John Swenson, a veteran of the early years of rock journalism at Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and later a jazz chronicler, died Monday at his home in Brooklyn at the age of 71. He is said to have fought cancer.
Swenson began writing about music in 1967 and became one of the most famous headlines in music journalism in the 1970s when he was torn between not only Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, but also Creem, Circus, Zoo World, Rock World, Beetle, Sounds and The Village Voice switched.
His music later appeared in Spin, Musician, Saturday Review, UPI, Reuters, High Times and Stereophile, among others. More recently, he has been a writer and editor for the jazz publication Offbeat, writing frequently about the music emanating from his beloved New Orleans, where he has long had a second home.
Virtually everyone who has ever amassed a collection of books on rock ‘n’ roll has had Swenson’s name on the spine of at least one book in their collection: the original Rolling Stone Record Guide, which he put together with Dave Marsh. He is also the editor of 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 soul-shattering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published by Oxford University Press in 2011. Other books included biographies of the Who, the Eagles, KISS, Bill Haley and Stevie Wonder.
The Rock’s Back Pages website contains a collection of 109 of Swenson’s tracks, ranging from a 1971 review of Who for Crawdaddy to the provocatively titled “Chicago: What Do You Think They’ll Call Their Seventh Album?” 1973 to his coverage of Jazz Fest and associated artists such as Irma Thomas for Offbeat in the 21st Century.
In an appreciation of 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 them, having worked for mainstream news services and many popular music magazines for decades.” He was an affable, non-judgmental presence – with a hearty laugh, untamed beard and what he called the world’s largest collection of Hawaiian shirts. He’s never driven a car, but he’s always liked to ride a shotgun.”
Swenson was also a sportswriter, covering 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 that appeared on Myspiltmilk.com, friend and colleague Alex Rawls wrote, “John was among the first generation of music writers in the late 1960s and early ’70s to try to find ways to write about rock ‘n’ roll matched the energy, spirit and rebellious nature of the music. He wasn’t the stylist or provocateur like some of his contemporaries, but he built his career on an authentic, heartfelt passion for music and the people who made it.”
Praise and stories poured into Swenson’s Facebook page.
“Perhaps my favorite story about John is the one he tells about being in the Aqueduct press box and getting Mick Jagger on the phone for a Rolling Stone interview,” wrote racing publicist Jennie Rees. “Jagger was impressed when he heard the race call in the background. After that, I would say John is the only guy who has ever interviewed Mick Jagger from a racetrack press box.”
Fellow writer Holly Gleason described him as “a ragged, brilliant, true-at-all-costs writer who knew music inside out and believed that to be taken seriously one had to write well and have a moral code that defined one”.
“Watching him ditty-bop to his favorite Cab Calloway-style tunes was a delight,” wrote entertainment journalist Fred Schruers, adding that Swenson was “personally kind and supportive to so many, including this kid at the time.” “.
Music publicist Ken Weinstein wrote that “John was one of the elders who (usually) treated the boys with kindness, respect, support and patience.”
Critic Wayne Robins described him as “the only music journalist I knew who could explain the Daily Racing Form, not that his tips ever helped Belmont.” Seriously, John’s valiant battle with cancer added years, maybe even a decade, to his life, despite greater odds than he’s ever played in a daily double.
Rawls wrote in his blog post, “I love John’s writing because he could do something I couldn’t. John always wrote as a true believer. He processed great music as a product of great artists and wanted to help more people find and appreciate their art. His desire to shed light on the people he believed deserved meant that his friendships and the artists he believed in kept him writing even when he was not feeling well and wanted to back down on his commitments. He felt obligated as if nobody would say what needed to be said if he didn’t, and it would be a farce if they or their work didn’t reach a wider audience.”
Of Swenson’s recent legacy as a writer on music in his adopted homeland, Rawls said, “There are at least a hundred musicians in New Orleans who have experienced his profound belief in them and their music.”
Swenson is survived by his wife, Barbara Mathe, and his brother, Edward Swenson.
https://variety.com/2022/music/news/john-swenson-dead-rock-journalist-writer-jazz-rolling-stone-1235219168/ John Swenson is dead: The pioneering rock journalist and biographer was 71 years old