Jann Wenner – Happy Birthday!

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Posted by Greg on January 7, 2016 at 2:43 pm
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Twenty-year-old Jann S. Wenner in the original San Francisco office, 1967. Photograph by Baron Wolman. Courtesy of Jann’s website.

Jann Wenner turns 70 years young today. All of us here at The Uncool/Vinyl Films want to wish him the very best. Here’s the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame piece that Cameron wrote back when Jann was inducted in 2004.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nineteenth Annual Induction

There are some who say rock & roll, at its very core, is a temporary form. Even the earliest days of rock & roll, it was all folly, right? Passionate and cheeky melodies meant to be heard crackling over a car radio, a souvenir of a night spent dancing or making out. Every real musician or fan knew, though, that rock & roll was much deeper than that. Rock & roll was code, and just under the surface was the promise of rebellion, of a life beyond what your parents could understand. It was a secret world to smuggle into your home, shut your door and get lost in.

It took a fleet of guitarists and pianists to put that secret world together, but one man realized rock & roll needed a diary and a journal. In 1967, with borrowed money and the support of a veteran jazz journalist named Ralph J. Gleason, a twenty-year-old dropout from UC Berkeley put together a folded paper, a publication that lent a tiny bit of permanence to all that timelessly “disposable” art. And on that day, Jann Wenner took the first step on the famously long, strange trip that would lead him to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I never thought I’d meet him, much less find a way to join the small army of writers who were taken in to the rarefied community of late-sixties and early-seventies rock. To be a writer for Rolling Stone back then was an early form of imbedded journalism. David Felton would disappear for weeks into the bizarre, baroque world of Brian Wilson in his sandbox years. Robert Greenfield was invited to the South of France, where Keith Richards explained the savage dynamic between the Stones, the women they shared, his relationship with Mick. And Jann Wenner himself, in groundbreaking conversations with Bob Dylan and in the spectacularly frank 1970 post-Beatles interview with John Lennon, would function as part literate fan, part therapist – establishing the Rolling Stone Interview as the new standard, rejecting prefabricated celebrity responses for no-bullshit truth telling. There was nothing like it before – and many imitators since. Here in the pages of that biweekly newspaper/magazine was a tearful Lennon discussing his childhood, sorting through his thorny partnership with Paul McCartney. Everyone from Dylan to Nixon communicated through Rolling Stone. And everybody sure said fuck a lot!

I saw my first issue displayed in a glass case in a head shop near my school-bus stop with a sign that said MUST BE 18 TO PURCHASE. I was pretty much a goner, right then and there. The tradition of lawyers in my family was over on the spot. Jann Wenner’s magazine went straight to my heart. I wanted to be a journalist, but not just any kind of journalist, this kind. Every other Tuesday was a magnificent day, because it meant a new issue. Like rock & roll itself, Rolling Stone was a rare and private thrill. And like me, rock fans were sprouting deeper feelings and feeding their passion with editor Jann Wenner’s smuggled messages from the front. It was clear even then that Wenner pored over and sculpted every word in the magazine.

The magazine’s scuffling days didn’t last long. With implicit support from the heroes of rock, from Hendrix to Wenner’s clear favorites – Jagger, Lennon and Dylan – the magazine caught fire. I was lucky enough to meet music editor Ben Fong-Torres at a Rolling Stones concert in 1973. Because it was dark, I was sure he hadn’t noticed I was fifteen, and we began a phone relationship that turned into my first assignment. I’d cornered Kris Kristofferson after a show in San Diego, and the amiable songwriter had invited me to a bar with his wife Rita Coolidge and her family. The bar owner tossed me out immediately, creating a confrontation with Kristofferson that almost ended in a brawl. Kristofferson patiently sat in a leather chair outside the saloon’s door and told me stories about Dylan from the set of their just-finished movie, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The stories were published in Random Notes, and suddenly I was a stringer for my favorite magazine. One day, the galleys of my review of a Joe Walsh and Barnstorm concert were returned to me from the San Francisco office. There was a ball-point-pen message in the margin: “Cameron…good work…your stuff is getting better…Jann.” I tacked it the wall of my room, next to all the records that had come to rule my life and my future.

Soon I was offered a very controversial assignment on the one band that had always rejected the magazine’s overtures for an interview: Led Zeppelin. Rolling Stone had panned the band’s first album with a dismissive review, and word had it that guitarist/founder Jimmy Page held it personally against Jann Wenner. I held a Los Angeles Times assignment to tour with the band for a news piece, but Ben Fong-Torres told me, “If you can talk the band into an interview for Rolling Stone, you’ve got the cover.”

I’ll spare you the curse-inflected vehemence with which the band said no to the idea of an interview with Rolling Stone. Still, I recorded long conversation with all the members except Page, and the Rolling Stone debate continued, almost as a band sport, over three weeks. (The concerned calls from my mom turned up in Almost Famous. Jann generously granted me full usage of the magazine’s archives and floor plans for the movie, though today he asks that I stress that “we never killed an entire story as depicted, that was just a good plot turn.”) Finally, standing on the band’s private starship somewhere over North Carolina, Jimmy Page relented. “Fuck it,” he said. “You’ve outlasted me. But I’m doing this for you, not Jann Wenner!” (Page would show up for the cover-photo session holding a bouquet of dead roses. Years later, he and Wenner finally buried the hatchet…I think.) I sent the interviews to the magazine and awaited word from San Francisco. Sure enough, Ben called to say the story was going to be the magazine’s next cover, and he had a simple additional message.

“Jann wants to meet you,” he said. “Can you fly here tomorrow?”

Meeting Jann was sure to be sensational. He’d been famously characterized in the pages of the magazine and elsewhere – charismatic, charming, tough, loyal, mercurial. I was ready for anything. Ben picked me up at the airport, and I’m positive he could see my beaming face a mile away. I popped into his car and immediately sensed a tone of utter gravity. “It’s not a good day for Jann,” he said. “Ralph Gleason died.”

Gleason was a San Francisco institution, a media presence and a columnist and one of the first established journalists to spot talents like Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Jann himself. Clearly, the fifty-eight-year-old Gleason had functioned not only as an investor in Rolling Stone but as a father figure and mentor to Wenner. I offered to return home, but Ben insisted I come to the office. Wenner still wanted to talk to me. Ben led me to the corner office, and there was Jann, looking unlike any photo I’d ever seen of him. On that day, he was the oldest-looking young man I’d ever seen, a solitary presence at his round wooded table with a three-quarter-full bottle of vodka sitting in front of him. It was early afternoon.

“Hiya,” he said with an ache. We shook hands, and I could see that he’d been crying. “I wanted to talk with you a bit, but I’m about to go home.” For a few minutes, he spoke of the enormous loss he felt, losing Ralph, feeling so alone, still referring to Gleason in the present tense.

“Listen,” he finally said. “We’re running your piece, but I think you missed the story.” My heart sank. “You clearly love the band, but you wrote what they wanted you to write, not what you wanted to write about them.” It was not what I expected. “What did you see? What did you feel?” I explained that I’d wanted to land those interviews for the magazine. “Well, you did that, and thank you. But what does this piece mean to you as a real writer?” He loaned me his copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem. “Read her profile of Jim Morrison. Read the whole book! It’s going to inspire you. The best writing – the best music – is personal, and it takes a stand.

Did you take a stand?

Years later, I still haven’t returned the book, it’s on the shelf near my writing desk. A reminder. A standard. A challenge. A souvenir. A lasting gift of inspiration from Jann, given on his own worst day. That’s the art of the man, and the art of the job.

Under Jann Wenner’s daily watch as editor and publisher, Rolling Stone came to expand the very meaning of rock & roll. As the magazine’s coverage stressed, rock & roll also included personal politics and freedom, global corruption, holding politicians accountable, and investigative journalism. Rolling Stone itself made headlines with many of its cover stories. In 1975, Rolling Stone reporters Howard Kohn and David Weir managed to infiltrate the underground world of the SLA and its famous captive-turned-militant Patty Hearst. Jann called the two-part cover story, entitled “The Inside Story,” “the scoop of the seventies.” It had been a secret projected, shepherded by Wenner, and by coincidence I’d visited the San Francisco office on the day the piece broke. News cameras were parked outside the front door. The hallways of the magazine were electric with excitement – Jann’s labor of love was now at the center of a global media explosion. “All the news that fits” – indeed. Rolling Stone‘s deep-inside account of Hearst’s abduction, travels and conversion to “Tania” made headlines in every country and led all three national news broadcasts. Rolling Stone again led the pack with its investigation of the mysterious death of Karen Silkwood, a gripping story by Howard Kohn that later became a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep and Cher.

Rock & roll was also the startling work of photographer Annie Leibovitz – portraits from inside the eye of the hurricane. In 1970, the twenty-year-old art student became the magazine’s second chief photographer, coming after original staff photographer Baron Wolman. Her first major assignment was accompanying Jann to New York to photograph John Lennon for a two-part Rolling Stone Interview. Jann has called her Lennon portrait on the January 21, 1971, cover “a defining moment for the magazine and Annie’s work as a photographer.” Ever since, he’s kept the stark black-and-white portrait of Lennon in a frame on his desk. Five years later, Jann and Annie visited the studio of the great master, Richard Avedon, who inspired her with his more formal style of working. Avedon himself would photograph an award-winning portfolio for Rolling Stone, entitled “The Family,” which included America’s major politicians and corporate bosses, labor leaders and presidents, and behind-the-scenes figures like Rose Kennedy and Rose Mary Woods. The 1976 special issue won the National Magazine Award, an achievement that has been repeated many times since.

In addition, rock & roll was the explosive and often humorous journalistic voices of writers like Jon Landau, P.J. O’Rourke, Charles M. Young, Joe Eszterhas, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus. In Hunter S. Thompson, the magazine found its celebrated patron saint of “gonzo journalism.” (“The Mark Twain of his time,” says Wenner today.) Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone was the birth of a new kind of reportage, razor-sharp political commentary that read like Exile on Main Street. It was Wenner who edited Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, both of which debuted as pieces for the magazine. Soon, future presidents would sit for Rolling StoneInterviews, sharing space with Van Morrison and Keith Richards.

Always hands-on, Wenner continually nurtured the personal voices of those writers. The purpose and influence of rock & roll journalism grew. Within that circle of editors and contributors, the jockeying for space and attention was fierce. Such was the style of Wenner’s leadership and intuition to know that, as with all the best bands, competition made our work better. From one office door, Joe Eszterhas might emerge confidently with a new piece, and just down the hall, an early fax machine might be buzzing with – or without – Hunter Thompson’s latest report from worlds beyond. (Thompson rarely socialized with the other journalists, calling us “sportswriters” – ironic, considering that thirty years later, he’s now a regular online sports columnist for ESPN.) Despite Rolling Stone‘s dedication to covering the panorama of all that was reckless and wild, Wenner campaigned tirelessly for absolute accuracy and an impartial point of view. There was a sense of fun – which spilled over into extracurricular activities like the Rolling Stone softball team, which had a fierce rivalry going with a team consisting of the Eagles and their buddies. (Check out the sense of athletic prowess and entitlement in our team portrait on the previous page! We lost, unfortunately, but we did have the memories of Hunter prowling the hotel hallways the night before in a dress and a football helmet – he never made it to the game.)

But there was also absolute big-league professionalism around the office, and even Wenner’s assistant would offer a very dry reading of words that we all pretended we were too pro to react to, even though they struck thunder into our well-honed no-big-deal demeanor:

“Jann, it’s John Lennon on line two.”

(Behind closed doors we used to marvel – not just that Wenner had a close relationship with Lennon but that they were close enough to have an often stormy relationship! None of this cordial shit; these were heavy dudes.)

The magazine has always placed great value in conscience and social justice as part of the rock & roll experience, championing artists like Jackson Browne, Don Henley and Bruce Springsteen in their efforts to spotlight issues ahead of easy career choices. (Dylan was the figurehead, notes Wenner, “and still is.”)

“There are magazines that make a difference,” Wenner told Charlie Rose just last year, “That have a voice in this country and a place in the national dialogue. I enjoy having a place at that table.” The chairman of Wenner Media still presides over the magazine with an idiosyncratic artist’s touch, walking the halls like an enthusiastic and exacting patriarch, inspiring loyalty from a large, and sometimes dysfunctional, family. Normal work hours didn’t exist then, and they don’t exist now. Music flows from the offices. Wenner’s San Francisco labor of love is now famously housed in Manhattan and, yes, it’s true, Jacqueline Onassis used to visit the New York office, strolling by Pete Townshend’s smashed Gibson guitar and cubicles buzzing with the music of the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Such is the pop-culture explosion that still powers the magazine, and Jann Wenner. Even today, Rolling Stone is a personal endeavor and a privately held company.

“I never wanted to build an empire,” he told Rose. “What I knew how to do was edit. I’m a rock & roll fan with an interest in the world we’re living in. I always thought that rock & roll spoke more honestly than many people could, that it would matter in the future of this country and the way we would lead our lives.” He offered a music lover’s smile. “Lo and behold, we were right.”

He still writes for his own magazine, too. Wenner’s own journalism is some of the magazine’s most personal and best. Sparked by cultural events he follows so closely, you sense he sometimes grabs the yellow legal tablet, or keyboard, and out of him pours the same rock & roll spirit that launched the magazine. His essays on subjects as diverse as Lennon’s death, AIDS and 9/11 are consistent and timely reminders of Rolling Stone‘s ongoing sense of authentic passion. Over the past twenty or so years, he’s nurtured more young lions of music journalism who’ve helped to maintain Rolling Stone‘s standard of excellence. Anthony DeCurtis, Kurt Loder, Mikal Gilmore, James Henke (now curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum) and David Fricke are among the well-known scribes who cut their teeth at Rolling Stone. Following in Annie Leibovitz’s footsteps, the inventive Mark Seliger, who became the magazine’s third chief photographer, in the early nineties, helped keep the magazine the talk of the town with his witty – and sometimes startling – covers. As more than a few artists have admitted, when posing for Rolling Stone – and particularly the cover – the stakes rise, the bullshit disappears, something happens…and often the image is never forgotten.

Even while overseeing a new generation of music journalists, Jann still found the time to become an integral force in establishing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and its striking home in Cleveland. There are other magazines in Wenner’s arsenal now, as well, Men’s Journal and Us Weekly, but the Wenner of today is clearly a family man, the doting father of three sons. Yet he still guides all the coverage, still invests in the late-night deadlines and stays ferociously up to date with his first love – music. He’s dined with presidents and traveled on Air Force One, but you sense he’s more excited about tickets to the Rolling Stones, or discussing the compelling future of rock in the work of artists like Eminem, or cracking open a copy of Bob Dylan’s followup to Love and Theft or cohosting and event like tonight’s.

From recent pieces like Rolling Stone‘s inventive coverage of Video Game University and the best-seller “Fast Food Nation” to its cover-fueled role in the rise of Britney as Icon, the magazine remains firmly at the center of pop culture. Purists may sometimes take issue with the presence of a passing sensation on the cover – that’s part of the fun – but the heart of Rolling Stone is also regularly on display when rock & roll is at a crossroads. From the birth of hip-hop culture to the death of a legend like Elvis, Jann’s carefully crafted coverage always rises to the challenge with the kind of in-depth reporting that reminds you that Rolling Stone is still one-stop shopping for the final word on the matter. The Presley tribute issue, which remains one of the magazine’s greatest, was the first produced in New York following the magazine’s 1977 move. Presley died just five days after the relocation, so Jann and the staff shelved the originally planned special issue celebrating Rolling Stone‘s new home. Jann wrote in his editor’s note, “We pushed deadlines back and worked around the clock, never doubting for a minute that he was worth it. Elvis was the first king we ever had.”

The magazine’s recent heartfelt tributes to George Harrison and Johnny Cash are further indelible examples of Rolling Stone‘s sense of history. Some magazines exist for page flipping, a brief stopover on their way to the recycling bin. Rolling Stone, on those occasions and others, you keep. “We are devoted to that vision of society,” Jann said recently, “that rock & roll is the most compelling dialogue in America.”

As with all great ideas, it’s hard to imagine a world without Rolling Stone and the instincts of Jann Wenner. For every musician or music fan who felt the fire and gained that greater sense of destiny by reading Rolling Stone, I say to Jann now: Thank you for dropping out, for leaving those persistent phone messages for Bob Dylan asking for that early interview, for forging the bond with Ralph Gleason that pushed you both beyond the boundaries of excellence way back then, for showing up at work tomorrow with that same sense of wonder and commitment to rock & roll and for taking a stand – always, with one hand waving free.

Courtesy of Jann Wenner – Cameron Crowe – March 15, 2004


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