Never rocking ‘Rolling Stone’ gathers ever more dross
magine working for an editor who writes this sort of nonsense: in the introduction to yet another collection of Rolling Stone interviews, publisher Jan Wenner hyperventilated that “Rolling Stone was founded and continues to operate in the belief that rock’n’roll music is the energy centre for all sorts of changes evolving rapidly around us. Rock’n’roll provided the first revolutionary insight into who we are and where we are, it was a discovery that behind the plasticated myth of the Eisenhower/Walt Disney/Doris Day facade was (damn!) a real America: funky, violent, deeply divided, despairing, exultant, rooted in rich historical tradition and ethnic variety.”
Wenner can get away with that sort of transition-year student prose only because he owns the magazine. But then Wenner, who is basically a hippy chancer, has got away with an awful lot over the last 40 years of Rolling Stone’s existence. He has got away with it because music journalism over the past 40 years has gone the way of the music itself: both have shaken off any pretence of “revolutionary insight” or, god help us, discovering what lay beyond the “plasticated myth”.
To mark its 40th anniversary, Rolling Stone is bringing out a series of chin-stroking retrospectives based around the themes (yawn) of who we were, are and will be. Also, and in a supreme act of hubris, the magazine is about to release its entire printed history on DVD. More than 115,000 pages from more than 1,000 issues (that’s every article, every photograph and every review) are being scanned as we speak for the special Rolling Stone Cover-to- Cover: The First 40 Years DVD. You can presume that the disc will include Wenner’s infamous five-star review of his friend’s Mick Jagger solo album in 2001.
Here’s the perceived wisdom about Rolling Stone: it began in San Francisco as a countercultural affair that revolutionised the media and presaged the arrival of “New Journalism”. It launched the careers of such writers as Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, Greill Marcus and Cameron Crowe. It was the “voice of young America” at its most strident and exclamatory.
As is began to turn a profit, though, it moved to New York to be nearer the advertising industry that it leeched upon. In the face of competition from glossy men’s
mags, it reimagined itself and started to put on its covers more TV and film actors than bands. It sold out, and its sell out was best exemplified by the fact that in the early days Wenner used to rack out lines of speed for writers fighting deadlines. Now it has introduced a controversial employee drug-testing policy.
Most of the above is both true and false. True in the sketchy details but false in the presumption that Rolling Stone was ever a music magazine that somehow betrayed its readership. Rolling Stone got it wrong at most every musical turn. It may have flourished briefly when it was covering dope-smoking peaceniks who chimed with its editorial policy at the end of the 1960s. But during the 1970s it shrugged indifferently at punk rock, in the 1980s it missed out on the dance/ techno explosion, and in the 1990s it let grunge pass it by. US music readers were better served in this regard by Spin.
Wenner always had the bigger picture in view. Grunge movements come and go, but baby boomers still desperately clinging to a form of designer dissidence remain a steady demographic. The mag is flourishing (1.5 million sales an edition) with its anti-Bush, anti-Iraq, proAl Gore content. And the historical whiff of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll keeps its Abercrombie-and-Fitchwearing readership on side.
And that’s the inconvenient truth behind the continuing success of Rolling Stone.
Stone-hinged: Hunter S Thompson fit right in from the beginning