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Northwestern University

Anthony Bozza

Boswell to the Stars

Anthony Bozza has always read the fine print. He was a nerd in childhood, or so he says. An only child, he spent much time in his room reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy and poring over its Elvish language glossary at the back. When he became enamored of music in fourth grade—Debbie Harry and Pat Benatar at first—he read the backs of their albums for the credits—who played what, where they recorded—and wondered what a music studio could be like.

At Northwestern, he dove into the study of history with a similar passion when Ivor Wilks, the famed British Africanist, fascinated him with firsthand accounts of the Ashanti in Ghana. His first big career break came when Rolling Stone magazine hired him as an unpaid intern. “I loved writing history papers,” he told us. “Essentially what I started doing at Rolling Stone was writing history papers, just about music.”

Now it is the public that reads his print, fine or otherwise, in the four best-sellers he has had published since 2002. Nerd no more, the easy-going, engaging author counts as friends the subjects of his books—rapper Eminem, rock stars Tommy Lee and Slash, and comedian Artie Lange. In an interview over brunch near his Greenwich Village home, it was easy to see how the 38-year-old author has won their trust. Bozza is empathetic and comfortable in his own skin. He laughs a lot, often at himself. He’s not afraid to show you his “warts” if you’ll show him yours. Here, in his own words, is a story about the storyteller.

Where did your love of music come from? Are you a musician yourself?

I used to play piano and guitar really badly. It’s pathetic for me to say that I play anything. I understand how they work. I play the radio pretty well.

My love of music started early. When he was younger, my dad sang the high notes in a Doo Wop group; he still has the 45s. When you’re driving with him, he goes for the Frankie Valli part, even if it’s not in the song. Like any teenager, music became my thing. I was obsessed with The Who in 5th and 6th grade; then it was heavy metal like Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin and classic rock, then punk rock. I had Bauhaus and The Cure posters all over my room, so I had a teenage Goth phase—embarrassing but true. I dressed in black, baggy clothes, like Robert Smith of The Cure, but without the lipstick and high hair.

How did a Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised guy like you get to Northwestern?

I am lucky in that my family took me traveling a lot, early. (My dad is a doctor and my mom did management training for retail stores and banks.) I wanted to be in a part of the country I wasn’t used to. You might ask, why Chicago when you like the beach and sun? California was a little far for my mom—you know, the only child thing. I loved Northwestern from the second I was on campus. The school’s reputation stands for itself and I was really excited when I got in.

Who were your favorite teachers?

I took a class with Ivor Wilks. And I thought, “This is what college is for. I have a chance to talk to this amazing British guy with an incredible wax mustache, who’s lived with this ancient tribe of Africans in Ghana and written a book about it.” I totally got hooked and my concentration became Africa and the Middle East. Ivor was a huge inspiration. I took all of his classes until there were no more.

The resources at Northwestern were great. The [Melville J. Herskovits] Africana Library is the biggest outside of Africa—and I thought, “I have to do that.”

I also had a great [assistant] professor of African literature, Olakunle George, who’d been a writer himself in Africa. It was an independent study. You’d have hour-long conferences and just talk about your paper and the book you’re reading. I learned a lot about writing and storytelling from him.

You lived in Colorado and skied, then did photography for a time after graduation. How did your writing career happen? 

I had absolutely no clue what I was going to do. I started to get mushy-brained and bored so I came back to New York and moved in with my parents, which, after living independently, was a total inspiration for me to get my act together. Then I applied for internships and started living with a cousin in, like, a closet.

There are two events which made my career. One was Kurt Cobain killing himself. When he did that, Rolling Stone needed interns really quickly to work on a memorial book. I had actually missed their deadline to apply for a magazine internship, so my resume was on top and I got a phone call to work in the books division. It was a much more indirect route to getting on staff in the magazine, but I got to interview people at that very early stage, while the magazine interns were making copies all day.

The other was Eminem’s music video. A friend had sent me a tape of him rapping live on the radio in L.A. and said, “You have to hear this kid.” I became obsessed with him, followed what he was doing, and started bugging my editors at Rolling Stone a year before he got his record deal. I was the up-and-coming hungry guy. When he got signed, they were going to let me do a really short story about his music video. Then they saw how many records he was going to sell his first week and told me, “You’re going to Detroit with him. It’s your first cover story. Go.”

So it really was that I was just there from the beginning and he knew that I loved his music and understood him. We were delayed on this long flight to Detroit in the winter and were sitting next to each other the whole time talking about our parents and everything. If I had met him at a different time, when he was more famous and had started limiting access to himself, I wouldn’t have developed that friendship. It was the perfect time before his whole star machine was in place.

The cover story eventually led to your breakthrough book about the rapper. Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

It’s the book I’m proudest of. I remember getting the book deal and looking at the word count I had to turn in and thinking, okay, I’ve written seven Rolling Stone cover stories and some long features. This is like 20 Rolling Stone cover stories in a row on the same subject. And I just had a complete freak-out for three weeks and couldn’t write. It was do or die time. It was my first book. I didn’t have a job at the magazine or a guaranteed pay check anymore. So I felt that pressure and I just did it. It took four and a half months, start to finish. It was 18-hour days. I was killing myself.

But in that book I said a lot of things I wanted to say about pop culture in America and race relations and music. I don’t think there’s another music celebrity who warrants that kind of treatment. Eminem is one in a generation. He’s as hip hop as any black rapper who ever lived. But only when he, as a white guy, told his story of a broken home, dead-end jobs, and the rest of it—through the movie 8 Mile—was white America able to relate to hip hop at all. Suddenly, critics in middle American papers were writing about hip hop as the voice of a new generation as if it had just come to be. My book made a statement as to what this sudden shift in perspective said about American society as a whole.

How do the demands of your writing career affect your personal life?

I’m married now but that book signaled the end of a relationship. It’s just as well because I handed the book in and got the Tommy Lee contract two weeks later. And I lived in his house and barely came home for eight months. That was a good time not to have any attachments.

I met my wife when she was being photographed for a book and I interviewed her. She builds window concepts for a denim company. She’s a musician; she’s just cool. You need someone who understands the writing lifestyle and doesn’t freak out if you’re in your own head for a period of months.

You’ve been both a biographer (Eminem) and a co-writer on the autobiographies of others (Tommy Lee, Slash, Artie Lange). Which is harder?

The biggest difference is if you’re doing a biography, you’re your only boss, so you have to be motivated to do it. And it’s you stepping out there and giving your opinions. The easier thing about a co-write is that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end that you already know. The tough part is, basically, everything else—working on someone else’s schedule, earning someone’s trust, getting enough time with a busy celebrity. It’s a minefield doing a co-write. It’s your perception of someone else, but you have to figure out how they want to be perceived. It’s not just how they talk; it’s how they would write if they could write. Co-writing has so many ways it can go wrong.

For both (biographies and co-writes) you have to be really interested in the subject and think that it matters. If I don’t connect with a band’s music, it would be really hard for me to do a good job on it. Slash was a story that had to be told because Guns N’ Roses was huge and Slash was the guy who never talked. And you knew he had a lot of the secrets. So I was willing to put up with a lot of tough circumstances to get that…. That guy took years off my life with the hours he kept—12 midnight to 4 a.m.

What are you working on now?

Two books just came out: Why AC/DC Matters and I Am the New Black, written with [comedian] Tracy Morgan. The AC/DC book is my first music criticism book since Eminem, so it’s a big deal for me.

Artie and I have just started working on Artie Lange, book two. He’s probably my best co-writing experience and by far the most damaged person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s just a train wreck. He makes Slash look like he works on Wall Street. And he’s also the most honest; that’s why the (first) book is so good. He’s fanatic on every level, from food to heroin. He’s smart enough to look at himself objectively and watch himself do it over and over. It’s fascinating to work with someone like that.

How do you get your subjects to trust you and to be so open with you?

Every single one of my co-writers has given me some test, whether they’re doing it on purpose or not, whether it’s some weird, deep psychological thing. In the writing process, I have one moment when I look back and I’m like, okay, that’s when it got better. With the books that are great, when I feel like I really got the most out of the person, there’s a moment where I earned their trust.

With Artie, early on he gave me an audio CD [about him in a pig mask for a TV skit, trying to secretly snort cocaine through the mask]. It was the original, unedited version of him telling the story on the Howard Stern show. He said, “See what you can do with this.” And I wrote that chapter of the book from just 15 minutes of audio. I made the detail more intense—how this guy must have felt in a pig mask, knowing he’s a drug addict, and having to go do that at 10 in the morning, in Malibu, which is this beautifully idyllic, Beach Boys kind of area. I wanted to make the writing short and terse, the way you’d be if you were amped up and feeling horrible…. I gave him that chapter and he was blown away. And that opened the doors. Then he’d get more personal.

What process do you use to record the stories of your subjects?

It’s different with each person. With Slash it was a conversation. He’s a low talker: I had to push the tape recorder closer and he would mumble. I tried to write the book the way it was sitting in a room with him for two months with no windows and him endlessly chain smoking. And I don’t smoke.

Artie’s a comedian; he makes a living on the radio. He would just take the tape recorder and start talking, sometimes walking around the room like he was doing stand up. I almost didn’t have to be there. It got to the point when he was secretly doing lots of pills and heroin and became like a shut-in drug addict. He bought the same kind of voice recorder that I use, and he would tell stories as if I was in the room with him, and have someone send the recorder to me. Towards the end it was bizarre because he’d be talking to me and addressing me by name while he’s telling the story but I wasn’t even in the same state.

You’ve written about some really self-destructive people and spent a lot of time with them. How does that affect you?

If anything, I’d say working with people like that has probably made me more responsible, not so adventurous with drugs and alcohol. It definitely made me think that nobody’s a superman and that these people are lucky. Someone who has been around, like Slash, has seen hundreds and hundreds of guys who want to ride his coat tails and be his drug buddy. You [the writer] can’t be that guy. You’ve got to be professional. That would be the main thing I’d tell anyone who wants to do this: Know your role and just play it.

At the end of your Rolling Stone article on Jennifer Lopez, she says, of the effects of her fame, “I’m the same person just with fancier clothes.” How has your success changed you?

It’s made me busier, which is good. My goal is to get enough time to work on my own stuff. My next book [the true story of an elderly man who sails solo from Halifax to South California via the Panama Canal in a handmade wooden boat] is going to be a total departure for me. No sex, drugs, or rock and roll on the boat. I am excited about it because it has a storyteller who kept a meticulous journal and a lot to sink your teeth into, like pirates boarding his boat off Cuba.

Neil Strauss and I also have a new publishing imprint, Igniter Literary Group. [Strauss is a best-selling author and former pop music critic with the New York Times]. We have a contract with Harper Collins, for at least four to six releases a year, books that a publisher might not want to take a risk with. We find the books, hire the co-writers, and edit the books. We’re doing it all ourselves, in addition to our own careers. There are a lot of amazing stories to tell.

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