“Like a rolling stoneis an obvious title for the new memoir of Jann Wenner, who co-founded Rolling Stone magazine in 1967 and ran it (in varying degrees) for half a century. Although they sometimes tease each other over ownership of the appellation, Wenner and one of his most often mentioned celebrity friends, Mick Jagger, have copied it from others: Wenner and co-founder Ralph J. Gleason have got the name Bob Dylan. Jagger and his co-founder, Keith Richards, took it from Muddy Waters.
Jann Wenner’s memoir “Like a Rolling Stone”
Wenner might as well have called his door stop from a book “I’m very rich and all my friends are extremely famous” or perhaps “If you want something done right, do it yourself” . It comes five years after the publication of “Sticky Fingers” by Joe Hagan (today it is a title stolen from Mick and Keef), an authorized biography of Wenner dating back several years and which became unauthorized the moment Hagan showed Wenner his manuscript.
“Deeply flawed and vulgar”, was Wener’s review. But he’s the man who gave Dylan’s 1979 Christian album ‘Slow Train Coming’ a five-star Rolling Stone review — an old mistake he berates himself for on page 246 — so his judgment criticism is hardly infallible. Twenty-two years and 150 pages later, Wenner maintains his five-star praise of Jagger’s “solo” album “Goddess in the Doorway.” This is what we would call today a hot plug, or maybe just a bad one.
By then, the blow that Rolling Stone was in thrall to the stars it covered, and in particular its publisher’s boomer contemporaries, was widely shared. (Or, as Wenner puts it, “cliché.”) And sure, it seems silly to talk about the guy whose second-greatest achievement in journalism was founding Us Weekly. for being starstruck to the point of myopia, but the fact is, picking a random “Like a Rolling Stone” page will likely serve as at least a scream of a name. Let’s try page 275, the middle of the book: “Richard Gere and his Brazilian girlfriend, Sylvia Martins, painter and free spirit, were our permanent guests for the summer.” Winner!
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That Wenner showed great vision when, at age 21, he created a publication that treated rock and politics as subjects equally deserving of serious consideration is undeniable. Just like his eye for talent. His book is at its peak when Wenner recalls discovering and/or significantly stimulating 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 career. He also praises lesser-known staffers who made major contributions, like art director Fred Woodward and longtime editor Ben Fong-Torres. (“I suggested he choose Fong or Torres as his professional name, otherwise no one would believe he was real. He didn’t take the advice.”)
But as the Rolling Stone trades San Francisco (and the pot) for New York (and the cocaine), and its leader goes from visionary child to jet-setter, the book is increasingly reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of 2022 “Elvis”, a fast-paced 160-minute film. film that dutifully visits the stations of Presley’s career while feeling like a trailer for a more substantial feature film to come. Wenner’s prose is equally impatient, dropping in bursts of two or three hundred words before bounding onto an unrelated topic.
You wonder if it’s a literary choice, indicative of the whirlwind in which Wenner lived, that so few events are time-stamped. Almost nothing that happened in the generation between the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 warrants a date. For example, he briefly mentions his disappointment at Vice President Al Gore’s stinging loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election, after he personally interviewed Gore and endorsed his candidacy. Three pages later, he watches the twin towers fall. In between, he conducts RS’s “exit interview” with President Bill Clinton and cuts a rug with Catherine Zeta-Jones (“a professional dancer”) at his wedding to his best friend Michael Douglas, no party. feeling more important than another. .
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Wenner may have wanted to write an ink-stained history of a hugely important publication, but he ended up with a tale of the largely frictionless life that extravagant wealth allows and the obliviousness it engenders. Again and again, he takes credit for publishing time-sensitive articles on the “climate emergency” and for criticizing 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 gets too much, he retreats to his camp in Sun Valley, Idaho, or his beach house in the Hamptons, or whatever smaller house in the Hamptons he moved into after retirement. being separated from his wife, or on a private beach in Greece.
So many of Wenner’s subjects demand more thought than he is inclined to give them. He could have written an entire book about spending almost 30 years as a gay man (by his own description) in a heterosexual marriage before leaving his ex-wife, Jane Schindelheim, for her current husband, Matt Nye, in 1995. Or what about the fact that he was an unreleased gay man in charge of arguably America’s most influential magazine, living and working in New York City when the AIDS epidemic hit? He proudly cites journalist David Black’s award-winning two-part RS feature “The Plague Years” as “the first major national AIDS article I know of outside of medical journals.” But he offers no personal recollection of what it was like to experience this crisis from his separate perspective.
Some of Wenner’s famous friendships have been pivotal: it’s fascinating to learn that he and Jagger were partners in a short-lived attempt to launch a British edition of Rolling Stone in the late 1960s, or that the historic interview with Wenner in 1970 with John Lennon spawned a friendship. in which Lennon would send her letters with Wenner’s “W” replaced with a butt scribble. (Okay, yes, this revelation is worth the price of the book.)
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Others just seem opportunistic, like his belated bromances with Bono and Bruce Springsteen, which each provided gushing blurbs for the back cover. U2 and Springsteen enjoyed decades of rave coverage in Rolling Stone. (Jon Landau, who has run Springsteen since 1975, was one of the magazine’s star editors until he quit to work for the Boss.) If Wenner was curious about these artists before they got too famous to advertise, there is no evidence of that here. In fact, he admits to not feeling sufficiently steeped in U2 music to interview Bono in 2005, more than 20 years after U2 were hailed as the “Band of the 80s” on the cover of their own magazine.
Despite everything Wenner saw, it seems he didn’t witness much.
Correction: An earlier version of this review referenced Wenner’s review of Bob Dylan’s 1981 Christian album “Shot of Love”. The review was for Dylan’s 1979 album “Slow Train Coming”.
Chris Klimek works for the Smithsonian magazine and co-hosts the podcast “A Degree Absolute!”
Petit, Brown and company. 572 pages. $35
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