The death of Rolling Stone

The magazine that invented rock journalism lost its reason to exist years ago. Now, with a British lad-mag editor taking the helm, it's time to pull the plug.

Published June 28, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

When Jann Wenner finally announced a few weeks ago that he had hired the British editor of a laddie mag to be the new managing editor of Rolling Stone, media critics heralded it as a sea change in American publishing. "The U.S. music industry bible is about to be re-written," brayed the Guardian, a left-leaning British daily, "and its purist followers already sense the whiff of betrayal."

The Moonie-owned Washington Times, ever ready to re-fight the culture wars of the '60s, painted the hiring of FHM editor Ed Needham as a potentially good thing, one that might sound a death knell to the writings of Hunter S. Thompson and his imitators: "It's probably too much to expect a change in the sort of drug-boosterism that inspires pot-friendly travel tips, non-judgmental post-mortems on overdosed rockers, and hysterical posturings against the drug wars." The Los Angeles Times was downright nasty. "Shove over, you middle-aged boys, with your Bics burning at Bruce Springsteen concerts, your thinning hair, your love of 6,000-word dispatches from Tom Wolfe and other gonzo authors," read the lead. "It's not about you anymore."

But for all the Chicken Little clucking (caused in part by Needham's own remarks of the who-has-time-to-read variety), there is no immediate evidence that the old guard is up in arms. As with the tennis-playing mimes at the end of Antonioni's "Blow Up" -- to really date myself -- there is no ball in the air. That movie is best remembered by rock cognoscenti for the nightclub scene: The Yardbirds are on stage performing "Train Kept A-Rolling" when Jeff Beck's guitar starts to distort. He smashes the neck into an amplifier, breaks it off and tosses it into the crowd, at which point a scrum breaks out. The hero (played by David Hemmings) fights for the guitar neck and, having secured the prize, walks outside and tosses it in the trash.

Which may be how those boomers mocked by media mavens feel about the magazine. It has been a shadow of its former self for so long that most of us have forgotten what its former self looked like. While most of the press reaction to Wenner's choice of editor -- which came after months of speculation and supposed soul-searching on his part -- referred to "long investigative" pieces, not many were mentioned by name. (T.D. Allman's long dispatch from Colombia, the second half of which appears in the July 4 issue, represents the last vestiges of that tradition.)

The sui generis writings of Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke are seldom seen in the magazine's pages now, and even those seem like pale imitations of the original. The truth is that Rolling Stone has been such an undistinguished hybrid -- part '70s-style journalism (investigative reporting, distinct voices and rambling interviews), and part any other entertainment magazine you can name -- for so long that most of its subscribers are probably unaware that they still get it. Why upset them by sending some tricked-up men's mag with the classic Rolling Stone logo emblazoned on the top?

It's demographically impossible to please both 49-year-old rock fans and the walking boners who buy FHM (or more to the point, Blender, the Maxim-derived music mag that got Wenner trembling in the first place), so why try? Rather than reintroduce the magazine with a new facelift, guaranteed to be as warmly received as Greta Van Susteren's, why not do something altogether more radical? Why not shut the mother down?

It may seem like an insane idea on the face of it. Any magazine with a million-plus circulation (compared to Spin's 525,000 and Blender's 350,000-and-growing) is sitting pretty in today's down market. It was Rolling Stone's declining newsstand sales that moved Wenner to fire managing editor Robert Love, a 20-year veteran of the magazine (Wenner lists himself as publisher and editor, while the managing editor actually puts out the magazine), and it is newsstand savvy that British editors are believed to possess. (New M.E. Needham has actually been in the U.S. three years now, and his FHM is as Americanized as an afternoon of MTV and about as thought-provoking.)

Indeed, it was the whirring caused by Blender's newsstand sales that put Wenner in motion in the first place. With only seven issues under its belt, Dennis Publications' foray into the rock biz -- which bills itself "The Ultimate Music Magazine" -- is leaping off the shelves. Its magic-bean numbers are reminiscent of the advent of its cousin Maxim (whose seeming overnight success turned nearly every men's magazine in the country into a frat party a few years ago) and the effect on the competition has been just as pronounced.

Even before Wenner made his move, Spin editor Alan Light took a stroll, ostensibly to start his own magazine, though his replacement, Sia Michel, has said she will make some changes that could make the magazine more Blender-like. And in announcing Love's imminent departure, Wenner also pledged to put his journal on a shorter lead time while speeding up the production cycle in the interest of breaking news sooner.

But in his publicized search for an M.E. -- all the more notable given the number of editors out of work in New York -- Wenner seemed to indicate that he was not willing to sell out completely. After a meeting with former Maxim editor Mark Golin (now an AOL vice president and creative director) the two deemed the union a nonstarter. Golin, who briefly brought his short-and-snappy style to Condé Nast's Details in 1999 before getting the heave, was more interested in rebuilding Rolling Stone from the ground up than Wenner was. For all his tough talk, it seemed Wenner was unwilling to throw the baby out with the bong water.

In the 37-year-old Needham (who some have suggested was his first choice all along), Wenner seems to have found an editor willing to try it both ways. After some early remarks disparaging Rolling Stone's perpetual "wall of copy," Needham went on the offensive, qualifying his remarks to anyone who called. "One of the things that has made Rolling Stone the magazine that it is, is its great journalistic pedigree," he told the Guardian, "and I certainly intend to preserve and maintain that." To the San Francisco Chronicle's Dan Fost he was even more blunt: "It's certainly not the end of Rolling Stone as you know it," he insisted.

Right. That happened some time ago. Since the first issues of Rolling Stone rolled off the printers at San Francisco's Garrett Press (publishers of the Hillsdale Merchandiser and the Irish Herald) in 1967, Wenner has tweaked the magazine several times. In the late '70s he dragged the publication from the West Coast to New York, launching a few new titles (Us, Men's Journal) along the way. As music mutated (disco, punk, rap, grunge) Rolling Stone struggled to keep up while covering politics, movies, even the odd crime story. But by trying to reach a younger audience even as it holds onto the old with the other hand, Rolling Stone is starting to look contorted, like some aging hipster playing Twister until his back gives out.

It's a scary time in the magazine business. The ad market is flat (though some publications saw a bump in May), tobacco companies are pulling out of publications aimed at minors and many ad buyers perceive Rolling Stone in particular as catering to an aging demographic. While Wenner likes to point out that the average age of its readers is 27, the twin blades of Perception and Reality -- the key words behind a famous Rolling Stone 1985 ad campaign -- cut both ways.

So why not start over? Go after the kids you crave with whatever it is you think kids want while letting the august title of Rolling Stone go out with some dignity. Old wheezers like me (who saw the Faces when they were still Small) can comfort themselves with what they remember of the magazine in its glory days while the belly-button set can enjoy yet another outlet for nearly-naked Natalie Portman pictures. The fix that Needham promises -- "busier design, a lot of entry points on every page" -- will certainly remind us of Blender, but the mix will no doubt be familiar to any reader of general-interest magazines. Wherein lies the problem.

As Wenner himself has noted, a lot of titles are feeding off the menu he helped invent. Entertainment Weekly has launched a regular music supplement; Vanity Fair socks its readers with a fall music issue the size of the Manhattan phone book; magazines and newspapers alike pursue celebrities with the same slavish devotion. But none of them pretends to be the country's preeminent rock publication. Though putting Portman on the cover certainly appeals to some younger readers, it's got nothing to do with music. The same issue (June 28) featured a paltry 16 CD reviews (as opposed to the 195 in the June/July Blender, a number touted on its cover) and, aside from a short profile of Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, no real rock 'n' roll features.

As Rolling Stone has slowly morphed into a magazine just like dozens of others, it has lost its reason for being. It was never meant to be the ultimate magazine of the music business (Billboard still does that just fine, thanks); if anything it was meant to give the finger to that business, as well as magazine publishing in general, television, Madison Avenue, the Pentagon, etc. Without that contrary attitude -- or any attitude at all, for the most part -- Rolling Stone seems like an anachronism, the Ladies' Home Journal of rock journalism.

Is it possible for a rock magazine to age with dignity? Overlooked in all the talk about newsstand sales is the growing popularity of some other British imports, Mojo and Uncut. While Mojo in particular is maligned as a retread publication for those who never tire of reading one more explication of Elvis Presley's truck-driving days or the origins of the Buzzcocks, it is not nearly as time-warped as that. By establishing their credentials as lovers of rock in all its forms, the editors of Mojo can back up their current recommendations. When they told me to drop everything and go hear the White Stripes, I did.

Uncut takes the formula a step further, including free CDs with each issue that feature a sampler of bands reviewed in its pages, old and new. The current issue, featuring a CD of various artists covering Bob Dylan songs, is sold out at the newsstands in New York -- at $9 a pop. My point being: I'm willing to spend money on the newsstand, but not on a magazine that puts Natalie Portman (or Kirsten Dunst or any other beautiful young actress) on the cover.

Celebrity covers, and celebrity coverage in general, is considered a necessary evil by magazine editors everywhere (and anyone who has dealt with these celebrities' publicists knows that "evil" is used here in a strictly descriptive sense). The guiding philosophy is to get the suckers in the tent, which is fine if you then give them some bread along with the circus. Any magazine with a starlet on the cover has to then pass the airplane test: It must give me enough to read to get me through the average unpleasant airplane flight. Rolling Stone doesn't even get me through the gate and onto the jetway. And that's in its current incarnation, buttressed by what Needham calls "the wall of copy." At a time when it's not insulting to call a magazine a "flip book" or a "must-skim," don't expect more of the new Rolling Stone.

Not that Needham will find himself unfettered. Rolling Stone has always been Wenner's magazine and he has done a great job over the years, giving free voice to writers as diverse as Lester Bangs and Tom Wolfe. He made stars of Hunter Thompson and Annie Leibovitz and his fingerprints can be found all over journalism. Though his attempts to turn Wenner Media into an empire have certainly distracted him, he has an undisputed eye for talent and a seeming appetite for adventure. And while famously thin-skinned and imperious -- he hates to be addressed by the help but is reportedly stung when he goes unrecognized by the press -- there is no law that says publishing geniuses need to be likable. Which might explain why none of them are.

No, "[His] sin is [his] lifelessness," as Bob Dylan sang in "Desolation Row" and Greil Marcus later wrote (in the pages of Rolling Stone) of Elvis in Vegas. No one who was witness to the creation of the magazine mistook Wenner for a hippie; he always wanted success and, like rock promoter Bill Graham, was often condemned for just that. But with that drive he combined principles. His inaugural editor's note makes Charles Foster Kane's manifesto sound practically jaded.

"We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see are the changes in rock and roll and the changes related to rock and roll," Wenner wrote in the fall of 1967. "Because the trade papers have become so inaccurate and irrelevant, and because the fan magazines are an anachronism, fashioned in the mold of myth and nonsense, we hope we have something here for the artists and the industry, and every person who 'believes in the magic that can set you free.'"

That last line is from the Lovin' Spoonful song that John Sebastian long ago licensed to McDonald's. The world has changed immeasurably since Wenner wrote that note and he would doubtless blush to read those words today. He never wanted to be portrayed as some progenitor of '60s counterculture, even as he dreamt up the promotional idea of sending out roach clips with each subscription. He just knew which way the smoke was blowing -- even when he pointed out (as in the Perception/Reality ad campaign) that his readers drove BMWs instead of Volkswagen vans and drank vintage California wine instead of Ripple. But the magazine's name (and its very typeface) still has a resonance with readers like me, while I'm sure the young readers Wenner wants would draw a complete blank if pressed on its etymology.

The community that once existed for Rolling Stone has splintered, like pop music itself, into a thousand shards, and there are plenty of publications covering those fractions (not forgetting Vibe -- which actually sells far more copies than Spin or Blender -- along with the Source, Fader, Q and so on). A magazine built on the notion of Us vs. Them is no longer relevant; there is no Us.

Unless you mean the magazine. That publication was launched with no principles whatsoever and no mission beyond competing with People. Having found, in Bonnie Fuller, an editor willing to suck what little brains there ever were out of Us Weekly, Wenner finally has the editors at People alarmed as newsstand sales of Us are climbing. All he had to do was tout some celebrity diet secrets and rip the façade off Jennifer Lopez's marriage to get there. Yes, Us is doing fine without a thought in its head. Let's hope that if Rolling Stone gets the same lobotomy, Wenner will have the decency to smother it with a pillow.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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