Fifty years after he launched an underground newspaper that changed music journalism and a great deal more, Jann S. Wenner finds Rolling Stone being showcased in a once-unthinkable forum: a museum.
“At least it’s a museum I own,” Wenner said with a laugh during a recent telephone interview as he anticipated an anniversary exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, an institution that Wenner helped found in the 1980s. The three-floor “Rolling Stone/50 Years” exhibit runs through late November.
There might not have been a rock hall or museum without Rolling Stone, which as much as anybody moved rock and the lifestyle around it from the fringes to the mainstream. Rolling Stone not only chronicled music, politics and culture, it also helped change it, whether through Wenner’s revelatory 1970 interview with John Lennon, the photography of Annie Leibovitz or the “gonzo” reporting of Hunter S. Thompson. Among those getting early starts at Rolling Stone were Leibovitz, Thompson, music critics Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and filmmaker Cameron Crowe.
The common thread among the best Rolling Stone contributors has been “extraordinary talent,” Wenner says, along with a “sense of purpose” and a distinctive way of “seeing our times.”
The exhibit and accompanying coffee-table book capture some of the highlights: Thompson’s scathing coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, the serialization of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and Michael Hastings’ scandalously candid 2010 profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, leading to his departure as commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Many of the photographs are indelible to at least one generation: Meryl Streep in greasepaint, tugging at her cheek; Bette Midler in a bed of roses; the men and women of Fleetwood Mac laid out on a single mattress; and most painfully, a naked Lennon clinging to a fully clothed Yoko Ono, a Leibovitz portrait taken just hours before Lennon was shot dead in 1980.
Wenner was only 21 when he and his friend and mentor Ralph J. Gleason started Rolling Stone from a San Francisco warehouse in 1967, the first issue dating from November of that year. Youth tycoons are common now, but 50 years ago it was rare for someone Wenner’s age to be running any business, at least one that hoped to make money. His hope then was to bring attention to the music he loved and how it was changing the culture, changes he believed were ignored or belittled by the mainstream media.
“The Beatles and Stones and Dylan are all working at the same time and all (are) bouncing off each other,” he says, calling it an “extraordinary alignment of the stars.”
Rolling Stone wasn’t the first serious rock music publication: Crawdaddy, led by Swarthmore College student Paul Williams, began in 1966. But none has a comparable legacy. By the 1970s, Rolling Stone was so much a part of the music business and its cover such a symbol of success that it inspired Dr. Hook’s hit single “The Cover of the ‘Rolling Stone.’ ”
Rolling Stone become so synonymous with hip, alternative journalism that several movies have featured Rolling Stone reporters, including the 1981 release “Rich and Famous” and, from 2015, “The End of the Tour,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Rolling Stone reporter and Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace. Crowe made a whole film about his days with the magazine: “Almost Famous.”
Rolling Stone continues to make news — some unwanted (its discredited report on an alleged rape at the University of Virginia) and some in the tradition Wenner prefers to uphold, like the political coverage by Matt Taibbi, perhaps best known for likening Goldman Sachs to a “vampire squid.”
Wenner says he has no current goals beyond what he has long wanted to do: cover what’s going on in the country and what excites him, whether the latest band or trend in politics.
The hot topic right now comes down to two words: President Trump.
“Is there any other news?” he says.