Jann S. Wenner: Like a Rolling Stone (book review)

“The battle of the generations was for the soul of America. Rock and roll was soft power. This was the underlying theme of Rolling Stone: a charter to examine all aspects of America, to get “the latest spin on the shit we’re in,” in Jackson Browne’s phrase, so this book is in part a report on today’s world and how we got here. It was one of the most admirable periods in our nation’s history. Young people saw that their leaders could be dreadfully wrong in their judgments, that they could no longer assume that those in high places knew what they were doing.”

– Jann S. Wenner

The long-awaited memoirs of Rolling Stone magazine’s founder and publisher, and arguably one of contemporary music’s most influential people.

Like a Rolling Stone (Little, Brown and Company, 2022), follows Jann Wenner’s life and that of the magazine, from inception through his sale of the magazine. Wenner and Rolling Stone are essentially one entity, or so it seems. It is hard to think of the magazine without Wenner, but son Gus is now editor-in-chief under the new ownership, so the Wenner name continues at Rolling Stone.

“FROM THE FIRST issue I thought the readers of Rolling Stone shared an understanding, an unspoken feeling about a suddenly new world. We were in this together, the tribe, the gathering of the tribes, strangers in a strange land, and what seemed to be the universal connection, the common tongue, was rock and roll, the music, the song, the dance. It was glue holding a generation together.”

– Jann S. Wenner

The book took Wenner three years to write. At 554 pages, not exactly War and Peace, yet fifty years of American cultural history and current affairs, through wars, demonstrations and civil unrest, environmental crises, elections, scientific and medical turning points, literary and entertainment achievements, and momentous events – it was a record of war and peace during half a century.

Wenner wisely, is concise in writing of his early life, like other readers, I wanted to fast-forward to the music stuff. Wenner was rebellious and a nonconformist. He self-discovered a talent for writing, and used it as a way to channel this independent spirit. His prep school final report card said this: “And in civics: ‘It has been a pleasure to have this intelligent, aggressive, and rambunctious young man in my class. Those who complain about the apathy of the younger generation haven’t met Mr. Wenner.’”

Growing up in the San Fransisco area, Wenner naturally gravitated toward attending Berkeley. In the early 1960s, the decade was already beginning to darken with JFK’s assassination, the fight for civil rights, and America’s expanded involvement in Vietnam. Then the Beatles arrived in America. “The Beatles were a last flourish of innocence and joy before the war in Vietnam came home,” Wenner writes.

Berkeley turned out to be ground-zero for campus protests, threats to free speech, and drugs. Wenner was deputy editor of a radical student newspaper, but also a stringer for NBC. He was in the middle of the battle, but could he be on a side? What he saw was how institutions of higher learning were now catering to the post World War II generation, baby boomers, who behaved and questioned unlike past generations.

His college years were spent neck-deep in music, drugs, sex and writing. LSD was huge then; the scene of acid tests and the Grateful Dead. Young Wenner was very indulgent in the counterculture, personally experiencing life through the looking glass, and getting a solid internship of the 1960s.

Wenner and journalist Ralph Gleason founded Rolling Stone because no other American magazine filled the void, “Nothing showed the awareness of the cultural revolution underway.” Rolling Stone began in a rent-free office with rented typewriters, rented cafeteria tables for desks and thrift-shop furnishings.

November 9, 1967 was the date on the first issue, which sold about 7,000 copies. John Lennon was featured on the cover, in large part because the photo was free. Inside were reviews of new albums by Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. The first interview was with the folk balladeer Donovan.

Wenner admits flying by the seat of his pants. This brash, self-assured kid might have been in over his head, but he seems to only admit it now. The business side of the magazine never held an interest for him, even in the later years he left the ledger to others. One day he received a letter from Allen Klein’s attorney telling him to stop using the Rolling Stone’s name. He wrote back, essentially telling them to prove the band didn’t want this. In other words, fuck off.

“There were no business plans, no projections. It was just a blind jump off a cliff. The priority was to get the next issue out. I was still doing most of it by myself. Magazine distribu-tion, advertising, and marketing were all unknown to me. Let alone financial management. Our bookkeeping was done by the printer’s wife.”

– Jann S. Wenner

Rolling Stone was in virgin territory, so to speak. There were teen magazines, and upstarts Creem and Crawdaddy; but neither sought the goals of Wenner’s mission. He wasn’t going for the same audience as the teen mags, and Crawdaddy and Creem did not encompass the cultural vibe that Wenner found engrained in rock and roll, and the head space of his generation. All three of these mags wrote about music, but that’s where the similarity ended.

Rolling Stone in the beginning relied on their own artist and concert photos, and ability to gain interviews with musicians. It was a different time, artists would drop by and hang out, and record companies invited reporters in. Soon, Wenner worked at building these relationships, including with photographer Linda Eastman, who he sent to London to get close to the Beatles and other English bands. Within a couple of years she became Linda McCartney. How much closer could she get?

Interesting thing about Mick Jagger. The band must not have minded the magazine and the band sharing a name, because Jagger entered into an agreement with Wenner to launch a British edition of the magazine. Unfortunately, Jagger seemed to quickly lose interest and Wenner took over the operation. Only years later did Jagger and Wenner reach an agreement on the Rolling Stone name.

Altamont is looked at as the end of the 1960s idealism. Everything about that concert pointed to disaster. It was poorly organized and having the Hells Angels provide security was a disaster that ended in death. Wenner writes that he had a decision to make: an in-depth investigative piece, that would put much of the blame on the Rolling Stones, or tread lightly and protect his relationship with Mick Jagger. He chose the former and accepted the fracture with Jagger. The 1960s ended on a sour, bleak thud.

By 1969, each issue of Rolling Stone was now selling about 100,000 copies and was finding its place with the music industry, advertisers and fans. Not only was the magazine famous, but so was it’s boss. Wenner had connected to the orbits of rock gods: John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan. Wenner has long been criticized for his cozy relationships with those he covered. It wasn’t just musicians that he developed friendships. He socialized and vacationed with Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Al Gore, John Kerry, John Kennedy and many others.

Turning a new decade, Wenner refined his magazine’s vision even finer. “We were running well-reported music pieces, profiles, and interviews of new stars and old bluesmen, R&B hitmakers, and the occasional jazz artist. I wanted to push us in other directions as well, into cultural and social issues. I was working on the premise that fans of the music we covered shared a range of concerns, broadly related, that could be seen through the lens of that music.”

Success allowed the magazine to move from the cramped space over the print shop to a more business-like location to accommodate the larger staff. Rolling Stone tackled other issues besides music; the expanding war in Southeast Asia, the war protests at home, Nixon’s war on drugs, and the Manson murders were some of the early focus. Ironically, in 2022, commenters on social media constantly complain about the magazine’s coverage of politics and issues like immigration and women’s rights, saying, get back to the good old days of covering rock music.

Wenner conducted one of the most famous interviews, sitting down with John Lennon after the Beatles split in 1970, catching Lennon in an angry, revealing, and vulnerable period. The interview later became a book, and it was something Lennon came to regret, he was quite angry at Paul McCartney, as he unloaded years of inner turmoil at his ex-partner.

As the editor/publisher of an artist-friendly rock magazine, Wenner drew musicians like moths to the light. He also collected writers who were blazing a trail of new journalism. Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff), Joe Eszterhás (Basic Instinct), Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and others gave the magazine a more edgy reputation for peeling the veneer off of standard reporting. P. J. ORourke, Jim Henke, Kurt Loder, Chris Connelly, Dave Marsh, David Fricke and many other talented writers passed through on their way to putting their stamps on American culture and literature. Annie Leibovitz got her start at RS and become arguably the best portrait photographer in the business.

Wenner wanted Rolling Stone to be much more than a music tabloid. Eventually, he scrapped the cheap newspaper for a slicker look and shrank the size to a more traditional magazine. Politics, current affairs, investigative reporting, Wenner aimed for respectability and to be a serious player in the grownup world of journalism. Patty Hearst, the fall of Saigon, Karen Silkwood, presidential elections, Watergate, Rolling Stone did not seek to report, it investigated, going deeper and often finding uncomfortable truths.

Wenner moved the magazine to NYC, having outgrown the SF-hippy culture. Now it was top shelf scotch, Studio 54, rides on corporate jets and hobnobbing with Jackie O, Airforce One with Bill Clinton, traveling to Moscow with Yoko Ono to dine with Gorbachev, biking in the Hamptons with Billy Joel, campaigning with Al Gore, best pals with Michael Douglas, vacationing with Mick, and the list goes on. The endless name-dropping gets old fast. Buying corporate jets, wrecking his Ferrari, vacations to Europe, frequent ski trips, homes across America, too much booze, a cocaine habit – we get it. With success comes excess.

With the success of the magazine, Wenner’s edges got sharper and his ego seemed to match Rolling Stone’s growing cultural swagger. He freely admits to being an unfaithful and distant husband, and was no better with his parents and siblings: he didn’t have time for the trappings and demands of those relationships. It really wasn’t until he became a parent that he got a clue, and not until his second marriage, when he came out of the closet, that his life began to change in meaningful ways.

“THAT ROLLING STONE survived and prospered was due in large part to our talent, but also to the music and culture of San Francisco whence it came and values that had been shaped by that time and place. But some were trying to say that we were a generation full of sound and fury, signi fying nothing. They wanted us to believe that what we stood for and had achieved was shallow and powerless stuff. I wanted to call bullshit on that.”

– Jann S. Wenner

Wenner lived an opulent lifestyle as RS prospered, but his US Weekly magazine bled money. The Great Recession continued the downward ad sales, and pressures of large debt threatened his media empire’s solvency. In a few short years, RS was suffering and US was paying the freight, quite the reversal. Wenner was backed into a corner of looking to lessen the RS overhead and that pointed to letting go of several long-term employees. These were expensive employees who had helped RS build its reputation and success, but were now sacrificed for the greater good. It bothered Wenner, but I couldn’t find in his book that he sold any of his extensive properties or took a compensation reduction. Maybe he did, I just didn’t read it.

Soon, the time came, Rolling Stone needed a new owner to survive in the digital age. The RS website was profitable, but this was the new Information Age and the magazine needed to be part of a larger organization.

“I was certain Wenner Media wouldn’t survive as an independent company. It was the twilight of stand-alone magazines. The time was on the near horizon when we could survive only under the umbrella of a big company. Within the next three years, I expected to sell, take a short-term employment contract, and at the fiftieth anniversary, in 2017, take my bow…The money play would have been to sell quickly, but I loved it and was not yet ready to let go.”

– Jann S. Wenner

At the end of the book, Wenner brushes off any notion that he was the voice of his disappearing generation. “Mine was a generation looking for leadership, especially moral leadership, but those who thought they were that leader, usually weren’t…My generation wanted to serve the country, sacrifice ourselves if necessary, but instead we paid the price for the stupidity of our elders.”

Rolling Stone is an American success story. Of the hundreds of print publications that have gone out of business, RS faced some struggles, but ultimately thrived, until the internet changed our lives and business models.

What I enjoyed most about the book were the stories of the writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Also, the investigative stories that showed the commitment to journalism and reporting. These elements should have received more emphasis in a 554 page book. A hundred fewer pages of parties, travels and drunkenness would have been fine. Way too many mentions of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. An example of less is more.

Like a Rolling Stone tells the story of a complicated and driven man, who tried to balance the idealism of his youth with the grownup realities of hardball capitalism. Overall, I think he did a damn fine job. Yes, worth the read.

3 thoughts on “Jann S. Wenner: Like a Rolling Stone (book review)

  1. Nice review, Mike, but I have my own review of Wenner:

    I read RS when I was young but lost interest halfway through college. Greedy Wenner wanted to embrace the consumerist, artificial, celebrity culture that the counterculture and RS (supposedly) stood against. I think Ralph Gleason realized this, which is why he split. Wenner might be a savvy businessman, but he’s also an egotist and hypocrite. He also fired a reviewer for a negative review of J. Geils Band’s Love Stinks because he himself liked the band and he was buddies with Peter Wolf. (Journalistic freedom, anyone?) That’s why Wenner is the perfect pitchman for the highly political and highly “establishment” RnRHoF.

    Why isn’t he wearing one of his pressed tuxedos and hugging a rock megastar for the cover of his memoir? He’d look much more appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

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