While time travel and body switching plots are common in books and films, few have ever waded deeply into musical territory. In Bill Flanagan’s new novel Fifty in Reverse (Tiller Press), 65-year-old Patrick Wyatt goes to sleep in 2020, but wakes up as his high-school freshman self in 1970 – and possessing all that 2020 knowledge.
That includes knowing by heart a thousand songs that haven’t been written yet from “Stairway to Heaven,” “Born to Run,” and “Smoke on the Water” to “Little Red Corvette” “Every Breath You Take,” and “School’s Out.” Which he starts “writing” himself.
How Wyatt tries to convince his disbelieving parents, a psychiatrist, and friends of his situation while taking advantage of this Musical Crystal Ball—and deciding whether he wants to “stay” or return to his own 2020 family—is the crux of the Flanagan (and Wyatt’s) journey. In this 1970, the Beatles aren’t broken up and the Vietnam War is over. And then there’s that unrequited high school crush that Patrick could have a do-over with…
The idea, Flanagan says. Literally came to him in a dream. “Like most people, I have these dreams where I’m back in college and didn’t study for the exam or are late for class,” he remembers. “About 15-20 years ago, I had one where I was in high school and couldn’t get myself out of the dream and convince anyone I was a middle age man with a wife and kids. And in the dream, they told me that part was a dream!”
Writing here and there, what he thought would be a short story grew into a short novel. And in the process discovered the one piece of advice he would give his own 15-year-old self. “I’d say don’t blow it!” Flanagan laughs. “This is a guy in the story who wants to get back to his real life because he likes it. I didn’t want to write about someone going in the past to correct their failures. But of course, everything he does changes things up.”
As expected, the book is riddled with music references, but not only of the “big names” of the era. Record crate diggers will smile as Flanagan name checks more obscure ’70s acts like Klaatu and Edison Lighthouse. And while one might think that Flanagan would be the ultimate record geek—like there are comic book or sports geeks—his reaction is surprising.
“There are the statisticians who know how many issues the Silver Surfer ran or someone’s batting average or who played bass on the fourth track of the second side of a certain album, and that’s a collector’s mentality. But I personally don't get it. It’s baffling to me.” he says. “Those who keep their comic books in a plastic bag or have 17 versions of the Beatles Help! album because a Korean pressing has two more seconds on the run out groove of ‘The Night Before.’ That’s not for me.”
As a novelist, Flanagan has penned music-inspired books like A&R and Evening’s Empire. As a music journalist, he’s had bylines in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Esquire. In television as an exec at MTV Networks for 20 years, he oversaw the VH1 Storytellers and CMT Crossroads shows, co-produced the 2001 Sept. 11-memorial The Concert for New York City, and still occasionally comments on music matters for CBS Sunday Morning.
He’s also all over the SiriusXM radio network hosting shows including Written in My Soul and The Fab Forum. And most recently, Flanagan was the writer on the just-released documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President.
In the former, his easygoing, conversational approach goes deep with superstars like Paul Simon, Bono, John Fogerty or Ray Davies. “There all people I know pretty well, so a lot of it is me calling in favors!” Flanagan laughs. He says his outstanding memory comes from his talk with Pete Townshend, who was funny, loose, and discussed how he felt he was responsible for making Doc Martens a go-to rock and roll accessory.
“He told the story of when he want to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with the Who, and was wearing this caftan. He felt like an idiot and couldn’t pull it off like Brian Jones or Jimi Hendrix did,” Flanagan says. “So later when he was on tour in the north of England in Leeds, he just got himself an industrial jumpsuit and industrial boots and that was his uniform from then on.”
Flanagan adds that the Who was also the first act to sign on for The Concert for New York City, originally as the headliner for an hour. But when names like Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones and David Bowie joined, things got altered as egos and running orders and set times had to be meticulously addressed.
The Who’s manager, though, insisted his act still play for an hour and close the show. In a sly move, Flanagan went directly to Townshend – calling him at home – and got what he wanted.
But those four songs and 25+ minutes of the Who have been cited by most as the absolute highlight of the show. “It was the greatest rock and roll performance I’ve ever seen. The roar in that arena with the cops and the firefighters…you couldn’t even hear John Cusack introduce the band. It was pandemonium,” Flanagan remembers.
Sensing that it couldn’t go bigger, Flanagan shrewdly scheduled the next act on the bill, James Taylor, to play a much quieter but-no-less-impactful “Fire and Rain,” which also held great significance around 9/11. “People argued against it. They thought James would get slaughtered going on after the Who, and some didn’t even want him to do the song with the line ‘Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground,’” Flanagan says. “But it was perfect. All that energy and emotion and roaring with the Who suddenly turned into tears and people holding up pictures of their loved ones.”
As for the Jimmy Carter film, Flanagan says working on the project with director and friend Mary Wharton was a “joy.” And while he knew the story of the connections between Jimmy Carter and so many musical acts like the Allman Brothers Band, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, he was eventually convinced that many didn’t. And he treasures the time spent interviewing the former President. He also learned that Elvis Presley was somehow a distant cousin and would call the White House looking for favors “all the time.”
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Releasing a book during a pandemic, of course, means that Bill Flanagan can’t go on a planned author tour, but he’s thankful it’s out there anyway. And after having great success with James Taylor’s Audible-exclusive audio memoir Break Shot: My First 21 Years, he’s got similar projects in the pipeline with Alanis Morissette, St. Vincent, and Sheryl Crow.
Finally, music consumption, of course, has changed dramatically in the last few years with streaming services. Any teenager (or otherwise) can not only pull up a song by any given artist, but all the songs they’ve ever recorded. Flanagan sees both pros and cons to this instant and complete access.
“Well the con is that it doesn’t seem as precious. You don’t have to take three buses to get to the weird record store in the African-American part of town and dig through crates. But the positive is that someone who’s interested can just go down a rabbit hole,” he says, using his own son as an example.
“An interest in Tom Petty led him to the Byrds, which led him to Gene Clark’s solo work – some of it only released in Europe,” he says. “That trail then led to Dillard & Clark to the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jackson Browne. Which led him to…James Brown! So that’s a real positive!”