Like a Rolling Stone by Jann S. Wenner
I WENT TO THE Rolling Stone offices on a Monday morning in mid-May 2019. My assistant met me downstairs to take my attaché case, as I was still walking with two canes. It was a gray day in New York, one of rain, with a forecast for more all week. When I got to our second-floor lobby, workmen were putting up plywood to protect the walls from the movers.
The spacious cubicles, which the great furniture designer Ward Bennett had chosen twenty-eight years earlier, and the glass-walled private offices with views of Sixth Avenue and Radio City Music Hall, were empty. The staff from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were still there, as was Paul Scanlon, who came every day to help me start this book.
I never felt so completely that Rolling Stone was over for me as on that day.
The week before, the last fifty people on the editorial staff had packed their desks into boxes. Thursday of that week was their final day at 1290 Sixth Avenue before moving to small “content farm” tables at a new office, with a new owner. We took a group photo and I gave an off-the-cuff farewell speech. It was a sweet moment.
Gus, my twenty-eight-year-old son and heir apparent, my formally announced successor, came into my office, late again, for our weekly meeting. It would be our last one at the offices where I had worked for decades. The subject was paper stock for the cover. I advocated going to glossy, but Gus refused. A barely polite argument followed about who knew best what he was doing. We were each learning that it was not necessary to win every fight, but sometimes to just let it go. When I wrapped up my daily writing and packed up to go home, one or two people were still at their desks; the rest were gone.
The departure of the staff was what finally affected me. The reason I hadn’t previously sold Rolling Stone was that once someone else owned it, they could do what they wanted, including fire me. I also knew that if the owner told me what to do and I strongly disagreed, I would have to quit. And I would never again find a job as great. Now all that was coming to pass. This was the end of the road.
When I returned the next week after the move, I walked onto a floor of empty offices, the desks and chairs randomly out of place, walls stripped of art, paper and trash scattered on the carpet, the detritus of a once revered and mighty magazine. It conjured up death. When you see the end coming to someone you know, whether from illness, injury, or just age, you handle it however it falls to you and do whatever you need to make sense of it. Even as you watch the person fade and fail, they are still with you, and death is not fully real. Even when the breath is gone, the body is there and you are not alone. Not until the flesh itself has been buried or burned, has gone to dirt or ash, do you grasp the finality of it. That person is gone, gone, gone, and you are alone, on your own. So I felt.
One message that came that day was from Jac Holzman, who had just been cut off the list of people who received a free lifetime subscription to the magazine. In the early years, Jac had loaned me money to keep Rolling Stone alive. There must be some karmic juju at work here, I thought, and I didn’t intend to be on the slap-back end of that. Jac had once told me the biggest mistake he ever made was to sell Elektra Records, the idiosyncratic company that he had started. He had accepted millions but became one of many subalterns in a much larger company. I had always kept that in mind as big-name buyers flirted with me. Thanks, but no thanks. I was my own boss; I was having fun and making a difference in my world. I would have regretted losing that for the rest of my life. I almost bit once. It was the big one, right at the peak. But fuck it.
I got on the phone and had Jac’s subscription restored.
The movers were ready to bubble-wrap my things. We packed up a bust of Bill Clinton with a Pinocchio nose that Bob Grossman had sculpted for us to use as a cover during Bill’s impeachment. I was too partisan to use the funny, truthful, but negative image. It would have been one of our great covers. I kept it to remind me not to forget the higher duty of the magazine.
I took down Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of a young Pete Townshend, his hands bloody from playing his guitar. Leaning next to the picture of Pete were skis decorated with Rolling Stones iconography and graffiti. The band had made a few dozen pairs to mark its fiftieth anniversary. Mick sent them. They were serious skis, and I had put a hundred days on them. I packed up the small wood and metal sculpture of a skier that Patti Scialfa sent for my birthday. I had a poster of a Fillmore Auditorium show on one of my best acid-fueled nights before Rolling Stone. I took down the four-by-four-foot photograph of me that Hunter Thompson had shot a hole through with his .44 Magnum, spray-painted, framed, that he had presented to me on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rolling Stone.
By the end of the week, workers had finished dismantling the last vestiges of Rolling Stone, ripped out the editorial department offices, turned off the telephones and data lines, and shut down the air-conditioning. The desks, chairs, computer screens, and telephones were thrown into dumpsters. The last wall would be breached, and within a few days workers would be tearing apart the private office where for nearly thirty years I had lived and ruled, achieved fame and fortune. When I walked out that last time, I left numb.
As Hunter would say, I see buzzards circling overhead.
FROM THE FIRST issue I thought the readers of Rolling Stone shared an understanding, an unspoken feeling about a suddenly new world. We were in this together, the tribe, the gathering of the tribes, strangers in a strange land, and what seemed to be the universal connection, the common tongue, was rock and roll, the music, the song, the dance. It was glue holding a generation together. I felt as spiritually connected to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones five thousand miles away as I did to my friends going to concerts across the Golden Gate Bridge.
I hadn’t formed a theory of the historical moment—that came later—I just knew that the Beatles and Bob Dylan spoke to me about the most profound concerns in my life in a form of communication and a language that went through my entire body. I had to learn more, hear more, be a part of it, become it, find “the magic that can set you free.”
Somewhere along the line, as a magazine editor and a finder of stories, it was clear that my own story, the saga of Rolling Stone, and the breadth and depth of its horizon, could be a great read, and a historically authentic way of telling the story of my generation, our times, and my own mission. The battle about the legacy of the sixties continues, known today as culture wars. From my first days at college, it seemed we were on trial for generational crimes, and that trial has never ceased.
In part it was youthful rebellion, but this time the rebel army was the biggest population cohort in American history. Vast suburbs and a system of the finest free education, kindergartens to universities, were built. The great prosperity and peace, the benefits of having won a world war (in which 100 million people died), gave us the opportunity to study our history, in particular its racism, consider its meaning and its future for us, a process that was intensified and accelerated by the rise of technology.
The “mainstream media” missed this story, treated our early demands as folly, not qualified for serious consideration, not only by just the fact of youth but also due to its own national sclerosis, even a national cirrhosis. The truly subversive language we spoke was rock and roll. It wasn’t a secret tongue; anybody of any age could hear it and give it an open listen. It wasn’t just words, but also music that resonated with the physical world of adolescence, the truth of that world, not the denial and repression of the glorious spirit of nature.
The battle of the generations was for the soul of America. Rock and roll was soft power. This was the underlying theme of Rolling Stone: a charter to examine all aspects of America, to get “the latest spin on the shit we’re in,” in Jackson Browne’s phrase, so this book is in part a report on today’s world and how we got here. It was one of the most admirable periods in our nation’s history. Young people saw that their leaders could be dreadfully wrong in their judgments, that they could no longer assume that those in high places knew what they were doing. What emerged was a commitment to international peace, to human rights and racial and environmental justice, to shared responsibility and action, the potential for enlightened domestic and foreign policy.
We were in a moral crisis in America. We needed to find out how this happened before we could figure out how to revive the ideals of our American Dream, our belief in and crusade for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This book is about the rock and roll era in the age of reckoning. This book is also about my own nine lives and about my failure to observe the posted speed limits. Our readers often referred to Rolling Stone as a letter from home. This is my last letter to you.
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