Imagine your life’s work as a journeyman, traveling with and chronicling the endeavors of some of the most influential men and women in the history of pop culture. That’s essentially the life of David Dalton. A founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine, he’s also earned distinction as a New York Times best-selling author.
He’s penned the life story of James Dean, ventured to Las Vegas to document the comeback of Elvis Presley and traveled to England to write a book on The Beatles.
The award-winning writer discovered parallel journeys for not just his subjects but himself as well. James Dean, for example, reminded Dalton of former teen idol Paul Anka.
“I always say James Dean was the Abraham Lincoln of adolescence: He freed the teenagers. They were anonymous. Then James Dean came along and identified them as the core character of American culture.”
In the same way, Anka was like the Pied Piper, only musically magnetic.
Dalton’s latest book, “My Way,” charts Anka’s journey. For subject and author, music was the yellow brick road to success, albeit one mined with sex and drugs. Anka was never seduced by the some of the fatal temptations that took many of those he met along the way. But it was a ride nonetheless. One pit stop that became a pitfall for some was Sin City.
When the singer-songwriter – best-known for hits like “Diana” and the iconic Frank Sinatra anthem “My Way” – met Dalton in Las Vegas to discuss the book, they reminisced about the city then and now.
“We spent the afternoon with (casino mogul Steve) Wynn and he told us a bunch of stories about Vegas in the ’60s,” Dalton says. “He told me, ‘Paul is the last of the Rat Pack. He’s the last person from that scene.’”
Anka, who called himself a Rat Pack mascot, knew that Las Vegas was fertile ground for legends.
It was a city run by gangsters, flooded with booze and celebrated for a glittering parade of icons ushered in and out of town, a place that held a particular mystique that Dalton describes as beautiful and ominous. Now, he says, it’s a mature version of Disneyland, no longer veiled in luminous mystery.
Dalton is no stranger to the lures of Las Vegas. He traveled there in the late ’60s to write about Elvis. “The King” had a comeback on the Vegas strip and Dalton described his arrival in Rolling Stone magazine.
“As you drove in from the airport, the giant neon billboard for the Showroom Internationale flashed, ‘Elvis Now (in Person)’ in 20-foot letters of solid light.”
Presley was Vegas personified, Dalton says, larger and louder than life.
While Las Vegas proved to be the place for memorable shows, New York City was the mecca for music and opportunity. Dalton says it drew Anka out of his cocooned existence in his hometown of Ottawa, Canada. The singer told Dalton that as a teenager in the 1950s, he was so determined to get to New York that he made it happen by collecting the most Campbell’s soup can labels to win a trip.
Anka returned to the city a short time later, Dalton says, and signed with ABC records.
“If you think about it, it was absolutely preposterous. A 16-, 17-year-old kid went to New York wanting to be a pop star and did it.”
Dalton, a resident of upstate New York, also embraced the city, which proved to be a launching pad for him as well. Through his work at Rolling Stone magazine and immersion in the world of rock ’n’ roll, he met Derek Taylor, the publicist for The Beatles. Dalton says he escaped from New York to London to avoid the drug culture here and found not only solace but the opportunity of a lifetime.
He and fellow Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott wrote the only book ever commissioned by the group, “The Beatles Get Back.”
“That was at Abbey Road and part of it was at the Twickenham Film Studios.”
The group was filming a documentary as well as creating another musical masterpiece. Dalton says he was a gofer at first, running both legal (and illegal) errands for members of the Fab Four.
“I was there and got the opportunity towards the end of that trip. Those were great days.”
Traveling along the path of musical success paved by The Beatles, Anka and Presley, Dalton unearthed story after story. He found reminiscing about Anka’s travels while writing and researching the book to be a way to recall his own escapades.
Anka talked about how The Beatles put him out of the music business. The tsunami that was the British invasion redefined radio and music in general. Every musician was affected. But the savvy Anka took his music to Europe and even wrote a No. 1 hit in Italy in that country’s native tongue.
One day Dalton hopes to write a book about his own journey that has spanned as many continents as generations, from The Beatles and Abbey Road to the newly integrated South with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, on his black private jet, which Dalton says he called “The Sex Machine.”
Dalton says he looks forward to documenting the next chapter, echoing the Anka credo: “I’ve always believed that if you don’t keep moving, they will throw dirt on you.” n