David Dalton, the early writer for Rolling Stone chronicling the rock scene and bringing first-hand knowledge to his biographies of rock stars for living the wild life with them, died Monday in Manhattan. He was 80.
His son Toby Dalton said the cause was cancer.
Since the 1960s, Mr. Dalton has shown a knack for being where cultural moments and developments took place. Before he was 20, he hung out with Andy Warhol. In the mid 1960s he photographed the Yardbirds, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits and other rock groups that were part of the British Invasion. He was backstage at the Rolling Stones’ infamous 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway in California. He was hired with Jonathan Cott to write a book to accompany a boxed release of The Beatles’ 1970 album Let It Be. He traveled with Janis Joplin and James Brown and spoke to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys about Charles Manson.
As his career progressed, he turned to biography writing, helping celebrities to write their autobiographies. His books included Janis (1972) about Joplin, revised and updated in 1984 as Piece of My Heart; James Dean: The Mutant King (1975); and “Who is this man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan” (2012). Among the autobiographies he helped her subjects write were Marianne Faithfull’s Faithfull: An Autobiography (1994), Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back (1999), Steven Tyler’s Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? ‘ (2011) and Paul Anka’s ‘My Way’ (2013). He collaborated with Tony Scherman on Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (2009).
Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith Group guitarist and author who collaborated with Mr. Dalton on the 1977 book “Rock 100,” said that early in his career, Mr. Dalton was among a group of authors who took a new approach to coverage the music scene.
“In those days of rock journalism, there wasn’t much of a divide between writers and artists,” he said in a phone interview. “The authors strove to create the same kind of artistic lighting that they wrote about.”
“David was very kind with a lot of people,” added Mr. Kaye, “and I think that helped improve his writing style. He had a way of taking on the personality of the person he was writing about.”
Mr. Dalton’s wife of 44, Coco Pekelis, a painter and performance artist, said that Mr. Dalton got into writing almost by accident. He had read that in 1967 Jann Wenner started a new music magazine, Rolling Stone, and began sending in some of the band pictures he had taken.
“He was photographing groups like the Shangri-Las and Jann wanted captions,” Ms Pekelis said via email. “So David started writing. And wrote and wrote and wrote. I asked him the other day when he knew he was a writer and he said as his captions got longer and longer.”
Mr. Dalton assessed his extensive body of work in an unpublished autobiographical sketch and explained how his work had changed over the decades.
“When I wrote rock journalism, I was younger,” he remarked. “I was involved with the scene as it happened and unfolded. I went everywhere in no time. I started writing about the past when I hit my thirties and have lived there ever since.”
John David Dalton was born on January 15, 1942 in wartime London. His father, John, was a doctor and his mother, Kathleen Tremaine, was an actress. His sister Sarah Legon said that during German air raids, David and a cousin who grew into actress Joanna Pettet were placed in baskets and sheltered under a staircase or taken to the Underground, London’s underground system, for protection.
David grew up in London and British Columbia – his father was Canadian – and attended King’s School in Canterbury, England. He then joined his parents in New York, where they had moved, and he and his sister became Warhol’s assistants, Ms. Legon said, and helped him edit an early film, Sleep. In 1966, Mr. Dalton Warhol helped design an issue of Aspen, the multimedia magazine that came in a box or binder with various paraphernalia.
“When I came from England in the early 1960s,” wrote Mr. Dalton in “Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol,” “I encountered Pop Art with the same excitement and joy that I experienced when I was first introduced to it heard the blues. I was fortunate to meet Andy Warhol early in his career, and through his x-ray goggles I saw America’s brazen, bizarre, and manic underworld of advertising, supermarket produce, comics, and kitsch, all leading to a garish, teeming, erupting superficial life.”
During the mid and late 1960’s and early 70’s, Mr. Dalton spent time on the East Coast, West Coast and in England rubbing elbows with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others. In California he spent time with Dennis Wilson, who he said once expressed his admiration for Charles Manson.
After Manson was charged with some brutal murders in 1969, Mr. Dalton began investigating the case for Rolling Stone with another writer, David Felton.
“Like most of my fellow hippies,” he wrote in an unpublished essay, “I thought Manson was innocent and convicted by the LAPD of being a peace-and-love hippie.”
His thinking changed when someone in the DA’s office showed him photos of victims of Manson’s followers and the messages written in blood at the crime scenes.
“It must have been the most terrifying moment of my life,” Mr. Dalton is quoted as saying by Joe Hagan in Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (2017). “That was the end of the whole hippie culture.”
Mr. Dalton also wrote about Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Little Richard and others for Rolling Stone. By the mid-1970s he had moved on and was focusing on books, although still employing his full-immersion approach. For El Sid: Saint Vicious, his 1997 book about the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, who died of an overdose in 1979, “I actually started hearing Sid’s voice speaking to me,” he wrote. David Nicholson, who reviewed the book in the Washington Post, found it compelling.
“The story has a certain hypnotic quality akin to watching someone stand in the path of an approaching train,” he wrote. “The writing is consistently graceful and intelligent, even when it catches the eye.”
Mr. Dalton once described his biographical technique thus:
“Essentially, you distill your subject into a literary solution and sort of get high on it. After that, you need brainwash and have your brain rewired.”
Mr. Dalton lived in Andes, NY. His wife, son and sister are his only immediate survivors.
Mr. Kaye said Mr. Dalton was both present at and part of a sea change.
“It was a fascinating time,” he said, “and David was one of our key cultural spokespersons.”