Bill Flangan: Listen Closely

Back in the day (2010 or so), there were two reasons why I sought to be promoted to SVP at MTV News: Business Class Travel (back and forth to LA in one, comfortable day!), and Bill Flanagan.

Bill was a celebrated contributor to Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Spy, before joining Musician, and ascending the masthead. In 1995, Bill joined MTV Networks. In his twenty year tenure as a Programming Executive, Bill invented VH1 Storytellers, CMT Crossroads, and many, many more series and specials that helped fans go deeper with their favorite artists. Today, Bill is a CBS News Commentator, Sirius radio host, author of six books, husband and a father.

Somehow, I reasoned, a new job title would grant me the seniority to cold call Bill, visit his office, and, pepper him with questions about how he managed to be a programming executive and author. How did he make the time? Did he wrestle with art vs. commerce? And what is Bono really like?

Now that I know Bill, I know he would have welcomed me whatever my title. But I got the promotion, sent the email, and rode that elevator bank up to Bill’s piece of Viacom’s 1515 Broadway Headquarters.

Before I’d settled into one of the twin cub chairs beneath his beneath fully-loaded, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, he asked, “So which do you want to hear first? New Dylan? Or U2.” 

New as in: just mixed, unmastered. 

A few years later, I rode shotgun with Bill from Pensacola, Florida, to Gulf Shores, Alabama, windows wide, Kings of Leon blasting the whole way. For a guy who’s fallen asleep beneath Moroccan stars with Bono, it was tame stuff. For me, it bore a whiff of William Miller.

In Bill’s most recent book, “Fifty In Reverse,” our 65-year-old protagonist Peter Wyatt, wakes up in his 15-year-old life.

I asked Bill to do the same. We covered everything from his childhood in Warwick, Rhode Island, first backstage interview (Springsteen), and last collaboration (Jimmy Carter). 

“It’s powerful,” he told me, “when you get over the notion that the people on the album covers and the movie screen, or who write the books, are living on some other planet that you can never get to.”

Rolling Stone was a salve for my adolescent angst. I hung on every issue. And in cover story after cover story, a rock star welcomed a journalist into his hotel room, sprawled on a couch, and inevitably overshared about whatever affliction, trauma or adversity shaped them and their music.

I identified with the rock star: wounded, melancholy, and irrepressibly expressive. I became the journalist who moonlighted as the rock star. 

I felt like neither. Worse, I felt outside both.

Bill reminds us that we’re all the same: bold faced names and backstage fans alike. We’re no more alone in our misery or melancholy than we are in our ambition or aspiration.

Everybody hurts.

And everybody wants to rule the world.

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