Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jann Wenner Pushes Rolling Stone Down the Hill for First Time

November 9, 1967 was the issue date for the first number of the Rolling Stone.  It debuted near the high water mark of the explosion of Rock and Roll music into a dominant cultural force and in the midst of the turmoil of the Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movement as it was being transformed by Black militancy, the Hippy drug culture, and a sexual revolution spurred by the easy and wide spread availability of the Pill.  It would soon have a lot to say on all of those topics.
The first issue, featuring a cover story photo of John Lennon in a World War II Tommy helmet from the now nearly forgotten film How I Won the War, was printed in black ink only on heavy newsprint.  It was indistinguishable in many ways from the Underground Press thriving in major cities and college towns, except that it was graphically far less interesting and, though left in orientation, far less political than papers like the Berkley Barb, East Village Other, and Chicago Seed.  Centered on the music scene, it proclaimed its mission to be “…not just about the music, but about the things and attitudes that music embraces.”
Those local underground papers were less than thrilled with the new publication.  They criticized it for avoiding a “truly revolutionary” stance.  They also fretted, with good reason, that if successful the Rolling Stone would drain away the recording industry advertising that was the slender peg upon which many of the radical papers relied for support.  Within two years that adverting, along with other national advertising aimed at the youth market, did dry up and led to most of the Underground Press to fold by the early 1970’s.
Founder/editor/publisher 22 year old Jann Wenner

The magazine was the brain child and creations of a 22 year old journalist.  Jann Wenner was born in New York City on January 7, 1946 and was thus one of the earliest of the Baby Boom generation.  After his parents divorced when he was 12, Wenner was boarded to the liberal private Chadwick School in suburban Los Angeles County.  After graduating in 1963, Wenner enrolled at the University of California at Berkley. 
He arrived on the Berkley campus in time to participate in the Free Speech Movement during his sophomore year.  It was one of the launching pads of the radical student movement that would soon spread across the country.  Wenner also chronicled events on the staff of The Daily Californian in his column Something’s Happening which took its name from the Buffalo Springfield anthem. 
More interested in writing than in school, Wenner dropped out.  His friend and mentor Ralph Gleason, noted San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic, landed a job at Ramparts, a Catholic magazine that had morphed into one of the most important left wing journals in the country, famous for it’s critical coverage of the Vietnam War and its iconic cover image of Che Guevara.  Soon Wenner was working on a newspaper spin-off of the magazine.
Gleason, who was a contributing editor at the magazine, and Wenner soon decided to start their own publication with a greater emphasis on music than on radical politics.  Wenner borrowed $7,000 from his family and from the parents of his girl friend and future wife Jane Schindelheim.  It turned out to be a better investment for both families than any one expected.  Wenner took the reins as both editor and publisher of the new venture and has never laid them down.  He named the publication for the same 1948 Muddy Waters song that inspired Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts.
Within a few years, circulation was booming.  It took on a more familiar magazine format and its striking cover photographs of pop stars, many by a young photographer named Annie Leibovitz became iconic.  Satirist Shell Silverstein observed the phenomena and penned On the Cover of the Rolling Stone which became a hit for Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show in 1973 and which did, indeed get the band on the cover.
In the 1970’s the magazine was establishing a reputation as the home of a new style of long form journalism.  Self-proclaimed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson became a break-out star in his own right with stories like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The magazine also fostered the careers of several writers including Joe Klein, Joe Eszterhas, Lester Bangs, P. J. O’Rourke, and a high school kid named Cameron Crowe.  Among the important stories that got high-profile attention from the magazine in those years was the abduction of Patty Hearst and the 1972 political conventions.
Wenner personally conducted many of the long, revealing interviews of top musicians and leading cultural and political figures in a question and answer format that became a magazine trademark.
In 1977 Wenner moved the magazine from its San Francisco offices to New York City signaling the waning influence of counter-cultural rock and roll.
Despite its roots in the music industry, Rolling Stone has frequently been behind the curve in new music.  It was dismissive of successive waves of music from punk rock, to heavy metal, to grunge, to hip hop and rap.  Often either ignored or panned in their early years, the magazine has often later revisited these genres and, after the fact, re-assessed the contributions of many seminal artists.  This has earned the magazine derision from many hard core music fans and has often led to upstart magazines like Spin that were more in tune with emerging popular taste, temporally eclipse it.
Despite its ups and downs, the magazine has thrived and defied a general down-turn in the industry.  Although circulation is down from a 2007 peak of 1.5 million copies per issue, sales remain strong and a sophisticated web page is a popular destination. 
Victor Juhasz's illustration for the magazine's Koch Bros story has already become iconic.

Despite its ups and downs, the magazine has thrived and defied a general down-turn in the industry.  Although circulation is down from a 2007 peak of 1.5 million copies per issue, sales remain strong and a sophisticated web page is a popular destination. 
It is noted for serious political and investigative journalism these days in addition to patrolling the rapidly changing music industry.  Some of its stories have created sensations, most recently The Koch Brothers Toxic Empire by Tim Dickinson this September.  The magazine also keeps current with Wenner’s interviews which have included in recent years not only pop icons like Bono, but political figures like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama.  Wenner is an unapologetic Democrat and a frequent campaign contributor and fundraiser.  
Wenner has used Rolling Stone to launch a media empire that now includes Us Weekly, and Men’s Journal

On a personal note Wenner and Schindelheim were married in a small Jewish ceremony shortly after the magazine launched. Although  they separated in 1995, though Jane Wenner s till remains a vice president of Wenner Media and is considered a media powers house on her own.   They have three now adult sons. Since 1995 Matt Nye, a fashion designer, has been Wenner’s life partner and they have three children as a couple.

1 comment:

  1. thanks much for posting! back in the daze, I was a rolling stone reader and subscriber for a bunch of years forward...being pre internet it was one of a few sources I looked to about music, culture, some politics, etc. I had piles of RS for years....I recycled them to lighten my load...I kept my duplicate copy of the first issue RS sent to me though....the underground press was driven by the various causes to, generally get that "better world" ..... ....... ........ especially after the murder of fred hampton, nixon regime's escalation of vietnam atrocities the draft to staff it etc., we were pressed to a more militant direction against them.....due to faulty analysis, some took it too far and wound up dead, in prison and shunned by the really for "peace" builder movement...the record companies got nervous about appearing to support the "armed struggle, barrels of guns" stuff and nudged by the FBI and other agencies found a less troublesome media client with rolling stone, digging holes, losing advertisers or changing past the point of effective re-set, we fought the stone and the stone won.............reality checked most of us trended to progressive interests with better footing to stand on. rolling stoners went on the kiss the corporate rings and then given keys by the anti commie big D Democrats .... these unlocked doors to the same rooms haunted by the ghosts of the freshly killed in Vietnam. the blood was past history, inconvenient and forgotten while many disco danced away to the Rolling Stones "Miss You" ........such is life over white lines and cocktails in rolling stoner world ... ..........there thank our lucky stars,were still a lot who didn't fall for it....whining tires me so i'll short it to ....vapor votes that only say wenner to select inductees to the rock 'n roll hall of fame... many take the selections too seriously....what a waste...the artifact museum is okay.....and the beat goes on.....!