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Like a Rolling Stone

Author Robert Draper’s non-fiction book, Rolling Stone Magazine, delves into the early history of the once-iconic music bible, until the takeover of MTV arrived.

Like a Rolling Stone

BOOK REVIEW

The name, Rolling Stone, didn’t come to Jann Wenner, in a dream, when he decided to publish his own magazine. It was inspired (a) from the music group, The Rolling Stones, (b) a Bob Dylan song called, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and (c) a 1950 blues song by Muddy Waters called ‘Rollin’ Stone’.

In other words, if there is one thing Robert Draper’s book clears up without question is that Jann Wenner launched Rolling Stone Magazine because – more than anything – he had good taste in music and wanted to meet his heroes: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and so on.

It also meant that after a certain period, when the MTV generation arrived, Wenner didn’t take them seriously and had enough disdain to not cover them with as much vigour, losing the once-revered spot as the number one music magazine after that.

But that happened much later.

Going back to the beginning, Rolling Stone Magazine came into being on October 18, 1967. Its publisher, the eccentric Jann Wenner, had a motto when the magazine first began: “You’re probably wondering what we are trying to do. It’s hard to say: sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper. The name of it is Rolling Stone… Rolling Stone is not just about the music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces… To describe it any further would be difficult without sounding like bulls**t, and bulls**t is like gathering moss.”

When starting Rolling Stone, Wenner was a dropout from the University of Berkley (California) and started the magazine by gathering 7,500 dollars. But, in the age of no social media and no MTV, Rolling Stone was welcomed.

As author Robert Draper notes in his knockout of a book, “Perhaps Rolling Stone magazine grew out of an argument that was never settled. It sprang from the restless impulses of Jann Wenner,” and it didn’t include nude women underneath like Playboy. It is thus ironic that it was Hugh Hefner’s Playboy that inspired Wenner to start his own publication.

inthepic-img3“My theory is this,” Jon Carroll – one of Wenner’s early associate editors tells Draper, “The reason that Rolling Stone was successful is the same reason that Playboy and New York succeeded: each was the complete encapsulation of a single person’s fantasy.”

That person was Jann Wenner.

It should also be added that despite the somewhat difficult personality of Rolling Stone’s founder, famous critics, writers of RS have gone onto “occupy critical positions” at publications such as Newsweek, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, New York, Playboy, Vogue, Esquire, ABC, MTV and ESPN. Some are writers, playwrights while others have penned books or become literary agents and followed a slew of careers.

The magazine still enjoys a strong readership, but according to this book, RS produced some of its best work in the seventies. But the unsettled argument, notes Draper, was whose magazine was it?

According to Larry Durocher, another staffer at RS back in the day, the real question was only one: “Rolling Stone magazine is Jann in print.”

After two years of starting out as a magazine, Rolling Stone began to make money and introduced the world to the talents of writers like Hunter ‘Gonzo’ Thompson, Joe Eszterhas and by 1989, Rolling Stone parent company, Straight Arrow Publishers was worth 250 million dollars.

As Draper notes, “None of this would have been possible without a few key individuals: acidheads, anarchists, commune dwellers, social lepers and parentless longhairs who loved music and feared the morning sunlight.”

In return, as Draper wrote, President Richard Nixon thought of them as “bums” and establishment journos deemed them “hippies”.

The voice of a generation, the magazine was conceived during what is known as “San Francisco’s Summer of Love” and considered its heroes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton.

inthepic-img1However, anyone who released music after 1975 was irrelevant to Wenner and therefore to the magazine whose ambition rose to cover politics even as music remained its primary audience.

Back in those days, the magazine needed the musicians as much as they needed it. And so, the record label industry bankrolled Rolling Stone Magazine after Wenner ran out of money, at one point.

“And musicians like [John] Lennon and [Mick] Jagger gave Rolling Stone their support long before it was obviously in their interest to do so,” notes Draper.

“Record companies bought ads. Radio stations would plug the magazine…”

In the end, the book, researched thoroughly not only quotes a wide range of sources including editors, former RS writers but it is ultimately the story of Jann Wenner, maniacal and vulnerable, desperate for attention yet cutthroat towards people, many of whom played a significant role in bringing Rolling Stone Magazine to life and become a legendary rock ‘n’ roll magazine.

Maheen Sabeeh

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