We gave it a B
I should say at the start that Rolling Stone magazine had a galvanizing effect on me — the same effect, quite clearly, it had on Robert Draper, who has written this brisk and passionate account of its tumultuous 23-year history — Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History. I stumbled onto the magazine around 1970, just as it was entering what Draper calls its ”full flowering of greatness”; what grabbed me was not its music reviews but its journalism. Though it did not create the form, Rolling Stone was for five years the greatest champion of the then-voguish New Journalism, publishing long, mesmerizing stories by the likes of Hunter Thompson and Joe Eszterhas. If you were young and impressionable and interested in the possibilities of journalism as a life (after graduation, that is), it was impossible not to be irrevocably influenced by Rolling Stone. The magazine ”pushed the edge of the envelope,” to use a phrase Tom Wolfe coined in its pages in the early 1970s in a spectacular two-part series on astronauts that later led to The Right Stuff.
Rolling Stone is not remotely the same magazine today, but some of the influence of its glory days remains: The line from Hunter Thompson’s quintessentially ’60s stories (the infamous Fear and Loathing series) to the hip contemporary reportage of, say, Maureen Dowd in The New York Times is a fairly straight one. And, somewhat to my surprise, I’m still affected by those early triumphs as well. I found myself not just saddened but personally hurt to learn from Draper’s book that my old hero Eszterhas made things up. I shouldn’t care so much, I thought; that was a long time ago. Then I thought: Draper shouldn’t care so much either.
The problem with books about magazines is that they are written by magazine writers, and these writers always see magazines from a certain perspective. That perspective has something to do with money and fame (Draper criticizes Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner, for instance, for banning most authors’ names from the cover, an issue only a writer could nd of any consequence). But even more than that, it has to do with emotional self-interest; certain magazines at certain times have become the repositories of all the hopes that magazine writers have for their craft. This was never more true than during Rolling Stone‘s golden age. One former writer tells Draper that Wenner missed the chance to make the magazine ”easily the most important magazine of our time,” a sentiment that is echoed by virtually every old hand Draper interviews. In the end, you see, magazines always break the hearts of their writers, and that is the story of Rolling Stone, too.
Draper quotes Wenner as saying that it was ”never his aim to establish a training camp for New Journalism.” This information, placed at the very end of the book, comes as no surprise. The bulk of the evidence in the preceding 360-plus pages supports Wenner’s contention. From the moment the 21-year-old Wenner started it in October 1967, Rolling Stone was never completely pure, at least not as journalists de ne purity. Wenner used his magazine to reward his friends and pan his enemies, and there was always an element of censorship: The magazine trod very softly around the music industry, where its advertising revenues lay. Wenner was shameless about using the magazine’s growing clout as his entree to the rich and famous. Even Wenner’s original insight — that rock & roll deserved to be taken seriously — eventually became stale. Draper takes no small delight in pointing out that former Rolling Stone critic Jon Pareles found more freedom to write intelligent rock criticism after he moved to The New York Times, of all places.
As Draper portrays him, Wenner was a hard man to like during Rolling Stone‘s heyday, with his excessive vanity, his penchant for turning employees into emotional cripples, his fueling of the magazine’s chaotic atmosphere, his enormous appetite for food and booze and cocaine. (Oddly, while Draper’s reporting on the drug habits of Rolling Stone employees is quite explicit, he is coy about sex, which was the other major subplot in the Rolling Stone offices.) When an editor turns down Wenner’s offer of a job because he doesn’t want to move his young family, the Rolling Stone publisher replies, ”See you around the day-care center, asshole.”
Most of all, though, what hovers over this generally well drawn narrative is a sense of never-quite-articulated betrayal. The world had a right to expect more of Wenner, Draper seems to be saying, and he didn’t deliver — didn’t deliver on the promise of the ’60s (though Draper admits that Wenner was never really a ’60s type); or on the promise of his devoted staffers, whom he would embrace one day and discard the next; and most of all on the promise of his magazine, which could have been ”this generation’s New Yorker,” as one former writer puts it. Regret hangs heavily over Draper’s tale.
And the only one in these pages who didn’t feel it is Wenner himself. When the writer finally confronts his white whale, Rolling Stone‘s owner is relaxing in East Hampton, N.Y., ”at his three-story. . .Georgian manor just down the road from Mr. and Mrs. Billy Joel.” ”The beaches here are the most beautiful in the world,” Wenner tells Draper, ”. . .and all my friends are here, and I deserve it.” And although you can practically see Draper’s hair stand on end at this remark, maybe Wenner is right. His own self-interest, quite different from that of his writers, was to create a highly successful, highly pro table business enterprise that would allow him to swim the beaches of East Hampton in the company of the Joels. Creating this generation’s New Yorker would never have accomplished that.
Thus perhaps the real mystery about Rolling Stone is not that it didn’t fulfill its potential but just the opposite: that for five years, it was so breathtaking. For whatever reason — and it is the one thing that Draper can never really explain — Wenner chose, as a conscious business strategy, to allow the magazine to reach its potential for a brief, shining moment. Instead of longing and regret, maybe we should simply be happy that we got that much. It’s more than most magazines can say.