If you were a music fan in the 1970s and early 1980s, one of the few ways you'd get to hear about your favourite band’s new single or find out if they were playing near your town anytime soon was to buy Melody Maker or NME. Anyone who was a regular reader then would be familiar with the journalist and writer Paolo Hewitt. Others will have come to his work through his writing on The Jam, Paul Weller, Steve Marriott and Oasis, or will have read his book The Looked-After Kid, which examines the author’s own life growing up in a care home.
I had the good fortune to be able to sit down and talk with Hewitt recently at the Aspects 23 literature festival in Bangor. I’d planned to ask him about his critically acclaimed book The Sharper Word. Published in 1999, it is a compilation of essays by various writers giving personal accounts or articles they had written on the Modernism subculture from the late 50s to the modern day. It covers people such as publicist and The Who manager Pete Meaden and Mark Feld (better known as Marc Bolan), bands including The Who and many other ‘faces’ as well as the clubs, drugs and music.
The fabulous attention to detail of writers such as Nic Cohn, Colin Mcinnes, Steve Turner and Richard Barnes gives depth and weight to a movement that is sometimes regarded as shallow, pretentious and lacking in substance. In my discussion with Hewitt, I wanted to try to uncover something about the truth and the attitude underlying this enduring, truly British phenomenon.
The historical aspect of The Sharper Word is as vital as the subject itself, and Hewitt is an accomplished historian. His research into post-war attitudes and cultural change among young people argues that Modernism was as much a reaction against the establishment as it was an excuse to get some ‘kicks’. A new sense of freedom and disconnection from the past was as important as the desire to break away from tradition. Looking different to their parents, listening to new music performed by the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and going to places where ‘squares’ didn’t go, and didn't even know about.
The Sharper Word was to form the backbone of the discussion, but instead, over nearly two hours I ended up quizzing Hewitt on his career, his upbringing and his feelings about the times he lived and worked in. I sensed a man whose ambition, combined with a little bit of good luck along the way, had landed him his dream career in possibly the best time to be doing what he loved doing.
Our conversation was punctuated with great stories about Marvin Gaye, Run DMC, the great Stevie Marriott, Glam Rock, Thatcher’s Britain and Acid House. But it was his personal journey that was most inspiring; his determination to succeed without ever looking for pity. Few people other than his closest friends knew of his childhood. Hewitt is blessed with a natural sense of curiosity and a deep understanding of what it meant to be young, an outsider and alone; and this was the most interesting aspect of the interview. Sure, his life with the rich and famous provided many great stories, highs and lows and probably a few scars.
We never touched on his notorious bust-up with former friend Paul Weller and the subsequent publication of the warts-and-all Weller biography The Changing Man, though I sensed a feeling of nostalgia and regret when he talked about Weller’s former band The Jam, a band he truly loved and of which he had a rare inside knowledge (Hewitt and Weller are both from Woking in Surrey).
Yet I got the impression that maybe because of Hewitt’s upbringing and his past that he is happy living in the knowledge that friendships and relationships don't always last a lifetime and you have to move on. I also sensed a man who had aged gracefully, who had no desire to be forever young, to impress or be part of the crowd. I asked him what new music he listened to. ‘Radio 6,’ he said without a thought. ‘I like books more than records now.’ And when I asked what the term Mod meant to him now, he shrugged and looked at the roof. ‘I'm reading Moby Dick at the moment,’ he said, half joking.
Earlier that day, over lunch he'd told a great story about being asked to see a medium who had been in touch with the ghost of Stevie Marriott. Hewitt and his researcher, the ridiculously haired John
Hellier, reluctantly and a little cynically made their way to the medium’s nondescript house, where she told them: ‘Ok, Steve's here. What do you wanna know?’ Hewitt and Hellier had been working for more than two years on a book about the Small Faces and Humble Pie frontman’s life, All Too Beautiful, but given the extraordinary circumstances he found himself in, Hewitt couldn't think of a thing to ask. Eventually he spluttered out: ‘Steve, every picture I’ve ever seen of you in the 60s indicated that you were the best-dressed man of the time, so how did you end up looking so bad in the 70s?’
The medium gestured wildly indicating that she was translating some supernatural message, then stopped suddenly, looked directly at Hewitt and said: ‘He says look at the state of you, you scruffy little runt.’
Paul Stafford and Paolo Hewitt were in discussion at the Aspects 23 literature festival in Bangor on 27 September.
Recommended reading by author and journalist Paolo Hewitt
The Sharper Word
Steve Marriott: All Too Beautiful
The Looked-after Kid
The Beat Concerto
Bowie Album by Album
Paul Weller: The Changing Man