David Dalton, who chronicled the rock scene as an early writer for Rolling Stone and brought firsthand knowledge to his biographies of rock stars from having lived the wild life alongside them, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 80.
His son, Toby Dalton, said the cause was cancer.
Beginning in the 1960s, Mr. Dalton showed a knack for being where cultural moments and evolutions were happening. Before he was 20 he was hanging out with Andy Warhol. In the mid-1960s he photographed the Yardbirds, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits and other rock groups that were part of the British Invasion. He was backstage at the Rolling Stones’ infamous 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway in California. He was hired, along with Jonathan Cott, to write a book to accompany a boxed-set release of the Beatles’ 1970 album, “Let It Be.” He traveled with Janis Joplin and James Brown and talked about Charles Manson with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.
As his career advanced, he gravitated toward writing biographies and helping celebrities write their autobiographies. His books included “Janis” (1972), about Joplin, revised and updated in 1984 as “Piece of My Heart”; “James Dean: The Mutant King” (1975); and “Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan” (2012). Autobiographies that he helped their subjects write included Marianne Faithfull’s “Faithfull: An Autobiography” (1994), “Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back” (1999), Steven Tyler’s “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?” (2011) and Paul Anka’s “My Way” (2013). He collaborated with Tony Scherman on “Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol” (2009).
Lenny Kaye, the guitarist in the Patti Smith Group and a writer who collaborated with Mr. Dalton on the 1977 book “Rock 100,” said Mr. Dalton, early in his career, was among a group of writers who took a new approach to covering the music scene.
“In those days of rock journalism, there was not a lot of separation between writers and artists,” he said in a phone interview. “The writers aspired to create the same kind of artistic illumination as those they wrote about.”
“David got to be very friendly with many people,” Mr. Kaye added, “and I believe that helped enhance his writing style. He had a way of assuming the persona of the person he was writing about.”
Mr. Dalton’s wife of 44, years, Coco Pekelis, a painter and performance artist, said Mr. Dalton fell into writing almost by accident. He had read that Jann Wenner was starting a new music magazine, Rolling Stone, in 1967 and began sending in some of the pictures of bands that he had been taking.
“He was taking photographs of groups like the Shangri-Las, and Jann wanted captions,” Ms. Pekelis said by email. “So David started writing. And wrote and wrote and wrote. I asked him the other day when he knew he was a writer, and he said, when his captions got longer and longer.”
Mr. Dalton assessed his voluminous output in an unpublished autobiographical sketch, explaining how his work had changed over the decades.
“When I wrote rock journalism I was younger,” he noted. “I was involved in the scene as it was happening, evolving. I went anywhere at the drop of a hat. When I got into my 30s I began writing about the past and have lived there ever since.”
John David Dalton was born on Jan. 15, 1942, in wartime London. His father, John, was a doctor, and his mother, Kathleen Tremaine, was an actress. His sister, Sarah Legon, said that during German air raids, David and a cousin, who grew up to be the actress Joanna Pettet, would be put in baskets and sheltered under a staircase or taken into the Underground, the London subway system, for protection.
David grew up in London and in British Columbia — his father was Canadian — and attended the King’s School in Canterbury, England. He then joined his parents in New York, where they had moved, and he and his sister became assistants to Warhol, Ms. Legon said, helping him edit an early film, “Sleep.” In 1966, Mr. Dalton helped Warhol design an issue of Aspen, the multimedia magazine that came in a box or folder with assorted trappings.
“Coming from England at the beginning of the sixties,” Mr. Dalton wrote in “Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol,” “I encountered Pop Art with the same jolt of excitement and joy I’d experienced on first hearing the blues. I was fortunate enough to meet Andy Warhol at the beginning of his career, and through his X-ray specs I saw America’s brash, bizarre and manic underworld of ads, supermarket products, comics and kitsch brought to garish, teeming, jumping-out-of-its-skin life.”
In the middle and late 1960s and the early ’70s, Mr. Dalton spent time on the East Coast, on the West Coast and in England, rubbing elbows with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and more. In California, he spent time with Dennis Wilson, who, he said, once expressed admiration for Charles Manson.
After Manson had been charged in some brutal 1969 murders, Mr. Dalton began looking into the case for Rolling Stone with another writer, David Felton.
“Like most of my hippie peers,” he wrote in an unpublished essay, “I thought Manson was innocent and had been railroaded by the L.A.P.D. It was a scary awakening for me to find out that not every longhaired, dope-smoking freak was a peace-and-love hippie.”
His thinking turned when someone in the district attorney’s office showed him photographs of victims of Manson’s followers and the messages written in blood at the crime scenes.
“It must have been the most horrifying moment of my life,” Mr. Dalton is quoted as saying in “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine” (2017), by Joe Hagan. “It was the end of the whole hippie culture.”
For Rolling Stone, Mr. Dalton also wrote about Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Little Richard and others. By the mid-1970s he had moved on and was focusing on books, though still applying his full-immersion approach. For “El Sid: Saint Vicious,” his 1997 book about Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, who died of an overdose in 1979, “I actually started to hear Sid’s voice talking to me,” he wrote. David Nicholson, reviewing the book in The Washington Post, found it compelling.
“There is a certain hypnotic quality to the story that is akin to watching someone standing in the path of an onrushing train,” he wrote. “The writing throughout is graceful and intelligent, even when it is in your face.”
Mr. Dalton once described his biography technique this way:
“Essentially you distill your subject into a literary solution and get high on them, so to speak. Afterwards, one needs brain detergent and has to have one’s brain rewired.”
Mr. Dalton lived in Andes, N.Y. His wife, son and sister are his only immediate survivors.
Mr. Kaye said Mr. Dalton had been both present for a sea change and part of it.
“It was a fascinating time,” he said, “and David was one of our most important cultural spokespersons.”