Never rock­ing ‘Rolling Stone’ gath­ers ever more dross

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion Revolver - Brian Boyd on mu­sic

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

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