I was very saddened this week by the news that music writer Johnny Rogan had passed away. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his biographies set a standard of quality and thoroughness that other writers can only dream of achieving. I first encountered his work when I chanced upon Starmakers and Svengalis, which is now one of my favourite books ever about the music industry. Not only did he tell amazing stories in that book, but writing it also required him to be familiar with complex court documents and financial statements, as well as the lives of the people he profiled. There are very few writers with the ability to draw on that many different types of sources and to spin them into compelling tales.
Rogan immersed himself in his book projects. He spent more than a couple of years writing many of them, but the results never read like the output of a single-minded and narrowly focused obsessive – even in books that were several hundred pages long. He wrote for a general audience, and drew the reader in with his calm tone and his even perspective. I’m not a huge fan of the Smiths, but I read Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance all the way through because it was so well-written and the characters were so interestingly portrayed. While some of Rogan’s biographical subjects were not happy with how he depicted them, he was apparently never sued for getting the facts wrong.
Rogan’s first book was published in 1980, and his most recent one came out in 2017. In a world where authors are now expected to be public personalities as well as writers, he was an anomaly, and proudly so. He didn’t have a website, he didn’t have any social media accounts, he never owned a mobile phone, and he even resisted having his books issued as eBooks because he didn’t like the format. While he occasionally gave interviews to promote his books, the interviews were more about the books than they were about him. He preferred to keep a low profile and focus on the work. The most extensive interview with him that I’ve seen is this one, a discussion with a fellow Byrds fan, in which he offers some insights into his working methods and his perspective on writing.
Rogan has left a tremendous legacy of thoughtful, well-reasoned and thorough biographies – all the more remarkable when he was chronicling lives in an industry based on hype, illusion, and theatricality. I feel fortunate that I discovered Rogan’s work at the time I was starting to find my own way as a writer, because I learned so much from how he wrote – and I still do, every time I open one of his books. Rest in peace, sir.