Bill Flanagan

Longtime music industry insider Bill Flanagan is a busy man these days. In addition to satellite radio shows on Sirius/XM and his Sunday morning gig on CBS, the retired MTV executive and Warwick native has a new book out as well as a new film about to be released. I spoke to Flanagan last week to get the scoop on both projects and learn a little more about his career in the music business.

“I’ve got a film coming out in a week or two,” noted the RI Music Hall of Fame member. Officially credited as Writer, Flanagan helped develop that film Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President, conducting the interviews with numerous contributors.

“My friend Mary Warton, the Director, with whom I did a lot of projects at VH1, came to me about three years ago with this film idea that she and Chris Farrell, the Producer, wanted to do about Jimmy Carter and music. I told her everybody already knows that his campaign was funded by the Allman Brothers, and he’s pals with Dylan and best friends with Willie Nelson. And they said, no that’s the point, people don’t know about it.”

Flanagan continued, “That began a two and a half year odyssey of spending time with both President Carter in Georgia and talking with everyone from Andrew Young and Madeline Albright to Bob Dylan and Jimmy Buffett about Carter – and of course talking to Carter about all of them. His life, his view of the world, was shaped by gospel music, by jazz, by the Church music he grew up with and how that gave him a different view of America and race relations compared to a lot people born in Georgia in the 1920’s.”

As mentioned, Flanagan spoke with Bob Dylan for the film. I wondered how he approached the interview, knowing that the reclusive music legend could be a difficult subject.

“Well, you know, it’s always holy cow, that’s Bob Dylan when he walks in the room. But once you start talking to him, and I think this is true with anybody, including presidents, once you get past the idea that they’re a famous person, who’s picture you’ve seen a million times, they become a person for the length of the time you’re in the room with them, you’re simply having a conversation with someone.”

He continued, “I’ve said this to other people who have asked me about how to interview Dylan. Just listen to what he says, and don’t hit him with a lot of theories, just ask him a direct question. If there’s a rule to interviewing Dylan and there’s probably not – the longer the question you ask him the shorter the answer you’ll get; the shorter the question you ask, the longer the answer you’ll get, so ask some short questions.”

Flannagan has interviewed numerous celebrities over the years, he shared some additional insights.

“The most fun people to interview because they’re just so incredibly articulate, and they’ll go anywhere, are probably Joni Mitchell and Pete Townsend (The Who). Almost any music writer will say that if you sit down with Townshend, or if you sit down with Joni, just turn on the tape recorder and bring plenty of extra tape because you’re going to be there for quite a while.

“They don’t seem to have the deception button, they don’t seem to have the ‘switch’ that says maybe I better not say this – they’ll just tell you the truth. Townshend says whatever comes into his head – he’s incredibly bright, he’s incredibly articulate, and he likes an argument. You know, if you hit him with some softball questions, he’ll pick a fight with you. That just makes for exciting reading.”

Meanwhile, Flanagan’s new book, Fifty in Reverse, will be released September 1. It’s a story about a 65-year-old man who wakes up one morning in the body of a teenager. The novel is set in Rhode Island in 1970 and includes a lot of nostalgic local references (WPRO, “the station that reaches the beaches”). Flanagan explained how he got the idea for the book.

“Well, like many people, I have these dreams where I’m back in college, and I haven’t studied for my finals, or I’m in high school and I can’t remember my locker combination. I think we all have some version of that.  A while ago, I had an incredibly vivid dream, a nightmare really, that went on and on and on, in which I woke up and I was 14 or 15 years old. I went downstairs and my mother was cooking breakfast, my father was reading the paper, and my brothers and sisters were getting ready for school.”

“I was aware it was a dream and I was walking around the kitchen, looking at everything. My father said, why aren’t you dressed for school? And I said because I’m having a dream that I live in the 21st century, I’m a grown man, I have a wife and kids, and I’m enjoying this dream that I’m back in my childhood. He said, well, it seems to me you probably had a dream that you were a grown man in the 21st century, had a wife and kids, but right now I don’t want to have to drive you to school, so get dressed and get on the bus.”

“I went to the bus stop. I got on the bus, and I began to panic. I began to think, is it possible that I’m stuck here? Have I had a stroke and something happened to me that I can’t wake up. Eventually I did wake up, and I tried to tell my wife about it, but nobody wanted to hear it. But if stayed with me. I thought, what would you do if you just find yourself stuck in the past, even if you knew it was impossible. You had no way of proving it to anyone else, and it became something. I just fiddled with it, it became kind of like a doodle that takes over the whole tablecloth.”

I just kept writing for my own amusement, really. It began as kind of a short story and just kept growing. I didn’t have a contract for it and didn’t show it to anyone. I was just kind of doing it for fun. About a year ago, I just realized this thing is done. This is now a complete book and I should probably either lock it in a draw or try and sell it. I sent it to a couple of editors I knew who responded favorably and said, yeah, we’ll put it out.”

The book, filled with frequent classic rock mentions and a spirited ambience, is set in Rhode Island, with numerous local references.

The dream was in Rhode Island, and when I began writing the book, I was going to set it in Pennsylvania just because that always seems to me like the most purely American place, Ohio or Pennsylvania.  But then I wondered, why would I do that? I don’t know anything about Pennsylvania. I’ll probably have everything wrong, especially Pennsylvania 50 years ago. So I thought, just set it in Rhode Island, and then at least you have the physical environment right. You wouldn’t have people go to the beach in a place with no ocean front.”

It’s a great read, and highly recommended, especially for RI natives. We’ll have a review soon on Look for my review of Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President soon too.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.