THE READING ROOM: Fan and Promoter’s Memoir Is Ode to Music’s Power to Connect
What if the young William Miller — the lead character in Almost Famous — didn’t grow up to be a rock writer but ended up becoming a lawyer, but a lawyer who couldn’t leave behind the music that shaped him? That person might turn out to be Alec Wightman, a corporate lawyer with, as his bio reads, “a passion for music that has burned brightly throughout his life and propelled him through three decades of promoting concerts and a deep involvement with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where he served as board chair.”
Wightman’s new book, Music in My Life: Notes from a Longtime Fan (Small Batch Books), is, as the subtitle indicates, a fan’s notes. As such, the book is pretty much what you’d expect from a fan sharing his memories of his favorite artists, albums, songs, and shows over the past 50 years, and as such, it can be tiresome. There’s not as much insight or reflection as you’d hope, and the book sometimes reads as a collection of loosely connected episodes in the highlight reels of one fan’s life. On the other hand, though, Wightman tells a great story, and his passion for music and connecting people through music — fans and artists, fans and fans — has never died. He’s never self-aggrandizing, but he gives the artists the stage, sharing the gifts they bring in song. We also get to see his behind-the-scenes activity as a promoter and his work in introducing artists to audiences eager to see and hear their favorites or waiting to hear new artists.
In the first part of the book, Wightman breezes through his youth and the first time he heard rock and roll. When he was 10 and living in Euclid, Ohio, he listened to Cleveland Indians games on his transistor radio. One night he heard Dion’s “The Wanderer,” and his world opened up. “He, and the song, spoke volumes to me,” Wightman writes. “Melodically. Rhythmically. But especially lyrically. As if it were custom-made for me. A ten-year-old kid in Euclid, Ohio, somehow connecting with a twenty-one-year-old Italian-American from the Bronx singing, ‘I’m the type of guy who will never settle down …’” From then on, Wightman was immersed in rock and roll, listening to Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity” — a favorite — Sam Cooke, and then, in the mid-1960s, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals. By the early 1970s, he’s drawn to singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne; by the 1980s he’s not finding much rock he likes so he gravitates to country music.
In another part of the book, Wightman shares stories of his time as a promoter. In 1995, he forms Zeppelin Productions Inc., and over the past 26 years he has promoted shows in music venues in the Columbus, Ohio, area, including Columbus Music Hall, Columbus Maennerchor, Grand Valley Dale Ballroom, Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza and Live Music, and Natalie’s Music Hall and Kitchen. One of his favorite acts is Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. While he hosted Robison in 2009, he “harbored a special desire” to get Willis to play Columbus, but Robison told him she never played outside of Texas. That changed the night the husband-and-wife duo agreed to play the Maennerchor in 2018, which also happened to be Robison’s 45th birthday. After the show Wightman invited the couple out for dinner; Robison went, but Willis stayed behind “to take advantage of her first chance to be alone, take a hot bath, and relax in years.” In 2018, Willis came back to play at Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza: “I had the pleasure of introducing Kelly to a hundred or so Music Fans rather than the thousands Faith Hill was probably playing to somewhere that evening. I can guarantee you, I know who was … the best.”
In a final part, Wightman chronicles his work on the board of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but the stories of who’s-sitting-at-whose-table and what musicians he meets in the elevators run into one another like bumper cars. If the book were a good meal, the Hall of Fame section would be like a rich dessert it’s hard to enjoy fully because the rest of the meal has been so satisfying.
The best, and most memorable, part of the book comes in the prologue. With the fervor of a fan, he names the reasons why many of us listen to music in the first place and why many of us love one little note or some piece of music or some band so much that it hurts. As Wightman writes: “[F]or me, it starts with a song, and a well-written song creates connections in so many ways: through its lyrics and melody, through its rhythm and rhyme.” He elaborates: “[R]ock & roll connects us with our emotions … rock & roll connects us with people; it creates a sense of community, bridging ages, races, genders, and nationalities … rock & roll connects us to friends, old and new … rock & roll connects the fans and artists.”
Music in My Life may be uneven, but it gives a peek into one man’s stories about living his dream of connecting with the artists he loves, connecting those artists with their fans, and bringing music to as many listeners as he can.