Too Late to Stop Now: More Rock ’n’ Roll War Stories

  • By Allan Jones
  • Bloomsbury Caravel
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Charles Caramello
  • September 1, 2023

Assorted vignettes on the legends of vinyl.

Too Late to Stop Now: More Rock ’n’ Roll War Stories

An established and well-known British rock journalist, Allan Jones began as a writer at Melody Maker magazine in 1974, served as an editor there from 1984 through 1997, and “then launched Uncut magazine and for 17 years wrote a popular column…based on his experiences as a music journalist in the 70s and 80s, the legendary heyday of the U.K. music weeklies.” He has since produced two compilations of his columns from both Melody Maker and Uncut.

Comprising “revised, rewritten and remixed versions” of some 80 articles, the first collection, Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down (2017), as Jones describes it, was essentially “a fan letter…to the weekly music press.” Equally steeped in nostalgia, the recently published second volume, Too Late to Stop Now (TLSN) is more an elegy than an epistle, albeit a raucous one, for “the weekly music press as I remember it when it was still a bit wild out there,” a remembrance of things “of course, long gone.”

Jones’ stress on the “music press” in those comments, on rock journalism rather than on the principal stuff of most rock memoirs, “tales of long nights, fueled by booze and drugs,” is telling. Recalled here by rock stars, as well as by Jones, in the interviews and meetings behind his articles, tales of debauchery seem secondary to the interviews themselves. Ingestion of “too much coke and too much smoke,” for example, in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s apt lyric, occurs more egregiously in the interviews than in the tales recounted in them.

That strategy places TLSN squarely in its literary context: “New Journalism,” ascendent in the 1960s and 1970s and associated, notably, with Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and, most pertinent here, Hunter S. Thompson. Rejecting the role (and image) of the journalist as disinterested and detached observer objectively reporting events, the New Journalist assumed the mantle of invested and active participant-observer subjectively recording events as they were experienced. Accordingly, New Journalism also supplemented the recalled and witnessed events with their recalling and telling as themselves events.

While both of Jones’ books represent New Journalism, the articles in Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, following the format of Melody Maker, “were short, 1,500 words or so, history as anecdote.” Many of the 40 pieces compiled in TLSN, on the other hand, are lengthier and more fully developed. At their best, they combine Jones’ often intimate interactions with his interview subjects over time with the sodden interviews recounting them to create insightful portraits of individuals and informed histories of their bands.

Though Jones generally devotes only one short selection to each subject, he also offers, in some cases, either an extended article or even multiple articles on the same artist or group. He accords Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Chrissie Hynde full treatment, for instance, as he does the Police and the Clash. A piece on Lou Reed (1977) and two on John Cale (1983 and 1993) culminate in a quite long and robust exploration of “their dark alliance” in the Velvet Underground. These latter collectively form, in my opinion, the author’s best writing.

Considerably more detailed and nuanced than “history as anecdote,” in other words, many of the offerings in TLSN aspire to and achieve the deceptively serious end of contemporary portraiture and historiography. They do so, moreover, not only despite Jones’ extreme flippancy — a flippancy most clearly attached to his shrewd takes on individuals — but also, paradoxically, because of it.

Jones has wit, skill, and a sharp blade that he can use for gentle cuts — Bob Geldof “is someone…for whom extortion in the public good not so long ago became virtually a way of life” — or more often for deeper slashes: Elton John “has the look of a pampered boy dressed by his mother for a party”; Ian Anderson “and people like him” behave like “swooning French aristocrats…on their way to the guillotine”; and Sting, portrayed as an obtuse egotist in 1972, reappears briefly in 1984 as a selfish and regal egotist who “sweeps” into a room, “a Sun King with an adoring entourage.”

More enjoyable when hospitable, Jones proffers Joe Cocker this beau geste: “Let’s leave him…as we found him, with a drink in his hand and a room full of laughter, looking back at the dark times he had been lucky to escape.” He introduces Hynde with a gimlet eye for nuance, “nudging 50 and comfortable with it, sitting somewhat primly in a suite at a private members’ club north of Oxford Street, dressed for business in a pinstripe suit and a shirt sprouting frills at the collar and cuffs.” And he finds Robert Plant in 2007, in perhaps the book’s most fulsome portrait, having moved on with acceptance, wisdom, and joy from megastar frontman of Led Zeppelin to brilliant collaborator with the likes of Alison Krauss. 

Ideal “collected” or “selected” compilations aspire to be wholes greater than the sum of their parts, usually through rigorous culling and thematic organization. Most, however, neither attempt nor achieve such organic unity. One of the latter, TLSN organizes its articles in simple chronology and makes no effort, despite later revision, to impose upon them thematic cohesiveness. At the same time, it enjoys the virtue inherent in all compilations: Parts can be read — and here are best read — in short bursts in any number or order.

TLSN, put differently, shines as a series of sketches assembled in a physical book but not as a coherent one. Stylistic tics, for example, such as countless imaginative but flamboyant metaphors extended a few beats too long, excessive reliance on the historical present tense, and ubiquitous variations of “fuck” pose no problem in columns read independently and weekly. But when encountered repeatedly in a long sitting, they can become grating. Happily, nothing prevents the reader from enjoying these offerings independently or even, if the fancy strikes, weekly.

Caveat lector. Early boomers hungry for a 60s fix will not find it here. Jones wrote his pieces for the subsequent generation and has compiled them for generations twice or thrice removed. Autochthonous heroes like Cocker do show up, but in mellow post-1960s incarnations. In a notable exception, a shaggy-dog tale of a hungover search for an open bar at a Stones concert, Jones lands this punchline:

“What are they like? Absolutely fucking blinding. Exactly as billed on the ticket. The greatest rock’n’roll group in the world.”

[Editor’s note: We had to look up “autochthonous,” too.]

Charles Caramello is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, VA.

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