BOOKS

Citizen Wenner

Rolling Stone’s founder gets harsh treatment

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 23 1990
BOOKS

Citizen Wenner

Rolling Stone’s founder gets harsh treatment

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 23 1990

Citizen Wenner

BOOKS

Rolling Stone’s founder gets harsh treatment

ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE:

THE UNCENSORED HISTORY By Robert Draper (Doubleday, 389 pages, $24.95)

By the time the last guitar chord faded away at 1969’s Altamont rock festival, few fans in the audience were talking about peace, love and good vibrations. The mood of that event, held near San Francisco on Dec. 6, just four months after the mammoth but peaceful Woodstock festival, plummeted dramatically when Hell’s Angels bikers overreacted in their roles as the concert’s security guards.

They used pool cues to beat people crowding the stage and stabbed one festival-goer to death. Strangely, the U.S. media underplayed the violence, cheerfully describing Altamont with such terms as “Woodstock West.” But one small San Francisco-based magazine offered a radically different view. Blaming many involved with the concert for “diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity,”

Rolling Stone set itself apart from the journalistic pack. As Robert Draper writes in his hard-hitting book, Rolling Stone.The Uncensored History, the biweekly publication quickly became “a generation’s voice—perhaps the only trustworthy voice.”

The brainchild of Jann Wenner, an energetic, 21-year-old Berkeley College dropout, Rolling Stone made its debut on Oct. 18, 1967. It was the first magazine to treat popular music as serious news, but it also covered the political and social issues that were making their way into rock ’n’ roll lyrics. Writes Draper: “From 1970 to 1977, no magazine in America was as honest or imaginative.” In the 1980s, however, the ongoing tug of war between Wenner and his staff began to seriously harm the quality of the publication. Based on interviews with more than 200 former Rolling Stone employees, as well as with Wenner himself, Draper’s book is as much a critical portrait of Wenner as a colorful document of the times.

The author depicts Rolling Stone’s founder as an ingratiating social climber and slavish rock fan. While Wenner had visions of becoming his generation’s equivalent of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Draper contends that he has more in common with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Said one former Rolling Stone employee: “Hugh Hefner wanted to be a playboy, Jann wanted to be with rock stars.” The author writes that Wenner’s star-

worshipping sometimes led him to showcase his friends, ordering positive reviews of their records or putting them on the cover even though their careers were on the wane.

Far more serious conflicts arose when Wenner moved the magazine’s offices from San Francisco to New York City in 1977. Many original staff members—Draper calls them “acidheads, anarchists, commune dwellers, social lepers and parentless longhairs who loved music and feared the morning sunlight”—saw the move as a sellout of Rolling Stone’s values. Then, as Wenner pushed for an older, more affluent readership, many staffers complained that the magazine’s editorial content was frequently compromised. Meanwhile, Wenner rose

up New York’s social ladder, where he became friends with Jackie Onassis and, Draper writes, developed an expensive cocaine habit.

By 1989, Rolling Stone had grown weightier with advertising and lighter on the kind of investigative journalism that earned it acclaim in the 1970s. Wenner’s magazine no longer featured Hunter S. Thompson, whose so-called gonzo journalism, a freewheeling mix of druginduced travelogue and astute political insight, brought the magazine its greatest notoriety in the early 1970s. Thompson, who has been writing for the San Francisco Examiner since 1985, told Draper that the new, more conservative Rolling Stone was simply no longer fun.

Draper’s description of Rolling Stone’s first decade is lively and often hilarious. But when he tries to make sense of the magazine in the 1980s, his prose becomes as murky as Wenner’s evolving editorial vision. Now, writes Draper, Wenner is contemplating new publishing ventures. At 44, he and his wife of 22 years, Jane, have outright ownership of Straight Arrow Publishers Inc., the parent company of both Rolling Stone and US magazine. Last year, the firm was worth more than $290 million.

In some respects, Wenner is already comparable to Hearst, whose life was the basis for the classic movie Citizen Kane. In fact, Rolling Stone staffers nicknamed their boss Citizen Wenner. And like Kane, Wenner has clearly alienated many former admirers in his rise from boy wonder to publishing kingpin.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS