He Really Wasn’t Where It’s At

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When the producers of the 2003 comedy School Of Rock selected the title font for the film’s poster, they chose graphics everyone recognized.  Subjects of a tell-all-and-then-some 2017 biography by Joe Hagan, Sticky Fingers:  The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, the periodical and its longtime editor-in-chief had earned the right to be so closely identified with a style of music that typography alone announced the connection.  Jann Wenner eagerly cultivated personal ties to the rock aristocracy (Lennon, Jagger, Dylan, Springsteen, Bono, et al) and, as publisher of numerous critical collections and record guides, and high official of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he epitomized the cultural gatekeeper whose power determined which entertainment millions of people did and didn’t like.  “I’ve been deciding what’s hip in this country for many years now,” Wenner bragged to AOL founder Steve Case, in an anecdote he bragged to Mick Jagger.  He could certainly consider himself the School of Rock’s principal, although he was more like captain of its cheerleading squad.

How central to rock was Rolling Stone, really? Wenner’s magazine was the counterculture’s paper of record, covering the news, politics, and music of the Baby Boom generation with a thoroughness that made it indispensable – for a short while.  Most histories of legendary bands and artists cite contemporary reviews and quote candid interviews which first ran in its pages.  It would be difficult to chronicle the druggy idealism of the 1960s and the fragmenting disillusions of the 1970s without at least passing reference to Rolling Stone.  Yet the major rock figures of Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones were all established prior to its first issue.  Moreover, most of the era’s broad social changes were happening anyway, and Wenner and his biweekly were riding a wave, profiting – like the record labels whose ads were a key revenue source – from demographic trends which only temporarily ran in their favor.  Rolling Stone, founded in 1967 when Wenner was twenty-one, could credibly track the tastes of young white Americans in 1969 or 1975, but it increasingly lagged behind them in later decades:  there will always be adolescents, but the adolescence Wenner staked his relevance on turned out to be ephemeral.

Hagan’s deeply researched also book shows how Rolling Stone‘s financial backers – limousine liberals and reckless new-money heirs and heiresses – give unfortunate credence to right-wing conspiracy theories about a biased media pushing sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion on the malleable masses.  Such influence as Wenner’s rivalled that of another publishing giant, Hugh Hefner:  both men ran magazines whose editorial outlook shaped the moral standards of modern society, for better and worse; both men aspired to corporate empires where their flagship brand would advertise an entire consumer lifestyle; both men gorged on the excesses their positions afforded; both men passed the management of their businesses to their children; both men were flatfooted by the Internet.  But whereas Hefner was an exploiter (of male lust and female beauty), Wenner was a courtier.  Hefner got rich taking advantage of anonymous women hoping for stardom, and Wenner got rich sucking up to powerful men who were already famous.  Sticky Fingers documents the triumphs and collapse of the American magazine industry more than the evolution of popular music in the same period.

I discovered Rolling Stone in the 1980s, when blues legend Daryl Hannah and guitar hero David Letterman were typical cover subjects.  Some elements of the magazine undoubtedly informed my nascent artistic sensibility:  smart music criticism, wildly original alternative reporting, the cool prose of its best writers, the fear and loathing of Hunter S. Thompson.  But Rolling Stone‘s other tendencies reflected developments I distrusted even then:  the deliberate blurring of journalism and promotion; the constant quest for celebrity “hotness” as the highest goal; the narcissism and self-indulgence evident in the first-person perspectives of so many of its articles and dispatches.  All those tendencies were evident, too, as Sticky Fingers elaborately details, in the public career and private conceits of Jann Wenner himself.



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