In the spring of 1970, a scant month or so before receiving a BA in philosophy from Georgetown University, I had no clue how I was going to support myself once I was off the parental dole. “Not a lot of work out there for philosophers,” my father used to say on a regular basis…one of the few things on which we agreed. Then lightning struck in the form of a tiny notice buried in the Washington Post: the newspaper was looking for its first rock critic. I had listened to plenty of records, even played in a band. I mailed them a résumé, such as was any college student’s: GS-3 Orderly, St. Elizabeths Hospital—the D.C. nuthouse—summer 1968. Emphatically, I did not mention I had turned down a nonpaying job that same summer as director of photography on a documentary about a rock festival happening in Upstate New York. “Who’s gonna care about that,” I said flippantly to the director, Michael Wadleigh. He had spelled his name “Wadley” when we were classmates, for one semester, at NYU’s film school. The Post called me in for a succession of interviews. “Could you write objectively about Kim Agnew?” I was asked, she being the daughter of Richard Nixon’s soon-to-be-dumped vice president. A lot of questions for what was virtually a shoo-in. Only two people had applied, and I got the job…thus becoming partly responsible for Nixon’s demise: the losing applicant was Carl Bernstein, who with second prize returned to his night police reporter beat. Don’t even contemplate the inverse!
The Post (as we then referred to the WaPo) didn’t really need a rock critic. It had a number of contributors, including Bernstein, who had been submitting reviews. But as was the case with much of the media, it certainly had been caught with its shorts at half-mast, both at Woodstock (nobody there…including me, the MIA director of photography!) and Altamont (WaPo AWOL again). Something was happening, and they didn’t know what it was; what they needed was somebody who could sniff it out, a nose for an amorphously defined world of music and, perhaps more importantly, its blast zone. Indeed, during my initial week on the job, one of the first things executive editor Ben Bradlee asked was, “Do you know this guy Wenner out in San Francisco?” I didn’t, but soon would, first as a regular contributor to his magazine and, eventually, as a longtime friend. And now this guy Wenner, who had started Rolling Stone about two years before Bradlee’s question, has written a long and loping memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, about his 50 years at the magazine.
His life is a riches-to-even-more-riches story, of sorts: Jan Wenner grows up in a wealthy part of Marin County; is floored by Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” at age 10; three years later is shuttled off to Chadwick, a ritzy boarding school near L.A., where he dances with fellow student Liza Minnelli; first hears the Beatles at age 18 (late!); goes to Berkeley and becomes seriously ensconced in both the student-demonstration and drug-consumption worlds; adds a second n to his first name; drops out and begins work at Sunday Ramparts magazine; and then, in 1967, at the age of 21, with a $7,500 loan, starts the magazine, with a manifesto of sorts:
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.… We hope that we have something here for the artists, and the industry and every person who believes in “the magic that can set you free.” 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. To describe it any further would be difficult without sounding like bullshit, and bullshit is like gathering moss.
Ironically, even as Wenner touts his own genius repeatedly and name-drops virtually every celebrity in, vaguely related to, or even completely removed from the rock pantheon throughout the more than 550 pages of the book, he sells himself short in not focusing on his eureka moment, the genius of his incredible, differentiating insight. He’s having dinner with Jackie O.! He’s having lunch with the terminally polite New Yorker editor William Shawn! (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of the Algonquin Hotel’s dining room for that…) It’s hard now, in the double-barreled age of Fox’s Road Runner versus MSNBC’s Wile E. Coyote (did I get that backward?), to imagine the media world into which Rolling Stone was born, when most newspapers, magazines, and TV networks actually tried to present reporting they would have called objective and balanced—a word now commandeered and factionalized, as has been the formally vanilla phrase “mainstream media.” It’s what Ben Bradlee strove to present every day in the Washington Post. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Bradlee attempting to do anything else: part of the reason he was a great editor, but not necessarily a great businessman.
Nonetheless, his nose for news knew Wenner was doing something quite tangential to that, thus introducing a tectonic shift to journalism…and having a huge impact in the process. Specifically, Wenner realized there was an ever-expanding audience of young people who loved sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, and he was going to deliver words and pictures that would appeal solely to them, rather than a general audience. (Can you dig it?) Wenner predated by 30 years the creepy Roger Ailes, creator in 1996 of Fox News, who stole Wenner’s playbook for appealing to people who felt trapped and marginalized in a world they believed they never made or no longer belonged to or accepted as real. Alternate facts! You could argue that Vietnam was Wenner’s strongest marketing campaign (“Hell no, we won’t go.”), just as Trump (more later) pushed Fox’s revenues to record numbers (“You won’t hear this on mainstream media…”).
Like a Rolling Stone arrives just five years on the heels of Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers, an often critical Wenner biography, almost as if the Dylanesque side of the story (what’s not to like about Bob?) is a retort to the mangier Mick-and-Keef approach. Hagan delivers plenty of stories so sticky you want to wash your hands. But he does sometimes salute:
From 1971 to 1977, Jann Wenner was the most important magazine editor in America, shepherding the generational plot lines of the 1960s into a rambling biweekly serial of rock and roll news, hard and outrageous (and impossibly long) journalism, left-wing political opinion, sexual liberation, and drugs—always drugs…it was a left-wing magazine, though it was tempered by Wenner’s devotion to the establishment. And the success of Rolling Stone would eventually make Wenner a full-blooded figure of that establishment.
Hunter Thompson, whose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was serialized in the magazine, and in the process put both Thompson and so-called New Journalism on the map, was all too happy to bite the hand that had fed him: “He’s been there a long time,” Thompson said to me in 1975 about Wenner, “and he’s getting richer and richer. But it’s a different magazine than it was three or four years ago. It’s run for the accounting department now, rather than for the editors and writers. The masthead has gotten very bottom-heavy—all sorts of business types.”
Indeed, dealing with Wenner could be…sticky. He’d promise to pay one amount, then say he couldn’t afford that…after you turned in your copy. He’d cancel assignments on the spur of the moment. I once showed up at Dulles Airport, where a ticket to Brazil was supposedly waiting, so I could do reporting for a piece on killer bees; what I was handed at the end of the ticket line was…a telegram from Wenner, telling me the assignment had been canceled. As angry as I was, I thought, Wow! The guy knows how to get a telegram to a ticket counter. (Maybe he did it all the time?) One evening in the late summer of 1980, I came into the Rolling Stone office to make final edits with managing editor Harriet Fier on a long piece about a cocaine smuggler for Issue 326, almost ready for the press with Rodney Dangerfield on its cover. An apparently coked-up Wenner came bounding into the office, glanced at the layout, and started screaming, “How did Dangerfield get there? It was supposed to be Peter Gabriel.” Fier and her staff labored into the night and got Gabriel on the front. And then an apparently even more coked-up Wenner came back into the office many hours later: “What’s this Peter Gabriel picture doing on the cover? It’s supposed to be Rodney Dangerfield.” This is your brain on drugs. On another occasion, when a story I had written generated an enormous amount of mail—a tale of two born-again brothers who traveled the country getting kids to burn their rock records—Wenner sent me a bonus. When I had pointed out to the brothers that the Nazis similarly burned books, they failed to get the comparison; Wenner and I were equally astonished at their naïveté; as apparently were tens of thousands of the magazine’s readers, whose letters filled scores of mail sacks.
In his first Letter from the Editor, the only song Wenner quotes is the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic”—certainly a good song by a fun band. But it’s telling that he never mentions a single band at the level of, or less well-known than, the Spoonful; he never even mentions the Spoonful by name in the book. You’d think a guy who spent half a century ensconced in rock ’n’ roll would know a ton of artists who never quite broke through: Little Feat, Jesse Winchester, Aimee Mann…this rock critic could make a monumental list. But there are none from Wenner. Is it because he considers music a by-product of fame and celebrity? You can get an infinitely better sense of the music and the music scene in the ’70s from reading the absolutely mesmerizing Twentieth-Century Boy by Duncan Hannah, an art student who lived in downtown New York and kept astonishingly frank journals: “I saw Patti [Smith] in the laundromat on Thompson Street.… [She] asked if I knew a piano player she could use, so I suggested [my roommate] Eric. He practiced with her a few times, but she cut him off during ‘Land of a Thousand Dances,’ saying, ‘Hey Eric, when I sing “Do you know how to pony?” I’m not talking about dancing.’ She gave him a lecture about rock and sex.”
Wenner was certainly not hanging out in laundromats, hoping to meet potential stars. Even before launching the magazine, he was proposing record reviews to High Fidelity magazine of…the Beatles! “If James Joyce played the electric guitar he would probably have made an album like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s…,” Wenner wrote. According to Hagan, it was rejected as “pretentious guff.” That said, Wenner desperately craved celebrities: he wanted to create them; he wanted to befriend them; he wanted to bask in their glory. He tells of Bruce Springsteen making him mixtapes, Bette Middler examining his enlarged scrotum on a hospital visit, Bono and kids popping over for dinner. And then there’s Trump, as Hagan writes:
Jann Wenner’s life tells the story of a man and his generation. It is also a parable of the age of narcissism. Through image and word, Wenner was a principal architect of the rules of modern self-celebration—the “Me” in the Me Decade.… That Wenner is the same age as President Donald J. Trump, whose ascent to power was built on celebrity, is perhaps no coincidence. Indeed, Wenner’s oldest friends saw in Trump’s personality, if not his politics, a striking likeness to the Rolling Stone founder—deeply narcissistic men for whom celebrity is the ultimate confirmation of existence.
Yoko Ono, whom I had come to know in my days at the WaPo and with whom I spent an evening 10 years ago—winding up at a Paul McCartney concert—may have delivered the most succinct exegesis of Wenner’s art and commerce dialectic I’ve ever heard. Our conversation drifted to the long and bitter interview John Lennon had done with Wenner in 1971, which quickly became the two bestselling issues of Rolling Stone, and was ultimately published as a book, Lennon Remembers. “It was so sad,” Yoko said. “Jann was such a good friend, which was why John was so candid with him. But when he read in the magazine some of the things he had said, he was embarrassed by how vicious some of it had been, especially toward Paul. He asked Jann not to publish it as a book. When Jann told him he was going to do it, John was heartbroken. Jann wanted the money, more than our friendship. And John never spoke to him again.” Ten years later he was dead.
When he heavily cut a review by Robert Christgau, a name almost always used in apposition with the phrase “dean of rock critics,” Christgau fired back: “I think you are bright and earnest and have the worst case of San Francisco pompousness I’ve ever observed… Your aesthetic assumptions are hopelessly outdated… Do you always write letters when you are high or have you merely developed the faculty of sounding that way when you are straight?” Wenner certainly loved his drugs, so he probably was high. And he certainly suffers from selective memory. But he does tell a remarkably candid tale of his own coming out and the impact it had on his wife of many years and their family.
Sometimes in life, you just shake your head and say, “That guy was something else.” And he certainly was, often for the better, sometimes for the worse. But never a dull moment, and always a laugh. My last direct interaction with him was an email just before the pandemic hit, the last day of 2019:
I was strolling down Clement Street on New Year’s Eve, in search of some roast squab. As I passed Green Apple Books, I was initially dismayed to see sitting atop a bin of used books a copy of Hagan’s biography—priced at $5.98. Then I noticed that Hotchner’s bio of Hemingway was sitting right next to it—priced at $3.98. I think you’re doing just fine.
I meant it; he didn’t agree. And as he had been repeatedly, over a 50-year career, he was yet again a political soothsayer:
Happy 2020. Say your prayers. Get ready for a brawl.
January 6 was two days later.•