"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Just this much above the bustle of midtown Manhattan, feet
propped on a table, leaning back and grinning his infectious grin, Jann
Wenner is exactly where he wants — and deserves — to be: in the midst of
the bustle without necessarily having to rub any shoulders he doesn’t want
to rub. In contrast, all around this room and the ones adjoining are photos
of him shoulder-to-shoulder with his crowd — Jann with Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bob Dylan; Jann at the White House; Jann with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Jann with the significantly taller Attorney General Janet Reno (“I had to do that one. She’s such a star”).
Beyond the door to his office suite stretches the bustling Wenner Media
headquarters (“almost the size of a football field,” he says with characteristic immodesty), where the young,
the slender and the hip march about in platform shoes performing the
mundane tasks of running Jann’s empire.
This is where the music went. It’s strange, but if the entire cultural
explosion from the 1960s could be drawn down to just one guy, it would be this compact energy ball right here — the quintessential baby boomer, our own Peter Pan, a chubby
adolescent who would never grow up.
Wenner was an entrepreneur long before it was cool. And if, as the venture
capitalists like to say, entrepreneurs usually have only one good idea, at least his was a doozy. Wenner was, to put it plainly, the star-fucker who always traded up — the
ultimate name-dropper who finally became a bigger name in the tabs
than many of the stars he worshiped.
These days he oversees three successful magazines (Rolling Stone, Us and Men’s
Journal), and if that doesn’t provide enough fodder for Wenner-watchers, there are plenty of other angles for the wags to whisper about — his
much younger boyfriend, designer Matt Nye; his many Hollywood buddies, including David Geffen, Barry Diller and Richard Gere; his
longtime business partner and now ex-wife, Jane, and their three
sons; and the accouterments of his success — the Hamptons mansion, the driver and car, the jet and the private Idaho retreat, for summers.
Jann’s long, strange trip here, to the center of his own conspicuous universe, began
a continent away and three decades ago, in a rundown warehouse in the old
printer’s district in San Francisco’s South of Market area, a few short gestational months after the
Haight-Ashbury’s Summer of Love in 1967. There, Rolling Stone magazine, which would
become the voice of a generation, was born. Until the moment issue No. 1 launched, Jann had been just a frustrated wannabe, one of the guys jumping
around the margins of the action, crashing the performances, handing out
fliers, hanging on outside the doors of the stars.
From a separate group of would-be entrepreneurs across town, according
to Robert Draper’s detailed history, “Rolling Stone Magazine: The
Uncensored History,” Wenner stole a mailing list and a corporate name
(Straight Arrow Publishing) to get off the ground. But nobody doubts that
the editorial concept came directly out of Jann’s own music-crazed soul.
The idea was unique for its time: Instead of the puff pieces expected from
a trade magazine, Rolling Stone would cover rock ‘n’ roll for what it was,
the most powerful cultural and political force in a time of widespread
social tumult. The magazine would take risks, and run stories no one else
was willing to cover. Jann recognized that a new social order was forming,
with music as its binding energy.
Wenner’s mentor in this new world of publishing was an older music critic
named Ralph Gleason; most of the money for the risky venture came from the
family of his wife, Jane Schindelheim Wenner, a dark-haired, fine-boned
beauty who was rarely seen at the magazine, but whose presence was always
felt in its formative years.
What made Jann — and Rolling Stone — successful was the power of rock
‘n’ roll combined with his personal ruthlessness and the opportunism,
including kindness, that wealth allows. He was unparalleled in his
generation of magazine editors as a spotter of talent, and for creative types of a certain age and temperament, Jann will always be considered
the magic-maker. He embraced the ideas and generated the excitement; he
untapped his writers’ best work. He untapped everybody, loosened the words,
made the sap flow. That was part of his pure genius as an editor.
In the early years, when 20,000-word pieces were not uncommon in the
magazine and it was his job to edit them, Jann often seemed to lose
interest and stop reading a few paragraphs into a piece. Nonetheless,
his mark was always there. The headlines, the ledes, the art, the display
type — much of that was Jann. His skill at positioning a story, the way he
drilled to the sweet spot — those were his gifts. He didn’t really write
or line-edit with distinction himself. He was the man who hired the writers and
the editors, the designers and the photographers. He spotted you and he
spotted your story. Before long, he was the keeper of the story.
One of the critical elements in Wenner’s success was that he knew not only how to develop and exploit talent, but also when and how to dump it. Every
Rolling Stone writer and editor, photographer and designer has a
bucketful of Jann tales, how the outbursts, the abuse, the breakups, the
firings came down. When Jann turned heartless on you, he played that part
better than anyone else.
The brand names of Jann’s once and former stars is impressive: Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, Chet
Flippo, Joe Klein, Tim Cahill, Tom Hayden, David Harris, Cameron Crowe, Joe
Eszterhas, David Felton, Tim Ferris, Ben Fong-Torres, Howard Kohn, Jon
Landau, Dave Marsh, Annie Leibovitz, Greil Marcus, Grover Lewis, Abe Peck,
John Morthland, Paul Scanlon, Marianne Partridge, John Burks, Timothy
White, Sarah Lazin, Charley Perry, Michael Rogers, Roger Black, Ed Ward,
Charles Young, Christine Doudna, Harriet Fier — and that list could go on
and on to embrace dozens more. (I, too, was one of Jann’s stars for a while — between 1974 and 1977, I
wrote a dozen or so long investigative stories for the magazine, half the
time as a freelancer and the other half on staff as an associate editor.) Not all of these people were fired, of course; increasingly, as the years went by, the talent got fed up with Jann’s antics and just quit.
way, as Rolling Stone went forward with the business of seducing each
new group of 16-year-olds, the genius of
Jann’s ruthless content strategy gradually became apparent. No matter how
spectacular one group of staffers might be, they all shared one problem from which there is no escape — they grew older. Everybody, that
is, except Jann himself. His petulant fits and rages actually seemed frozen
at an age considerably south of 16 — think “terrible 2″ and you’ll
get the idea.
By 1977, Jann decided he’d outgrown his hometown, and he took his whole San
Francisco hippie show to New York, the main media stage. Ten years after
the Summer of Love, the magazine had survived countless financial and
personnel crises that might have sunk it, much as they sank all the other
start-up rags from the ’60s. But the tyrannical boy king had stayed atop his throne, always
seducing another wave of talent, closing bigger ad accounts, just barely
holding it all together. Now he would become rich.
In New York, Jann hit gold. Soon he was a regular in the celebrity
pages, grinning ear to ear, escorting Jackie and Caroline Kennedy to a
party. There he was, throwing the party for the Democratic
convention in New York. There he was in a movie, playing himself
(“Perfect,” with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis), and he wasn’t
half-bad, though the movie’s story line made a travesty of Rolling Stone’s
editorial standards. (“It must be difficult making the transition from
editor to actor,” I gently suggested during a visit just before the film
launched. “Not really,” Jann answered. “Not when you have so much natural
Jann’s bluster was all part of the package. It is hard to imagine a more
shielded — what psychiatrists might call “defended” — personality from a generation that has embraced
therapy and the human potential movement. Clearly, his childhood in a
family where neither parent had time for him had left its mark. Not long
after he was sent away at the age of 12 to the Chadwick School, which
Robert Draper characterizes as an orphanage for rich kids south of Los Angeles, Wenner’s
parents divorced. Neither parent called to take him back, and Jann’s
version later of the custody battle between his parents was that
neither of them wanted him. At Chadwick, he added another “n” to his
birth name, Jan, and went his own way away from the family that didn’t want
Though he always exhibited the wounds of an abandoned child, with
insecurities that were painfully obvious (he would cover part of his face
with his hand when talking to you, and he almost always kept a table
between himself and anyone else who was around), he also early on
demonstrated a powerful ability to empathize with an entire generation that
felt betrayed by its parents. This was, after all, a generation that
simultaneously rebelled against the Vietnam War and a host of constrictive
social arrangements and gravitated to the one force that bridged racial and class lines — music. Jann really could trust his own wounded instincts as he proceeded to capture the Zeitgeist of the age.
His short, muscular body zoomed around the magazine’s
office; if you didn’t look quickly, you’d easily miss him as he passed. Though he
surrounded himself with taller people, he
didn’t like to look up at anyone, so most meetings were held at something
approximating room-length, or at least everyone else had to be sitting.
And despite his insecurity, he never had much
trouble making eye contact, and there always seemed to be a
conspiratorily mischievous glint in his large, lovely blue eyes. His voice
rapped out orders in a rapid-fire delivery, made even more so in those
early years by his heavy cocaine habit.
Staffers often worried that Jann was overdoing powder (and later
alcohol), especially when he’d tend to be missing at important moments.
Sometimes, though, it wasn’t the mind-altering substance that was to
blame, but Wenner’s pure fear of being onstage. During a hastily arranged
news conference following the Patty Hearst/Symbionese Liberation Army
exposi that Howard Kohn and I co-authored in 1975, for example, Jann was
nowhere to be found. Reporters from virtually every national and local
media outfit in San Francisco clamored for an explanation of how the
magazine had gotten this scoop, but Jann was too nervous to appear before
them himself. We were told later that he had hidden under a table, vomiting,
while avoiding the media.
One-on-one, however, Jann was a master at exerting personal power. He
knew how to charm anybody who came into his orbit. He stalked the objects
of his greatest affection, and used the magazine to gain access. Thus did he
get cozy with John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Jackie Kennedy, the
royalty of the age. But once Jann got to know
these stars, he cared about them, not as a fan but as family, just as
with his staff. And then, just as with the staff, he’d fight with them and drive them away.
The stars often
accused Jann of going back on his word, of betraying them, of lying. But usually he would cajole his way back to their sides, where he’d
extract another interview from them, another deal, yielding yet another
wave of accusatory charges and countercharges. Have Jann, have drama.
His blow-ups with Lennon were especially legendary, yet when Lennon was
murdered, according to Draper’s book, Jann was inconsolable; he raced
across town to the Dakota and stood across the street with a sorrowful band
of other fans, crying in the rain. Later, without telling anyone, he
stopped the memorial issue of the magazine as it was headed to the
printer and hand-scribbled in tiny letters a final message in the fold:
“John, I love you I miss you you’re with God I’ll do what I said ‘Yoko hold
on’ — I’ll make sure, I promise XXX Jann.”
By the mid-’70s, the stars of other, somewhat imitative media hits
started gravitating to Jann’s side. As “Saturday Night Live” came into
being, Jann and Rolling Stone developed a synergistic relationship with
actors like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. One time, in advance of a visit
to the magazine’s offices, a large package arrived for the Blues
Brothers. When a curious staffer poked at it, sure enough, white powder began to leak from inside.
At Jann’s Victorian mansion in Pacific Heights in San Francisco,
Saturday nights were sometimes the excuse for him to show off new toys, like
an early large-screen TV set on which he displayed the
first episodes of “Saturday Night Live” to staffers juiced on Remy Martin,
coke, scotch, bourbon, marijuana, cigars and other substances hard to
recall now, let alone the following morning. Outside, in Jann’s driveway, the
painfully insecure and brilliant photographer Annie Leibovitz would leave her
cameras in her car. Hours later, after stumbling outside only to discover her car had been broken into and her
cameras were gone, Annie would come back in, crying. Jann always laid out the cash for new ones.
When certain staffers’ birthdays came around, the staff passed a hat,
and when enough cash had been collected, the lucky one’s present was
procured — a nice big bag of cocaine. It was normal practice for an editor
stopping by the staff darkroom to sniff a line or two while
checking over photos for upcoming feature story layouts.
One thing this account of partying obscures is how
hard the people who built Rolling Stone worked. The magazine was
published biweekly, but throughout the early years, few of its editors
and designers had any substantial publishing experience. Just like today’s
Web pioneers, this was a new generation creating new media — if we’d
fit in to what already existed, we wouldn’t have been there. As a
result, some pretty funky production standards and long hours were the norm. It wasn’t uncommon to work around the clock the
last few nights before we shipped an issue. Those of us who wrote the main
articles often stayed at the magazine night and day until we got our long,
tortured manuscripts into their final form.
Jann’s own work rhythms helped set the pace. He was, to put it lightly,
a “night person.” He rarely even showed up at the office until afternoon, and
then normally it was with a dark growth of beard and some kind of hangover. As the night wore on, however, Jann kicked into high gear, sometimes
with assistance. As other people began to fade, his energy seemed to pick
up, allowing him to break down any creative resistance to his ideas the
rest of us might have had.
When the magazine moved to New York, where politicians were the celebrities, Jann was instantly at
their sides. In one of his few long-term moves, he hired William Greider,
whose analytical columns have kept at least one strong political voice as a
continuous part of the magazine’s mix to this day. (“Hell, I even agree
with him 80 percent of the time,” Jann said recently. “And that’s pretty good.”)
In 1993, Wenner and Greider landed an exclusive interview with newly
installed President Clinton, another ’60s kid refusing to age, whom
Jann instantly adored — even today he considers Clinton “an amazing man,
he’s so smart.”
Jann’s personal life was always on the edge, of course, just like
Clinton’s, though the orientations were different. Nobody seemed to be able to figure out his marriage with Jane. It was,
euphemistically, an “open” marriage; rumors of Jann’s bisexuality often
circulated, as did stories of Jane’s affairs, but somewhat like that
much-later celebrity couple — Bill and Hillary — Jann and Jane seemed
genuinely emotionally intertwined with each other, in ways too
mysterious for their friends and co-workers to unravel.
Finally, in 1995,
came Jann’s own Monica-like outing. Through a tortuous process some said
Jann himself had instigated (only to then try to suppress), Jann’s
homosexuality went public. He and his 20-something love, Matt Nye, a
clothing designer, were outed, and the press revealed that his long marriage
with co-founder Jane Schindleheim Wenner was over.
The Wall Street Journal chose this occasion to present a highly unusual
Page 1 report, complete with salacious details not normally presumed to
be of major interest to the business and financial communities, in order to
speculate that Jane and Jann’s breakup would throw the future of the
magazine empire into doubt.
Wrong. The empire survived the marriage, ’60s-style.
As an empire builder, Jann actually has a mixed record. To his credit, once he got Rolling Stone’s formula right, he was smart enough to not
try to alter it too much. Instead, he experimented with his rapidly expanding cash reserves
by starting or taking over other magazines — more than a dozen over the years. Most of those soon
failed, as is the nature of the business, or were sold off. Today just two
others remain — Us, which he says he plans to take weekly sometime over the next year to compete
head-on with People; and Men’s Journal, the
adventure magazine that duplicates Rolling Stone’s aesthetic in content aimed at the athletic baby boom male who has the time (and
money) to pursue outdoor adventures.
Wenner’s restless energy over the years has yielded more failed
experiments than almost anybody else in the business, yet he’s never
gambled anywhere near large enough a portion of the capital available to
him to put his essential project at risk. At the same time, one striking thing about Jann’s career is that, apart from
Rolling Stone, his success at recognizing other great innovative business concepts has
been negligible. When Bob Pittman showed up to tell Jann about his bright
new idea for a cable TV show called MTV, Jann dismissed his vision as
something that would “never” work. MTV, of course, became far bigger than
Rolling Stone could ever hope to be, and in the process breathed life back
into the moribund music business in many ways that benefited Jann and his
magazine enormously. But Jann himself had missed an opportunity.
Later, when Marc Andreessen came by to describe his brand new
World Wide Web idea — a browser and a company called Netscape — and to ask Wenner
to invest, Jann once again was dismissive. “I didn’t want to be the one to
lose a bundle on that,” he remembers, perhaps slightly chagrined now
that Andreessen’s net worth far exceeds his own.
Many others came to pay homage as well over the years. Wenner
particularly liked Louis Rossetto, the co-founder of Wired, but he figured Rossetto
would never succeed as a magazine publisher because he favored design
elements that obscured the text and refused to include “service-type
stories that would help people figure out how to use all this tech stuff.”
Rossetto, of course, went on to create one of the most important magazines
of the ’90s, Wired, before being dismissed by investors in favor of an
editorial team that has made the magazine more accessible and user-friendly.
There’s more than a little irony in the fact that most of today’s media pioneers,
all of whom would probably identify Rolling Stone as a model for building
their companies, operate out of the same brick-walled warehouses South of
Market where Jann birthed Rolling Stone, in the city Jann dismissed from
his rearview mirror as a “backwater” more than 20 years ago. Today, by
contrast, the “new media” entrepreneurs are creating wealth Jann could only
Of course, at 53, Jann is not young or hungry anymore. These days, off
to one side in his office, on a small display table, sits a shrine to his
three sons, ages 13, 12 and 8. In a drawer are more shots — pictures of
their vacations together, photos of them climbing all over him, one big
Jann and three little Janns.
Now here is something radically different from the old Jann,
something fragile. Lines creep into his expression when he talks about his
children, of his concerns about how they may think of his sexual
orientation as they approach their own adolescence. All of a sudden he’s a
little vulnerable, not so sure of himself, maybe even a little scared.
But to get something, you have to give something up. To fall in love with someone much
younger, to leave the security of his long marriage, no matter how
unconventional it may have been, this had to take a toll on Jann. He’s suffered a loss, and
this has made him, finally, just maybe, start to do what everybody else in
his generation did — grow up.
He allows that this love of these children, this “unconditional love,”
is the very best thing in his life. This is his tender spot.
Things with Jane, he says, are “well” now, and that’s all he’ll say
about that subject. Jane has always owned about half of the company, but it
is perfectly obvious that the three smiling boys in these pictures are the
glue that now holds this particular family media empire together.
Talent comes, talent goes. The choreographer remains. The director. The
man who calls the shots. Jann has so completely and successfully lived out
his own story, complete with dramas of every kind, that he’s almost
graduated to the stuff of legend. Abandoned by his own parents, he became a
pseudo-parent to his staffers. He’d take us to the best clothing stores to
dress us for media tours, frown over our haircuts and stuff extra money
into our pockets. If something bad happened, Jann was reliably
compassionate. News of someone’s sick relative, or an accident, would send
him into tears, even while his hand reached for his checkbook. When Howard
Kohn suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm several years ago, and his
health insurance policy had lapsed, Wenner wrote out a very large check, no
questions asked, to help pay for the surgery that saved Kohn’s life.
But just as savagely, Jann could always turn on any of us, and
eventually he usually did. Once he’d driven everyone out of the company
except himself, and had achieved complete domination, he somehow seemed
to stay suspended in time. Lost in the ’60s. All of the rest of us
trailed away, little pieces of narrative, scenes really, from the earlier
parts of his movie, on to our own life stories.
Back here in Midtown, he’s the man. Producer, director, actor, writer,
editor, cameraman, casting, set, distribution house, financier, publicist,
everything. Owner of the franchise.
Jann’s world. Dig it.
David Weir is Salon's Washington bureau chief.More David Weir.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)