Charles M Young: 'Rolling Stone' writer who was the first to write about the British punk movement for an American audience


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The Independent Online

At the 1979 Christmas party thrown by Rolling Stone magazine, Charles M Young, one of the publication's star writers, who in a long 1977 article had introduced an American audience to the Sex Pistols, was seriously drunk.

Thus fortified, and armed with a bullwhip, he went looking for Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone publisher and owner. Finding his boss with Hunter S Thompson, he wrapped the bullwhip around Wenner's neck and began to squeeze it tightly. At this point Thompson kneed him in the groin, and Young collapsed on the ground, gasping. "Chuck has a problem with authority," said Wenner, as they left him writhing on the floor. A minute later, Thompson returned, apologising to Young: "Chuck, I didn't mind that you were going after Jann, but that look in your eyes made me feel that I might well be next. So I had to go pro-active and take you down."

Unsurprisingly, Young did not last much longer at Rolling Stone. But after a time Charles M Young – known to his friends as Chuck – stopped drinking altogether, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and led a local chapter whose "higher power" was decreed to be Elvis Presley.

Young never took himself excessively seriously. A very funny man, he seemed to permanently carry a wry grin, which would be reflected in his often hilarious writing: following Jungian analysis, in which he fought to make sense of having grown up the son of a rigorous Presbyterian minister, he wrote under the byline of The Reverend Charles M Young. "Chuck had a very good, dry and wry, almost English sense of humour," said his friend, the writer Vic Garbarini.

After completing his English Literature degree in St Paul, Minnesota in 1974, Young worked in a sheet metal factory to earn money for his course at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. At Columbia he became the winner of Rolling Stone's first national college writing competition: his prize was a job on the magazine, which had recently relocated from San Francisco.

Kicking against Rolling Stone's West Coast leanings, Young was the publication's first champion of punk rock. In August 1977 he flew to London, writing "Rock is Sick and Living in London", a hilarious cover story about the Sex Pistols. Becoming a regular at CBGBs, the Bowery punk club, Young was soon writing definitive articles about the likes of the Ramones, Television and Patti Smith. Always ready to broaden his scope, a reflection of his catholic listening tastes, he would also profile such Rolling Stone staples as Carly Simon, who lived to regret conducting the interview while breastfeeding, Jimmy Page and Jerry Garcia – "Bring Me the Head of Jerry Garcia" was a notable song in the set of his group Iron Prostate, which featured on drums his close friend Timothy White, another Rolling Stone stalwart.

It was at White's suggestion that, following his dismissal from Rolling Stone, Young began writing for Musician magazine, under the editorship of Garbarini. "It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship," said Garbarini, who shared his droll humour. "He wrote for me regularly from then on till I left the editorship in 1985 – and it was the greatest rock writing I had ever seen." Garbarini took Young with him when he edited the music section in Playboy, and the pair stayed there for 17 years. After taking up an associate editorship at Musician in the early 1990s, Young quit after a year.

"One day in the mid-1990s," said Garbarini, "he told me he had called Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. To Wenner's surprise, Chuck apologised for his behaviour – he told me regardless of what Jann or anyone had done, he had acted badly, and for his own growth he owed Jann an apology. Jann asked if Chuck needed work: Chuck said, no, he just wanted to say he was sorry. Wenner must have been moved – he kept after Chuck to write again for Rolling Stone, and Chuck eventually gave in."

Although in 2006 Young wrote a very funny profile of Jerry Lee Lewis, waiting for hours as "The Killer" watched re-runs of Gunsmoke, and providing phonetic transcriptions of Jerry Lee's speech, his subject matter became largely more serious. Now Young's subjects would be the likes of Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader; energised by the powerful spirit of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, he wrote a long article, "The Sluts Shall Lead Us: Before, During and After the Deluge on the Brooklyn Bridge". "I haven't been this excited since 1972," he said.

"Though a powerful, tall guy, he was gentle and very humble about his work," said Garbarini. Eighteen months ago Young was diagnosed as suffering from a brain tumour. "During the year or more he battled cancer, people from all over showed up and took him to lunch, literally lined up to spend time with him. He would call and be amazed that what I'd told him was true: he was a hero to so many writers and readers, and he hadn't been forgotten. He told me that he had 'no complaints'."

Charles M Young, writer and journalist: born Waukesha, Wisconsin 6 February 1951; died New York City 19 August 2014.