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'Rolling Stone' Founder Jann Wenner On 50 Years Of Rock And Roll History

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 14, 2017 8:44 am

Rolling Stone magazine turns 50 this year, and co-founder Jann Wenner has written the foreword to a new book celebrating the anniversary. Wenner started Rolling Stone in San Francisco in 1967 with $7,500 of borrowed money, donated office space and some used typewriters. He was a 21-year-old Berkeley dropout who was into all the great music coming out in the year of the "Summer of Love" — and he wanted to create a magazine that took rock and roll seriously.

"You couldn't read about it in Time magazine, you don't read about it in newspapers, it wasn't on TV, there were no movies — it just was considered somewhat rude and very much a teenage-girl phenomenon," Wenner tells NPR's Kelly McEvers.

In other words, rock and roll wasn't getting the respect Wenner felt it deserved, given the place it occupied in the nation's culture. Baby boomers were just starting to enter college, to become the best educated and most affluent generation the U.S. had ever seen — and music was an inextricable part of the lives of that generation.

"As it came of age, it had rock and roll as the glue that held that all together," Wenner says. "[Rock and roll] was kind of the tribal telegraph, [through] which ideas about the world were being shared, and ideas about the American experience were being informally passed around. Dylan and The Beatles and the Stones were shaping a worldview that we were part of."

Hear the full conversation at the audio link, and read on for highlights.

Interview Highlights

On assigning Hunter S. Thompson's first Rolling Stone story

I'd asked him to write a small piece for us, and he wrote me back saying, "I can't do that — but I'm loving Rolling Stone, I'm reading it, and you're just doing a whiz-bang thing ... and I'd love to write for you, but right now I'm too busy running for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado." So I wrote him back and said, "Why don't you write about that?" And that became his first piece. It's called "Freak Power in the Rockies: The Battle of Aspen." And we started becoming great friends, and he kind of became a full-time Rolling Stone person.

I think that part of what has made this very successful is giving the right idea to the right writers, kind of understanding what they will really be good at and what will really inspire them to do great work.

On the aftermath of the magazine's discredited 2014 article that recounted a gang rape at the University of Virginia

We commissioned the Columbia School of Journalism to do an investigation of it, of what happened and what we did wrong, and we published that openly. And I think that we never really lost any readers' trust because of it. I think we've got an outstanding record of 50 years of great journalism, and in the course of 50 years, sometimes you make a mistake, sometimes you screw up. And we screwed up. We are not alone; that just happens when you're doing this kind of thing, when you're in journalism — whether you're the New York Times or anything. [Kelly McEvers: Do you feel like you were too slow to admit that you screwed up?] I think we — no, I don't. We wanted to understand it first.

On criticism that Rolling Stone cozies up to celebrities at the expense of journalistic rigor

The people we cover who are in the world of arts — we don't view as adversaries. We view artists as people who should be celebrated, critiqued if necessary, supported — we view ourselves as advocates for people like Bob Dylan and Nirvana and Britney Spears and whomever. They're not politicians, they're not people who are making faulty cars. On the other hand, when we're talking about, you know, politics and journalism, we are fiercely independent and rigorous in what we do.

On the magazine's continuing cultural relevance after 50 years

Of course it's a piece of history, and we've covered the history very, very well. But it's ongoing. I mean, just pick it up — it's just as on the news and on the current culture as ever. And ahead of it.

Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Rolling Stone magazine is 50 years old, and there's a new coffee table book to celebrate that fact. Jann Wenner wrote the foreword. He founded the company and still runs it today. The book comes out next week. Wenner came to talk to me in our New York studios where an advance copy of the book was waiting for him.

JANN WENNER: Have you looked at this book?

MCEVERS: Yes, of course.

WENNER: Like, here's a picture of P-Diddy opposite Darth Vader. God.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) You sound like you're looking at it for the first time.

WENNER: I actually have not gone through the published book and actually looked at it. I got kind of stuck on the original Rolling Stone logo and thinking about that and the picture of me.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Wenner started Rolling Stone in San Francisco with $7,500 of borrowed money. He dropped out of Berkeley and was into all the great music that was coming out at the time. He decided he wanted to start a magazine that took rock 'n' roll seriously.

WENNER: You couldn't read about it in Time magazine. You don't read about in the newspapers. It wasn't on TV. There were no movies. It just was considered somewhat rude and very much a teenage girl phenomenon.

MCEVERS: Right. So it was happening, but no one was talking about it.

WENNER: And that was our great insight is the importance of it both musically and also socially. And then it would be part of the fabric lives of the baby boom, which was then just starting at college. And as it came of age, it had rock 'n' roll as the glue that kind of held it all together and Dylan and The Beatles and The Stones were kind of shaping a worldview that we were a part of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME TOGETHER")

AEROSMITH: (Singing) He got hair down to his knee, got to be a joker, he just do what he please.

MCEVERS: You write that from very early on, photography and art were important to the magazine. You actually talk about hiring a photographer named Annie Leibovitz. She came to you, right? Is that how it happened?

WENNER: Well, Annie one day, I think in our second year, kind of strolled into the offices. She was an art student, and she came in with some photos she had taken. And we bought a couple and used them and I think even used one as the cover. She became a part of everything we did and a kind of look that she gave us is part of what we do today.

MCEVERS: Right. And she, of course, took the pictures of John and Yoko - right? - with him curled up on Yoko naked.

WENNER: Right, right.

MCEVERS: I mean, these covers of Rolling Stone - I mean, the - you know (laughter) they have been the topic of conversation now for 50 years - so many provocative covers. You know, if you go online now, it's like a listicle parlor game to figure out, like, what are the top 20 most controversial? You know, there's Kanye West looking like Jesus, Kurt Cobain wearing the T-shirt that says...

WENNER: Corporate rock still sucks.

MCEVERS: Corporate magazines still suck actually.

WENNER: Corporate magazines, right.

MCEVERS: But surely...

WENNER: He thought we would airbrush that out.

MCEVERS: Oh, he did?

WENNER: And I said, oh, no, no, no. Leave it. Let's run that on the cover. That sounds great.

MCEVERS: Oh, OK. You liked it, but - so they - he just showed up wearing that. That wasn't, like, something...

WENNER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...That was talked about ahead of time.

WENNER: No, he showed up wearing that, thought that would be a big challenge to us. And we rose to the occasion and just ran it like he wanted it.

MCEVERS: Because it's rock 'n' roll.

WENNER: It's rock 'n' roll and, you know, it doesn't hurt me really in any way. I mean, it's his opinion. I'm confident the magazine doesn't suck. But, you know, let it be Kurt Cobain. Let him do what he wants to do.

MCEVERS: This is also a magazine obviously that featured some very important long-form journalism over the years. I read also that Hunter S. Thompson at first turned you down. Like, you went to him and asked him to write some stuff, and he was like, no, no, I'm covering this...

WENNER: Well, he was...

MCEVERS: Or he was running for an election, a local election, right?

WENNER: Well, I sent him a note asking him to write a small piece for us. And he wrote me back saying, I can't do that, but I'm loving Rolling Stone. I'm reading it, and you're just doing a wiz-bang (ph) thing and wow. And I'd love to write for you, but right now, I'm too busy running for sheriff of Aspen, Colo.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Sheriff.

WENNER: So I wrote him back and said, why don't you write about that?

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

WENNER: And that became his first piece. It's called "Freak Power In The Rockies" or "The Battle Of Aspen." And we started becoming great friends and kind of became a full-time Rolling Stone person.

MCEVERS: Sometimes the best thing an editor or a publisher can do is say those words - why don't you write about that?

WENNER: Well, I think that part of what has made this very successful is giving the right idea to the right writers, kind of understanding what they will really be good at and what will really inspire them to do great work.

MCEVERS: I mean, there have been some tough times over the years. Of course, the UVA gang rape story that the magazine had to retract because of things the main character said that were later proven to be false.

WENNER: Right.

MCEVERS: This was a big blow, especially now in this era where we are being told not to trust, you know, anyone in the media. How do you bounce back from that? How do you regain readers' trust?

WENNER: Well, I - we commissioned the Columbia School of Journalism to do an investigation of it, of what happened and what we did wrong. And we published that openly. And I think that we never really lost any readers' trust because I think we've got an outstanding record of 50 years of great journalism. And in the course of 50 years, sometimes you make a mistake. Sometimes you screw up. And we screwed up. We are not alone. That just happens when you're, you know, doing this kind of thing, when you're a journalist and whether you're The New York Times or anything.

MCEVERS: You feel like you were too slow to admit that you screwed up?

WENNER: I think we were - no, I don't. I mean, we wanted to understand it first.

MCEVERS: There's also the Sean Penn-El Chapo interview...

WENNER: Right.

MCEVERS: ...That got a lot of criticism, and it kind of falls within this larger category of criticism of Rolling Stone kind of cozying up to certain celebrities, favoring that over following, you know, strict journalistic standards.

WENNER: Well, I don't really think that's an example of that, and I also dispute the other charge there. I mean, I don't think we've cozied up to - we're friends with a lot of people we cover. But the people we cover who are in the world of arts we don't view as adversaries. You know, we view artists as people who should be celebrated, critiqued as necessary, supported. We view ourselves advocates for people like Bob Dylan and Nirvana and Britney Spears and whomever. They're not politicians. They're not people who are making faulty cars.

On the other hand, when we're talking about politics and journalism, we are fiercely independent and rigorous in what we do. In the case of El Chapo, I don't think - I think - there was not really any criticism other than just a lot of - some jealousy.

MCEVERS: Oh, you mean by other people who wished they had gotten the story.

WENNER: By other people. You know, I mean, it was just a hell of a scoop (laughter). He was the most wanted man in the world at that time, and we were going to be delivering a visit and an interview with him.

MCEVERS: And sending a celebrity to interview...

WENNER: Well, we didn't send a celebrity. I mean, Sean Penn made the contact with El Chapo and was able to arrange an interview. And it could have been Sean Goldberg or Sean Hannity, whoever. We said somebody got the interview with El Chapo. Let's go get it.

MCEVERS: You know, there are people who would say, again, given that Rolling Stone sort of represented a particular era and a particular type of music, that its best days are - have already happened, you know? And I guess the question is, you know, is this magazine - looking at this book and looking back at these 50 years, is this magazine now kind of a piece of history or is there a way to make it a living thing that continues to change?

WENNER: Well, both. I mean, of course, it's a piece of history, and we've covered the history very, very well. But it's ongoing. I mean, just pick it up. You know, it's just - it's on the news and on the current culture as ever and ahead of it.

MCEVERS: Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, thank you so much for your time today.

WENNER: Thank you.

MCEVERS: The new coffee table book "50 Years Of Rolling Stone" is out next week.

WENNER: Look for it. It weighs about 10 pounds.

MCEVERS: Oh, OK.

WENNER: So be careful when you buy it. You know, you have to be strong to get this thing.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COVER OF ROLLING STONE")

DR HOOK: (Singing) Rolling Stone - going to see my picture on the cover - Stone - going to buy five copies for my mother - Stone - going to see my smiling face on the cover of the Rolling Stone. That's a very, very good... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.