Bill Flanagan

Bill Flanagan

Bill Flanagan has chronicled the music scene in print, on television, in film and on radio so comprehensively and passionately that in 2013 he became the first non-musician to be inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, placing him alongside actual musicians and bands including Roomful of Blues, James Montgomery, George WeinTavaresJohn Cafferty and Throwing Muses.

And his induction made perfect sense. Despite his lack of instrumental chops and/or vocal prowess, Flanagan’s print and audiovisual contributions to the regional, national and international rock ‘n’ roll scenes established him as a major off-stage figure decades before the RIMHOF came knock, knock, knockin’ on his proverbial door.

For over 40 years, the Warwick native has been combining his encyclopedic knowledge of popular-music history, musicologist-level attention to detail and lifelong curiosity about everything related to music to provide invaluable insights into the singers, songwriters bands and behind-the-scenes players that have driven the music business. He’s has penned countless newspaper and magazine articles, written seven books and one screenplay, produced dozens of documentaries and currently hosts four music-focused radio programs.

Musical beginnings, Early career

Born January 14, 1955, Flanagan has been a voracious music consumer and ardent record collector since his years at Toll Gate High School in Warwick in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. While he was a student at Brown University, he worked part time at the Beacon Shops record store on North Main Street in Providence, keeping up to speed on the latest releases, devouring information on the back of album jackets and in liner notes as hungrily as the music itself and becoming the go-to guy for customers seeking the hottest, coolest, newest stuff available.

After graduating in 1977 from Brown, where he wrote for the Brown Daily Herald, Flanagan spent the next several years contributing stories on a wide range of topics including concert, album and film reviews to both the mainstream and alternative press including The Warwick BeaconThe Providence JournalThe Boston Globe and the Providence-based underground weekly The NewPaper. By the early ‘80s, he was writing almost entirely about songwriters, musicians and the music industry; by the mid-‘80s his interviews, profiles and features had been published in Rolling StoneThe New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York TimesGQEsquire and The Village Voice, among others.

When asked in a 2021 interview why he chose to concentrate on music, Flanagan said it was “a kind of natural selection process” based on public interest and basic economics. “My music writing got recognized, and my political writing and my movie reviews, all the other kinds of things I wrote, sort of fell by the wayside,” he said. “By the time I was pushing 30, the choices were you could cover the New Hampshire primary for $75 for an underground paper or you could go to Paris with Mick Jagger and get paid $1,000 by a New York magazine.”

Musician magazine, Written in My Soul, U2: At The End of the World

In 1985, Flanagan joined Musician, Player & Listener magazine, headquartered in Gloucester, Massachusetts, first as executive editor then as editor-in-chief before his departure in 1995. In those 10 years, he wrote three books: Written in My Soul (Contemporary,1986), a collection interviews with 28 songwriters including Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lou ReedVan Morrison and James TaylorLast of the Moe Haircuts (Contemporary,1986), a review and analysis of The Three Stooges’ influence on pop culture and entertainment; and U2: At the End of the World (Delta, 1995), an elbow-to-elbow account of when he tagged along with the band on their Zoo TV world tour in 1991.

MTV, VH1, Viacom Group, Documentaries, CBS News

In 1995, Flanagan moved from a full-time job in print media to one in television when he became editorial director and executive producer at MTV Networks, then senior vice president of VH1 and executive vice president of Viacom Music Group before leaving in 2015. During that time, he produced the series VH1 Storytellers (including episodes starring James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt), CMT Crossroads (on which Taylor, Raitt and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler appeared) and Stop/Watch. He also oversaw VH1 specials featuring Garth Brooks, Paul McCartneyBruce Springsteen and Prince, co-produced VH1 Save the Music’s “Concert of the Century” (held at the White House in 1999) and worked on VH1 LegendsVH1 Archives and Hotel MTV.

In addition to various MTV and VH1 projects, in 2000 Flanagan produced the documentary The Beatles Revolution for ABC, then the movie Elvis Lives for NBC in 2016. In 2001, he became a regular essayist on CBS News Sunday Morning, and in October that year he co-produced The Concert for New York City, a star-studded benefit show held at Madison Square Garden in October 2001.

A&R, New Bedlam, Evening’s Emprire, Fifty in Reverse

During his 20 years at MTV/VH1, Flanagan wrote three novels: A&R (Random House, 2000), a story revolving around debauchery and double-dealing in the recording industry; New Bedlam (Penguin Press, 2007), about a fictional family-owned cable television company in Rhode Island; and Evening’s Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2010), a look at the rather dark underbelly of the music business from the perspective a once-successful rock band.

Since leaving Viacom Music Group in 2015, he’s written one more, Fifty in Reverse (S&S/Simon Element, 2020), about a 65-year-old man who wakes up in 1970 as a 15-year old boy in Rhode Island. The book includes a number of nostalgic local references such as “WPRO, the station that reaches the beaches.”

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, Audiobooks, SiriusXM

In 2020, Flanagan wrote the screenplay for the documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, a chronicle of Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, presidency and beyond that featured Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers, Linda Ronstadt and Roseanne Cash, among others.

Also that year, he produced Audible’s best-selling audiobook Breakshot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor, on which the living legend recounts stories about his first two decades in the music business and plays some songs. Flanagan has produced two other Audible projects, one featuring singer-songwriter-actor St. Vincent (née Annie Clark), who discusses her years attending Berklee College of Music, and another about Smokey Robinson, who talks about his childhood in Detroit and his nearly seven-decade career.

Flanagan currently hosts four radio programs, all broadcast on SiriusXM: Flanagan’s Wake on Tom Petty Radio; The Fab Fourum and Northern Songs on The Beatles Channel; and Written In My Soul on VOLUME, where he interviews an extensive range of tunesmiths – “career-spanning conversations about creativity, influences, accomplishments and challenges,” he calls them – while taking phone calls from listeners.

“Genuinely interested in music”

Asked in 2021 about how he was able to gain access to some of the world’s most influential songwriters and musicians for interviews as a budding rock journalist in the early ‘80s, Flanagan credits his fundamental fascination with and excitement about music itself. “The main thing is that I’m genuinely interested in the music,” he said. “I mean, that’s really what I care about. It wasn’t a strategy. It’s just that I cared about it, so I just kinda hit it off with a lot of musicians, I suppose. There was no plan to it.”

(by D.S. Monahan)


Published On: March 10, 2023