When Jann Wenner was in the third grade, he published his first gossip sheet, The Bugle, reporting the social activity in his parents' Marin County neighborhood. It was a short-lived venture, but showed Wenner even then to be an avid observer. In private school, he started his own newspaper, The Sardine; in college he wrote a column under the pseudonym Mr. Jones, from Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," the one to whom "something's happening and you don't know what it is."
From such humble beginnings, Jann Wenner rose to fame and fortune as founder, publisher and boy-tyrant at Rolling Stone magazine. He started out as the pied piper of rock culture, but he broke on through to the other side, and became the ultimate hip capitalist. He was "an ambitious young man who was going somewhere, and in a hurry," writes former Time staffer Robert Sam Anson in "Gone Crazy and Back Again." Anson has subtitled his book "The Rise and Fall of the Rolling Stone Generation." Had he dropped the generational aspect, he'd have had an interesting story (and it was just that several years ago in a two-part series Anson did for New Times). But using the middle-class Wenner and his white, male-dominated magazine as a metaphor for the social upheaval and spirit of the '60s is absurd. Since the book is about Rolling Stone only as it relates to Wenner, tying one man's ego-trip ("Jann Wenner's life had been like that: a trip," Anson writes) to an entire generation does it a disservice. Anson writes, "To a generation still coping with the consequences of its rebellion, Rolling Stone was an assurance, a letter from home for those who had no homes. Jann Wenner was their guide. What would happen to him would, in a real way, happen to them as well." Hogwash.
Part of the problem is that Anson suffers from the old Time mentality of writing too much, too late. It's curious that both Wenner and Anson keep coming back to Time magazine as a role model. For Wenner, Time is "the real thing . . . the kind of thing you find in the dentist's office." He tells his editors that Rolling Stone will become "another Time," an unboring New Republic. The publisher who started out at 21 selling only 6,000 copies of a 40,000 press run dreams of being Citizen Wenner, a combination of Hearst and Luce; they had "influence, respectability, power -- all of which he wanted for himself," Anson writes.
Wenner did turn Rolling Stone into a commercially profitable package, but at great cost. Anson portrays him as paranoid, obsessed with power, the "biggest groupie in the world," to quote one person at Rolling Stone. Ultimately, the dreamer who was dubbed "wunderkind" and "enfant terrible" missed out on those larger dreams, as evidenced by the failures of Outside, Straight Arrow, Earth Times, Look, and the Rolling Stone 10th Anniversary television special (in which Wenner was portrayed by Donny Osmond!).
These failures are largely glossed over in the book in favor of Wenner's more marketable failures in dealing with people. He's portrayed as a genius at making news and profits, a charlatan to friends. One doesn't work for Wenner, apparently, one survives him. Anson is quite good at portraying the Wenner-inspired conflicts of ego, control and loyalty that have turned Rolling Stone into a newsprint soap opera. The greatest attention is given to Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo bull in the newsroom whose slack grip on reality has never obscured a fine sense of focus. He and Wenner butted heads repeatedly, a case of "the world's worst employe working for the world's worst boss," as someone once described it.
Ultimately one learns little else about Rolling Stone, and even less about the "generation," despite a clutter of peripheral information.
With the exceptions of Thompson and Ralph Gleason, the other employes and forces at the magazine are given short shrift. Anson tells little of the outstanding journalism that's come out of Rolling Stone. Its loose, attitudinal prose affected intimacy where tradition (particularly in magazines like Time) called for a distancting effect; in the process, it unveiled some brilliant, if occasionally unorthodox, writers like Timothy Crouse and Joe Eszterhas.
It is not surprising that a man who accepts Time magazine as the ultimate authority falls victim to his own judgment of the generation he's misread, accusing it of being "given over to casting events in apocalyptic, symbolic terms." "Gone Crazy and Back Again" is a perfect example of that whole problem.
Robert Stuart Nathan must have read Anson's New Times pieces. The fictionalized story of Wenner, Rolling Stone and Co. is told in "Rising Higher," an unintentionally hilarious romana clef that repeats, in barely veiled versions, a dozen of the nastier incidents from "Gone Crazy." Jed Roman is "a born hustler . . . a brash kid"; "the only thing worse than being his enemy is being his friend," to quote the jacket copy. When Jim Morrison dies, Jed coldly tells his secretary to cancel Morrison's subscription; the same story precedes him in real life with Wenner and Janis Joplin. The first issue of Rising Higher (it's about "rock and roll, heroes, dreams, staying young, a new world being born") sells only 4,000 copies out of 15,000 -- well, you get the picture.
And if you don't, you can have fun deciding whether: Captain Billy Tiger is Hunter Thompson, Melania Lerman is Carly Simon, Nigel Williams (of Ocean Records) is Clive Davis (of Columbia, gem of the . . .), Barricade Magazine is Ramparts, and much more in this vein. Then there are the main characters, Nick Shade and Carol Reese. Nick is the hard-boiled journalist sent out to cover Carol, "the hurt little girl from the wrong side of the tracks crying from her sunless hell." On the first interview, her voice was "growing husky like a hooker's." By the fourth interview, the voice is "in heat" and Nick is in bed with his subject.
The rest of the book follows the separate careers of Nick and Carol. She starts out as Janis Joplin and ends up as Linda Ronstadt, complete with an ambitious California governor named Danny Clayton who -- but that part's too tasty to be divulged. Nathan has written a grade-B screenplay in book form.