live interviews. So you spend an awful lot of time in the library and New York City fortunately has a fantastic library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street with microfilm and old newspapers. Similarly the Lincoln Center Library has newspapers going all the way back. The Internet is a mixed blessing. This is the first real in depth book I’ve written since the Internet took off. When I did the Keith Moon book I probably found a handful of people by email. But most people were not using email.

During this book it was a Pandora’s box. You would try to get the answer to a question and by searching for it online you would find ten more questions and ten more answers. The next thing you know you would literally have sixty web pages open and they’ve got four different answers to your original question. None of which seem definitive. You sit there ready to scream because now you are more confused then ever. That’s kind of why some parts of musical history get repeated incorrectly. Because it is easiest to go with the conventional wisdom and repeat the legend even if the legend is not the truth.

You do a lot of legwork. You try to talk to other historians. You read their books. You try to check in with them if you can and ask if it is okay to check a fact with them and you do the very best so that when you publish the book you can stand by your research.

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