The annals of rock music journalism are filled with outsized personalities like Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh and others. They tended to be opinionated writers with national magazines, keen to rile things up. Less recognized in this field are the countless other music scribes who work for local or regional publications, welcoming bigger acts into town while also promoting the local scene.
Notable among this second group is Washington, DC-based Michael Oberman. He wrote a weekly interview column for the old Washington Evening Star from 1967-73 (his late brother Ron did the column for the three years before that) and interviewed many of the great rock, blues and soul artists during that classic epoch, and many of them before they really took off.
Oberman’s newly released book “Fast Forward, Play, and Rewind” collects many of those music columns with personal reminiscences and background narrative of meeting (and seeing in concert) such an array of pop music luminaries during this heady era. He watches the first moon landing backstage with members of Blind Faith. He has an interview with Peter Townshend cut short so the Who leader can catch Jimi Hendrix at his residency crosstown at the Ambassador Theatre, leaving Oberman there to do his reporter’s duty and check out headliner Herman’s Hermits! (Don’t worry, Michael caught Jimi earlier that week). The columns, though short pieces of 400-700 words, can sometimes reveal some fascinating interview tidbits, like the quirky details of the Cowsill’s ramshackle “Munster-like mansion” in Newport, RI just before hitting it big.
Pete Townshend in a D.C. hotel room, 1967 (Photo by Michael Klavans)
These pieces, though they are the snapshots in time they can’t help but be, are weighted down a bit by the fact they contain a lot of info that has long passed into rock fans’ common knowledge: like being told the personnel of The Doors. Wisely, Oberman intersperses these old columns with his “Musings” feature, newly written memoir-like mini-chapters on his experiences in the biz as well as his boyhood experiences. In the latter category, there are fun tales of youthful hijinx (his brother Ron’s good buddy was Carl Bernstein of “All the President’s Men” fame) and discovering great local music in the DC area. This includes the club scene in the Georgetown district and bands like the British Walkers, which featured a young Roy Buchanan, the blues guitar great. In the former, there are intriguing detours down the side lanes of the rock ‘n roll landscape. Oberman managed the Claude Jones band who not only played a Halloween gig at a mental hospital but also played host in 1970 to the notorious Medicine Ball Caravan travelling freak show at their shared home deep in Virginia redneck country.
Jimi Hendrix outside the Baltimore Civic Center (Photo by Michael Klavans)
My favorite part of the book, and the most pertinent in light of the recently-released movie “Stardust,” is the author’s retelling of the story of David Bowie’s first day in America, which the soon-to-be-superstar spent with Oberman’s family in Sliver Spring, Maryland. Michael’s brother Ron Oberman was by then a publicist for Mercury Recoords, Bowie’s US label. He had already met the singer in England and David had requested that he would like to spend the first night on his stateside publicity tour with a true-blue American family. Oberman’s father was a manager at the National Bohemian Beer Co. and Bowie asked for his business card as a memento. The card is what he’s holding in the picture below, sitting on the family sofa with Michael (on the left) and Ron in the middle.
Many thought that Bowie, in this much-circulated photo taken by Oberman’s mother, was holding a joint and not, innocently enough, her husband’s business card. (Oberman Family Archive)
Ron Oberman, who died in Nov. 2019 after a long struggle with fronto-temporal dementia, had a long and accomplished career in the record business, later moving on to Columbia and MCA where he helped launch Bruce Springsteen, the Bangles and others. His role in helping Bowie introduce himself to America was significant enough to make him the co-protagonist of “Stardust.” Michael Oberman is polite but steadfast in his dismay that the producers cast 56 year-old comedian Marc Maron to depict his brother (who was 27 at the time) as a “small-time publicist” instead of the director of publicity for Bowie’s label, which he was. The film producers didn’t take advantage of an actual participant in this event and finally told the surviving Oberman brother that they were going for more of a “buddy movie” (how original) centered around a cross-country road trip that never happened.
But you know that Hollywood will goes its own way, even if its the wrong way. “Stardust” (which didn’t get the rights to use any of Bowie’s music) is harvesting the bad reviews it probably deserves judging from the previews. If you’re more in tune with the folks who keep it real by the honest appreciation of pop music history that can only come from first-hand reporting, there’s a lot to like about Michael Oberman’s look back at this golden age of rock.
Michael has had a second career in fine-art photography and you can check that out, as well as finding a link for purchasing the book, at michaelobermanphotography.com