Jann Wenner: A Bad Little Kid Moved in to Our Neighbourhood
Updated: Nov 13, 2022
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!
— William Wordsworth, The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind: An Autobiographical Poem, Book XI
“A novel,” Wide Sargasso Sea author Jean Rhys once observed, “has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any.”
Unlike fiction, reality comes with the “formidable erosions of contour” of which Nietzsche spoke — subject, when we think back, to antic, oneiric driftings of mnemonic fog between truth, interpretation, distortions and outright fabrications. Life is a catherine wheel with diverging lines riding madly off in all directions. Best-laid schemes gang aft a-gley and all that rot.
Any time we think we have a handle on what’s really going on in the real world(s), characters straight out of Women in Love mischievously appear to throw stones into the water to shatter the image of the moon. A fruit fly tumbles across the screen as I write this. A friend emails to say that doctors have found a nodule on a lung.
Not so in fiction. There, even in wildly experimental novels, a pattern must emerge, and anything that diverges from that pattern — as a hectoring E.M. Forster once decreed — must be pruned off as wanton distraction. That’s the price we exact for our attention. The author stares into the vacuum of our eyes and asks, “Do you want to make a deal?”
And what, then, of memoirs, to my mind a loose category of what philosopher Dwight Macdonald called parajournalism — “a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”
If it is to be more than a diaristic telling of this happened and then this and then that — notwithstanding the shared title of One Damn Thing After Another attached to sundry memoirs, from Hugh Garner’s to big Billy Barr’s — a biography, too, must have some semblance of a shape, however how many loose strands and shoelaces are left flapping at the end.
That’s particularly true of autobiographies, I think, a world wherein the creator, the narrator and protagonist merge into one. The teller of the tale gets to apply a fresh coat of quicksilver to the mirror, to obtrude her current self into her past (and vice versa), to outmanoeuvre the black knight of time (here I channel Forster again) and force him from the board.
“What motivates a person to write an autobiography?” writer Nicole Rudick asked in a recent piece in The New York Review of Books about Hernan Diaz’s multifaceted 2022 novel Trust, partly an exploration of that very question. “The form is usually self-serving in some sense — not only in what the author remembers but why. … Autobiography, like fiction, doesn’t imitate life — it is a construction of life, a representation of it, and one in which imagination can be mistaken for memory.”
In promoting his new epic black comedy with plenty of parallels to his own origins and career, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu has enunciated an extreme version of this doctrine, demoting autobiographies to nothing more than lies and hypocrisies.
“They claim truth and facts, but truth and facts do not exist,” Iñárritu told Associated Press reporter Lindsey Bahr. “Fiction is something that helps us to arrive to do a higher truth and reveals what the reality is hiding.”
Well, this much is true. In an autobiography, the lost traveller gets to unearth a dream of his own life from under the hill. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. In short, he’d like to say thank you “on behalf of the group and ourselves,” and he hopes to pass the audition.
Which brings us to this fall’s release of Like a Rolling Stone, the rollicking, self-serving, star-fucking, frequently entertaining, often frustrating and sometimes astonishing autobiography of Rolling Stone magazine founder, picaroon and illusionist Jann S. Wenner, routinely described (by himself, anyway) as “the greatest editor of his generation.”
Now 76, Wenner is in fact the Zelig of his generation, secretary and (not so) trusted scribe of the Church of (mostly Former Day) Hail Hail Rock’n’Roll.
Deliver us from days of old. Can I have an amen?
Wenner was galvanized into producing his memoir largely as a counterpoint to former Rolling Stone contributor Joe Hagan’s 2017 biography titled Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, which the subject has dismissed in interviews as “deeply flawed and tawdry.”
Written with wit and asperity, Hagan’s bio — which Wenner had asked him to compile to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone — became unauthorized almost from the moment he showed Wenner the manuscript, just before it was published. (Wenner, who sold a 49 per cent stake in the magazine to a company from Singapore called BandLab Technologies in 2016 and the remaining 51 per cent to U.S.-based Penske Media Corporation in 2017, is very big on birthdays and anniversaries.)
If you read them back-to-back — a not inconsiderable investment of time and attention; together they weigh in at more than 1,100 annotated pages — you get a rare and fascinating opportunity to compare the respective bendings and alignments of reality by a reasonably objective biographer and a famous man writing about himself.
Formidable erosions of contour, indeed. Parallel universes. Heterocosms, even as the old publishing empire deliquesces.
The main difference, to put it crudely, is that Wenner comes off in Hagan’s telling — as he does to an even greater degree in Robert Draper’s 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Anson’s Gone Crazy and Back: The Rise and Fall of the Rolling Stone Generation, and scores of accounts by disgruntled former employees and intimates — as a way bigger “asshole” than the doughty hero who stars in his own book. (Wenner himself prefers “prick”, but let’s not quibble over semantic, um, preferences.)
This is not a revelation, given that Hagan’s closing description of Wenner, a high-functioning, almost Trump-level narcissist, seems like a fair and just description of the man, given the testimony of hundreds who have worked and partied with him:
Editor Will Dana ended his career in infamy at Rolling Stone (he was traumatized by the fallout from the disastrous fake gang rape story at a University of Virginia frat house, of which more later), but before that he witnessed Jann Wenner up close for twenty years. Brilliant, vulgar, courageous, cruel, that peculiar DNA twist of idealism and greed — god of two heads, gatekeeper of heaven.
“I always think with Jann, the question is, is he 51 per cent good or 51 per cent bad?” said Dana. “That’s the big question. That’s the big question, and no one knows.”
He’d thought about this. Everyone had.
“But I basically think he’s 51 per cent good.”
And maybe that was good enough.
Not good enough, it seems, for most of the reviewers of Wenner’s memoir, who have unleashed an irascible torrent of fear and loathing exceptional even for a bellicose era in which we are all left seeking shelter from the journalistic storm.
Here’s some searing invective, for example, from Beatdom literary journal founder David S. Wills’s takedown that ran last month under the Dylan-inspired headline “Napoleon in Rags” in Quillette, an Australian-based online magazine:
That Wenner had a deep love of rock music and a passion for progressive politics is evident from his book. Nonetheless, these were underpinned by a desperation for attention and a desire for power. The most irritating aspect of the book is Wenner’s shameless name-dropping.
Of the 185,000 words in this hefty volume, it sometimes feels like half are the names of famous friends. Of course, many of these names are included for good reason — Wenner was, after all, the publisher of an important rock magazine and did indeed meet with numerous celebrities. But he is extremely keen to emphasize just how much musicians and movie stars loved him and how close he was to them. And some of his anecdotes are rather dubious — a teenage car ride with Neal Cassady, for example, or his arrival in London as a young man with no connections where he bumped into Brian Jones on the street.
The ceaseless name-dropping isn’t just gauche but it also frequently produces a disjointed narrative. He jumps from memory to memory, apparently determined to include every moment of personal, cultural, or political significance, without bothering to connect one passage to the next. This is particularly jarring when traumatic events are awkwardly juxtaposed with humorous ones. And notwithstanding its vast length, the book appears to have been brutally cut in places, so that certain references don’t make sense. The dust-jacket may describe Wenner as “the greatest editor of his generation” but you wouldn’t know it from reading his memoir.
It is tempting to forgive such problems amid the general exuberance of your average rock’n’roll autobiography. These people are, after all, professional bad boys, so being rude, boastful, and semi-literate comes with the territory. But one expects more from the man who made his millions as the publisher of a rock magazine, and who positions himself as a key figure in countless works of art and journalism from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This is something Wenner badly wants his reader to appreciate.
Again and again, we are reminded of Wenner’s prescience and genius. Every accomplishment at Rolling Stone, it seems, is directly attributable to him. Each award-winning article was the result of his advice and each iconic photograph was his idea. You get the impression that he taught Annie Leibovitz how to take a picture and Joe Eszterhas how to write. He applauds himself for every triumph, regardless of how much input he actually had, and this extends not only to the content of Rolling Stone, but to songs and books by his friends. Whenever he claims to have had a word in an artist’s ear, their next hit is practically Wenner’s own work. No one, it seems, would have achieved a modicum of success without his guidance.
Here’s a taste of Alexandra Jacob’s more temperate review in the New York Times:
Narcotics were what took Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison — all at the age of 27. When Elvis goes, it’s “our equivalent of a five-alarm fire,” Wenner writes, four days before deadline, after a move to New York offices in 1977. The murder of John Lennon, a Wenner favourite, is what finishes his ’60s idealism, and he continues to bathe the Beatle in white light here, glossing over the harm to their friendship caused by his publishing the acidic interview “Lennon Remembers” in book form, and the magazine’s partisan mistreatment of Paul McCartney’s brilliant early solo efforts.
“Like a Rolling Stone” does gather moss, it turns out: celebrities in damp clumps — from when Jann, born Jan in January 1946 and a real handful, is treated by Dr. Benjamin Spock, to “the black-tie family picnic” of his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame he helped erect.
His father was a baby formula magnate; his mother helped with the business but was also a novelist and free spirit whom he compares to Auntie Mame; and the newspaper young Wenner ran at boarding school had a gossip column. A career headline spinner who hired and fired with gusto, he writes here in crisp sentences more descriptive than introspective, giving résumés for even minor characters.
“The apple cart was balanced,” he shrugs of the double life he long led — till Nye’s declaration of love, and the times a-changin’, tips it over (that would be Matt Nye, Wenner’s husband; we’ll get back to him).
Though his journalists regularly championed the downtrodden, Wenner proudly recounts a life of unbridled hedonism, and seems disinclined to reconcile any contradiction. His staffers aggressively cover climate change while he revels in his Gulfstream (“My first flight was alone, sitting by myself above the clouds listening to ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ ”). At the 60th-birthday party he throws at Le Bernardin, the fancy Manhattan fish restaurant, Bruce Springsteen gets up and sings of the honoree that “Champagne, pot cookies and a Percocet/Keep him humming like a Sabre jet.” A private chef makes pasta sauce for the Wenner entourage at Burning Man. Wenner and Bono wave to each other from their Central Park West terraces, and join McCartney for a midnight supper by the “silvery ocean.” (“Stars — they’re just like us!,” per another former Wenner property, Us Weekly.)
Were there better ways for Johnny Depp to spend a million dollars than shooting the longtime Rolling Stone fixture Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon the height of the Statue of Liberty, as Wenner watched approvingly? Surely.
Like a Rolling Stone is entertaining in spades but only sporadically revealing of the uneven ground beneath Wenner’s feet. Long sections of the book read like a private-flight manifest or gala concert set list. You, the common reader, are getting only a partial-access pass.
Here’s Chris Klimek in The Washington Post:
That Wenner demonstrated great vision when he created, at age 21, a publication that treated rock and politics as subjects equally deserving of serious examination is undeniable. So is his eye for talent. His book is at its most thrilling when Wenner recalls discovering and/or significantly boosting Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, William Greider, Greil Marcus and other writers and photographers whose work in Rolling Stone made their careers. He also praises less famous staffers who made major contributions, like art director Fred Woodward and longtime editor Ben Fong-Torres. (“I suggested he either pick Fong or Torres as his professional name, or no one would believe he was real. He did not take the advice.”)
But as the Rolling Stone trades San Francisco (and pot) for New York (and cocaine), and its leader graduates from visionary kid to jet-setter, the book increasingly recalls Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic “Elvis,” a frantically paced 160-minute film that dutifully visits the stations of Presley’s career while still feeling like a trailer for a more substantial feature to come. Wenner’s prose is similarly impatient, alighting in spurts of two or three hundred words before leaping ahead to some unrelated subject.
You wonder if it’s a literary choice, indicative of the whirlwind Wenner lived in, that so few events are given a time stamp. Almost nothing that happened in the generation between the murder of John Lennon on Dec. 8, 1980, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, warrants a date. For example, he briefly mentions his disappointment at Vice President Al Gore’s nail-biter loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election, after he’d personally interviewed Gore and endorsed his candidacy. Three pages later, he’s watching the twin towers fall. In between, he’s conducting the RS “exit interview” with President Bill Clinton and cutting a rug with Catherine Zeta-Jones (“a professional dancer”) at her wedding to his BFF Michael Douglas, no part of it feeling any more significant than another.
Wenner may have meant to write an ink-stained history of a hugely important publication, but what he’s ended up with is an account of the largely frictionless life that extravagant wealth enables, and the obliviousness it breeds. Again and again, he credits himself for running urgent stories on “the climate emergency” and for coverage critical of the me-first agenda that became GOP orthodoxy with the election of Ronald Reagan, even as he talks about how much he loved his private Gulfstream jet. When the stress all gets to be too much, he retreats to his Sun Valley, Idaho, encampment, or to his seaside house in the Hamptons, or to the smaller house in the Hamptons he moved into after separating from his wife, or to a private beach in Greece.
So many of Wenner’s subjects cry out for more reflection than he is inclined to grant them. He could’ve written an entire book about spending nearly 30 years as a gay man (in his own description) in a heterosexual marriage before leaving his ex-wife, Jane Schindelheim, for his current husband, Matt Nye, in 1995. Or what about the fact that he was a not-yet-out gay man in charge of arguably the most influential magazine in America, living and working in New York City, when the AIDS epidemic hit? He proudly cites reporter David Black’s award-winning two-part RS feature “The Plague Years” as “the first major national piece on AIDS that I knew of outside of medical journals.” But he offers no personal recollection of what it was like to live through that crisis from his distinct vantage point. …
For all the things Wenner saw, it seems he didn’t witness much.
And like that.
I get it. The endless crowing about bromances and mutual admiration societies with the likes of Springsteen and Bono, Lorne Michaels and Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; the touching scenes about selflessly sitting by the bedsides of ill and dying celebs; the shameless boasting about his kids’ talents and his intimacy with Jackie Onassis and the Kennedy kids; Christmases at the Dakota with Yoko and Sean … the increasing tone deafness to the shallowness and self-parody of the lifestyles of the rich and famous can’t help but grate if you bite off too big a piece of this book at once. At a certain point, the Stones devolve inexorably into Spinal Tap, hanging with the Kennedys into an episode of Schitt's Creek.
Here’s a typical, pretty much pointless excursus from near the end of the book illustrating just how self-indulgent and hackneyed life in the fast expedition boat begins to sound to those of us down below in steerage bunks like a complete unknown — even when tragic circumstances strike the pretty people at this party reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue:
Our family met up with Michael Douglas and his family to sail the Pacific coast of Panama for New Year’s Eve of 2012. As soon as we boarded he broke down crying in my arms. My dear buddy, Mikey, the tough guy with the big heart. He had suffered through a battle with stage-four cancer and survived. But now he had just lost the battle for his oldest son, Cameron, my godson, who was in federal prison for using and dealing heroin. … Michael had endured a few tough years, a struggle to save his marriage and then a hard-fought battle with throat cancer. But this long-running crucible was as close to breaking him as anything I had seen.
But they weren’t going to get Mikey. Not on my watch. We talked it out, man to man and margarita to margarita, for a few days at sea. …
Pigozzi (Jean Pigozzi, bien sur, Johnny to his peers, heir to the automobile brand Simca and a discerning art collector, photographer, fashion designer and all-round mucky-muck) was throwing himself a sixtieth-birthday party. When we sailed into Baie Longue, we could see Johnny’s 20,000-square-foot, post-modern, multi-storey mountaintop castle in the distance. Isla Simca was Pigozzi’s pastel redoubt on the summit of a jungle island, a place I hadn’t seen since our visit with Mick (oh, him again).
The other boat at anchor in the bay was the 400-foot Luna, property of Roman Abramovich, the multibillionaire oligarch who was one of the closest to Vladimir Putin. (You know. The former owner of the Chelsea soccer club who enriched himself following the collapse of the Soviet Union by obtaining Russian state-owned assets at a fraction of their worth— steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you king). His wife, Dasha Zhukova, was also there for the party. Our expedition boat, Latitude, looked sad bobbing quietly next door to the Luna, which had nine decks.
Save for the classy alligator side tables and the life-size portraits of jazz quartets from Zambia, I’ll spare you the lavish description of the castle, which Wenner describes as straight out of Dr. No. But let us gamely soldier (sailor?) on, despite the unholy bummer of having Mick (you know how he is) cancel at the last minute:
It was a weekend of jet-skiing in the mangroves, ATVs in the jungles, and big dinners. Dasha hosted a party on the rear deck of the Luna, which had its own swimming pool. It was a cross-dressing party. Jane Buffett (Jimmy’s wife, not Warren’s, just in case you were wondering) had flown in from St. Barts and stayed on our boat. She loaned me her clothes and Catherine (Zeta-Jones, natch) did my makeup. Matt and I won the dance-off.
Next sentence (I swear I am not making this up):
I went back to the White House to interview Obama again.
The average salary in Panama last year was $25,319 US, also just in case you were wondering. And yeah, when you find yourself playing Fellini Satyricon footsie with crassly venal Russian oligarchs, you’re invisible now. You’ve got no secrets to conceal. What a long strange trip it’s been from that old time rock’n’roll.
Speaking of which. Today’s music, Wenner laments at one point, ain’t got the same soul. As a Vonnegutian old fart with his Pall Malls and his memories, who still thinks of Genesis as one of the new groups, I can’t help but find myself nodding in assent — swingin’, swayin’ and records playin’ — when he writes:
I loved music as much as ever, but it’s a general rule that nothing is as special as what you grew up with. I would rather listen to Van Morrison or Ray Charles than whatever. There was new stuff I liked — Green Day, Weezer, or the Nightsweats — right in my sweet spot but not deep in my heart.
So in solidarity with that sentiment — I knew I was out of luck the day the music autotuned — I want to make three points for Team Jann.
Uno. Back to that philosophical psychobabble about how the author gets to frame things the way he sees them in an autobiography: Anyone who has been the target of a half-century of malicious gossip, squibs and diatribes, as Wenner surely has — often by other egomaniacs and score-settlers with their own axes to grind — has the right to respond with his own spin on what went down. If you buy the book, and for my money it’s well worth the $44 Cdn, go into it knowing that half of what he says is meaningless. But he says it just to reach you, Julia. You walk into the room with your blue editing pencil in your hand. If you see somebody naked, say: Who is that? Jann?
Dos. Apart from the uneven but often spectacular music coverage, Rolling Stone under Wenner’s guidance published some of the best investigative journalism by some of the world’s greatest journalists over five decades. No mere bagatelle. As even the Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the American journalism establishment, was raving by the early 1970s:
In a very real sense, it has spoken for — and to — an entire generation of young Americans. It has given an honest — and searching — account of the deepest social revolution of our times. … Rolling Stone spawned a unique brand of long (up to 20,000 words) profiles and essays, splashy graphics and hard-hitting investigative pieces cutting across the underbelly and nerve endings of modern American life.
It began with a report about an inspired questionnaire on drug use in Vietnam, as later brought to life in the movie Apocalypse Now. Then David Felton and David Dalton’s chilling takeout on the Manson family. Then the Altamont disaster (see below). Then Hunter S. Thompson on “Freak Power in the Rockies: The Battle of Aspen,” where urban dropouts, well-heeled hippies and drug dealers nearly succeeded in electing their own candidate for mayor.
Stonewall. Tom Wolfe on Apollo 17, which begat The Right Stuff. Daniel Ellsberg laying out the spiderweb of Henry Kissinger. Watergate. The exclusive account of where Patty Hearst hid out during her secret year on the run. An analysis of how the National Rifle Association and its allies keep outspending, outmanoeuvring and outgunning proponents (like Wenner) of gun-law reform in the U.S. Rocking around the Glock, as it were.
The splashy debut of Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. The AIDS epidemic. The deranged Sean Penn-El Chapo saga. Early, prescient warnings about the deadly menace of climate change and the existential threat to democracy posed by a snake oil-selling, seemingly risible New York developer, reality show shitbag and con man. And on and on.
I put Trump on the cover in September 2015. This was before the primaries, but he was out there chewing the scenery, mesmerizing the crowds with his angry bullshit and nearly illiterate mumbo jumbo, turning his rivals impotent with mockery. I didn’t know if this was unstoppable, but the tea leaves were in plain sight. I did feel certain that this was not a lark for Trump, not just a marketing stunt, although he was an absolute whore for publicity. He would fuck over anybody for a few lines of ink. Trump was drooling for the cover and attention from us.
None of our political writers were interested. (Matt) Taibbi ducked. Trump was too low-life and a clown. (Managing editor) Will (Dana) recruited Paul Solotaroff, one of our steady contributors, a veteran of twenty-five years at Rolling Stone, whose specialty was tough guys, crime, and tragedy. He was a former steroid-using bodybuilder.
On their flight to a rally in New Hampshire, the only other reporter aboard Trump’s custom 757 was from Breitbart News. It was on that flight that Trump remarked to Solotaroff about Carly Fiorina (then a rival for the Republican presidential nomination), “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? C’mon, folks, are we serious?” When the quote was picked up and became an early controversy, Trump stated that he had never said it and that “Wenner personally made that up and forced the writer to put it in.”
From the moment Paul boarded the plane, Trump began lying, starting with the size of the plane (“bigger than Air Force One”). Paul could smell the breath of the dragon, calling Trump “a top-of-the-food-chain killer … gaining strength and traction by the hour.” I wrote the cover headline, “Taking Trump Seriously,” because people didn’t believe it was possible. I did.
Not all of the investigative pieces were home runs, of course. Wenner famously had his ass sued when the “Rape on Campus” piece the magazine published in 2014 about a brutal gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia turned out to have been fabricated by a “victim” who stopped returning calls and disappeared.
In the immortal closing words of Osgood Fielding III in Some Like it Hot, well, nobody’s perfect.
But step back for a moment, spark up and reflect on this partial roll call of the writers and editors indebted to Wenner — even those who wound up hating him — for giving them a forum in which to nurture and showcase their talents: Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Cameron Crowe, Joe Eszterhas, Timothy Ferris, Grover Lewis, Jon Landau, Marianne Partridge, Peter Travers, Ben Fong-Torres, Paul Nelson, Dave Marsh, Chet Flippo (a real name I always figured was some kind of stoner nom de plume), Greil Marcus, Joe Klein, David Foster Wallace, P.J. O’Rourke.
Zang! That’s talent, albeit for the most part a white, old boys’ club. They enriched the lives of grateful readers immeasurably, informing and amusing us. Sounds of laughter, shades of life were ringing through my open ears, inciting and inviting me. Rama lama ding dong.
Tres: This might be the most important one. I know, it’s only rock’n’roll. But we like it. Together with the great Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, Wenner played a pivotal role in establishing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The music and its heroes have been a gas, gas, gas since we were kids. Despite what our parents and most of the media gatekeepers of the 1950s and ’60s thought, rock deserved to be taken seriously. A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that magazine used to make me smile.
Dipping into the Wenner memoir, before rock impresario Earl McGrath teaches him how to be rich and he lapses into self-parody, fearing not that he’d become his enemy in the instant that he preens, here are 10 early Wenner anecdotes from what Hagan accurately described as “the story of how man’s ego and ambition captured the 1960s youth culture of rock and roll and turned it into a hothouse of fame, power, politics, and riches that would last for fifty years.”
Not sure they’re the gospel truth — in fact, I’m quite sure they’re not — but you never ask questions when God’s on your side. Are you ready for a brand new beat?
1) Rebellious Jewish son of atheist parents (his increasingly bohemian mom would join a crazy sex cult and decide she was a lesbian) — a boy who decided around the sixth grade that he would become an editor and publisher — gets first taste of the big time after dabbling in student journalism.
July 1964. Having navigated the usual huffy, waspish minefields of anti-Semitism at a posh L.A. County boarding school, his Mad Men, Benson and Hedges, Scotch and sodas-era parents’ divorce — not to mention “sexual confusion, adolescent anger, and an allergy to authority” — disaffected Berkeley student Wenner landed a gig with NBC at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco that picked libertarian Barry Goldwater as its presidential standard-bearer.
I became the gofer in the broadcast booth, fetching Salem cigarettes and ripping wire copy for the anchormen, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, for four straight days and nights. I watched from the booth with them as the Goldwater delegates booed and shook their fists at the newsmen, urged on by a speech by former President Eisenhower.
Plus ça change.
2) Are you experienced? Acid experiences with first serious girlfriend Denise Kaufman, who would be recruited by Ken Kesey and become known among the Merry Pranksters as Mary Microgram.
Denise and LSD changed my life. The acid provided so much depth to any experience. It let me understand something in its many dimensions and meanings that would ordinarily be disguised and unknowable to the strictly rational, unspiritual mind. Of all those experiences, music had the most powerful effect on me. Music could express the inexpressible. My listening to rock and roll at that time was infused with the use and impact of LSD. I became an evangelist for music and psychedelics. …
On the way out of the show (Rolling Stones in San Jose, Dec. 4, 1965) I was handed a hand-drawn flyer promoting an event called “The Acid Test” at a private house a few blocks away. It was a jam-packed party in a Victorian near San Jose State. Kool-Aid laced with acid was being passed around. The band was loud. They looked like rough characters. When they stopped, I asked the bass player who they were. He whispered in my ear, from one head full of acid to another, “We are the Grateful Dead.” That is a mind-blowing phrase to hear when you are deep in the psychedelic. They had been the Warlocks, and that night was their first performance as the Dead.
If you look at the floor, you’ll see it still needs sweeping.
3. The first issue — featuring a freely acquired photo of John Lennon on the cover, news of a new group called Blood, Sweat and Tears, a mixed review of Cream, a “Perspectives” opinion piece by Ralph J. Gleason and a report that David Crosby had been tossed out of the Byrds — rolls off a small web offset press in San Francisco on Oct. 17, 1967.
We created Rolling Stone in Ralph’s living room (Ralph being Ralph J. Gleason, then the respected 48-year-old jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, champion of the Free Speech Movement and pretty much the only bona fide adult journalist who sympathized with the hippie and rock worlds), sitting in his green, cracked-leather armchairs. We would need volunteers, investors, a design, articles and photos, and a logo. … Ralph put in $2,000 and I put up $1,500. All in all, I raised $7,500 to start Rolling Stone. …
We printed 40,000 copies of a twenty-four page tabloid, then boxed and shipped them throughout the country to tiny tiny magazine wholesalers who had not ordered the magazine and had never heard of us. … Some 33,000 copies were returned in unopened boxes. Those that sold did the trick, though; we began to get letters from people in the oddest places. My favourite was from Cookie Sills, in Paducah, Kentucky, because of the name and place. In San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City, Rolling Stone triggered a small but excited response, enough to make me feel that we had something and that we should keep going.
4. It took three months to do the first issue. For the next one, two weeks later, there wasn’t enough time to plan anything. The cupboard was empty; we were down to seeds and stems.
Ralph’s second “Perspectives” column came from the opposite side of the cultural divide. Zal Yanovsky, the lead guitarist of the Lovin’ Spoonful, had been arrested by the San Francisco police for possession of pot and was offered a chance to avoid deportation — he was Canadian — if he would set up a local dealer. Once that got out, various underground papers started a boycott of the Spoonful. Ralph wrote a plea for compassion and civility, and against a rush to judgment. He stood against fashionable hypocrisy, even if it was dressed like a hippie. His last line was “Do we really want to be selling postcards of the hanging?” It was Dylan’s great line from “Desolation Row.” …
The main story of that issue was an editorial I wrote: “A self-appointed coterie of political ‘radicals’ with no legitimate constituency has formed the Youth International Party, the Yippies, and have started a blitzkrieg to organize a hip protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. What makes this otherwise transparent event worthy of notice is that these leftover radical politicos will rise and fall on their ability to exploit the image and popularity of rock and roll.”
I had disliked Jerry Rubin when he organized two bloody antiwar protests in Berkeley. Nothing about him struck me as genuine. I thought he was a hustler who saw protest primarily as a way to become famous. And then he hooked up with Abby Hoffman, who had wit and madness in him but was also a prodigious hustler. These two were the so-called Youth International Party.
They had decided to have a “Festival of Life” at the Democratic convention that would attract hundreds of thousands of kids because of the big rock groups they said would be coming. To do anything in Chicago without Mayor Daley’s okay, to get all those long-haired rock fans to show up in the face of Daley’s police, was a reckless risk of lives.
Nobody would call bullshit on it, whether out of fear or left-wing political correctness. I called around and found that every group they attempted to recruit had said no. We printed this banner headline over my piece: “Musicians Reject New Political Exploiters.” Hundreds were injured and gassed, but I think our warning had been heard.
5. Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, a naked Beatle and a thoroughly pissed-off Lady of the Canyon.
I sat at the mixing board between Glyn (record producer Glyn Johns) and Mick, and suddenly out of this supersonic sound system came “Street Fighting Man.” They played it again and again as they mixed it, stunning on first lesson, absolutely incredible as the song became more familiar. They also worked on “No Expectations.” Then Mick stopped the mixing and told me he had finished one more, and would I like to hear it? It was “Sympathy for the Devil.” The final take had been done the day after Bobby Kennedy had been gunned down, and Mick added the lines, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ After all, it was you and me.” …
Pete loves to talk, he loves to think, and he loves to ramble about his many strong opinions, which often contradict one another. We talked about his guitar smashing: when he started it and why, how he felt while doing it and after it was over. We mostly talked about the Who and their future. Pete said: ‘We have been talking about doing an opera called Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy, and the hero is played by the Who. We really want to create the feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy. He sees things basically as vibrations, which we translate as music. The boy elevates and finds something incredible and overwhelming.”
Pete told me later that this was the first time he had articulated the concept for Tommy. …
John Lennon and Yoko Ono had released their first record together, Two Virgins, and John’s record company banned the cover photo of the two of them standing naked, a photo John had taken with a timer on his Nikon. Ralph said I should get in touch with John and Yoko and offer to print it in Rolling Stone. …
We quickly got a yes from John and Yoko, without conditions, and a week later a mailing tube covered with shipping labels and customs stamps arrived at our printer’s loft. Inside were the family jewels. …
“Nude Beatle Perils S.F.” was the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was our first notice in the press. The issue was banned in a few places, including Boston. But it sold out everywhere else. We went back to press and doubled our normal run. …
Joni Mitchell was Ben’s (Fong-Torres) first cover and the last time she talked to Rolling Stone for a decade. Jerry Hopkins had created a diagrammatic sidebar on the interlocking love lives of Laurel Canyon musicians. Joni was pretty much the most interlocked, and that was it for us and her for many years.
Hagan’s reporting on Mitchell’s interlocking love lives, which Wenner makes sound like a harmless, boys-will-be-boys schoolboy hoot, is more revealing:
After she released “Caifornia,” Rolling Stone published an infamous two-page chart called “Hollywood’s Hot 100,” annotating the internecine relationships of the Los Angeles “haut monde,” from A&M’s “Aristocrats” (Gil Friesen and Herb Alpert) to the singers and sidemen, including the CSNY “Bachelors,” with Joni Mitchell at the centre of it all, her name printed inside a lipstick stain and surrounded by arrows suggesting she’d slept with David Crosby, James Taylor, and Stephen Stills. …
The chart had no attribution or byline but was created by Jerry Hopkins, Wenner’s L.A. correspondent, who said he initially drew it up as a joke. It was Jann Wenner, he claimed, who insisted on publishing it in February 1972. “I was horrified,” Hopkins said, “but not nearly so much as Joni was.”
6. With the lovely flowers in her hair.
Danny (Fields, the Elektra Records “house hippie” who introduced Wenner to Andy Warhol’s demimonde and the New York rock-critic clique) arranged a dinner for me with an up-and-coming rock photographer, Linda Eastman, a comely blonde from Scarsdale, New York. Everyone assumed she was an heiress to the Eastman Kodak fortune, though she was Jewish and the daughter of an entertainment lawyer. We had a little flirt that didn’t go far. At her Upper East Side apartment she had binders and file drawers full of her photographs. I picked out about a hundred to take back to San Francisco; they were the foundation of the Rolling Stone photo library.
She was a good photographer, and we became good friends. Soon enough she asked if I would assign her to shoot the Beatles in London; she would pay her own way. Sure, why? To meet Paul. She would send me postcards from London, detailing her pursuit of him. Soon enough a card arrived saying she’d been on a date with him. Then another: “All is well. Thanks to you. x Linda.”
7. Altamont, the free so-called “Woodstock West” concert topped by the Rolling Stones at the speedway 50 miles east of San Francisco, Dec. 6, 1969.
The Hells Angels (who might or might not have been hired as security by the Stones management, depending on whom you believe) had murdered someone in front of the stage, a black kid, Meredith Hunter. … The problem was that this could lead to our placing the blame on the Rolling Stones, particularly Mick. The staff was keenly aware of my relationship with him. So how did I want to handle it? …
I sat alone in my office and stared at my picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and at the banned Beggars Banquet cover on my wall. I didn’t think what had happened was any more Mick’s fault than that of others in the tour, but I got up, walked into the editorial department, and in a clear voice … said, “We are going to cover this thing from top to bottom. And we are going to lay the blame. Let it bleed.” …
The piece took up seventeen pages in the magazine, an astounding piece of reporting and reading. I was proud. We wrote responsibly and drew conclusions from the facts. But it was dark, dark, dark. I knew Mick wasn’t going to like it. …
A few weeks later we were doing a piece on the aftermath of Altamont and asked Mick for an interview. He sent me a telegram:
You want to ask me many questions about Altamont, which I would normally be only too pleased to answer and have indeed answered to many other people. However, unfortunately rightly or wrongly we no longer trust you to quote us fully or in context. I hope our friendship can flourish again one day.
That was our last issue of the sixties.
Spoiler alert: Being the savvy businessman he is (those abandoned studies at the London School of Economics weren’t a complete waste), Mick quickly forgave party pal Jann and now respects Wenner just as much as, well, you know. Mick also forgave him for quickly aborting the British version of the magazine that they were going to run together, not to mention the appropriation of his band’s name, which Bob Dylan instead attributed to his song “Like a Rolling Stone,” which actually came from a Muddy Water tune, which really comes from that old proverb about a rolling stone gathering no moss, which might or might not have originated with a former Roman slave from Syria named Publilius Syrus just before Jesus and the other original sandal-wearers took the stage. Whatever. It’s a keeper.
A lawyer representing the firm of predatory Stones manager Allen Klein once made a half-hearted threat to sue if Wenner didn’t stop using the band’s name, to which the then callow publisher cannily responded: “ ‘This is not where their heads are at.’ My toughest legalese. I never heard back.”
Thirty-five years would pass before Jagger and Wenner would sign a legal agreement over the name they shared. Hell. Truth be told, son, even Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he hung his hat was his home.
Moral: A rolling stone gathers no moss, but it certainly picks up a green hue along the way.
8. First appointment with the Doctor.
Hunter (S. Thompson, who was already renowned for his gutsy book about the Angels) came to San Francisco to see me for our first meeting in the summer of 1970. I had expected him to be at the office around two o’clock, just after breakfast, he said. He showed up at four, making what I later realized was his typical, carefully put together entrance. He was a big solid guy, a few inches over six feet. He wore Converse white sneakers, Bermuda shorts, and a rayon shirt patterned in interlocking red circles. Most notably, he had a head full of silver hair in curls, cut in a fashionable lady’s bubble style.
He mumbled something to the effect that his name was Hunter. I got up, shook his hand, and sat down while he swung a leather satchel onto my desk and began unpacking it with clumsy deliberateness, punctuated with grunts and the occasional “Aha!” He wanted me to notice every item he deemed necessary to have on hand. He had two six-packs of Budweiser, a bowie knife in a leather case, a hammer, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a pipe, and an air horn screwed to an aerosol can, along with other daily needs such as a carton of Dunhill Red cigarettes, a Zippo lighter, a plastic case of Tar Guard filters for his cigarette holder, magazines, and notebooks. Also, a black, heavy-duty police flashlight that doubled as a billy club. And emergency road flares.
Hunter was sorting through what he thought he would need for our meeting and what to put back when he hit the button on the air horn, which shrieked for about three seconds and scared the piss out of me, and then suddenly stood up and yelled “Ye gods!” He settled down and pulled off the wig he was wearing. He was shaved totally bald. …
I had no idea what was coming down the tracks.
9. Lennon regrets.
When John and Yoko got back to London, soon after their visit to me, they recorded their first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, through the rest of ’69. I got letters from him, addressed to me in “San Francisow, Californiar,” with the W of my last name illustrated as butt cheeks. … He would be in New York in early December for release of the album, and ready for our interview. …
(Then unknown photographer) Annie (Leibovitz), who had little experience with something so important, offered to travel on a youth fare and stay with friends. She begged for the chance and agreed that I would own the negatives. Deal! …
John and Yoko referred to themselves as Liz and Dick — Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — whenever I went out with them. One day they were in a loft with a small camera crew making Up Your Legs Forever, a Yoko project in which they filmed more than three hundred people’s naked backsides from the waist down. I was having lunch with Tom Wolfe, and brought him to the studio, dressed to the toe tips as usual. Annie was there, shooting. Tom declined to strip; I would only do it with my underpants on. I’m the one in the navy-blue jockey shorts. …
John talked about his early days in London when the Beatles and the Stones ruled the nightlife; his ongoing friendship with Mick; meeting Bob Dylan; his LSD trips; songwriting with Paul; his favourite songs; vacationing with Brian Epstein, their gay manager; his love for the poet Chuck Berry. There was a lot of myth shattering. … “We had that image, but the tours were something else, whores, junk, orgies.”
But what got the most attention was what he said about Paul. They were in a battle for control of the Beatles business, with Allen Klein facing off with McCartney’s in-laws, the Eastman family, father and son, both tough entertainment lawyers. John was respectful of Paul’s talents and the partnership they had shared. But it was a public divorce, and he had some pretty nasty stuff to say. …
The piece hit front pages. The End of the Beatles! Satyricon, Lennon Claims! I Don’t Believe in Beatles Says Lennon; I Broke Up, Not Paul — banner headlines for days in England, splashed on every newsstand, and throughout the world.
Paul was hurt the most. In a later Rolling Stone interview he said, “I sat down and pored over every paragraph, every sentence. And at the time I thought it’s me. … That’s just what I’m like. He’s captured me so well. I’m a turd.”
I had an awkward relationship with Paul for years because I was handmaiden to this “last testament” of John’s, where he defined what he thought should be Paul’s legacy. I’m sure John would have liked to take back some of what he said. He started calling the interview “Lennon Regrets.” But it was all truth, his truth, and to read it is to know that and to know John Lennon. …
We published the interview as a book (titled Lennon Remembers) the following fall, against John’s wishes. I had the clear right to do so. … It made me sick to feel as if I was “betraying” John. He accepted it but wouldn’t talk to me. His relationship with Rolling Stone remained, which was a comfort. He signed off his later letters to me with “Lennon remembers!” It was playful and I took it as a sign of reconciliation. …
We had done the interview in New York City, December 8, 1970. Ten years later, to the day, John was dead.
10. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972
I was having the time of my life with the good Doctor Thompson. (George) McGovern (that year’s Democratic candidate for president) called him Sheriff. Hunter was always on some form of speed; he would talk at enormous length and leave me weeping with laughter. He once told me — and later wrote — he had discovered that Senator (Edmund) Muskie (a former U.S. Secretary of State and McGovern rival for the Democratic Party nomination) was using the rare South American drug ibogaine, which enabled the native tribe to remain absolutely motionless for a full two days while maintaining mental alertness. There was a doctor from Brazil aboard because Muskie’s mind had become paralyzed and at rallies could see only Gila monsters, not people. …
With each new piece Hunter filed, we would pick out a new style of dingbats to use as space breakers between columns of type. Now we chose vampire bats. “It is time,” he wrote, “to come face-to-face with the fact that we are a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen with all the money they need to buy guns … Jesus! Where will it all end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?”
Hunter at his most memorable: “It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character. Our Barbie doll president, with his Barbie doll wife and his box full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string warts, on nights when the moon comes too close.
Plus ça change. Or did I say that already?
Along with the free world, one of the casualties of the victory of batshit crazy evangelical Handmaid’s Tale, full-on hardcore Trumpism 2.0 in tomorrow’s American midterm elections (I’m posting this on Nov. 7) is bound to be, ipso facto, rocking in the free world.
Turn on Fox, tune in Russian bots, drop democracy. Judas Iscariot has God on his side. Going, going, gonzo.
“I came of age,” Wenner writes early on, “with my country in flames, at home and abroad. Nixon came along and mobilized fear and hate into a national movement. He started the War on Drugs. Every last bit of it was racist. The men I believed in were assassinated, shot down like dogs. This was not what we’d been promised. This was not the American dream.”
Half a century later, compared with the million-pound shit hammer — a Raoul Dukian image for what’s about to go down — I find myself feeling strangely nostalgic toward Nixon and Kissinger, neither of whom was full of passionate intensity for triggering the Book of Revelation.
Ralph Gleason had it mostly right in a letter to readers he wrote for the 100th issue of Rolling Stone:
Everything changes. Rolling Stone is going through some changes now, some of which are visible and some of which are invisible, even to us. It is predicated on honest intentions, on the belief that music is central to our time, and that the great musicians are, in the culture, more than any other recent times, the true shamans, the religious and secular spokesmen, the educators and the poets. Music is the glue that has kept this generation from falling apart in the face of incredible adult blindness, and ignorance and evilness.
But as Gleason couldn’t have foreseen at the time, far too much of this generation — maybe more than the last — has become the face of incredible adult blindness, and ignorance and evilness. The turntable spindle could not hold.
Hitler, too, was right about one thing in Mein Kampf. People are more likely to accept a big lie than a small one. History never repeats itself, but fuck me and fuck you and fuck us all, it rhymes and rhymes and rhymes. What a long strange Trump it’s been.
Here we are all in one place, turning and turning in the widening gyre, a generation lost in space with no time left to start again. You can’t always get what you want.
The Rolling Stone message may not have always moved us or meant a great deal to us. But hey, it felt so groovy to say: Hey hey. My my. Rock’n’roll will never die. Thank Christ we had something better to read than Tiger Beat or Crawdaddy back when time was on our side.
Wish I’d bought five copies for my mother.
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out. — William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair