Rock n’ roll, drugs, and a little bit of journalism: The life and career of Tony Parsons
It’s safe to say that Tony Parsons has had a life that can’t be replicated.
From humble beginnings as the only child of working-class parents to covering the rise of punk rock and writing George Michael’s biography — and so much more — he’s seen a career trajectory that was unheard of in his heyday, and even more so now.
After four years of unprecedented travel rearrangements due to Covid, Parsons was finally able to sit down with FCC Second Vice President Tim Huxley over a glass of wine and talk about his life. Along with him at this one-of-a-kind Club Dinner — an unorthodox yet successful event — were copies of his latest novel Who She Was.
Parsons first talked about why he became a writer. As a young child, he took boxing lessons from his “tough guy” father and read Rupert the Bear stories with his mother.
“I just fell in love with stories, I just fell in love with the possibility of stories,” he said.
Parsons’ love for literature resulted in him publishing his first novel The Kids at the ripe-old age of 21. Although he admitted that as his earliest work, it wasn’t that good, but the book’s mere existence put him above his peers and led to his first true journalism gig at the New Musical Express (NME).
Punk rock was all the rage, and it was Parsons’ job to cover bands like The Sex Pistols, young guys who could have easily been his schoolmates. Occasionally he’d write stories about The Rolling Stones, fatherly figures in the rock n’ roll world who still found themselves behind bars every now and then after substance-fueled nights.
With concerts, parties, girls, music, and whatever writing he could fit in between all that mayhem, Parsons learned quickly that his new career wasn’t for the weak. He didn’t even receive any kind of formal training, he was immediately thrown out on the road without a lick of advice.
Instead of his editor or a senior journalist, it was Thin Lizzy’s lead singer Phil Lynott who sat Parsons down for a proper briefing before heading out on tour.
“Listen, it’s going to be quite rough the next few days,” Lynott began. “You’re going to be burned out really, really fast.”
Lynott also reminded Parsons that since they’re drinking vodka at breakfast, they’ve got to have it with orange juice for vitamin C, which will prevent them from getting sick.
Parsons, who just turned 70 during his week-long visit to Hong Kong, reflected on the wild antics of his early 20s and noted that it’s not sustainable if one wants to live a long life.
“I think they’re [drugs] always a dead end. If you’re going to do them, it’s got to be over by the time you’re 25. It’s not something you can do at a later age,” he said.
Ironically, Parsons left NME at age 25. He began freelancing, not simply for the freedom and breath of fresh air it provided, but also because his former employer wasn’t as well-connected to the rest of the UK’s journalism landscape — despite the fame and notoriety.
“As soon as you stepped outside of that world, nobody knew who you were. Nobody cared. Even the best of us were just kind of unwanted and unknown in this little, wild rock n’ roll world for as long as it lasted,” he said.
Eventually his freelancing paid off when he was offered the chance to write George Michael’s biography — by George Michael himself.
The offer came from Michael’s suspicion that there were at least seven or eight biographies already being written about him. He was just 25 years old at the time, and Parsons was a full decade older.
Parsons offered to do it later on when he had accomplished more in his music career, but Michael insisted they do it now and kill all the other “unauthorized” books. They struck a deal and shook hands on splitting the profit 50/50.
Michael’s lawyers didn’t like the deal. When Parsons brought up the issue, the singer-songwriter simply told him not to worry or even think about it anymore. Once the biography was released, Parsons received the biggest payday he ever had up until that point in his life.
“I saw the power of someone that knows what I’m worth,” Parsons said.
Despite remaining close to Michael for many years after the biography, Parsons eventually had a falling out with the celebrity after publishing an interview in The Daily Mirror. The piece was edited by none other than Piers Morgan, and Michael didn’t want his words to be filtered through such a divisive figure. Parsons maintained that Morgan was a fantastic editor, and although he and George Michael parted ways, he looks back at the singer with “enormous affection.”
Parsons’ freelancing days also birthed his first ever trip to Hong Kong.
While one of Parsons’ first Hong Kong experiences resulted in spending nearly all of his hard-earned cash on a night out in Wan Chai, the city’s toll on his wallet didn’t deter the writer from returning on and on throughout the years. The lights, action, beauty — and most importantly — his friends who stayed in Hong Kong for a lifetime are all what have enabled Parsons to say, “I’m on my 40th stay at the Mandarin.” To him, Hong Kong has a welcoming society that’s unmatched in other places.
“At any major city in the world, you turn up and everybody says ‘Who cares?’ You come to Hong Kong and people say ‘Join us.’ And I think that doesn’t get enough credit. I think that doesn’t get celebrated enough,” he said.
A handful of Parsons’ novels feature characters who have lived in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, and even not being able to travel to Hong Kong during the Covid-19 pandemic also inspired his most recent work Who She Was, a psychological thriller set in Cornwall.
But regardless of whether it’s a novel or his weekly column in The Sun, or if it’s on the road or at home, the bottom line is that Parsons is writing. And while it may seem that being a journalist and an author with two opposing writing styles may be difficult, he finds that they actually complement each other — especially if one doesn’t work out.
“I always felt that I couldn’t rely on just one,” he said and further added that he wished he could see other talented journalists take a stab at writing their own novels.
When asked about advice for the new generation of journalists, Parsons gave a surprising answer.
“I’d avoid journalism,” he said. “Being a journalist is like saying ‘I want to work for the British Empire.’ Well, you know, you’re 100 years too late.”
Still, Parsons added that modern-day social media and other new tools can pioneer the budding careers of young journalists. What transcends from his generation to the next, however, is the love and enthusiasm for writing.
But, his advice comes with the final warning that times have indeed changed, and there’s no way that the rock n’ roll debauchery that dominated the early days of his reporting career could ever be cloned.
“You have to find a way to make it [journalism] work for yourself and in your own time. Good writing will always be valued. If you want to do it, great. But you’re not going to be taking drugs with Debbie Harry, ok? Forget about it,” he said.
Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below: