Author: Jann S. Wenner
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Copyright 2022. $35.00 (hardcover)
If you’re a boomer, Rolling Stone magazine, founded in November of 1967 by Jann S. Wenner, a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkley’sprogram in literature, and newspaper columnist Ralph Gleason, is the unofficial script of your adult years spent on life’s stage. Wenner was front and center during that campus’s famed student protest and sit-in that erupted on October 1st,1964, which was centred on the administration’s repression of free speech and general opposition to the Vietnam “Conflict.” Gleason wrote what primarily started out as a jazz review column for the San Francisco Chronicle, but with the rapid evolution of American blues, rhythm and blues, and finally, rock n’ roll he quickly began straying into popular youth music and strayed even further in that direction with the coming of the British Invasion. Gleason was older, twice Wenner’s age, and acted as mentor and sage for the young journalist Wenner was to become an anomaly in the world of journalism, because rare is a practitioner that makes much money at it, but Wenner eventually built an empire and lived the same lifestyle as the most hedonistic rock stars of the era and well beyond. Life in the fast lane came with fine houses, expensive cars, the best restaurants, exotic vacations, numerous sexual liaisons with beautiful women and men, and the ultimate symbol of the exclusiveness of the filthy rich – his own private jet. So let’s go for a flight. Fasten your seatbelts because Wenner’s account of the meteoric rise of Rolling Stone is one wild ride.
Cobbling together $7,500 from friends, family, or anyone else that would lend it to him Wenner started the magazine on a tightly stretched shoestring based in a printer’s archaic shop in San Francisco’s warehouse district. In exchange for hiring its services, the printer gave the magazine free rent on an upper floor. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, or the audience more accessible, as the “summer of love” was just beginning to wind down. Stated Wenner in the first black and white newsprint issue that had a press run of 40,000 copies and featured John Lennon on the cover:
We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see are the changes in rock and roll and the changes related to rock and roll…Rolling Stone is not just about the music, but also about the attitudes that the music embraces. We have been working quite hard on it and hope you can dig it (p.64).
In the early years, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were the magazine’s biggest advocates lending their considerable celebrity to it, and Lennon with his no-nonsense outspoken style of expression was always a star interview until that fateful day when never again would be. Writes Wenner:
We had done the interview in New York City, December 8th, 1970. Ten years later, to the day, John was dead (p.129).
There’s a lot of name-dropping and A-list cronyism going on here, but enough whining from the peanut gallery because he lived the life, knew the participants, and earned his station as a rocker because Wenner understood the essence of Rock and Roll deep in the marrow of his bones and was always down to abide by its primary rule: you had to know how to party, and Wenner was adept at it.
Lennon was just one in a vast list of rock stars, movie stars, record executives, writers, political figures, and even presidents that Wenner would befriend, and why wouldn’t they be his friend? Wenner was handsome, engaging, generous, and stood at the helm of a magazine that grew to1,000,000 monthly subscribers by the 1980s and to an international readership of over 6,000,000 by the 2,000’s thus giving it the power to make them all richer and more famous than they already were. Wenner makes mention of Mick, Bono, Yoko, Dylan, the Boss, Michael Douglas, Jackie Onassis, John Kennedy Junior, Lorne Michaels, Pete Townsend, Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, and Bill Clinton all by their first name and almost in a dismissive “it’s no big deal” type of passing, and readers instantaneously know who is talking about. This is access behind the curtain of fame on an unprecedented level.
With fast-rising professional photographer Annie Leibovitz acting as the driving force, to be on the famed cover of Rolling Stone, became something of an industry-wide obsession. A case in point being:
Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show hit number one with their single “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” in which the band lamented that although they “take all kinds of pills that give us all kinds of thrills,” they just can’t get on the cover of Rolling Stone.
We put them on the cover. Fair trade (p. 169).
As brilliant as the photography was, as informative as the record reviews were, as glittering as the stars and celebrities were, what separated the journalistic men from the boys was Rolling Stones’ writing by its incredible stable of writers. Contributing writers look like a who’s who of contemporary journalism: Cameron Crowe, Joe Eszterhas, Ben Fong-Torrez, P.J. O’Rourke, and the ranting and raving always bombastic Hunter Stockton Thomsonthe inventor and sole practitioner of gonzo journalism. But even Thompson had to adhere to Wenner’sbedrock rules, the ones that caused them to stand head and shoulders above the rest
The criteria I had set forth for Rolling Stone stories from the beginning were these: It had to be about something interesting and important, and not duplicate something you could get elsewhere; you had to report the hell out of it, meaning be passionate and get involved; and you had to write it well – long if necessary – and accurately in every detail, and in the end tell the truth about what you think (p. 330).
After ten years in San Francisco, Wenner and his staff were all maturing, pairing off, starting to raise families, growing up in other words, and while San Francisco has been and probably always will be home to several fine countercultural presses it will never be the center of the literary universe. New York is, and Wenner knew it and he just had to be there. Old hippies and die-hard acid rock fans accused him of selling out, but that’s what they always do when someone puts on a suit and tie which is exactly what Wenner did after relocating to Manhattan in 1977.
Along with Atlantic Records Producer Ahmet Ertegun, Wenner devised the concept for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which had its first induction ceremony in 1983. Twelve years and $30,000,000 later its permanent home was based in Cleveland, Ohio set at the edge of Lake Erie in a jewel of a shining glass building designed by famed architect I.M. Pei. Perhaps the best way to describe the magic of the hall and the absolute excitement and glamour of its induction ceremonies is to look at Wenner’s own that occurred in 2004:
I started out feeling blasé about my own induction into the Hall of Fame in 2004 but ended up with my head in the clouds. Prince, Traffic, George Harrison, ZZ Top, Bob Seger, and Jackson Browne were in my class, all of whom were close to Rolling Stone, in our world. Sharing the night with Jackson, whose songs and comradeship were such treasures to me, made it even richer. A week before the show, Ahmet told me that he had gotten Mick to come in from London to induct me.
We sat in a cluster of tables with Keith Richards and his daughters, and Mick’s kids; Olivia Harrison was at the next table with her son, Dhani, his father’s doppelganger, and Yoko and Sean. It was a mess of Beatles and Rolling Stones and my kids, who all knew each other. I had Jane, Matt, the three boys, Don Henley, Tom and Shelia Wolfe, and Mick. It was a black-tie family picnic (p. 411).
Ahmet walked onstage with his cane, introducing my induction and giving a shout-out to Jane and Ralph Gleason. He spoke with gravitas. I tried to stay in the moment and take in the historical weight of Ahmet’s speech. Then he said, “To further my remarks, Sir Mick Jagger.” There he was, smiling wide with his tooth diamond sparking, dressed in a black suit…”
Jagger’s closing comments were:
“This is a wonderful, heartfelt occasion, and I will treasure the memory of it all the way to the airport(p.412).”
At first glance, this appears to be an intimidating book weighing in at 556 pages and giving off the whiff of a real slog. But Wenner is an editor’s editor and broke it down into a mere 77 chapters rarely exceeding ten pages in length. Once the reader gets revved up it’s hard to put on the brakes. Editors are a rare and dying breed with their extinction becoming even more rapid at the hands of online self-publishing. They are realists and sometimes efficiently ruthless with an instinctive ability to get to what’s at the heart of a story and to cut what could give it a seizure. Above all else, they understand and are able to manipulate the egos and neuroses’ of their authors and have a sixth sense for how to draw out their best work. He and Thompson were meant for each other and neither could have achieved the heights that they did without the other.
America’s financial meltdown of 2008, which Wenner places at the feet of his archenemy, George W. Bush II, sent shock waves through the publishing industry, and Wenner was forced to adapt to the times with the three magazines he now published.
Those of us who ran magazine companies could read our own numbers and knew what the competition was doing. The internet was no longer a looming threat: it was at the goddamned front door, a vampire with seven hundred untethered tentacles, the ubiquitous iPhone. It was also causing our circulation, as well as our advertising, to drop. This was serious trouble.
I thought magazines could fight back if we played to our strengths: photography, design, and writing. But most magazines were trying to look like websites, imitating what the internet could do better, quicker, and give away free, Not a good strategy at any level. Magazine publishers had been discounting and sweepstaking subscriptions for so long that they had created the aura of low value and the expectation of low prices (p.469).
When we added online advertising it seemed we had found our little piece of the digital pie and our business would survive, as lost advertising spending started coming back. We had five years of growth and profits. But the three dragons of Silicon Valley – Facebook, Apple, and Google – as if they didn’t have enough billions of dollars, came to steal what was left. They appropriated for themselves the intellectual property created by magazines and newspapers, repackaged it, gave it away free to our customers, and sold ads to our advertisers. They tricked the publishers into thinking that they were building traffic for their own websites. That was a lie, and one day the dragons walked away, leaving their victims in the news and journalism business to bleed out (p.470).
Rolling Stone, even with decreased subscribers, was able to maintain its place as America’s best magazine by reporting the hottest stories, one such title being: The Runaway General by fast-rising Michael Bates who worshipped at the feet of Hunter S. Thompson. A leaked prerelease copy found its way to Joe Biden’s and eventually Barack Obama’s desks, and the subject of the article, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal the head of our troops in Afghanistan and openly critical of the administration’s policies, was recalled on June 22nd,2010. Detractor’s accused the magazine of not just reporting the news, but of being responsible for creating it. Wenner explains his position:
We never tried to pretend that Rolling Stone was neutral. We were going to be scrupulously accurate and tell the truth. The word “objective” was a red herring, a claim that stating an opposing point of view was necessary even though that view might be a blatant falsehood. “Objectivity” didn’t mean fairness or honesty; it was just covering your ass. I thought that prejudicial adjectives and liberal cliches in the reportorial copy undercut the power of the facts. And I didn’t want to repeat what I had read elsewhere. We had to find something new and meaningful to add, not be the third or fourth article about the latest cause du jour. Nothing was going to be gained by blowing up. It was time to buckle up(p. 478).
That’s swimming against the current and having a real pair, and that’s what ultimately made Jann Wenner the greatest magazine editor of his generation, but the nonstop unending corporate takeovers of anything special and meaningful in America meant that the wolves were circling and Wennerwas forced to develop his exit strategy.
The new reality, the race to pay back the bank before they forced us to sell, meant fewer pages, cheaper paper, and cutting back editorial – no more Sebastiao Salgado portfolios, no more full staffing. We narrowed our range, pulled back on bravado. The mission was to save money, which became a filter for everything. The fun started going out of it. Instead, it became a question of running out the clock. I would miss my plane, my home away from home, but those times of go-anywhere adventure were already gone (p. 490).
I was certain that Wenner Media wouldn’t survive as an independent company. It was the twilight of stand-alone magazines. The time was on the horizon where we could survive only under the umbrella of a big company. Within three years I expected to sell, take a short-term employment contract, and at the fiftieth anniversary, in 2017, take my bow…I would hold on until then. The money play would have been to sell quickly, but I loved it and was not yet ready to let go (p. 491).
Hanging on wasn’t going to be easy. A crisis of confidence occurred in November of 2014 when an article entitled: “A Rape On Campus” turned out to be patently false. In dissecting where everything had gone wrong Wenneradmitted that he and his team were guilty of running on journalistic autopilot. They believed the girl’s story and were quick to judgement, and even quicker to press with what they felt was a hot compelling news item, but alas, she had made the whole thing up and the post-mortem revealed a sloppiness in fact-checking and an arrogant self-righteous in-house hubris run amok. Other journals were quick to condemn and revel in how the mighty had fallen. There are times in life when you just have to take it which was all he could do; lesson learned, back to hardnosed research and reporting; rise up from the ashes once again. Then came the broken hip, the massive heart attack, the operations, the long road to recovery, and walking with a cane.
In 2016 his son Gus found a buyer for Rolling Stone who installed him as managing editor with task number one being to drastically cut staff, costs, and quality while putting his father out to pasture. Wenner did not go quietly into that good night. Gus allowed him to do a final piece on climate change fueled by corporate greed and gallantly fought by a child, the prophet for Generation Z, Greta Thunberg.
The final curtain for Wenner’slongtenure at Rolling Stone was drawn shut after the magazine’s fiftieth anniversary – there wasn’t much of a bow – life goes on and the stories have to be reported, so he started in on this colossal and deliciously gossipy memoir. In his final chapter entitled: “My Last Letter From The Editor,” Wenner is humble and introspective; the old warrior no longer with a taste for battle but rationalizing why his former battles had been necessary.
I never thought I was a “spokesman” for a generation. Even to the extent that there was some truth to that, I recoiled from the idea. It was a trap. Mine was a generation that was looking for leadership, especially moral leadership, but those who thought they were the leader usually weren’t. Bob Dylan was allergic to the idea. Now I accept the fact that I had helped shape the way my generation viewed itself, its responsibilities, its laughter, its achievements. But I didn’t speak for it; I spoke to it (p. 553).
A longer review than is necessary, you say? A longer and more important career than usual, say I. When you think about it, given Wenner’s expansive reign at Rolling Stone, this book is surprisingly short – the masterful work of an editor’s editor. Marvellously done. Five stars. Pop the cork, and pass the champagne. Long live Rolling Stone, and thank God that Jann Wenner created it.