Journalist Charles M. Young produced some of the most trenchant and wryly hilarious music reporting of the late 1970s and early 1980s for Rolling Stone magazine, where he was hired as an associate editor in 1976 after winning the magazine’s first nationwide college writing competition a year earlier.
The results of his reporting forays during those musically fervid years included the first American cover story on London’s Sex Pistols, an introduction to the Ramones (“Their music– an amazing amalgam of higher energy, funnier lyrics and less command of their instruments than the New York Dolls'– derives much of its charm from the Ramones' instinctive understanding that great artistry can result from turning your liabilities into assets…”) and a notorious cover story on Carly Simon—who made the mistake of nursing her newborn infant throughout the interview.
Over the years, Chuck has interviewed Keith Richards, George Harrison, Don Henley, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies, Bruce Springsteen and myriad other giants of the genre. His record reviews, for Rolling Stone and later for the Atlantic and Playboy, were never less than insightful and fresh: “Mark my words: in three years, Van Halen is going to be fat and self-indulgent and disgusting, and they'll follow Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin right into the toilet.”
The long-suffering and rebellious son of a Presbyterian minister from Madison, Wisconsin, Chuck was known for his intense focus on his craft. Coupled with the fact that he wasn’t afraid to quote biblical verse in his stories, this earned him the fond nickname “The Rev” among his Rolling Stone colleagues and throughout the music industry he covered in those years. “No matter how far the prodigal sons travel from home, they can never quite leave church,” he wrote recently.
Although his formal job with the magazine ended in 1981, Chuck has continued to write for Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Musician and numerous other magazines. In 2008, he wrote for Men's Vogue about traumatic brain injuries occurring in Iraq, focusing on ABC’s Bob Woodruff, a journalist who suffered a brain injury while covering the war.
Chuck's feeling for the language frequently resulted in memorable turns of phrases with far-reaching impacts. In a piece for Playboy in the late 1990s, Chuck’s appreciation for the late Don Walser’s remarkable yodeling and exquisitely delivered cowboy vocals (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” etc.) led him to dub Walser the “Pavarotti of the Plains.” This memorable moniker revived Walser’s career, brought the singer international fame and resulted in a TV bio-pic of the same name.
Walser came to Chuck’s attention through an Austin, Texas punk band, the Butthole Surfers, for whom Walser occasionally opened. The Butthole Surfers soon joined the ranks of Chuck’s large circle of friends, camping out in his New York apartment for weeks at a time, and on one occasion painting his kitchen walls with profanities that remained there—in homage to the Buttholes—for several years.
After receiving a degree in English literature at Macalester College in 1974, Chuck worked in a sheet metal factory in Wisconsin to earn tuition money for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. There, he learned a great deal about the kind of journalism he realized he would never emulate. In 1975, when most of his J-school classmates were pleading for jobs at the Washington Post, he rented a postage-stamp sized room in a men’s boarding house in the then-down-and-out Chelsea neighborhood, an address from which Chuck planned to launch his Gonzo freelance writing career. With little care for money but a profound commitment to the transformative power of the written word, he was soon writing for the magazine of his dreams.
Chuck plays music as well as writes about it. In the early 1980s, he played bass for Iron Prostate, a band that made a modest splash in the Manhattan club scene. The band’s signature song was a punk version of Oh Danny Boy. Chuck still plays bass for the Schmoes, his high school band from Madison, which regales the class of 1969 at every Memorial High reunion with songs like Louie Louie, Ninety-Six Tears and anything by the Kinks.
Chuck’s years of covering music in clubs like the CBGB have taken a toll on his hearing; his long-time e-mail address includes the phrase “tinnitus,” and he once confessed that the only music he could bear was Mozart’s. But in recent years, he has in fact studied early Delta blues guitarists and the California guitar great John Fahey, spending many an hour finger-picking on his mellow-sounding Taylor 12-string.
In 2010, Chuck joined J-school friend David Lindorff’s online journalism “collective,” an anti-capitalism, anti-racism website called This Can’t Be Happening. Chuck was energized by the emergence of Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and wrote several posts about the event. He hailed the Slut Walk and reveled in the anarchist ethos in Zucotti Park—even after one youthful demonstrator, suspicious of Chuck’s neutral bearing and busy pen, accused him of being an undercover cop.
In recent years, Chuck has been writing a series of profiles for Rolling Stone about legendary R&B singers such as Solomon Burke (“King Solomon’s Sweet Thunder”); Burke, who had ninety grandchildren, called Chuck his “ninety-first,” which Chuck noted “…was the nicest compliment I ever got.” Chuck was struggling with a piece about Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) last year, when in February—on his 62nd birthday—he learned he had a malignant brain tumor.
Here are a handful of Chuck's Greatest Hits for Rolling Stone, with thanks to Nathan Brackett, music editor at Rolling Stone and a good friend of Chuck's:
The Ramones Are Punks and Will Beat You Up (August '76)
Kiss: The Pagan Beasties of Teenage Rock (April '77)
Rock is Sick and Living in London: A Report on the Sex Pistols (October '77)
Parliament/Funkadelic: Apocalypse Now! (April '78)
Johnny Ramone: The Last Ramone (October '04)
|Chuck Young, May of 1975 at Columbia University, NYC|
photo by Hillary Johnson