John Swenson, veteran of the early years of rock journalism at Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and later jazz columnist, died Monday at age 71 at his home in Brooklyn. He reportedly battled cancer for several years.
Swenson began writing about music in 1967 and became one of music journalism’s best-known signatures in the 1970s as he moved not only between Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, but also Creem, Circus, Zoo World , Rock World, Beetle, Sounds and Village Voice.
His musical writings later appeared in Spin, Musician, Saturday Review, UPI, Reuters, High Times, and Stereophile, among other publications. More recently, he was a contributing writer and editor for jazz publication Offbeat, writing frequently about the music coming out of his beloved New Orleans, where he had long had a second home.
Virtually everyone who amassed a rock ‘n’ roll book collection had Swenson’s name on the back of at least one book in their collection: the original “Rolling Stone Record Guide,” which he put together with Dave Marsh. He also edited “The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide”.
The most recent of his 15 books was “New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans”, about the heartbreaking aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published by Oxford University Press in 2011. Other books included biographies of the Who, of the Eagles, KISS, Bill Haley and Stevie Wonder.
The Rock’s Back Pages website contains a collection of 109 pieces by Swenson, ranging from a 1971 review of Who for Crawdaddy and the provocative title “Chicago: What Do You Think They’ll Call Their Seventh Album?” in 1973 to his coverage of Jazz Fest and associated artists like Irma Thomas for Offbeat in the 21st Century.
In an appreciation for the Jazz Journalists Association, writer and friend Ken Franckling described Swenson as “a mentor, colleague and friend to legions of his peers, and he had many of those, having worked for mainstream press and many popular music magazines for decades. He was an affable, non-judgmental presence — with a hearty laugh, a wild beard, and what he called the world’s largest collection of Hawaiian shirts. He never drove a car, but was always happy to drive a shotgun.
Swenson was also a sportswriter who covered the New York Rangers for 30 years, and he covered horse racing for the New York Post and the Daily Racing Form.
In a review on Myspiltmilk.com, friend and colleague Alex Rawls wrote, “John was among the first generation of music writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s who tried to find ways to write about rock ‘n’ roll that matched the energy, wit and rebellious nature of the music. He was not the stylist or the provocateur that some of his contemporaries were, but he built his career on a genuine and deeply felt passion for music and the people who made it.
The accolades and stories poured in on Swenson’s Facebook page.
“Perhaps my favorite story about John is the one he used to tell about being in the Aqueduct press box and having Mick Jagger on the phone for a Rolling Stone interview,” wrote Jennie Rees, racing reporter. “Jagger was impressed hearing the call of the race in the background. I would subsequently describe John as the only man to have interviewed Mick Jagger from a racetrack press room.
Writer Holly Gleason described him as a “ragged, brilliant, true at all costs writer who knew the music inside out and believed in writing well to be taken seriously and having a moral code to define you. “.
“Seeing him sing Cab Calloway style on his favorite songs was a joy,” wrote entertainment journalist Fred Schruers, adding that Swenson was “personally kind and supportive of so many people, including this then shoot.”
Music publicist Ken Weinstein wrote that “John was one of the elders who treated young people with kindness, respect, support and patience (usually).”
Critic Wayne Robins described him as “the only music journalist I know who can explain the Daily Racing Form, not that his advice ever helped Belmont.” Seriously, John’s valiant battle with cancer has added years, maybe even a decade, to his life, against odds longer than anything he’s ever done in a Daily Double.
In a 2012 interview with the San Antonio Current, Swenson spoke about the changes in music journalism since he rose to fame in the 1970s. “Serious journalists don’t get paid for their work like they used to.” , he added. “Unfortunately, we are getting to a point where being a serious journalist is something you have to do in your spare time, while you have a day job. … Downsizing only increases the pressure of deadlines on a writer and, like any craft writer, must weigh a delicate balance between speed and excellence. More pressure means more mistakes and less thought fully realized. Pausing to think shouldn’t be a luxury, but sadly it is. One of the benefits of writing online is that it can always be edited after it’s posted, but even then there needs to be time to go back and reflect on it.
Swenson did not believe it was advisable to write too much about the technical aspects of music, even in jazz publications. “I think it’s a real mistake for music students or musicians to get too involved in the technical part of what they’re writing (unless, of course, they’re writing for a technical journal), because the audience isn’t made up of musicians. So they won’t know what they’re talking about. And I see that a lot of times, especially with jazz writing, where the writing gets to the point where there’s too many technical issues discussed rather than aesthetic issues For the most part, the general public is interested in aesthetics rather than technical matters.
Swenson said in the interview that “probably my favorite writer in history” was the late New York Times critic Robert Palmer, “God rest his soul in peace. What a wonderful thinker. Now here’s someone who was a musician and understood the technical aspects of music, but also understood how to talk about music to a general audience and how to connect different styles through the differences between styles, he could talk about jazz, rock or hip-hop, because he was writing about early hip hop. He could relate pretty much any style to its root elements. Music is music.
Of young writers, Swenson said, “I think the biggest mistake young writers make is falling in love with their words. Writing is work, it’s hard work. I may have only known one or two writers in my life who were automatic, who could sit down and write and never have to revise” – and he cited Lester Bangs as one of them . But of this colleague, Swenson added, “Only Lester could write like Lester. I think it’s a big mistake to try to emulate that style. Everyone has to develop their own voice and Lester’s voice was perfect for its time. But I doubt Lester would still write like that today if he was still around. I knew him very well and I think he would have gotten tired of writing that way, personally.
Rawls wrote in his blog post, “I love John’s writing because he could do something that I can’t. Jean always wrote like a true believer. He treated great music as the product of great artists, and he wanted to help more people find and appreciate their art. His desire to shed light on people he felt deserved meant that even when he was feeling unwell and wanted to be reminded of his commitments, his friendships and the artists he believed in kept him writing. He felt obligated, as if no one would say what needed to be said if they didn’t, and it would be a travesty if they or their work didn’t reach a wider audience.
Of Swenson’s more recent legacy as a music writer in his adopted home, Rawls said, “There are at least a hundred musicians in New Orleans who have made experience of his deep belief in them and their music.
Swenson is survived by his wife Barbara Mathe and his brother Edward Swenson.