Elvis Costello writes the foreword for this memoir from the music PR legend Barbara Charone, and I have to smile when he praises it for capturing her “unmistakable voice”. Charone worked at WEA Records for nearly 20 years, before setting up the independent PR company MBC – still active today – with Moira Bellas; along the way representing Madonna, REM, Guns N’ Roses, Foo Fighters, Rufus Wainwright, Rod Stewart and many more. As for the voice, most who’ve worked in the music industry (I was on NME for a while) will be acquainted with Charone’s signature booming rasp, and how – warm, friendly, but also formidable – she protects her starry clients like Cerberus at the gates of Hades. However, as detailed in this entertaining memoir, there is more to her than that.
This is the woman whom the Financial Times dubbed “the closest thing the music industry has to Alastair Campbell”. As recounted here, pre-Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant gave her the nickname “BC”, back when he was deputy editor of Smash Hits. Wainwright, whom she once managed, wrote the song Barbara about her. Initially a music journalist in first her native US, then the UK, she worked for everyone from NME to Rolling Stone magazine. Then there is her fabled bond with Keith Richards: when Charone wrote Richards’s authorised autobiography, the famously guarded guitarist tossed her the keys to his West Sussex retreat, Redlands (scene of the infamous 1967 Rolling Stones drug bust), so she could write it there.
Stephen Stills ‘seemed to have a chip on his shoulder so big it was a surprise he could get into the room’
In memoirs such as these, early high jinks can be a yawn – get to the famous people and the juicy stuff! – but I enjoyed Charone’s evocative account of her music-mad youth in Glencoe, Illinois. Aged 11 when the Beatles “invaded” America in 1963, she morphed into a confirmed anglophile, loving the Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, but also Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell et al. It is in the early 1970s, when Charone settles for good in the UK, first in music journalism then PR, that you sense an already eventful life revving to full-throttle.
I was initially concerned that a book from a PR would be dry on anecdotes. Certainly, you’ll search in vain for dirt on longtime client Madonna, though it’s still interesting to read about how a young La Ciccone “danced like Bob Fosse himself was pulling the strings”. Elsewhere, it’s rock’n’roll à gogo, not least with Charone’s own behaviour. Her nonchalant mentions of drugs almost pass for punctuation in what is, after all, a rock’n’roll memoir. At one point, she airily announces: “I must confess by now that I had developed quite a fondness for cocaine.”
In the late 1970s, Charone was with Keith Richards in Canada when he was awaiting trial for heroin found in his hotel room, at one point accompanying him on a day trip to Niagara Falls, where he quipped: “Shall I jump?” Elsewhere in the book, there’s aggro with the Eagles, watching Lou Reed intimidate journalists, playing air guitar to Pete Townshend, and a “nasty” journalistic encounter with Stephen Stills: “[He] seemed to me to have a chip on his shoulder so big it was a surprise he could get into the room.” As buoyant as Charone seems, there are also notes of sadness. She is hurt not to receive a personal message from Michael Stipe or Mike Mills when REM changed publicists after 25 years. It’s Charone who confirms to Mark Ronson that Amy Winehouse has died.
What’s missing? Save from bits about her immediate family, personal colour is scarce. And for all the access all areas backstage vibe – Charone has interesting industry observations on artist management, the changing tides of media access – I could have taken more. She points out that female music critics were extremely rare in her day, dismissed by security guards as groupies: “They couldn’t understand why a woman would come backstage for any other reason.” Later, she wryly notices important record company jobs going mainly to men. Again, I would have liked more about that aspect of being a woman, albeit a forceful one, in a man’s world. All in all, though, what a “voice” and what a read.
• Access All Areas: A Backstage Pass Through 50 Years of Music and Culture by Barbara Charone is published by White Rabbit (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply