ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE
The Uncensored History
By Robert Draper
Doubleday. 389 pp. $19.95
AROUND the offices of Rolling Stone magazine, Robert Draper tells us in this exhaustive history, its founder Jann Wenner is often referred to by his underlings as "Citizen Wenner." Though this might seem an insult -- "Citizen Kane," after all, was not exactly a flattering portrait of William Randolph Hearst -- apparently it suits Wenner just fine; Draper reports that, if anything, Wenner basks in the sobriquet.
This really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Quite apart from whatever it may say about Wenner's notorious ego, it reflects the tendency of certain lords of journalism to fancy themselves members of an exclusive club: people so intimately associated with the magazines or newspapers they established or guided to prominence that it is almost impossible to imagine those publications without them. Hearst and his newspapers, Harold Ross and the New Yorker, Malcolm Forbes and his magazine, Hugh Hefner and Playboy, Henry Luce and Time, Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan -- that Wenner should be flattered by an association with these people, even a derogatory one, is entirely within the character of the breed.
For when you boil down everything Draper has learned about Rolling Stone's near-quarter-century of existence, you're left with what he calls "the old mantra, 'It's Jann's magazine.' " Or, as a former editor of the magazine told him: "The reason that Rolling Stone was successful is the same reason that Playboy and New York succeeded: each was the complete encapsulation of a single person's fantasy. Hugh Hefner wanted to be a playboy, and Clay Felker wanted to live on the Upper East Side of New York City. Jann wanted to be with rock stars. And it turns out that each fantasy was shared by enough people to create a successful circulation."
The observation is both perceptive and true, but it begs the question: How are a single individual's fantasies and longings transformed into a publication that connects with hundreds of thousands of readers? Why, that is, did Playboy and Rolling Stone succeed where Escapade and Crawdaddy did not? Certainly it is true, as Draper notes, that Wenner had luck and persistence and a gift for promotion, but others similarly blessed have founded better publications than Rolling Stone and then watched them fail to get off the ground. What was Wenner's particular, if not peculiar, secret?
In the end the question yields to no final answer, but Draper's interesting account suggests at least a tentative explanation. Rolling Stone may have been founded in San Francisco at the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and throughout its history it may have mouthed all the Aquarian and post-Aquarian pieties, but from the first issue it always existed more to accumulate money and attention for Jann Wenner than to promote the countercultural cause. Draper refers to it as "a distinctly capitalist triumph," by which he means that it met the demands of the marketplace, but there is more to the tale than that; for all its "radical" rhetoric, Rolling Stone never really challenged either the existence or the legitimacy of the capitalist system in which it prospered, a point proved beyond question by its eventual metamorphosis into a survival guide for yuppies.
Could we have expected otherwise from a magazine founded by a man -- a boy, really, at the time of Rolling's Stone's inception -- whose chief goals in life seem to have been luxury, both physical and narcotic, and the company of celebrities? Wenner's "indulgences were legendary," Draper writes -- in a book with which Wenner has cooperated -- and goes on to chronicle a fondness for drugs and alcohol so great that "one doctor who examined Jann in the mid-70s wrote to the editor, begging him to go easy on the booze and quit cocaine" -- the latter being of course the drug of choice not of hippies but of yuppies. Beyond that, a recurrent theme is Wenner's obsession with the glitterati of rock. "Jann completely identified with the celebrity aspect of rock & roll, the new royalty," according to a veteran of the magazine. "It's like the difference between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Mick Jagger is a celebrity. Keith Richards is a rock & roller. And Jann I don't think was in any way conscious of the distinction."
The result was that Wenner created a magazine that gave lip service to the countercultural side of rock music while devoting its true energies to rock as consumer product and publicity organ; it never had to be coopted by capitalism because it was coopted from the start. Its feature articles, interviews and record reviews, as Draper documents, often served as promotional material for musicians whose favor Wenner wanted to curry; overall, the magazine existed to promote, rather than to analyze or criticize, rock and its culture.
Certainly there were exceptions, a few of which seem to have originated with Wenner but more with members of his staff. The most deservedly noted of these was Rolling Stone's coverage of the calamitous Altamont concert in 1969, but there were others; in what Draper properly regards as the magazine's high period, the first half of the 1970s, Rolling Stone published several enterprising investigative pieces, a number of irreverent examples of "new" or "gonzo" journalism, and for a time established itself as a formidable publication.
Draper describes all of this in enough detail to satisfy anyone's appetite for Rolling Stone gossip. There are numerous tales of Hunter Thompson herein, as well as accounts of how certain notable or notorious milestones in Rolling Stone history -- the full-frontal John Lennon-Yoko Ono cover, the move to New York, the Jimmy Carter party at the 1976 convention -- came to pass. There are moments when Draper's prose, like that of his subject, careens out of control -- "The music came to him, as it had to so many others, like a host of prodigal brethren, like seductive whisperers just outside the windowsill" -- but you can grit your teeth and get through them with minimal damage.
Draper is, for all his candor about Wenner and his magazine, far from unsympathetic to both; he's as charmed by Wenner's naivete and energy as he's vexed by his less attractive characteristics, and he views the magazine's efforts to change with its readership as legitimate even if lamentable. In the end, though, he succumbs to the same self-delusion with which Rolling Stone staff members have been afflicted from the outset; because he believes that once it had an "enduring conscience," he thinks it has now sacrificed its "editorial integrity" to the appetites of yuppies. But his own careful study shows nothing so much that its conscience was for sale from the beginning, and that in changing its appearance it's merely been staying in character.