Thirty-some years ago, as co-editor in a crowded, attic-like room in Michigan State University’s Morrill Hall, I argued successfully against publishing doggerel in the campus literary magazine. Months later, that same rejected poem appeared in Rolling Stone magazine.
I concluded that no matter how much Rolling Stone gussied up its image with the high-falutin’ language of former English majors and Annie Leibovitz glossies, it was still pretty much destined to remain in a midcult rut, the intellectual landscape where pretension is determined a fitting substitute for prose and verse that occasionally aspires but never attains true literary status.
Now, mind you, I can defend midcult all day long as a necessary enterprise to drag lowbrow America as far away from Jerry Springer as possible. However, the soft-core exploitation of the teeny-bopper heartthrobs depicted and a magazine audience eager to see celebrity naughty bits too often meant the magazine succumbed to Springer over Springsteen.
Readers will remember it was Rolling Stone’s Leibovitz who snapped the photo of the New Jersey bard’s butt in front of Old Glory for his “Born in the U.S.A.” album cover. Clearly, the cover was dual-purposed for those inclined to ogle a rock star’s bum. Everyone else got the kiss-my-tuckus message that the American Dream, for Bruce Springsteen, eluded many of the country’s citizens. Images from that photo shoot found their way to an issue of Rolling Stone, including the cover. In the meantime, the raconteur running the magazine raked in the cash while attempting to shape the culture.
Far Less than ‘Perfect’
That’s how it goes in the world of the magazine’s editor and co-founder Jann Wenner. Favored artists received preferred coverage and positive reviews, and artists signed to labels that bought significant amounts of advertising typically wound up in some state of undress on the cover. As the father of two daughters in the 1990s, the skeezy photos of the magazine’s “hot” issues were too much, and I finally allowed my subscription to lapse.
Back in the day, however, I recall some great essays, reviews, and journalism percolating through the mire of Rolling Stone’s pages, which I read religiously for nearly 25 years from the mid-1970s to 2000. I also remember a particularly disturbing interview with Carly Simon wherein the author confesses jealousy not for the singer’s then-husband James Taylor in the mid-1970s but for their infant child. Just as embarrassing was the 10-year anniversary special broadcast on CBS in 1977, of which the less written the better.
By the 1990s, other magazines were competing with Rolling Stone, some admirably sticking primarily to music much like the lamented Trouser Press of the decade previous. Spin, Alternative Press, Musician, Uncut, and Mojo filled a void Rolling Stone had once dominated. Wenner continued to collect such stars as Springsteen, Bono, and Mick Jagger as friends and magazine covers, and the quality of the magazine deteriorated.
The magazine’s impending irrelevance was baked in from the get-go: It overly fetishized the 1960s and gave short shrift to the music of the early 1970s that appeared on labels that didn’t buy advertising space. The critics were stuffy tastemakers, turning up their noses at some of the most innovative and adventurous music of the time. If you wanted serious articles on Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, or Deep Purple, off to Creem or Crawdaddy you went. Further, Rolling Stone ignored most African-American music and punk. By the advent of MTV in 1981, Rolling Stone was clearly a follower rather than a leader.
Don’t even get me started on “Perfect,” the 1985 bomb starring Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta. Somehow, the movie warranted a cover featuring the two stars and a positive review (truly and honestly, it’s among the worst films of a decade seldom credited with cinematic classics). Oh, did I mention the film is about a Rolling Stone writer (Travolta) and his affair with Curtis’ aerobics instructor? Or that Wenner more or less portrays himself in what essentially amounts to a vanity piece?
A Hagiography, Not a Biography
In the wake of a somewhat unflattering Wenner biography and two fairly recent boneheaded exercises in journalism, Rolling Stone is mounting a full-court defense of its 50-year legacy with a two-part HBO documentary, “Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge.” The task of reading some of the magazine’s best journalism is given Jeff Daniels. Johnny Depp reprises his roles as Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The Rum Diaries” by giving voice to the maestro of gonzo.
Sean Penn’s headline-hustling attempt to redeem somehow the murderous reputation of El Chapo and Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s coverage of a fabricated gang rape at the University of Virginia are glossed over briefly. Penn admits his piece was a failure while Wenner conducts verbal gymnastics to say the prevalence of rapes on campus doesn’t justify but somehow excuses journalistic ignominy (Erdely does not appear), even if innocent students are thrown under the bus.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, Mr. Wenner. Unaddressed in this four-hour hagiographic extravaganza are the dozens of disgruntled employees who were never fully compensated by the parsimonious editor who collected luxurious homes, Picassos and other artwork, sports cars, and a personal jet while indulging a gargantuan appetite for cocaine and alcohol. Wenner even had specialized furniture built with secret compartments to stash illicit drugs. Yet, somehow, Wenner continued to sell Springsteen’s version of a rundown American dream in his magazine.
An Undercover Capitalist
If the overall effects of Rolling Stone through the years is midcult with the omission of several exceptional journalistic exercises by such contributors as Thompson in his prime and Tom Wolfe, it could perhaps be explained by the dual nature of Wenner himself. This conclusion is prompted subsequent to reading Joe Hagan’s “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.”
On one hand, Wenner is an ardent capitalist, aspiring to live like the most successful of the rock stars and record-industry executives he puppy-dogs (the industry term Hagan employs is far more colorful and apt, but not appropriate for this space). On the other hand, he is a gay, white man who embraced all aspects of liberalism in his printed pages before and after exiting the closet in the mid-1990s. In the pages of the magazine he co-owned with his wife from its inception and even after their divorce, the limousine liberal excoriates Ronald Reagan, for example, while benefitting tremendously from the Reaganomics begun in the 1980s.
For a first attempt at writing a book, Hagan does an admirable job of marshaling 50 years of Rolling Stone minutiae with interviews of those Wenner wronged through the years and who seem too eager to kiss his ring if not his derriere. Hagan does, however, pull up short at revealing the details of the editor’s relationship with his parents and siblings. We get that his mother was imperious but are left to conjecture precisely how this affected her son’s future successes and failures, or how they reconciled before her death.
Also left unexplained is the feud between John Lennon and Wenner after the latter published a book from a two-part interview in the magazine. Why, exactly, was Lennon so incensed that Wenner had gone against his wishes to publish the book? Why, indeed, did Lennon insist that Wenner not publish the book in the first place? Certainly, the former head Beatle could weather any storm?
Hagan also misses the boat completely by asserting critic Dave Marsh authored every review in “The Rolling Stone Record Guide,” one of many Wenner efforts to establish a publishing empire and atone for publishing scathing reviews from Greil Marcus and Jon Landau. Hagan’s claim is patently untrue, as evidenced by the initials of many of Rolling Stone’s elite corps of critics after each of the guide’s entries. Besides, having compared Kate Bush’s vocals to a mating of Patti Smith with a Hoover vacuum cleaner, one cannot posit that Marsh was any less vicious in some of his assessments than either Marcus or Landau.
It was nearly four years ago when I purchased my last issues of Rolling Stone. Thompson had died in 2005 after burning out his creative spark nearly 30 years prior, P.J. O’Rourke had moved on to greener pastures, and Wolfe was a novelist and essayist of international renown. Their bylines were replaced by Matt Taibbi and Bill McKibben. The first had developed a shorthand snark meant to emulate but devoid of the humor and astute insights undergirding Thompson’s commentary, and the other was merely a global-warming bomb-thrower shilling donations for his own nonprofit.
I couldn’t even begin to tell you what music was covered.