Jann Wenner on His Encounters With Rock’s Movers and Shakers and Having ‘Little Filter’ in His New Memoir, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’

·24-min read

Jann Wenner is not just “like” a rolling stone — he was Rolling Stone, for most of the magazine’s history, to the extent that it very closely followed his melange of sensibilities from its 1967 founding until he sold off his last stake in it three years ago. [It’s now owned wholly by Penske Media, the parent company of Variety.] If you’re a longtime subscriber, reading his new memoir, “Like a Rolling Stone,” may feel like having your life flash before your eyes… except for the parts where he’s, say, yachting with Jackie Onassis. But Wenner’s publishing empire (which also grew to incorporate Us Weekly at its millennium-spanning peak) long represented an era in which rock ‘n’ roll and the counterculture could rub up against both the seriousness of American politics and the ephemerality of celebrity infatuation, and none of these elements would come out too much worse for the wear of coexisting in one biweekly package.

Wenner joined Variety for two Zoom sessions from his home to talk about the alternately dishy and ruminative book, and the almost six decades of affecting and reflecting the culture that fed into it. (This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

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The book serves as both a personal memoir and a history of Rolling Stone. Those are deeply entwined, of course, but did you have any feelings about how to balance those?

Well, I would add to that that it’s also an attempt to be a kind of a history of our times — in a not overly self-conscious way. I didn’t want to lard it with a bunch of “And then Bobby Kennedy was shot…” factual stuff of our times, or try and do a precise analysis of all the events that I felt were important. But I really felt that through the story of Rolling Stone and my own story, I could present an accurate and more nuanced picture of the baby boom era and the historical era of rock ‘n’ roll and what its impact was on the country. To my mind, always, the ‘60s generation has been at least as important as the jazz age or the roaring ‘20s, and very parallel in many ways. … I never really read a book that reported what I saw around me as a kid of the leading edge of the baby boom. So it’s a sociological story as well — but subtle, not trying to be.

You seem to have an enviable memory for more than 50 years of being in the publishing business.

Listen, I have 50 years’ worth of daily appointment calendars. And I didn’t remember. As I got them all out, it’d click off the memory. And then I had the magazine, which is a record of the work. And I had all my childhood school stuff … I was a big pack-rat. I saved my correspondence with everybody. And I called people up; sometimes we’d get together. They would remember things I’d completely have forgotten, and they were charming, wonderful things I couldn’t remember at all. I mean, I’m too old, too drugged up, too many things happened. [Laughs.] But I lucked out with those appointment books.

In 2017, there was another book about Rolling Stone [“Sticky Fingers,” by Joe Hagan], which you fully cooperated with before you came to regret it. Was doing your own book a reaction to that?

I always had in mind the idea that it would a great way of telling the story of the generation and our time in history, by looking at the joint history of myself and Rolling Stone. But I never wanted to do it myself. I felt it was too much work; I was lazy. So I gave it out to somebody, and I chose the wrong person. Despite the access I gave, it was a very mediocre, inaccurate job from someone who really missed the whole concept. At the same time, I had a health crisis — which all of a sudden stopped me from doing other things that I wanted to do, like ski, which I put an enormous amount of time into — and I sold the magazine. So all of a sudden I had this opportunity to do it, and I just loved the sheer process of researching it, meeting people (for their recollections), and I got to really appreciate being a writer again. If somebody else could have done it, I would’ve preferred that, but this turned out the way it should be.

In the book, you assess the work of a lot of the writers and editors who worked under you over the decades. And you are objective about your own writing — you take the piss out of your own review of Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming,” quoting a passage that you now admit you don’t even know what it meant.

You get to an age, you gotta be that way, you know? Yeah, I should not be exempt from the critique I give Jon Landau for his record reviews.

‘Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir’ by Jann Wenner
‘Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir’ by Jann Wenner

Are you always naturally inclined toward candor, or did you have to work up some of it to write certain things in this book?

I’m naturally inclined to it. I have little filter. I speak whatever’s on my mind, and I have a great belief in the truth, the utility of it, the importance of it, and the need of that for really terrific artistry and terrific writing. I think you have to define, though, how much truth do you want to tell? I don’t feel obligated to examine every detail of my personal life. It’s not particularly that interesting to most people. And I don’t like being mean to people; I don’t see the point of settling scores in this book. I have nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. I was going to be very open about my sexuality. But I don’t think it’s necessary to explore every detail of that; you can go to other books to read that. But I always prized, in the making of Rolling Stone, asking the writers, when they’d go out, to come back with a truth that they had seen about a situation and to trust that truth. That paid off over many years.

In some ways you present yourself as the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll boomer, but there is also the story of you as a gay man, and how you were comfortable with your sexuality but not necessarily identifying heavily with every aspect of gay subcultures. You say you hated phrases like “coming out” and “the closet” when you did go public.

I don’t like that phrase “coming out” just because I hate cliches, and it was such a cliched phrase. It doesn’t fit everybody’s arc. … Being gay is certainly who I was, and I embrace it. But I didn’t have that same struggle with it (that others did), for whatever reason, maybe because my parents were good with me. … But I think the idea of finding yourself and being true to something fits very well with my generation, because it was a lot about all kinds of liberation. I mean, rock ‘n’ roll itself was a liberation. It’s embracing who you are — that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.

Three of your closest friends in rock that you socialize with all the time are Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Mick Jagger — such different types of people to be pals with. Do you find a different reflection of yourself in each of them?

Absolutely. I’m exuberant like Bono, and we’re gonna save the world tomorrow. I’m like deep, thoughtful Bruce, and we’re gonna save the world tomorrow. And with Mick, we’re gonna go out dancing. [Laughs.] With Mick, I share this kind of bon vivant, social, glamour world, and just kind of a silly shout, a level of just leading a jet set life, you know. Yeah, I’m a bit of all of that. But they’re all really wonderful people to be with and hang with — all deep, meaningful people.

You write about how the Eagles hated Rolling Stone, and then finally Cameron Crowe wrote a story and got on their good side. But historically there are bands that felt like they didn’t get a fair shot from Rolling Stone and had grudges. But then there there are those things that changed over time. It sounds like you weren’t close to Paul McCartney at all, like you were with John Lennon, and then in later years you developed more of a friendship, even as Yoko Ono looked at that a bit askance.

Well, it’s hard to dislike Paul, and also he’s a Beatle, and that’s its own category. As I’ve described it, it’s hard not to just go fall for the magic fairy dust that’s coming all over you every time he opens his mouth. But looking back, rightfully, there was some anger at us. Some people got some really unfair bad reviews, like Led Zeppelin, for example. There was this very high-handed treatment by our amateur critics at the beginning of the magazine. And I don’t know what the Eagles’ gripe was. I mean, those people, if you had one word wrong, (Don) Henley would be freaking out at you and they’d all freak out. Queen, I think we gave them a short, not very elegant treatment, and that’s why Roger Taylor sent that nasty letter on a barf bag, which I thought was great. I saved his letter to the editor written on an airplane sickness bag. But by and large, everybody was friends. We advocated for everybody. And certain treatments of people I don’t regret, but I think some of them are correct — we didn’t do right at the beginning by a couple of bands we should have. I wish we had.

You seem to have had great encounters with most stars, but Paul Simon is one you just briefly describe as “cold to the end.”

We were so good to him. Gave him covers, wrote fabulous reviews, treated him with reverence in person. [Sighs.] He’s one of the great people of our time. There was more we were going to put in the book… but I thought the better line was, “I’m not gonna let him spoil his music for me.”

Things have been out out of your hands for a few years now, since you sold Rolling Stone, but there are certain signposts — like just last month, when Rolling Stone announced it was stopping doing star ratings. That really seemed like the end of a very long era.

I think that was a mistake, to end those. What do you think?

It was just such a signature, for close to 60 years. The explanation that was given was to the effect of: Now we’re just going to tell you whether an album is a classic or not, rather than convey it through a rating.

It was a surprise to me when I saw that. And I think it was an incorrect decision. I think the star ratings are really valuable to readers, and they want them. I mean, do you want to go through every single review in there, to find the ones you want? … I thought those star ratings were helpful. I mean, you only review the good records (anyway). So I was surprised.

You say that you knew that if you were gonna sell, you knew there was no way you were going to be kept around indefinitely. But you’re still have some compunctions about what the magazine turned into. [Penske Media bought a majority stake in the magazine in 2017 and the remainder in 2019.] So how do you feel about Rolling Stone now?

Well, it’s a complicated question. I obviously have nostalgia and love for my own era, but my time there has passed. Not only has my time passed, the technology has passed, the cultural moment has passed, along with the urgency of those times. I think there’s lots of similarities to what’s going on now. I think young people’s music is very important to young people. It’s full of politics and emotion and love and ideas. And it’s not quite as compelling or as good, I think, as our era. So the way they handle it and what they have to say about what they focus on… I don’t look at it that much and I don’t judge it that much. I just know it’s really not stuff for me. I know some of (current music) is very good. Harry Styles is a good singer, but it’s not grabbing me in any way. K-pop doesn’t interest me. It’s a different era. I don’t want to judge it.

It seems like Rolling Stone has periodically sought to redefine itself. There was the famous “perception versus reality” ad campaign back in the ‘80s, to make the magazine seem more upscale for advertisers. But in a redesign of the website that just happened, there was a tagline that said something like, “Finally, a Rolling Stone website that doesn’t feel like it’s wearing bell bottoms.”

Yeah. I guess it’s “We’re not your father’s Rolling Stone.” [Laughs.] But I don’t remember — when did you last wear bell-bottom jeans? I mean, like in the ‘60s, or the ‘70s? I don’t think there’s been bell bottom jeans around for 40 years. I don’t know. I looked at that and I thought, “Well, there you go, old man.” Between that and the star ratings, I feel very rejected. [Laughs]

Your son, Gus, is running the magazine now, but you make it sound like he and you don’t really talk about the direction much now.

Not much, no. I mean, we talked about it a lot at the beginning. Gus worked for me for about three years, training him at Rolling Stone. I had him sit in my meetings. He’s just an enormously talented kid, and smart and energetic and charming, persuasive, and just a guy you believe in, you know? And he doesn’t need my advice, particularly; he doesn’t want my advice, particularly, you know. If he has a question, I’ll answer it. It’s usually about some small how you handle something. But in terms of strategic direction or the editorial, he listens to me a little on that, but… No. I’m out of it. I asked him, “Can I be like the uncle or the father-in-law or the cousin or something?” And it turned out they made me the ex-wife. [Laughs.] I couldn’t even be the brother-in-law!

In the book, you say you described your letters to readers in the early days of the magazine as “letters from home,” and I remember feeling that way as a kid, that getting Rolling Stone in the mail connected me with a tribe that didn’t seem to exist in my hometown. That would be a hard thing to foster now among young people who have so many means of connecting, or to keep alive among older readers.

I think you can still do it in a way. I still think there’s a community out there that still exists — and we’re all older, but still have political power in our hands. We still can vote. We’re not probably gonna go out on the streets and march, you know? I mean, I can’t – I’ve got a cane. But it’s still there. I would’ve kept that community alive. … (The current Rolling Stone) is gonna serialize a bit of my book there; that’s for the older reader. They do a few things there. But it’s not for our age group anymore. It’s not for that community that I established. I mean, it’s a residual community. And rightfully, they’re saying, “We don’t want to be for that community. We wanna be for what’s young and new and happening in popular music and popular culture.” And that’s happening in ages 20 to 30, you know. So, bye-bye, bell bottoms, you know?

One thing that must make you proud, as a legacy, is that much of Rolling Stone is still devoted to politics. The danger would have always seemed that someone would have bought it and thought it was just a music magazine.

Here’s what I think of the new Rolling Stone. I think they have done a great job of keeping it alive, putting it on a sound financial footing, and keeping its basic mission the same, in terms of being about music and it’s relevant to young people, it’s about politics. It’s retained the same purpose. It’s not for me — it’s not aimed at my age group anymore — but I think they are trying to do the same thing for a new generation. And I think that’s fantastic. They put at least half of it into politics and feature journalism. It’s executed in a different way, and it may be more appropriate to our times. In the internet age, there’s less time for reflective thinking. But they’re’s still on that mission. I would execute it differently, but the mission remains the same. That is wonderful, that they’ve embraced all that.

Ironically or otherwise, as we can attest here, classic rock does still gets clicks. Whether it’s the image you want to project is another matter.

You can still turn out hundreds of thousands of people to look at the Stones or the Who. But of the hundreds of thousands, how many of them are all that interested in reading another piece about them? You know, by this time, at the ages we’re at when we go see the Who, we’ve read everything. We just want the experience. … You’re interested in snippets — where are they now? — and a few quotes. You’re not interested in reading a big 5,000-word take on the Stones. I’m not, and I’m a big Stones fan. There’s really not much more to add to that record. So now it’s creating a new record for the newer acts. It’s just not for me. But I’m proud of the fact that they’ve kept it going — I mean, delighted.

You say in the book that Rolling Stone settled into a place in the ’80s that was part-serious, part-silly.

From the very beginning, we were running serious articles about things. As time emerged, we broadened our scope from People’s Park or the underground press or Huey Newton into presidential politics and national politics. But in 1970, we were covering the environment. I don’t think we would’ve had the audience we had and the influence we had if we hadn’t also covered popular culture. We just figured that if you’re serious about the way we were gonna treat music, you’d be serious about other things. I mean, that was always the promise of Rolling Stone, and we paid it off. I mean, one of the greatest things we did is putting Hunter on a mainstream political story. How better to introduce mainstream politics to our audience than through Hunter?

You could probably have done a 600-page book just about Hunter.

Hunter was just one of my greatest friends and my greatest writers and greatest partners in crime and politics and fun and pleasure. I loved Hunter very deeply and he meant a lot to me. And I never had a cross word with Hunter the entire time we worked together. We called each other brainless and brain dead and on and on and on, but we never had a cross word. Isn’t that strange — and everybody thinks the opposite, of course, because it’s Hunter’s myth. But we just got along like a house on fire.

The only (smack talk) I didn’t like, which I share in the book, was where he said I canceled his medical insurance in Saigon, and I don’t think he realized that would be so believed. And it was really quite a slur on somebody. But as soon as I called him on it, he stopped. I said, “If you say that one more time, I’m gonna go around on a lecture tour of the United States and blame you for the drug problem in the United States.” And he says, “No, no, no, you’re responsible for the drug problem in the United States.” I said, “No, it’s you. Well, you know what, we’ll go on tour together and debate it.” It was always fun.

Going from that to Us Weekly … that’s a magazine that is very hard for it to exist now. If you told any teenager about it, they’d say, “Wait, you had to wait a week to read celebrity gossip?” And yet you establish that it overshadowed Rolling Stone in a lot of ways in its prime, certainly financially.

Well, its sociopolitical, artistic importance won’t come close. But it was a huge cultural moment then when it came out. It defined another little bit of a cultural era — one a little more trivial, but it found and celebrated a whole new era of celebrity — the younger celebrities as well as the older ones. It was also original in its approach to all that gossip, with the tongue-in-cheek and fun and humor, and the glamour. We took all the sleaze out of it and that stuff that made you uncomfortable, and the paparazzi stuff. And it also brought it younger and hipper than People. It was so competitive. Every week you’re making a frickin’ decision over whether People was chasing the same thing. It was just a big hit of adrenaline. It got me so news-oriented. I really learned a lot about how to do things a little more commercially, how to write headlines with a little more impact. Those two or three weekly news meetings, it was like editing Time magazine, except it wasn’t about Kissinger, it was about Brad Pitt. It stands more in the history of the magazine business and pop culture than it does in the kind of area where Rolling Stone played.

You talk about some of the people you fired in the book, often without naming them. With Us Weekly, you say you dismissed an editor for hating celebrities. And then with Rolling Stone, almost conversely, you say there was an English editor who you dismissed right after the Christina Aguilera cover that had her posing naked with a guitar for a Women in Music issue.

There’s a similarity that has to with having a basic love of the underlying subject and respect for it. If (at Rolling Stone) you treat rock ’n’ roll as just some kind of laddy thing, when it really is so deeply meaningful to people, you don’t have my take on it. And if (at Us Weekly) you have an underlying resentment of celebrities and good-looking people, don’t be at my magazine. Maybe you should be at the Enquirer or the Star or something, but don’t be here. The people who do the best work are the people who write about things they love.

Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Mick Jagger  and Ahmet Ertegun congratulate him. (Photo by Kevin Kane/WireImage)
Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Mick Jagger and Ahmet Ertegun congratulate him. (Photo by Kevin Kane/WireImage)

A historical moment many of us didn’t know about was that Mick Jagger ran an English version of Rolling Stone for one issue in the late ‘60s, and it turned out so terribly that you killed it after one issue. It just seems so odd to think of him wanting to be like a magazine magnate or something.

No, I don’t think he wanted to be a magazine magnate at all. I mean, quite the opposite. At that moment in London, there was a real cultural awakening going on, comparable with San Francisco, and it was a flourishing arts scene. And I just think Mick wanted to be a part of that, you know? There was no kind of separation between what was chic and what was underground in London. … The only time we ever spoke about it again was about a year ago when I was writing the book. I called him up and said, “Do you remember whose idea was to do this in the first place? Was it mine or yours?” He said, “I don’t remember.” I said, “I don’t either.” [Laughs.]

One other thing that comes up with Mick in the book is how you were gonna cover Altamont.  Rolling Stone’s exhaustive coverage of that was kind of an early milestone in the history of the magazine. That was a crucial moment that you had to make a choice about whether being buddies came first or whether making this statement with this long-form piece in the magazine — in which the Stones didn’t come off as any kind of heroes — would be the way to go. Eventually the friendship survived. Do you think that was important to the future of the magazine?

Yeah, very much so. When all the initial brouhaha of it was over and the anger and the blame, I think Mick understood exactly what I needed to do and I think respected me for that. I don’t think we would’ve had the same friendship had he felt like he could tool me around all the time, and have me under his thumb — ha-ha. We won a National Magazine Award for that and the Manson thing, and the judges said something about citing Rolling Stone for its willingness to challenge the attitudes of its readership. I have nothing more to say about that. I wrote very carefully and very completely about that in there, and what I felt it meant to us and to Mick and to the culture.

On another matter with Mick, you say you reached a formal agreement with him about the name of the magazine, fairly late in its history. You also mention that, in a jocular fashion, Dylan was claiming rights to it too, but that it really was an issue at some point, even though you were friends, with Mick.

It was never an issue. We just trusted each other, you know? I mean, we just never dealt with it. It just didn’t seem to be an issue for the two of us, and we proceeded along our merry way for like 40 years or more with no clear (agreement).

Was there a financial deal, finally, to settle the sort-of-shared name?

No, just agree we both own it, control it. You could have it for records. We have it for magazines. If anybody violates it in any form, we’ll jointly enforce it. No money ever changed hands. Never was there a controversy. Never was there any conflict.

Even as Rolling Stone changed and permutates, the original legacy stands in certain ways. A hundred years from now, whether Rolling Stone exists or not, people will still be watching “Almost Famous” on whatever the successor to streaming is. And now Cameron has made it into a Broadway musical, so Rolling Stone’s importance in that era will persist in fictionalization, in mythos. Did you talked to Cameron about the musical?

I have. My advice to Cameron was: Skip the magazine, hit the love story!

It wouldn’t exist without this basic idea that this magazine meant everything in the music world at one point. You mention in the book that Glenn Frey, when the Eagles finally made good with Rolling Stone, said, “Just make us look cool.” And that’s a line Cameron borrowed for the movie and the musical. And so wanting to be cool in Rolling Stone is…

…still everybody’s dream. Including mine. Now I want to be cool in Variety. That’s my ambition.

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